Rolling the Dice in Uncertain Times

This is the second in my series exploring the similarities of human nature in the present crazy situation (the COVID-19 Pandemic, for anyone who might be reading this much later) and in the past; specifically in the search for answers to questions about the unknown. In antiquity this was often done by consultation of oracles or other forms of divination.

NOTE: the first installment had pitifully low readership, so you should go read it now for context: Seeking Answers to an Unknown Future in the Distant Past. And here is a nice picture, somewhat related to the content, so you know where to restart when you come back:

The dramatically situated theater at Termessos, on the E edge of Lycia in modern Turkey (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2011-05-25)

As I write, lead news stories are no longer about the growing severity of the COVID-19 Pandemic, but rather debates about “reopening” the economy. In the US, different states have taken varying approaches, with protests, demonstrations, pleas, and public service announcements against all of them. Media outlets refer to easing of restrictions where infection rates have not declined as a “gamble” or even “rolling the dice.” Indeed, “rolling the dice” means to take a gamble, in the sense of taking an action which involves risk for the chance of potential reward. Gambling for the sake of the risk/reward thrill existed in ancient times as it does today. Gambling by “playing dice” was a major pastime and social problem in ancient Rome—and throughout the empire, as texts and archaeological finds attest. Dice are the objects used to introduce randomness into the process, making it a game.

A Roman period die, made from clay, discovered at Lystra (Turkey) by Ancient Dan’s daughter (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2020-05-04)

“Playing dice,” however, is an evolution of both the activity itself and the object used. The verb “playing” reveals the choice to engage in the activity for fun or pursuit of satisfaction. The “gamble” of easing stay-at-home orders and reopening businesses before a pandemic is over is more of a forced choice. The goal is clear and necessary (get back to a productive life), but risk (potential spread of illness) makes the choice difficult and not “fun.” In antiquity, it was common to put such matters to oracles or other forms of divination. In addition to obtaining a presumably unbiased opinion, this was also no doubt an effort to take the decision out of human hands or to avoid direct blame for wrong roads taken. It may seem easy to poke fun at such actions but, in truth, humans share the same fears and instincts in all periods.

Astragali; knucklebones of domestic animals, usually sheep or goats. Sadly, my collection is in storage far away, so I borrowed this image from Wikipedia . . .

The simplest form of choosing between unclear options is by random chance, like flipping a coin. Dice, as noted above, can also be used to produce random outcomes and can also provide more complication than a simple yes or no answer. The direct ancestors to common six-sided dice known today are ancient astragali, the knucklebones of domesticated livestock—usually sheep or goats. These knucklebones have rounded ends and four distinct faces (with varying statistical probability), so that one of the four will be face up when thrown. In the ancient world, the four faces—two broad and two narrow, of which one of each was concave—had known names and values of 1, 3, 4, and 6. Opposite faces adding up to 7 as in modern dice. An astragalus could be ground down into a cube shape with 5 and 2 assigned to the new sides. The result is essentially a modern die. This is why old timers like Ancient Dan may remember even older folk colloquially refer to rolling dice as “throwing the ol’ knucklebones.” Astragali were also used for children’s (and adult) games, but when they were thrown for decision making, the process was called “casting lots,” a method known to readers of the Bible.[1] [It was explained to me as a kid in Sunday School that casting lots “was a lot more like drawing straws than throwing dice” when, in fact, it is exactly like throwing dice!]

Lower city wall and main entry gate at Termessos in Lycia, which must have something to do with the subject of this post (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2014-05-20)

Of course the major oracles were the gold standard for getting a divine answer on what action to take in a difficult forced decision. Perhaps simply throwing goat bones oneself may have seemed too flippant or lacking in authority. A convenient, if curious, solution could be found in certain parts of Asia Minor, at least, in the second century AD and later: dice oracles. Here the authority of institutionalized belief and guilt-free randomness could be combined in difficult decision making!

