February 2, 2017

After two decades of research and travel in Cappadocia (including one memorable trip with Martha Stewart), Robert Ousterhout releases new book

NEW BOOK: Visualizing Community: Art, Material Culture, and Settlement in Byzantine Cappadocia


I never thought I’d be saying this, but I’m a big fan of Martha Stewart.  That’s the Martha Stewart, American television personality, goddess of the hearth, and doyenne of gracious living.  Turkey was all a-twitter in June when she arrived to film a television special (to be aired in September).  Just before I left Philadelphia I got an email from a friend at Boğaziçi University, asking if I could recommend someone to take Martha through the painted churches of Cappadocia.  This was followed almost immediately by a second email asking, “That’s you, isn’t it?”  I concurred, he dropped my name, and the phone began ringing.  I was quizzed by a variety of Martha’s minions, sort of like Israeli airport security, all asking the same questions in succession.  They then requested a resume and a recent photo, “so we’ll recognize you when we meet.” Yeah, right, I thought – am I television-worthy?

Two days later, I’d just arrived in Istanbul for a symposium when I was invited to an interview with yet another minion, in person this time.  We arranged to meet at the entrance to the Four Seasons.  I arrived on time, waited a tactful ten minutes, and then called the minion of the day.  “Hi, this is Bob. I’m at the entrance,” I announced.

“I’m at the entrance too,” she replied, “standing by the orchids.”

I’m standing by the orchids,” I informed her.  There was no one else there. “Wait a minute, which Four Seasons?”  I asked.

As I just realized, she was at the new Bosporus Four Seasons; I was at the original Four Seasons in Sultanahmet.  Both, by the way, have orchids at the entrance.  I found a comfortable chair in the lobby and succumbed to yet another telephone interview, same questions.  When we finally got down to brass tacks, it turned out that Martha wanted assistance in Cappadocia on Wednesday, and my symposium (which was actually important, all things considered) ran through Wednesday evening. I wouldn’t be free until Thursday.  Reluctantly I begged off.

My friends were horrified.  I’d said “no” to Martha Stewart!  Incredibly, Martha’s people would have none of this and proposed to rearrange her schedule.  But not without eyeballing me first.  Yet another minion phoned the next day and set up another in-person interview.  We agreed on which Four Seasons in advance.  Apparently I looked professorial enough to pass the test – Martha’s people had been calling me “Professor Bob” all along – so air tickets were issued and I was on my way.



That is, I was on my way after three intensive days of a symposium devoted to Byzantine court culture, which turned out to be a good introduction to Martha Stewart.  Gracious living, Byzantine style, involved hierarchy, ceremony, and gift-giving, all of which could be seen in historical context.  We rendezvoused in the open-air museum at Göreme.  A variety of producers, the camera crew, the sound crew, and their Turkish handlers (as well as friends and family of Turkish handlers) arrived in advance to set up and block the shots.  I’d have to stand to Martha’s right, I was instructed, because she parts her hair on the right and otherwise it’d fall across her face.  We’d first chat as the sun set behind us, then visit a rock-cut kitchen, a monastic refectory and, the piece de resistance, the Dark Church, where I’d discuss the frescoes.  “She’ll ask lots of questions,” I was warned.  “She’s really interested.” Meanwhile, rumor spread among the friends and family that Martha was actually going to cook in the rock-cut kitchen. 

The kitchen in question turned out to be a makeshift space, hardly Martha-worthy, with a soot-blackened ceiling and tandır cut into its floor.  It wasn’t originally a kitchen, and it wasn’t even photogenic.  I panicked.  “This won’t work,” I told them. “It’s not a real kitchen.”  I showed the producer the real monastic kitchen, but its entrance was blocked.  “Can’t you say something about it anyway?” she asked, sounding suddenly concerned. “We’re set up to film here.”  This did not bode well.  But I relented, snuck away, and called my Byzantinist-cum-tour guide friend Tolga and threw myself at his mercy.  Of course I recognize a tandır when I see one, but I had absolutely no idea how they worked.  I suspect they aren’t even Byzantine but date from later occupation phase, but never mind. This was no time for academic quibbles.  Tolga explained as best he could in French (his language of guiding), and I think I understood.

