Lights in the dark

Fourth Sunday of Advent

As I have been updating this post, the four advent candles have been burning behind my laptop, and a little while ago the first candle burnt out, leaving the others to slowly sink. It is the last Sunday of Advent and Jul is almost here.

The sunburnt buildings and sweet tea of Istanbul seem a long time ago now, with winter settling in and Jul approaching. We have seen snow come and go, and the city unite in traditions that date back before memory. In sunny Australia where the sun sets after 7pm on a christmas night, the profusion of lights on houses and in trees are a glitzy and fun gimmick, to celebrate the season and create as much flash as possible. Here, as the days shorten and are more often overcast, the lights in the windows and in the trees keep away the darkness until the year turns again.

Two of my favourite traditions I have seen in Sweden so far are related to keeping the darkness at bay and though are ostensibly Christian, feel like part of an older tradition.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

I must have heard something somewhere about Advent candles, as I’d been looking around for a candle-holder weeks before December arrived, to no avail. I wasn’t even sure exactly what to look for, other than assuming it held four candles and possibly looked like a smaller menorah. In case you’re reading this and wondering what I’m rambling about, the Advent candle tradition says that for every Sunday in December you light the first candle on the first Sunday, the second candle on the second, the third on the third and on the final Sunday all the candles are lit. As I understand it the tradition is some sort of count down to Jesus, but I like to think of it as a count down to Jul and the new year, and a good excuse to get involved in some old traditions.

As the weeks went on they started to pop up all over the place, and I eventually found just the right one in the city. I got four red candles and eagerly awaited the first Sunday, and watched as other windows filled with candles and lights. Most other windows have electric lights, with multiple candles in a triangle shape, which I’ll probably get next year for the sake of practicality, but in my opinion nothing beats slowly burning candles lighting up a room. Wherever I go in the city, in every neighbourhood, office building and shop, almost all windows contain Advent candles, lighting up the room and a little bit of the world outside.
There are also stars, in a variety of patterns and colours, which are hung instead of or over the candles, though what the specific tradition they represent is, I don’t know. Needless to say we have one.

Our star, with the Liseberg tree behind

The second tradition begins with far off voices gradually getting louder, and light slowly filling a dark room. When I first saw it and heard it, at the Göteborg City Hall, I was transfixed. They had stuck with tradition, and the girl who entered the room first had 6 real candles on her crown, and the other 5 were wearing pure white robes and red bands around their waists as she did. They were all singing the traditional song, Santa Lucia. They sang a number of songs in Swedish, a couple in English and then ended with the first, slowly walking out in a line as their voices faded away. I have since seen a Lucia tåg (train) at my Swedish school and semi-accidentally took part in an attempt at the world’s longest Lucia tåg, both of which were more fun and felt like part of the glue that holds Swedish culture together. The first one I saw, though, felt magical and reverent.

Lucia, watched over by Hermes

One version of the story says that in around 300CE there lived in Syracuse, on the island of Sicily, a young woman named Lucia. She was betrothed to some guy, and all was fine, until her mother became sick. She prayed to all the gods she could think of (this being in the late Roman Empire, they had amassed plenty for her to choose from) and ran from doctor to doctor to find a cure but to no avail. Then one night she dreamed of an angel who promised that her mother would get better if Lucia converted to Christianity, became celibate and did some proselytising.
Despite Christianity apparently being a crime at this time, she agreed. So she went around talking about Jesus and broke of the engagement, which upset her betrothed (I assume that her mother also got better, as I couldn’t find a mention of her after this stage). He told the local law enforcers about her proselytising and they attempted to arrest her, but though they grabbed her and tried to drag her away they were unable to move her. Then someone else came up with the idea of stacking wood around her and set it alight, but even engulfed in flames she lived, until someone else stabbed her with a sword. Later she was made into a saint. Even later than that her story was combined with ancient Swedish traditions and became the festival of today.

