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North Texas Artists in Turkey: John Lunsford on Cappadocia and Istanbul
by Anne Bothwell 29 Jul 2010

Our group’s most senior member, and the only one who’d been to Turkey before, shares some observations about two very different cities we visited.


Guest blogger John Lunsford, former director of the SMU Meadows Museum; former curator at the Dallas Museum of Art, was the senior member of our group – and frankly, the most knowledgeable about Turkey, among many other things. Here are some observations on two cities we visited. John also took some stunning photos on the trip, but for now, mine will have to do.


Turkey’s largest city, swarms from early morning until well after midnight with thousands of pedestrians, cars, trucks, taxis. Narrow streets, often cobble-stone paved, combine with a steeply hilly topography to complicate circulation. A visitor from North America soon realizes that he or she has each hour been in several situations that would at home have easily erupted into fist-shaking and shouting. Almost every Turkish driver or pedestrian seems to be willing to wait a reasonable time for a turn to pass through tight spots, and following the wait, to pass the cause of the delay with a wave and a nod.

Within a few days, I came to realize that smiles and laughs are the most frequently seen signs of humorous interaction. There is a visible sense of warmth in most human exchanges. Even the bazaar sellers importune with greater restraint than in most tourist worlds. They can be insistent, yes, but it almost always falls short of real stridency.

But the most dramatic evidence of a positive Turkish temperament is seen in the children. Everywhere, and at all ages, the children are laughing, smiling – generally behaving as though they are loved and valued. So many of the children’s expressions were, in fact, almost beatific; they glowed comfortableness and a state of security.


There were moments when I felt as though I were on the moon. The prevailing pale buff tones under intense sun sharpened contrasts and under a sharply focused gaze shimmered like mirages. The eroded volcanic tufa had been formed into what are locally and romantically called fairy towers. Most of these still retain all or part of their basalt “caps”. These are the former hard basalt surface which millenia of erosion has split and checkered so that water could wash canyons through the soft tufa to create the remaining stretched cones of the fairy towers.

During the period from 400-600 CE on through 1200-1300, caves were hollowed into chapels and small churches throughout the region. These are especially concentrated in an area administered as the Goreme Outdoor Museum. Here a dozen or so of these churches have been prepared for tourists to visit.

Entering one of these frescoed cave shrines is truly like going inside a living organism of which the inner skin is a vibrant mass of segmented, color-saturated compartments. Inside the often brightly arabesqued or striated borders of these compartments, the saints and holy figures, more in stylized story telling patterns. Sometimes these convey the reassuring calm of a Madonna and Child or a stately blessing saint, patriarch or arcangel. Others narrate tense, people-cluttered views of the more violent moments of Christ’s life; the betrayeal by Judas, the crucifixion, or what the Greeks call the Anastasis: Christ’s entry into Hell to retrieve Adam and Eve and lift them to heavenly salvation.

An afternoon alternating between the hot, glaring moonscape outside among the grotesque tufa shapes and the cool, compressed, radiantly colored interiors that supersaturated one’s receptors – such an afternoon has burned into me a moment from an earlier world, one more compacted, intensified, yet also more reassuring than my regularly lived twenty-first century urban world.

  • kimberly alexander

    John had the clever idea of disguising himself as a septuagenarian, but gave himself away by his sharp wit, unlimited energy, and impressive physical endurance. I just can’t figure out how he got so much expertise packed into his 40-year-old head. I’m guessing he can’t actually be over 50. Nice con, though, John. The ladies love a distinguished gent.

  • A wonderful description of Istanbul and Cappadocia.

  • Bernhard Voss

    Hello. Please forward this message to John Lunsford:

    Dear John:
    I’m curious about an African mask from the Bamana people that is in a DAM catalogue of an exhibit you curated in 1972.

    The piece was loaned from Bernard Brister and it is item 196 in the catalogue. I have a similar piece and want to learn more about the round circle hole above the mouth on the mask. I’m not learning why that hole is there and so I thought I’d try to find you.

    Can you help? Can you refer me to a text or to someone who might be a good resource?

    Thanks for your reply….and interest (if it is still with pieces from Africa).

    Bernhard Voss, St. Louis, MO