SUNSET AT ŞEYTAN SOFRASI
From The Turkish Daily News, 1999
© 1999 George Bishop, Jr.

 

A man and his wife sit in their dark gray Mercedes, the doors on either side wide opened, their contoured bucket seats back in half-recline. The stereo plays softly, adult Turkish pop. They’ve staked out the best vantage point on the hill. They seem quite content; they’re waiting.

A long eight or nine hour bus ride south from Istanbul, on the North Aegean just beyond Çannakale, is the small coastal town of Ayvalik. The little village itself is remarkable for its wonderfully preserved Ottoman-era houses. The narrow cobbled streets reach back from the waterfront to end at the low vine-covered hills surrounding the town. The tourists come for the town, and for the golden beaches south at Sarimsakli; or for cove swimming and day trips out to the many islands dotting the bay into the Aegean. And they come too, of course, for the sunsets at Şeytan Sofrasi.

Şeytan Sofrasi is a small rocky headland jutting out above the sea, a few kilometers away from Ayvalik. In Turkish, the place name means “Satan’s Dinner Table.”

“You must see it, it’s very lovely,” my friend in Istanbul said, when I mentioned that I’d be stopping for a few days in Ayvalik. “And be sure to bring your camera.” My guidebook says as much: “a nice place to watch the sun go down while seated at one of the two cafes near the summit . . . in clear weather certainly worth the trip up for views extending a hundred miles around . . . ”

In Ayvalik, I asked around and found that the dolmuses left daily for Şeytan Sofrasi at seven in the evening. There was already a queue at the bus stop when I got there; in all, we filled two of the small buses. None of us, I’m sure, knew quite what to expect; we were all there on account of recommendations from friends, or notes in travel guides. We only knew that we had to see it.

Near me in the rear of the bus sat a young Turkish family — a mother, father and their two children. The youngest was in a stroller, braked in the aisle in front of the mother; the father carried the bags, the older child sat between them. People on the bus talked excitedly, looking around and out of the windows as we rolled along the water’s edge at the end of Ayvalik and then turned inland to wind around small fingers of water to continue inland and up, up to the top. The mother, dark and lovely, with brilliant green eyes, to keep the baby amused, was singing to him and clapping her hands. The baby laughed, showing its new teeth, and shook its head around, bouncing his curly hair. “Shukka dum shukka dum,” the mother sang, snapping her fingers above his stroller and shaking her dark shoulders from side to side, and the baby gave a squeal of joy and jumped up and down in his seat. “Shukka dum shukka dum,” she sang, and the father and brother both laughed and looked on as the thrilled baby squealed and danced and bounced in his seat.

At the top, our bus pulled into the parking lot and we began to get out. Other tour buses and cars had already filled the lot, were spilling out now down along the one road coming up to the top. Getting off our bus, an Italian couple stopped next to the driver to ask him what time we would should meet back here.

“When it’s fini,” he said. “When complete.”

They nodded and left, but uncertainly, it seemed; they were thinking, I’m sure, as I was — What finished? And how would we know? And what, exactly, would we be seeing here anyway? Far out in the bay, the sun hovered above the tall hill of a distant island.

Two or three hundred people had already gathered, spread out across the top of the rocky hill. True to my guidebook, there were two cafes near the summit. One was a larger restaurant, on the very highest ground, with tall plate glass windows reflecting the sunlight and a deck wrapping around three sides. The other cafe was really more of a shack, serving tea and drinks. Tables were set up on the level ground at the top and then down among the high boulders and rocks. Bushes and scrubs sprouted up around the boulders, and at the edge of the hill the very tops of green trees growing up from down below just brushed at the sides of the rocky table top.

The music from the restaurant waved out over the hill. People hurried back and forth from the tea shack to their places; families rearranged chairs and tables, turning them, shifting them between the rocks. Cameras were brought out and checked, and some began to record the event on video. Everybody was happy, but in a way also focused and serious. The sun by now was a bright orange ball hanging low over the tall island off to the west.

