On the way to the town of Han I stop in one of the villages to join the noon prayer. A calf standing at the side of the road is already mooing along with the call to prayer as if telling me to hurry up. I quickly perform my ablution in front of the village mosque. There is no god but God — the Islamic profession of God’s unity — is written on top of the entrance portal. The mosque that was built in 1875 has wooden beams and some calligraphies on the wall.
Today’s congregation consists of two elderly villagers, the imam and me. With our masks on, we move through the different postures of the Islamic ritual prayer that lead from standing upright into the final surrender of prostration. As I learn later, the chubby and bearded prayer leader of this village mosque hails from Ağrı, a city in the far east of Turkey. Being state officials, imams can be appointed to any of the countless mosques across the country. He tells me he has been posted in this village for the last four years: “I got used to it,” he says, but he still misses his native area.
Then, with a stern look, he admonishes me for the fact that I am wearing short bicycle pants during prayer. I excuse myself with the fact that I was already late for prayer, so I didn’t have time to dig out any long-legged trousers from my bags. “You know there are a few conditions in Islam,” he says, noticeably content that he finally has found someone to teach. “You’re standing in front of God, so you shouldn’t dress like that.”
He has a point, so I nod in agreement. In Han, I visit another mosque which is older and has some simple geometric patterns painted on its domed ceiling. They look like mandalas, with one of them resembling the flower of life. I am alone in the mosque and feel a spontaneous impulse to pray again, but this time with my voice. Touched by the serenity and beauty of the place, I sing one of my favorite chants, the universal peace mantra “May peace prevail on Earth.” My voice beautifully resounds in under the mandalas of the dome.
After Han, the road leads through rocky and dry terrain full of pine and juniper trees. The juniper tree is an important tree in Turkish culture that is known for its resilience and healing powers. In some ancient Turkish tribes it was believed that juniper trees were especially planted by God. Its branches are also burnt as a purifying smudge.
I sit down for a picnic under one of the trees. With its silent and soothing presence it is generously granting me shade in the hot afternoon sun. Before leaving I hug the trunk, thanking it for taking care of me. I thoroughly enjoy the absolute stillness of the landscape. It feels humble and simple, with the kind of serenity and timeless beauty that characterizes much of the Anatolian countryside. Yet there is also subtle movement: Dry grass and herbs gently tremble in the wind, flies and wasps hum over the rocks. And there is me cycling…
Before I continue, I notice that one of my trekking sandals has fallen off the pannier rack. Admonishing myself for not having fixed it properly, I cycle back for about a kilometre. It brings a déjà-vu from the second day when I lost one of my cycling gloves. After a while of searching, I give up. My mood is a bit down for having lost my footwear, but I remind myself not to be so attached to material objects — even if they are as essential as trekking sandals. Maybe the path is teaching me to let go and get lighter.
Pedalling on another set of steep slopes, my thoughts wander to the Taurus Mountains that lie between Central Anatolia and the Southern Mediterranean coast. If everything goes as intended, I will find myself crossing those elevations in about a week’s time. I begin to image how I would struggle on sharp hairpin curves and never-ending ascents. Will I be able to make it?
Rolling down into the village of Muratkoru, my thoughts are suddenly interrupted. In passing I notice a dead furry creature lying in the middle of the asphalt. Having gone too fast to brake on time, I stop my bike a little further down the road and walk back up. It turns out to be a dead squirrel, its four paws stretched out into the air, teeth sticking out, the body still warm. It must have been recently hit by a car.
I am heartbroken. With my bare hands I pick up the squirrel and take it to one of the juniper trees on the roadside. I can feel it to my bones: This little creature — an embodiment of innocence and joy — should not have died. Then I dig a tiny hole into the soft forest ground, place the squirrel inside and cover it with soil, needles and some leaves. I pick up a few stones and lay them around the gravesite in a circle. While chanting the fatiha and a gayatri mantra — two prayers that are engrained in my being — I begin to perceive the pain of the whole natural world. The emotion is intense. In a very real sense, this squirrel represents the suffering of Mother Nature at the hand of man.
It strikes me that this spontaneous prayer for the slain rodent might be the most real prayer of that day. I notice how having been embraced by nature for days in a row has given me a new level of appreciation for the ways in which everything in nature displays a perfect balance, profound humility and powerful presence. It’s the human being with his disturbing sense of dominance and incessant progress that disrupts this balance. As I cycle down towards the plains of Afyon province, a breath-taking panorama with mountains and valleys engulfed in a magical play of light and shadows opens up in front of me.
This piece is an excerpt of a forthcoming ebook on my 900-mile journey from Istanbul to Hatay in autumn 2021. Stay tuned so you don't miss when it's released!