Faces in the Street – less well known Turkish crafts

Discover some Turkish trades before they disappear!In my library on Turkey, I have a lovely little brightly coloured pamphlet style book filled with the kind of garish photos I used to see on postcards when I first travelled in Turkey in 1990. This book dates from about a decade before that, and features crafts the author deems to be dying out due to progress. It includes water sellers, tailors, quilt makers, and water pipe makers. Despite the man’s dire predictions, when I moved into my lovely apartment in a quiet leafy street on the Asian side of Istanbul nearly six years ago, mine and all the surrounding streets were abuzz with the sounds of traders and craftsmen working from small shops at the base of most of the buildings. The regular rhythms emanating from their doorways were punctuated by the sporadic cries of passing watermelon sellers, simit vendors and boza men.

Add to this the sounds of my neighbours. Not the other apartment owners but the characters who inhabit the bowels of the buildings. Most visible are the kapıcı, the men who live rent free in exchange for various duties, such as cleaning, paying bills and running errands. Most of the new buildings won’t include an extra apartment for them. While this will mean an end to the sometimes invasive gossip grapevine, it will also result in less security for home owners as the ever present kapıcı see and know everything. They also come in handy during an emergency and can help if you need a plumber, electrician or any of the other tradesmen who can be found working under the old apartment blocks.

Our kapıcı Kamil is a simple man but very moody, unlike the every friendly Selim, a short solid man always wearing one of two nearly identical striped polo shirts, who delivers my water. You can’t drink the water in Istanbul, and the most economical way to buy it is in nineteen litre bottles. I’m still curious as to the volume, I mean why not twenty litres, but I’m yet to ask. His shop is under our living room and it’s my practice to lean out the window and call down to him. When his door is shut I know he’s probably sleeping, so I’ll ask a passerby to knock until he wakes. If this fails I have to ring him. These conversations are always short but ridiculously formal. I identify myself and ask Selim how he is. After he tells me he is fine, he asks after me and I tell him I am well. Only then can I ask him to bring up a new bottle of water. Often I tell a necessary Turkish pink lie and say it’s urgent, otherwise he’s prone to first sit down for a glass of tea and a cigarette, in the company of the neighbourhood kapıcı. He gets so carried away in their company that he sometimes forgets about my order entirely. Hence the need for subterfuge. Unlike most Turks who aspire to a university degree for their children, Selim’s oldest son will go to vocational college and learn a trade. In his Dad’s opinion he’s more likely to get a job and start earning sooner than if he goes to university and I think he’s right.

Next door to the waterman is Süleyman the tailor. An upright, white haired man from the Black Sea, he makes men’s and women’s clothes, mainly trousers, and contracts out for blouses. His little shop is chaotic with fabric, cottons and patterns and people constantly stream in and out with repairs and orders. He’s a friendly soul but his accent is so thick I have trouble understanding him. Even harder is when his older brother comes in to work in his place. He looks almost identical to Süleyman, but it’s only when I’ve adjusted to the gloom and noted his more kempt hair and slight tan that I realise he’s the imitation. Five times a day Süleyman’s shop appears to be empty but he’ll be upstairs on the minute mezzanine level, performing his namaz, his prayers. Except for Fridays when he closes just before lunch so he can go to the local mosque and listen to the all important midday sermon.

These are only a few of the people busily making a living at the base of apartment buildings across Istanbul and I fear that in the years to come they will disappear entirely. Back when I first moved in to my apartment, it was seagulls disturbed by the first call to prayer that woke me. Now it is the sound of trucks, hammers and drills, as my neighbourhood undergoes urban renewal. Sadly it seems the predictions made by the author of “Interesting Turkish Trades” are about to come true, as the old style apartment blocks with their small, poorly designed ground floor shops are being replaced by shiny new skyscrapers offering retail rental space far beyond the budget of the local traders and craftsmen of Istanbul. I too have recently had to sign the contract which will see my beautiful apartment, with its real wood honey gold parquet floored living room floor and polished marble corridor knocked down and replaced by something less than wonderful.