I wandered around the top of the hill, to do a little exploring. Off to one side, opposite the car park, there was a hand painted sign with a queue in front of it: “Satan’s Footprint.” I got close enough to see a deep crevice in the side of a rock, closed off by a rounded wire cage above it, like a giant bird cage. Covering this cage were hundreds of tiny white knots of cloth and paper — votive rags, for good luck and wishes. People waited to look down into this hole; some threw money, some added strips of cloth to the wire mesh. I didn’t have the patience to queue up just then, and so I moved on. Over my shoulder, the sun was just touching the top line of the island opposite.

Suddenly, a young man followed by three others came running up from the car park. All of them carried photography equipment, and were in a great hurry. The leader held the camera, his apprentices carried the tripod, the bags and accessories. The bags swung in the air as the man with the camera stopped abruptly in the dust at the top of the hill, looked around for half a minute and then pointed to a tall rock. The boys with the equipment ran and clambered up the rock to position the tripod. The man with the camera followed, gingerly climbing up to the tripod to test the view. The boys waited. The man with the camera pulled back, frowning; he shook his head, he looked around the top of the hill again, and then he pointed to another spot. The boys snatched up the tripod and set off again. The man with the camera was in a panic — the sun had already begun to dip its bottom edge below the horizon.

I queued up at the shack to get some tea. The couple in the gray Mercedes, I saw, had brought their own thermos, and the woman was holding two tan plastic cups now and waiting as the man carefully uncapped the thermos to pour the tea. Near me, there was a loud crashing noise, followed by a scream: a small girl sitting on a stack of empty cola crates had fallen to the ground when the stack broke apart under her. Parents and in-laws rushed to her; they picked her up, looked her over and proclaimed her healthy. She cried, showed them her elbows and knees, whimpering. The father laughed and said it was nothing, nothing, dear, while a woman, an in-law, told the child to hush up, it was time, it was almost time.

The restaurant turned off its music. I carried my tiny glass of tea off to an empty space at the edge of the crowd. The couple in the dark gray Mercedes had shifted their seats now to full upright position. Video cameras whirred, and shutters all across the top of the hill began to click and snap, like the lifting sound of eveningtime cicadas. People, couples and families, settled back onto the curved rocks or turned their chairs one last time in the dust. A few teenagers here and there giggled, and a few stragglers still moved back and forth between groups; but in all the crowd had become noticeably quieter. We were all watching, and waiting.

The red-orange sun dipped, dipped down below the high island. Half of it, then suddenly three quarters of it was gone. The rest of the horizon remained an unspectacular smooth misted gray. Cameras clicked. Then there was just a crescent of red-orange — no motion was observable; you watched, it moved, but you could never see it move — then just a sliver of light, and then the sun was just a dot of color above the horizon. And then — then it was gone. It was over. Not more than half an hour had passed since our arrival by minibus.

The music came back on. People shifted, stood up. Already people were drifting past in the dirt. The woman at the tea shack wearily got up from her chair inside the shack and moved back into position behind the counter. The man with the tray came around quickly to begin collecting all the glasses that were scattered about on tables and chairs and left lying on rocks. Car doors slammed, motors started up.

Passing me, the man with the tray must have caught something in my expression, because suddenly he broke out laughing. “Yes, it’s over!” he laughed in Turkish. “That’s it, finito! Adios! Goodbye! You’re welcome!”

The dark gray Mercedes was the first out of the parking lot, was already gliding smoothly down the side of the hill. Crowds of people moved past, names were shouted back and forth across the boulders. It wasn’t dark yet; the disappearance of the sun had hardly even changed the color of the sky. I, too, eventually had to start back to the dolmus. But I kept looking back over my shoulder —

I suppose we find our inspirations where we may. Be it in peering over the rim of the Grand Canyon, or listening to a favorite piece of music, or jostling through a crowd at the top of a hill to point a camera at a red-orange sun setting over a distant island. Or seeing a lovely young Turkish mother, shoulders moving, fingers snapping, teaching her baby to dance. You grab you beauties where you can.