In addition of the procession of girls, and in some cases cone-hatted stjärngossar (star boys), on this night many younger people are said to party late into the night. This is supposed to be a celebration of the ending of the school or uni year, but again the tradition goes back further. An ancient Swedish tradition said that on the 13th of December the Lussi, an evil female demon, would fly around the land with her followers the Lussiferda, and kidnap anyone silly enough to be outside or who had been naughty. To protect themselves and the households people would hold a vigil all night long, keeping candles lit and watching the darkness. These days people don’t fear evil spirits who may steal them away, but some things last long after people remember why they started.

Last night we held our own party to keep the darkness at bay, a gathering of friends who came to eat and drink and talk, and enjoy the warmth and light. It happened to be on the Winter solstice, and in memory of our country that had just celebrated the Summer solstice, we served kangaroo, among curry, pepparkakor, cheesy, nutty, honeyed bread and pastries supplied by one of our guests. Before the year is over, and as the year turns, we may gather with friends again in the night, with yet more eating, talking and drinking, marking time till the end of winter.

The last Sunday draws on

In two days we’ll celebrate Julafton (christmas eve), opening the presents piling up under our little tree and watching by skype as our families open their gifts. Then we hope to travel somewhere not too far away, to explore more of Sweden and get away from the day to day life, and if we’re lucky see some snow. We may not get a white christmas this year, but it has so far been more of a christmas in other ways than I have ever had, apart from the lack of my family, which for me has always been the heart of Jul.

Istanbul Day 4: Finding the walls

I have finally reached the last day of our trip to Istanbul, about a month after I started, and for the first time in a while it’s a short one!

Our final day in Istanbul was the shortest day as our flight was to leave mid-afternoon, so any plans to visit the Rumeli Fortress or see the non-European side of Istanbul had to be shelved. What we ended up doing was something that hadn’t been on the itinerary. We would find the city walls.

When we had first arrived in Istanbul, we glimpsed many remnants of the old city among the flash and colour of the new city, and what stood out most were massive stone walls that stood on either side of the tram lines. I’d read about ancient walls when researching the trip, but the locations seemed unclear, which is possibly because they are huge and as we were to find out, have been all but absorbed by the city.

The city walls, definitely Turkish

So following a final delicious Mediterranean breakfast at our hotel we headed out to catch the tram we’d arrived on, and hopefully spot the walls in time to get off. We didn’t quite manage that, but after a bit more travelling we made it to the walls. Up close they still looked massive, though we don’t know enough about the specifics of wall architecture to be able to say whether they were Roman, Byzantine or Ottoman, though I suspect they are probably a combination of all three. Strangely, though, as we walked along the walls there didn’t seem to be any gates charging money to enter, or people with maps or anything that would indicate that they are an historical site. We did find a gate but all it seemed to be protecting were plastic chair and tables. Further along we found a pile of stones low enough to climb up on the wall and my partner had a go, perching on the narrow stone ledge. As he sat there, a local holding a plastic bag with a mysterious yellow substance joined him, chattering away happily and breathing in the contents of the bag. After a little while my partner climbed down, under his new friend’s friendly gaze, who waved us goodbye as we continued along the wall. As we walked along we spotted someone between the crenellations on one of the towers, though how he got up there I couldn’t work out.

Crumbling but huge

Crossing back to the city side we found ourselves in a somewhat dodgy area, the first indication being a dead cat in a garden. We headed back towards the tram stop we’d arrived at, walking along a street lined with the crumbling wall on one side and crumbling houses on the other, mixed with workshops and small storehouses. The only people we saw were a group of old men trading bullets and two other tourists, who also seemed to be in a bit of a hurry. At intervals the wall was crumbled or low enough for people to climb up, so along the battlements we saw men with suitcases looking lost, others chatting companionably and still more looking down at the city below. It seemed as though the walls were something like a public park, where people wandered about during the day and where somewhat dubious activities possibly occur at night. Despite this, the arches were still graceful and the size and grandeur of the walls were still impressive, and made it possible to imagine the confidence they must have inspired in those who lived on the city side years ago. We read later that the old Roman walls were placed quite a distance from where the city was at the time, and people scoffed when the Emperor said the city would reach them in time. I don’t know if they were the walls we saw but I think it’d be impossible to set limits on a place like Istanbul.