Just as wandering lahmacun sellers no longer roam the waterfronts of the city…

Hungry? Why not grab a tasty lahmacun?)And fewer rabbits tell fortunes…

Have your fortune read by a rabbit before they all retire!

Personalize your home with a hand made quilt.I believe one day the dreamy heavy satin quilts handmade with elaborate and personal designs of circles and waves and meanders of thread sewn across the surface, will be completely replaced by commercially produced lightweight alternatives, but hopefully not for a long time.

IMG_2621As for the leech dealers, the last time I saw one was when I lived in Kayseri from 2002 until 2004. I can’t say for sure if the trade of dealing leeches has died out because they’re not something I look for, but I suspect like many of the crafts mentioned in this book, they too are becoming a thing of the past.

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Turkish Ice Cream – At a stretch

You haven't takes ice cream until you've tried Turkish ice cream!In Turkey, when you a buy a fridge, they don’t tell you how many litres it holds. Instead, they tell you how much Turkish ice cream it can store. Not just any ice cream though. Called dondurma, literally meaning ‘freezing’ in Turkish, Turkish ice cream is made with two magic ingredients, mastic and sahlep, and Kahramanmahraş, in Eastern Turkey, is where the best ice cream comes from.

Find out why Turkish ice cream is so stretchy!I went to Kahramanmahraş on a tour with fifty-two university students and five teachers, of whom I was one. It was four days and three nights of singing, dancing and eating on about twelve hours sleep in total. We ate at every opportunity, and when the bus came to a stop at three in the morning naturally we were outside an ice cream shop. On the point of closing for the night, the shutter was immediately rolled back up as we piled eagerly out of the bus. A man dressed in traditional black baggy trousers, a colorful sash that matched his waistcoat and a fez, came outside and stood in front of a large barrel. He started to mix the ice cream inside it with a large wooden paddle. When it was ready he smeared it on cones for us to eat. He offered one to a student. Once it was in her hand, the man snatched away the paddle, taking the ice cream with it. The mastic in the ice cream is a natural gum giving Turkish ice cream its unique chewiness. Sahlep, a type of flour made from orchids, adds the irresistible texture.

Learn a new use for a knife and fork!On our way back through the same town we had more real Turkish ice cream. This time it was served in slices sprinkled with pistachios and we ate it the traditional way. With knives and forks. We were in Yaşar Pastanesi, a shop established about sixty years ago. Although it was once again three in the morning we met the owner, who still worked eighteen hours a day. Which is lucky for ice cream lovers, because this is where the famous Mado ice cream originates from. You can find Mado cafes all over the country so there’s no need to travel as far Kahramanmahraş for a real Turkish ice cream. However, you’ll have a great time if you do!

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Mount Nemrut

Come to Mt Nemrut and sit with royalty!It’s still dark when I arrive and make my way slowly up a steep path. Although I can hear voices it feels like I am an intrepid explorer on the edge of an enormous discovery. Once I reach the top I stop to catch my breath. All I can see are murky, shadowy figures and the blurred outlines of large free-standing rocks. I crunch my way over small patches of snow that still carpet the ground up here at 7000ft. As the sun slowly starts to slide across the sleeping landscape the murky blacks turn to muted shades of grey. In the far distance a rabbit hops carefully along, unaware of an eagle hovering above.

Do you want to follow in my footsteps?I feel all alone on top of the world until the sun rises and reveals groups of tourists also waiting for the morning light, and the ubiquitous seller of Turkish tea. The rocks have been revealed as the bodies of the nearly 30 feet high statues of the pre-Roman King Antiochus I Theos of Commagene that once stood on either side of this tomb sanctuary. The steep slope I’d walked up is in fact an artificial hill of crushed rock around 160 feet high. The body of the king and some of his relatives are believed to buried inside it but no one is certain. Once upon a time the statues of Antiochus were encircled by seated Greek, Armenian and Iranian statues with the name of each god inscribed on them.