Main entry gate at Termessos in Lycia; remains of a dice oracle are integrated into the end of the wall at left (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2011-05-25)

A “good” example (meaning I have pictures of its identifiable ruins) can be seen after a grueling climb up a barely-maintained trail to the mountaintop ruins of Termessos, on the far eastern edge of ancient Lycia in southern Turkey. There, just inside the main gate and attached to the inner face of the city wall, are the fallen blocks of a dice-oracle. One flat horizontal stone can be imagined as the surface on which the inquirer would throw the dice. The blocks on the wall above were covered with inscriptions giving the interpretation of each possible dice throw combination. In fact, the text at Termessos is quite similar to and consistent with those found at other dice-oracles in Asia Minor. In all cases, interpretations are given according to the total of the values of the sides from the dice thrown. From them, we can see that astragali were used because only the face values 1, 3, 4, and 6 were accounted for in the calculations. In most dice-oracles, five throws were assumed, but the Termessos gate example called for seven! The order did not matter but the exact method of obtaining the sum did, in cases where different combinations yielded the same number. Each specific outcome was listed with: the astragali face numbers, the sum of the throw, the result named for god or other mythological character, and a verse interpretation (not unlike a fortune cookie).[2]

A weary traveler enters the main gate at Termessos, approaching ruins of a dice oracle at center; the squared blocks were inscribed with formulae for interpreting the dice throws (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2011-05-25)

The location of the Termessos dice-oracle at the city gate is not surprising, given that many of the interpretations assume questions relating to risks associated with business ventures or travel. Therein lies the connection with current events. This week I suspect many American state governors would welcome a chance to put tough decisions of business and travel versus safety on “the advice of the gods” or “Fate” rather than take his or her own reelection risk with the unknown future.

One of the now mostly-illegible blocks with inscribed formula for interpreting the dice throws; this oracle prescribed the throw of seven astralagi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2011-05-25)

Would we be better off with a random decision than one made for political expediency? Who knows? Just out of curiosity, I “rolled the dice” in a simulation to see what advice I would get. The answer, straight from the dice-oracle interpretation texts, seems ominously appropriate for contemporary decisions:

  • 44466         24          Cronos the Child-Eater
  • Three fours and two sixes. This is the god’s advice:
  • Stay at home and go not elsewhere,
  • Lest the destructive Beast and avenging Fury come upon you;
  • For I see that the business is neither safe nor secure.[3]

Be safe out there.

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[1] Lev 16:8; Josh 18:6, 8, 10; 1 Chron 24:31, 25:8, 26:13-14; Neh 10:34, 11:1; Job 6:27; Ps 22:18; Joel 3:3; Ob 1:11; Jonah 1:7; Nah 3:10; Matt 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:24; Acts 1:26; and Greek Esther 9:24, 26; 10:10.

[2] Fritz Graf, “Rolling the Dice for an Answer,” in Mantikê: Studies in Ancient Divination, eds S. I. Johnston and P. Struck (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 60-94.

[3] George E. Bean, Turkey’s Southern Shore (New York: Norton, 1979), 98-99.

What Might Have Been: The Gaius Caesar Cenotaph at Limyra

Today (21 February 2020) marks the 2016th anniversary of the passing of Gaius Caesar. “Who?”—you ask? He was once the presumed heir to the throne of the new Roman Empire; now largely forgotten, much as his monumental cenotaph in Turkey. This brief remembrance of that structure is the latest in an apparently very occasional series on monuments to long-dead Romans and other figures of antiquity. But first, the backstory . . .

Limyra: Lycian tombs in the E Necropolis (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

The first true Roman Emperor, Augustus (formerly Octavian), had a wildly successful reign (31 BC to AD 14) that transformed Rome forever (and for better or worse). But Augustus had no son, and succession was a major issue for him. His only daughter, Julia, produced three sons by Augustus’ right-hand man and son-in-law Marcus Agrippa, and the oldest was Gaius Caesar. Gaius and his three-year younger brother Lucius were adopted by Augustus and named as heirs and raised as such.