Spot the city walls

After a rest and drink in the shade of the walls, we headed to the airport, and the end of our visit to Istanbul.

Goodbye Hagia Sofia

Having had about a month to think about the trip, what I remember most strongly was how my senses were so vividly enlivened, every day. In regards to colour, taste and sound, Istanbul envelops you, and then keeps drenching you in yet more richness. I loved the sweet dried figs and apple tea, the bright sun on ancient buildings, the haunting call to prayer and the endless busyness of the people who live and work there. I was also confronted by the insistent salesmen, lack of women working almost anywhere, the sudden, empty, threatening streets and the smog, which was quite a contrast after Sweden. There was also a multitude of cats, who got everywhere and I suspect actually run the city behind the scenes.
I’ve always liked to imagine cities as living things with characters, that are awakened by millions of lives and never ending activity, though there are only a few places I’ve been where I’ve felt that. Istanbul is one of them, and perhaps has the most character of any I’ve been in so far. I would very much like to meet her again.

Pilgrimage to Gallipoli

To any Australian reading this, I don’t feel as though I need to say why a trip to Turkey requires a visit to the Gallipoli peninsula. Assuming you are not an Australian, however, I’ll try and explain.

99 years ago, during WWI, the Allied forces under the command of Britain (in particular a certain Winston Churchill) decided they need to take the Dardanelles in order to reach Istanbul and so get through to the Black Sea. The plan was to land forces at Gallipoli and have them over the peninsula and having breakfast in Ecebat on the other side by morning. What could go wrong, right? A lot, as it turned out. The campaign was a failure for the Allies and after 9 months they retreated (oops, spoilers!). Incidents such as this are probably liberally scattered throughout the histories of war, but this one became a defining moment for Turkish Independence and formed part of the foundations of the Australian identity.

I can speak with far less knowledge about the Turkish perspective of the campaign, but since the tour I understand a lot more. They refer to it as the battle of Çanakkale and consider it a victory for the Turkish nation, or the Ottoman Empire as it was, against invading forces. It was also when a chap named Mustafa Kamal started to make a name for himself.

ANZAC memorial at North Beach

Most Australians of my generation would have been fed on the heroism of the ANZACs since early school, partly due to a previous PM who was rather into nationalism, with words like mateship, bravery and independence of mind being presented as part of an Australian culture that was born on a beach in Turkey. What it really means to Australians, if you were to ask one of the thousands who are standing at a Memorial on the morning of 25th April, could be any number of things. They may have had family who served at Gallipoli, or who served elsewhere during the War or one of the other wars since. It sometimes seem close to a semi-religious response, a reverence for the young men who sacrificed themselves all those years ago on far off craggy shores that we might have a better life. Even though they ultimately failed they never gave up and they fought like devils for the men next to them, and recognised the humanity of the men facing them.

Whatever the reason, ANZAC Day is probably the closest to a secular holy day that Australia has, with more genuine emotion than Australia Day, from my experience in any case.

For me it’s memories of acting out a battle in Primary school (being a girl I was a nurse, obviously) and playing dead on the hot grass during the minute of silence, that final image of Mark Lee in Gallipoli, the quiet verandah of an old house in Greenmount and most of all getting up early with my dad year after year to stand with the silent crowds for an endless minute.

So, now that I’ve attempted to lay bare part of my nation’s psyche, let’s get on with the trip.