Meanwhile, Martha was anticipated, with regular phone calls to announce her location and movements.  Finally a call came from the gate to herald her imminent arrival, and the crew sprang into action.  She emerged from the limo as an assistant checked her make-up and fixed her hair. We were introduced and took our places; her assistant handed her a card of carefully prepared questions, which she promptly ignored.  Within two minutes, we began filming.  And she was gracious – that’s about the only word for it.  She was also really interested and full of her own questions, whether the camera was rolling or not. 

The so-called kitchen was not the highlight, but it was not a disaster either.  Martha recognizes a tandır – or tandoor – oven when she sees one, and she has actually cooked in one, so I was off the hook.  She had no intention of cooking in this one.  The frescoes in the church fascinated her, and she seemed genuinely disappointed to be visiting only one church.  I borrowed a flashlight, and we peeked into several other churches, off-camera.

And then I was swept away to the ceremonial dinner at an over-the-top new Cappadocian hotel, with representatives of industry, tourism, and the cultural ministry.  Course after course was served while gypsy musicians strolled through, playing “My Way” in honor of Martha for reasons that were not entirely clear.  Toasts were made, lots of them, with different beverages.  A lineup of gift-givers materialized, each with something larger and more breakable than the previous. “You can hang this on your wall at home to remember us,” she was told of a large ebru painting of questionable merit.  I suppressed fits of giggles, but Martha remained gracious throughout.

Our hotel was similarly new and over-the-top, and completely wasted on the likes of me.  My suite had multiple levels, two sitting areas, a terrace, a view, and a grotto with a plunge pool.  I couldn’t figure out how to turn off the underwater lights, but it didn’t really matter as we barely had time to sleep.

The next morning we were up at four to go hot-air ballooning.  In all my years in Cappadocia, this was something I’d never done, and I was thrilled to be invited along.  Martha and I went in one balloon, with an overbearing captain.  At least this is what you’ll see in the television special.  The producer hid at Martha’s feet, periodically handing her script.  The soundman crouched at my feet with his equipment.  The two cameramen filled out the basket but ducked when we were filmed from a distance.  You’ll never see them, or our feet.  It reminded me of the Byzantine prokypsis ceremony, about which I’d just heard a symposium paper.  When the emperor was presented for acclamations by the court, he would appear on a raised platform, brilliantly illuminated, but covered from the knees down.  Without feet, he would appear angelic, ethereal and closer to heaven than other mortals. And so were we, as we floated above the majestic landscape of Cappadocia in the early morning light. 

It was really fun, except for the captain, who loved to hear himself talk.  Whenever anyone else spoke, he’d turn on the gas and drown out the voices.  I don’t think I ever got to complete a sentence, although Martha came close.  “Can you guess where I am?” she enthused to the camera.  “I’m in a balloon, floating above the magnificent landscape of Cappa …” WHOOSH! On went the gas.  Take two.   “Down below us is one of the oldest settlements in the …” WHOOSH!  I eventually gave up competing with the captain and just smiled graciously.   Oddly, he never turned on the gas when he was talking. 

We touched down, disembarked, and shared a final champagne toast as the captain made yet another speech.  Hot air, I guess, keeps him in business.  Martha headed directly from the balloon to the limo and on to Bodrum for a well-earned vacation.  Gracious all the way, she clearly was enjoying herself.  But her crew wasn’t finished yet.  I returned to the hotel for breakfast, and they went back to work almost immediately, shooting additional footage. I spent the rest of the morning in bed, finally able to enjoy my lavish accommodations.

Later that day, as I waited in the lobby for my ride to the airport, I overheard the concierge negotiating with a courier service about the packing and shipping of Martha’s many gifts.  The limo whisked me away before matters were settled, but I suspect her best souvenirs of Turkey won’t fit into packages.