Byzantine wall, likely built with some materials from Gaius Caesar’s cenotaph, constructed across the middle of the Hellenistic “Ptolemaion” structure; above now flooded ruins of a basilica (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

At the young age of 18, Gaius was commissioned by Augustus to deal with troubles in Syria with Parthia and Armenia. He was dispatched to the region with some advisors in 1 BC. The boy’s inexperience was questioned by some, but Augustus apparently praised him for not offering prayers (presumably to avoid offending Jewish sensibilities) when he visited Jerusalem (Suetonius, Augustus 93).

Limyra: view from the theater to the remains of the Gaius Caesar Cenotaph (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

Peaceful negotiations with Parthia included a meeting between Gaius and the Parthian king Phraates on the Euphrates. But soon after Parthia incited rebellion against a new ruler of Armenia installed by Gaius. Military action ensued. Gaius, lured into a trap on promise of information, was wounded. The Romans prevailed, but Gaius struggled physically from the injury and in spirit over the next year. By the end of AD 3, he resigned his command and withdrew to Syria, announcing his desire to stay there and retire from public life (princes tiring of royal duty and family intrigue is not a new thing!).

Limyra: Remains of the Gaius Caesar Cenotaph (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

At Augustus behest, he reluctantly agreed to return to Rome and took a trading ship to Lycia where he died suddenly at Limyra on 21 February AD 4 Velleius Paterculus, 2.101-102). His brother Lucius had also died at Massalia en route to military training in Spain the previous year, leaving Augustus and Rome with no heir apparent. Grief-stricken Augustus had a cenotaph erected to honor his grandson Gaius’ short life at the site of his death. Meanwhile, the brothers’ ashes were interred in the mausoleum prepared for Augustus in Rome (read about the Augustus Mausoleum here).

Gaius Caesar Cenotaph; looking SE (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

Like Gaius Caesar’s memory in popular Roman history, his cenotaph stands unnoticed in a marshy field at the edge of the ruins of Limyra; a nondescript hulk of ruined masonry. It’s former glory is hinted by the nice pavement surrounding the base. Visitors rarely go there; for the picturesque tombs, theater, and other ruins of Limyra are more attractive. But there is a better story and more mystery with the cenotaph. Even in ancient times, there was rumor of involvement by Livia, mother of the eventual heir Tiberius, in the deaths of Gaius and Lucius (Cassius Dio, Roman History 55.10-11).

Gaius Caesar Cenotaph, looking NW, with the Limyra acropolis on the right (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-07-09)

What might have been? Augustus’ sorrow over his progeny may have been an omen for Rome’s future.  

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Monuments to Dead Romans: The Şekerhane Köşkü (Pic Of The Day, 2019-08-08)

I have always been fascinated by monuments or memorials to the deceased and the psychology behind them, as well as the physical structures themselves. This post is triggered in part by the most recent of the all-too-familiar temporary memorials that appear at scenes of horrific mass shootings in my own country. But not to dwell on that depressing and unfortunately ubiquitous topic, I hereby initiate an occasional series on monuments to long-dead Romans and other figures of antiquity.

Actually, a precursor to this theme appeared in my post “The Hazards of Tax Day,” which featured the Temple to the Deified Julius Caesar in Rome. Tonight’s subject is a presumed cenotaph for the Emperor Trajan, erected in the city of his death and at the spot of his probable cremation on or about this date (8 August) in AD 117.[1]

The structure known locally as Şekerhane Köşkü; very likely the platform for a temple of the Deified Emperor Trajan, who died in Selinus in AD 117 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-06-27).

Trajan excelled in his 19-year reign and was highly regarded in life, death, and by Renaissance and early modern historians. Already having made significant military conquests in Dacia, in AD 114 he set out for campaigns on the eastern frontier. The problem there was agitation by the Parthian Empire (originating in Persia—modern Iran—another connection of this story with contemporary events!). Trajan was incredibly successful in his initial campaign, taking the Parthian capital Ctesiphon and gaining a foothold on the Persian Gulf. But reduced success and troubles elsewhere in the Empire caused him to return towards Rome in 117.