We got up at an uncomfortably early hour to meet the bus, which duly arrived and then whisked us around Istanbul to pick up the rest of the travellers. A majority were Australians of our parent’s age, whose kids had flown the nest and who had decided to use their retirement to see all those things on their bucket list. Plus a father and son probably on a bonding trip and a young Italian couple who were actually going to Troy and probably knew nothing about this Gallipoli place. The drive was long, and we entertained ourselves with occasional chats, reading, staring out of the window and dozing. Outside it was almost as though we were travelling through time, as we passed shepherds tending their scraggly herds, crooks in hand, tumbledown villages and rolling fields of nothing that I could recognise. This old land, that had formed part of the cradle of many civilizations, seemed exhausted by thousands of years of supporting people, and now managed a few small truck stops which served not especially awesome food but kept us on our journey.

Around midday we arrived at Ecebat, where we wandered around the fairly new memorial park and then had lunch. After Istanbul Ecebat seemed a tiny place, sitting quietly on the European side of the Dardanelles. I imagine that Australian and New Zealand tourists are a common attraction in the area.

View from the Turkish trench at the memorial

The drive from Ecebat was much shorter, and after picking up our guide and a couple more tourists we headed for the coast. The first stop was Brighton Beach where our guide put us straight n regards to why the landing happened where it did, why is was a disaster and where we can find a 6 volume book series that will tell us as much as we want to know. He was very knowledgeable, and passionate, which you would have to be if you were telling the same story day in and day out. In short communications were confused, beaches were mixed up and unlike I’d always been told, it wasn’t just the fault of the British. Really.

Brighton Beach

Further along the coast was a gravesite, which included the grave of Simpson (but not his donkey) and more importantly in the opinion of the guide, the man who had mapped the area prior to the landing and whose name I shamefully can neither remember nor find. There were also the usual stones for young men, with messages from family or friends, sometimes trite but always desolate. Next was a memorial for Ataturk, a large bronze monument inscribed with his famous quote which ends with

‘…your sons are now lying in our bosom, and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.’

This is one of the many examples of the connection between the invading forces and the Turkish army that has become part of the legend, and which we saw more examples of later.

Graves at the ANZAC cove gravesite

From there we went to ANZAC Cove itself, a surprisingly small beach, with a steep bank meeting a steep hill. Looking down at the peaceful beach, the guide removed another misconception I’d long had about the landing: that it had been made under a barrage of machine gun fire, leaving the cove littered with bodies. On that first morning it was a bloody sight, but Eric Bogle was wrong when he sang that, ‘Johnny Turk he was ready, he’d primed himself well…’

Apparently, the original plan to land around Brighton Beach was what the Turks expected, and so they had concentrated their forces over there. Around what’s now ANZAC cove was a skeleton force, who would have been rather surprised when a rush of men landed on the small beach and began to swarm up the hills towards them. They did have guns, but not machine guns. The machine gun fire was from the British forces themselves, and in the confusion I doubt I would have been able to tell. The blood and bodies that later arrivals saw and remembered was mostly from men who’d pushed on in that first rush, climbing the hills and valleys in groups, taking up positions and losing them and settling in for the short, brutal campaign.

My overall feeling looking down at the beach was, ‘gosh, that’s a small beach’. I couldn’t transpose on it images I’d seen or how I’d imagined it. It was a calm beach, and as with so much else in this place, the slowly eroding sand was less important that the ideas that people fill it with.


Just around a corner was North Beach, the site of the ANZAC memorial that is televised every year and where most of the landings and photos took place. It is larger but nowhere near Cottesloe, or even Bondi. As you turn inland, however, the Sphinx stares down at you, the point of the tallest of a few tall, steep hills that encircle the beach. I wonder whether the beach of the old photos has washed away, because even imagining 200 visitors packed in the flat part with sleeping bags seemed uncomfortably cosy. The memorial itself is a wall with a history of the campaign facing the beach, and down a short path between the lawns is a low wall with ANZAC written in bronze, the sea lying behind it. It is again a calm beach, though the Sphinx adds an impressive and slightly menacing backdrop.