Nemrut 04 HeadsAntiochus believed these gods were his relatives and he had them commissioned to form part of his legacy. Now their 6 foot high heads are scattered across the flat ground. Elsewhere on the terrace is a large slab carved with a lion showing the arrangement of stars and the planets Jupiter Mercury and Mars on 7 July 62 BC. Archaeologists believe this is the date construction began on this monument.

The best time to visit Mount Nemrut is in spring or fall. East of the capital city of Ankara it is well worth the trip which ends when a short climb takes you to another world.

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Turkish National Public Holidays 2016

Celebrating Republic Day in Kas, 1996

Turkish national public holidays include international public holidays, important dates in the nation’s history and major religious events. On these days banks, administration offices, schools, government offices and some businesses are closed. Although government and many private museums are closed, tourist centres such as Istanbul, Antalya, Izmir and Bodrum can be extremely busy as many Turks take the opportunity to have a short break. This is especially the case when the holiday is being held to celebrate a religious occasion. During the two main ones, Kurban Bayramı and Şeker Bayramı it’s obligatory for family members to visit one another, so interstate flights, buses and trains will be heavily booked. If you’re planning to travel to Turkey during these periods it’s advisable to book interstate flights, buses, tours and accommodation well in advance. If driving, roads are busier than usual. To help you plan your trip here’s a list of Turkey national public holidays for 2016.

List of Turkish Holidays 2016

1 January: New Year’s Day
23 April: National Sovereignty and Children’s Day (1)
1 May: Labor and Solidarity Day (2)
19 May: Ataturk, Youth and Sports Day (3)
6 June – 4 July: Holy Month of Ramazan
5 – 7 July: Şeker Bayramı – a feast of chocolates and Turkish delight
30 August: Victory Day (4)
11 – 15 September: Sacrifice Feast (Kurban Bayramı)
28 October: Republic Day Eve
29 October: Republic day (5)

  1. National Sovereignty & Children’s Day

Solemn ceremonies and children’s festivals take place throughout Turkey on National Sovereignty and Children’s Day (Ulusal Egemenlik ve Çocuk Bayramı), held on April 23 each year. This commemoration of the first opening of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey at Ankara in 1920 sees children take seats in the Turkish Parliament and symbolically govern the country for one day. Elsewhere school children march in unison bearing Turkish flags, people attend local ceremonies or lay wreaths at monuments of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic.

  1. Labour & Solidarity Day

In Turkey, Labour and Solidarity Day (Emek ve Dayanışma Günü), internationally known as May Day, is an occasion for people to celebrate labour improvements and to demand better conditions for skilled labourers and union workers. Unfortunately, in recent years peaceful demonstrations have turned ugly. In Istanbul much of the public transport system is shut down to prevent large gatherings so it’s wise to plan your movements accordingly.

  1. Atatürk, Youth & Sports Day

Atatürk, Youth and Sports Day (Atatürk’ü Anma Gençlik ve Spor Bayramı), includes state ceremonies and sports events throughout the country on May 19 each year. Although the exact date of Atatürk’s birth isn’t known, many Turks celebrate May 19 as his birthday, because Atatürk used to say he was born on that day. Many people lay wreaths on his monuments and hang Turkish flags, some featuring his profile, from their windows.

  1. Victory Day

Victory Day (Zafer Bayramı) commemorates the crucial Turkish triumph against Greek forces in the Battle of Dumlupınar (August 26-30, 1922). The outcome of this battle helped determine the overall outcome of the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923). Shops, public offices, hotels and people’s houses are awash with Turkish flags, and military parades and ceremonies at monuments to Atatürk are held.

  1. Republic Day

Republic Day (Cumhuriyet Bayramı) marks the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. The Turkish parliament proclaimed the new Turkish state a republic after the nation’s victory in the War of Independence. A new constitution was adopted on October 29, 1923, replacing the constitution of the Ottoman Empire. On the same day Mustafa Kemal Atatürk became the country’s first president. On Republic Day people go to theatre, poetry and traditional Turkish dance performances dedicated to the Republic of Turkey. Parades are held in some towns and cities, people lay wreaths in memory of Atatürk and in the evening many cities hold traditional processions with flags and musical bands, ending the night with firework displays.