Our main source for Trajan’s last days is Cassius Dio. Already suffering in health, which he attributed to poison, the Emperor suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. In early August he sailed for Rome from Antioch. When Trajan’s health deteriorated the ship put in at the nearest port, Selinus in Cilicia, where he “suddenly expired” (Cassius Dio 68.33). Selinus was subsequently renamed Traianopolis in the Emperor’s honor and memory. Details on the exact disposition of his body are not given, but his “remains” were transported back to Seleucia, the port of Antioch, for viewing by his successor, Hadrian, and then to Rome.

Interior of the Şekerhane Köşkü, likely the platform for a Temple to the Deified Emperor Trajan, who died in Selinus in AD 117 and was probably cremated in a structure incorporated in the building’s walls (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2011-05-24).

On the outskirts of the Turkish city Gazipaşa are the ruins of Selinus/Traianopolis, and on the landward outskirts of them stands a lonely structure known locally as the Şekerhane Köşkü, which refers to the building’s use as a hunting platform for elites during the Seljuk Period. Early western explorers of the area identified it as having a sepulchral function and likely built as a cenotaph (a tomb structure without the honored person’s actual remains) for Trajan. Trajan was the only personality of his magnitude known to have died there and a memorial to him is a logical outcome although the written sources do not mention such. The roof of the edifice was covered in soil and produced wheat and other crops that were grown around it. This layer was cleared in the early 2000s revealing the foundation outlines of a temple-like structure with a place for a cult statue. These and other details now make it likely that the building was not a cenotaph but rather a platform for a temple to the deified Emperor Trajan.[2]

The Şekerhane Köşkü, with the foundation outlines of a temple-like structure on the recently-cleared roof; the door opening in the front and cut block exterior are modification of the platform during the Seljuk Period, when the building functioned as a hunting platform (aerial image by Tıröd Ğnihcnüh; © AncientDan.com).

Coins issued in Selinus from the late 2nd-mid 3rd centuries featured a temple to Trajan on the reverse. There is no other suitable candidate for this temple in the extant remains apart from the Şekerhane Köşkü. Further, there are striking parallels to coins featuring the Temple of the Deified Julius Caesar (mentioned above) in Rome, which was situated at the spot of Caesar’s cremation. One of the walls of the Şekerhane Köşkü incorporates an earlier square structure, arguably the cremation pit where Trajan’s corpse was burned—an essential step in Apotheosis (elevation to divine status) for both Caesar and Trajan.[3]

Trajan’s Column in his forum at Rome (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-11-10).

The Emperor’s ashes were eventually transported to Rome where they were placed in a special chamber at the base of Trajan’s Column, a magnificent and still-standing 30 meter (98 ft) high column depicting the Emperor and his troops during the Dacian wars and showing painstaking detail of the Roman army in action. Trajan’s Column anchors one end of the extensive Forum of Trajan, the last of the Imperial Fora in Rome.

In addition to physical monuments, Trajan’s legacy includes other honors. He was universally lauded by contemporary writers and posthumously declared by the Senate optimus princeps, “the best ruler.” He was considered by some Christian theologians to be a “virtuous pagan,” and Dante depicts him in Jupiter’s Heaven in The Divine Comedy. Modern historians have sometimes questioned Trajan’s accomplishments, and his successor Hadrian (who did relinquish Trajan’s gains against Persia) now gets better press.

Next in the series: The Mausoleum of Augustus.


[1] Some sources place Trajan’s death a day earlier or later, on 7 or 9 August; e.g., Chris Scarre, Chronicle of the Roman Emperors (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995), lists 7 August as the date of death in the box at the beginning of the entry for Trajan (p. 90), but 9 August in the text (p. 97); therefore, I am taking the middle road in posting this on the evening of 8 August.  

[2] This argument is effectively made by Michael Hoff, “The Şekerhane Köşkü at Selinus (Cilicia): The Temple of the Deified Trajan,” Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 10 (Sept 2016): 56-68 [this is a special issue also titled Ex Terra Scientia: Papers in Honor of David Soren, eds. R.H Wilkinson and P.P. Creasman]. For the nerds that read footnotes: I actually obtained this issue recently for a current research project and was pleased to find this article there. Ironically, Michael Hoff (the author) had graciously received my research colleague and I at his impressive excavation site within an hour of our most recent visit to the Trajan Temple site.