The Sphinx

Leaving the beaches behind we then went up into the hills, stopping at the Lone Pine memorial. The pine itself is long gone, but a new one stands there now in the middle of the graves, in an area about the size of a tennis court. The guide described the actions taken to reach this point, and I tried to imagine it as a battlefield rather than a peaceful cemetery with a wonderful view of the sea and surrounding hills. We were then lead in a minute’s silence at the memorial, a tall stone edifice, which had the names of those who died but whose bodies were never found.

Lone Pine, though not the original

We got back into the bus again and drove on, stopping along the road at a lightly forested spot that turned out to be full of trenches. It was Johnson’s Jolly, where the short distance between the Turkish and Allied trenches was very clear. Here the guide told us more about how bonds grew between the two armies, from respect during truces, food thrown over no man’s land and how it somehow survived despite the constant stream of new recruits. He also told us about an Australian officer who had been confronted by Turkish soldiers who assumed that the Turkish medals on his chest were stolen from one of the bodies. He then told them, in Turkish, that he was a veteran of a famous battle that the Turks had won years before, and had been given the medals in thanks for his services to Turkey. They were amazed and kissed his hands, delighted to meet someone from their own history, despite him now being on the other side of a new war.

The trenches themselves are shallower now, and walking through them brought a strange feeling of walking through history and over places were people had died. The pines that have grown on the old battlefields now hold the ground together and everywhere we went up on the hills I could hear the needles whistling in the wind. It made me wonder whether there was ever enough silence, or enough trees left, for the sound to be heard all those years ago.

Old trenches

The next stop was the Turkish 57 Infantry Regiment Cemetery, a memorial similar to the others we’d seen, only with different writing on the graves and a number of merch tents set up in the car park. It was good to be reminded that this is a shared site, after all, and not just a memorial to the Allied forces who died here. There were memorials to Turkish forces and sites all over the area, and from maps I’ve seen it seems about 50/50.

Our second to last stop was The Nek, even smaller than Lone Pine, where I could imagine the site as it would have been more clearly. Much of it is overgrown, and views of the sea and countryside, including other war sites to the north surround it, but it seems rough and signs of the trenches still remain. I remembered reading that Hugo Throssell, the VC winner who was married to the woman whose writing centre I’ve spent more than half of my life involved with, fought here in hellish conditions, which the guide confirmed. He pointed out a site to the north called Hill 60 where Throssell won his VC, shortly before be was invalided out. Having spent so much time at the house he and Katharine had built, and where he had been happy, despairing and ultimately died, I felt more of a connection at this place than any other, and would have happily stayed there longer pondering history if we hadn’t been piled back onto the bus to go to the final stop.

Trenches at The Nek, looking to the north

The final stop was Chunuk Bair and the New Zealand Memorial, which was the goal of the campaign. On that first night, and briefly afterwards, Allied forced reaches the hill but never managed to hold it, fended off by the defending army and forces lead by a certain Mustafa Kemal whose huge statue now stands there. From the hill we can see over most of the sites of the campaign, including Ecebat to the east and beyond that the Dardanelles. It seemed an appropriate place to end our tour, the goal of the campaign that was never attained.

View from Chunuk Bair

We went back to Ecebat then, with a short stop to see the old batteries that stand on either side of the Dardanelles, and then back on the road to Istanbul. It seemed a shorter ride going back, most likely because I slept for quite a lot of it, and in the darkness I missed where the countryside ended and the city began. On the way out I’d counted down the time it took to get from the centre of Istanbul to the outskirts and lost count somewhere around 20 minutes, after being surprised by yet another towering block of flats and obligatory mosque. We eventually made it back to our hotel, tired and thoughtful, and preparing for one more day in Istanbul.

A poignant memorial

PS: Wow, 2327 words, congrats to those who made it to the end! Also I just watched the end of Gallipoli and I know realise why I’ve long believed Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings op. 11 is the saddest music ever.

PPS: I highly recommend RSL Tours, and in particular our guide Hasan Gundogar who was extremely knowledgeable and approachable. Ask him about The Stories of ANZAC by Charles Bean, he’d like that.