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Kuruçeşme – beauty on the Bosphorus

Come and check out the streets of KurucesmeAnother small suburb tucked away on the edges of the Bosphorus is Kurucesme (Kuruçeşme). The name translates as dry fountain, and it is believed to have been named for a 17th century fountain attached to the Tezkireci Osman Efendi Mosque. At one time the area was an industrial zone where coal and sand were stored. These days it is a quiet, leafy suburb that contains a lovely selection of churches in a very small area. My starting point was Kırbaç Street, which like many of the streets in this area immediately rises inland from the coast road. The Surp Harç Ermeni Kilesi is located on the left hand side a way up the street and I was able to walk through the grounds. It is small but imposing stone rectangular church, built in 1881 by a Master Garabet, a member of the talented Balyan family of architects.

IMG_2572Grounds of Surp Haç Armenian Church

 

 

 

 

 

 

A bit further up the road, opposite a small roundabout that looks lost in a large intersection, is Hagio Demetrios.

Hagio Demetrios, Kurucesme, Istanbul.An Orthodox Armenian Church, it is the original home of the theological college now located on Heyebeliada. The structure I entered was built in 1798 but the janitor suggested the church itself dated back 400 years. It’s quite possible an earlier structure had existed on the same spot.

Interior of tunnel leading to the holy springThe church proper is only open for Saturday services, but I was able to visit the small chapel above. Being forbidden to take photographs did not detract from the room filled with Madonna and child paintings, a large triptych and a basin at the base of one wall with two taps where you can fill your cup with water. I ducked through a low door and walked the length of the 40 metre tunnel to the source of the water, the Hagios Sotiros ayazma or Holy Spring. So much water has run down the walls of the tunnel that they have calcified, making it look and feel like being in a natural formed cave.

When I exited the church, I turned right and made my way up the winding steps leading around and behind the church and came out further up the hill. To my left the road was even steeper, so I headed a little way back down to Alayemini Street. Lined with old konak houses this is where I now want to live.

My new favourite street - Alayemini StreetAnd it has nazar for luck!I wonder what's hidden behind these windows!

I bet this placce has plenty of stories to tell.

Back down on level ground I continued along the coast road, past glorious old abandoned houses. At the point where Kuruçeşme meets Arnavutköy I came to the Church of Ioannis Prodroos (St John the Baptist). Only visible by standing across the road and waiting for a break in the traffic, the church boasts an unusual round wooden turret. A bell tower stands separately to one side of the building.

IMG_2603

I ended my walk by looking over at the famous Galatsaray Island, musing that my seat on the water’s edge will most likely be the closest I ever get to it.

View to Galatasaray Island, IstanbulIf you enjoyed this post, check out my new category “Discover Istanbul” (see drop down Category menu on the right hand side towards the top of this page). I’m sure it’ll inspire to you to go exploring!

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Turkish markets – from A(pples) to Z(ucchinis)

Visit a local Turkish market – You’ll never go hungry!Everyday, in a suburb somewhere in Istanbul, a weekly street market is being held. One of the one of the many traditions brought to the big city from small towns and villages, vibrant, crowded, noisy Turkish markets persist, despite the increasing number of supermarkets opening up every year. Trucks loaded with produce criss-cross the city before light to take up any parking spaces available. Ropes are slung over handy light poles, nearby balconies and shop front grilles so canopies can be raised overhead. Underneath, stall after stall piled high with fresh produce line the streets, and the neighbourhood becomes a frenzy of housewives doing the weekly shopping.

Turkish pickles – what colour would you like?At a Turkish market you buy by the kilo and not by the piece. Everything is seasonal and almost all of it is grown in Turkey. There are plump ripe peaches from Bursa, gorgeously juicy oranges from Demre and brilliantly red tomatoes from Çannakkale. My favourite season is spring where for a brief six week window I can buy brilliantly shiny red Napoleon cherries for only a few dollars a kilo. Strawberries are equally cheap and I still get a thrill when I swing my bag of sweetness from side to side on the walk home, knowing I can gorge myself silly and then go back for more.