[3] Hoff, “The Şekerhane Köşkü at Selinus (Cilicia): The Temple of the Deified Trajan,” 62-64.

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Pic of the Day 2019-02-03: Stadiums with a Past

I am pretty unexcited about this evening’s “big game” between the bandwagon team of dubious integrity and the other guys that rammed their way in via an egregious no-call. Perhaps you, dear reader, need a diversion from the endless-but-not-timeless hype of the afternoon.

This week, the question came up in conversation (I don’t even remember with who), “what happened to the Georgia Dome?” [For the uninformed, Super Bowl LIII will be played in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium which has replaced the former as Atlanta’s main sports venue.] The answer: it was “blowed up” (video here) and removed from existence to make way for the great hood ornament stadium (here is a time lapse of the transition). Apparently Atlanta has some recycling issues (as here). Rather than go on about our “throw-away society,” I offer the contrast of stadiums that have endured to tell about their culture in a way the Georgia Dome never will. Today’s Pic(s) Of The Day:

The stadium at Aphrodisias, in Turkey; looking west (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2012-05-21)

We begin with the well-preserved stadium at Aphrodisias, in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). It is fairly typical in construction, but has semi-circles of seats at both ends, creating a closed oblong shape.

The stadium at Aphrodisias, in Turkey; view to the east in late afternoon light (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2012-05-21)

There are several nicely-preserved stadia in Turkey, including the recently-exposed huge example at Magnesia-on-the-Meander. It is difficult to capture without a panoramic view:

Panorama of the large recently-exposed stadium at Magnesia-on-the-Meander, in Turkey (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-27)

This example is open on one end, which is more typical. It also has some trappings found in other ancient stadiums that we would find familiar, such as reserved sections (as the regular bench seats with inscribed group names at left).

The Magnesia-on-the-Meander stadium also sports some luxury features that, coupled with its huge size, make it something of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium of Roman Asia. Premium seating is found down low, in a ring pictured below, and in apparent box-seat sections at the end. No retractable roof, though, but with a view and weather like this who cares?

Premium seating ring in the stadium at Magnesia-on-the-Meander, in Turkey (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2014-05-18)

Finally, a couple of views of the best-preserved stadium in Greece; the one at the high point of the remains of ancient Delphi; home of the famous Oracle of Apollo:

The stadium at Delphi, site of the great Oracle of Apollo; view to east from the closed end, taken before an earthquake made it unsafe (and not allowed) to enter the stadium (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 1985)
View to west from the open end of the stadium at Delphi, from behind the nicely-preserved starting line and judges boxes(?) (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 1985)

As you can see, the Delphi stadium is on the side of a mountain (Mt Parnassus), and the lower (south) side has a significant retaining wall. In that wall, on the east end, is an inscription also having a modern echo. It places limitations on wine brought in or out of the stadium:

Delphi stadium: inscription on east end of southern retaining wall, with regulations on wine brought in or out (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-05-14)

You may be wondering why I have not included famous structures like the Colosseum in Rome. That is because the Colosseum is actually an amphitheater, not a stadium. An amphitheater is like a theater in structure, but the seats go all the way around in an oval. Our modern “stadiums” are actually built more like Roman amphitheaters than Greek or Roman stadiums. Modern structures that many people call amphitheaters are really just theaters . . . confusing; but amphitheaters will have to wait for a different post.

View of Delphi theater and Temple of Apollo just below (site of the Oracle) and other remains further downslope (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-05-14)

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P.S.: Go Rams!


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The Aftereffects of Storms

Some of the best “derelict aircraft” discoveries are serendipitous. This post’s subject is such a case. It was during a research trip in Turkey in late May of 2011. My former student and then colleague Mark Nicovich and I had been dogged by a nasty Anatolian spring thunderstorm all day. The storm caught us on the unprotected plateau of “Midas City” and, apparently making up for an earlier near miss, hit us with an unmerciful downpour and then pelted us with hail for about 20 minutes. The glories of the site (a future post, no doubt) made the assault quite worth it, even though the Canon SLR I borrowed from my daughter Rachel, was killed by the soaking.

Midas city:
With the assailant moving away to the Northeast; Mark Nicovich stands drenched and battered on the acropolis plateau of Midas City, a Phrygian site named for the most famous Phrygian king (late morning of 28 May 2011; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

We returned to our rental Skoda and headed along a parallel path with the storm, intent on beating it to Gordion, the ancient Phrygian capital, some distance away. After a brief stop at Amorium, we were driving rather speedily northward when I spied two planes off to the right, near a major interchange: an old biplane of some kind and an unmistakable F-4E Phantom jet. Despite the race with the storm, the unidentified biplane dictated a stop. We took the ramp of the interchange, pulled over on the side of the highway, got out, and crossed the access road by foot to what now was obviously a monument display. Thankfully, I had my small backup Sony camera in my pocket.

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Roadside Sivrihisar Uçağı monument in Eskişehir Province, Turkey, featuring a Breguet 14 (replica) and (incongruously) an F-4E Phantom; both Turkish Air Force veterans (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The plane of interest (nothing against the F-4E, but they are common) proved to be a Breguet 14, a World War I French bomber/scout plane mounted on concrete pedestals! A century-old largely wood and fabric airframe would never be appropriate to mount on an all-weather permanent display, so I was not surprised (but a little sad) to find that the Breguet 14 was a replica (but a well-done one, and thus deemed fit for this series). 

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The replica Breguet 14 of the Sivrihisar Uçağı monument; and the edge of the lurking thunderstorm (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The Breguet 14 was a French designed and built World War I workhorse, operating as a two-seat scout plane and bomber. Its incorporation of comparatively large amounts of metal in the airframe was innovative and made it one of the most durable planes of the war. Consequently, it continued in production after the war and was used in a number of airforces into the 1930s. That included Turkey. Which brings us to this particular memorialized plane.

Translation of the signage reveals that during the Turkish War of Independence the people of the Sivrihisar district of Eskişehir Province (where the monument is located) raised money and bought the plane for the nascent Turkish Air Force as a contribution to the war effort. In gratitude for the patriotic act, the Breguet was named Sivrihisar Uçağı, meaning “Sivrihisar aircraft.

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The replica Breguet 14 of the Sivrihisar Uçağı monument with explanatory signage . . . and our surprisingly fast and durable rental Skoda (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

A little extra research revealed that the donation was raised by Sivrihisar residents after their occupation and then liberation in the Battle of Sakarya, one of the pivotal campaigns of the Turkish War of Independence. During that battle, a Greek Air Force Breguet was captured by forced landing, put into service by Turkey, and named Sakarya Uçağı (see here for that info in Turkish). I surmise that the utility of that plane was the inspiration for the purchase of the Sivrihisar Uçağı, and it provided the precedent for naming the latter. So the storm of conflict brought out Turkish resolve.

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The Sivrihisar Uçağı Breguet 14, captured from the Greeks (pic from www.HAVACIYIZ.com)

Speaking of Turkish resolve . . . immediately after our visit to the monument and pulling back on the highway, we were flagged down by a waiting Turkish policeman. Unlike many before him on our journey, he spoke excellent English and explained that we were speeding. As we had not even gotten up to speed when he pulled me over, I protested briefly. He calmly explained that he had detected our speed from the other side of the other highway before we had exited. He thought we had tried to avoid apprehension by doing so and was waiting for us, but I explained that we saw the biplane and turned to investigate. He understood and we had a nice talk about the history of the airplane. Then he issued my summons and gave friendly instructions on how to pay. We parted as friends, Mark and I admiring his Turkish sense of duty and patriotism, and the officer appreciative of our interest in his history.

In the end, we beat the storm (barely) to Gordion, where we had a nice visit and another reminder of the good things that can emerge from storms:

Gordion: tumuli
Tumuli (tombs) and corn poppies (of a decidedly Turkish red) that emerge after spring rains at Gordion (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

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