Try Turkish salca, it’ll add a zing to any dish!The vendors at Turkish markets vary from smiling fresh faced youths to surly older men dirtied by stubble and years of handling the soil. “Don’t touch” they’ll bark if your hand hovers too close to delicate fruits but they’re quick to offer you a slice to try. “It’s fresh” they’ll say, “It’s cheap” they’ll call, “Buy it now” they’ll yell, vying for the business of women who will pounce when there’s a bargain but hang back if the price is too high. Everywhere you look the colours dazzle, and the cries of the vendors mix with the pungent smell of fresh fruit, vegetables, homemade pickles, spicy pastes, dried fruits and nuts. As you walk along, distracted by what’s on offer, you have avoid men rushing past swinging trays of tea, old men offering to carry your shopping for a fee and an army of trolley wielding shoppers. It’s exhilarating and exhausting and not to be missed.

Turks love to eat nuts day and night.If you want to experience more everyday life in Istanbul and Turkey, read my book “Inside Out in Istanbul: Making Sense of the City”.

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Is it safe to come to Turkey?

Is it safe to come to Turkey?A few weeks ago I posted a story about Taksim, urging readers to explore the streets leading off Istiklal Caddesi where they could discover Istanbul’s rich cultural history. This is the same Istiklal Street where on Saturday the 19th of March, a suicide bomber detonated their load, killing five people and injuring thirty six others. This came just a week after a bomb went off in Ankara, killing thirty seven and injuring one hundred and twenty five. Both cities have suffered from several bomb attacks in the last few months, and now as then, the question on everyone’s lips is “Is it safe to come to Turkey?”

A lot of people in the blogging and travel communities wrote posts immediately after each of the bombings, expressing sorrow and dismay at these tragic and senseless losses of life. Each time I scoured the news in English and Turkish, read online debates and talked to friends about it. I chose not to write a blog post in answer to the question “Is it safe to come to Turkey?” It seemed both too big and too personal a question to answer.

What finally prompted me to write an answer was a private Facebook message I received from a women who admires my writing. She had a reservation to come to Istanbul the week after the bombing, and wanted my advice on whether it was safe or not. This isn’t her first visit here, so she knows the lay out of the city, how crowded the streets can be, and that comparing security in Turkey with that on offer in other countries is pointless. After all, national security forces didn’t stop the recent attacks in Paris, Jakarta, Lebanon, Brussels, Iskanderiyah and now Lahore.

One answer to the question “Is it safe to come to Turkey?” would be to remind her she could get hit by a bus tomorrow, so why worry? Given the seriousness of the question this answer is so trite as to be almost meaningless. In the bus scenario, one has the choice to look both ways before crossing. A bombing doesn’t give you that option. The flip side of this answer is to say it’s far too dangerous so you shouldn’t come. Yet I can’t agree this is the best answer because my safe might be your dangerous and my comfort levels your risk-taking.

So, in answer to the question “Is it safe to come to Turkey?” I will reiterate what I said to the woman on Facebook. I can’t really say either way if you should come because only you know how you feel. You should check what your government says and make a decision that way. If you do come to Istanbul, make sure you have registered to receive warnings so you know which places to avoid, and how to keep safe should something happen. I’d feel irresponsible suggesting anything less, but felt I hadn’t been that much help. I was touched and pleased when she got back to me and thanked me for my kindness. She’d considered all the possibilities and made up her mind to come as planned. However she was aware she needed to be able to suddenly alter her plans should any unforeseen dangers arise. Maybe it’s not the definitive answer people are looking for, but it’s pretty good advice.

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The Turkish Moustache – Message in a Mo

Check out Haci Kilic from Erzerum, Turkey.

Haci Kilic from Erzerum

Back in 1990, when I first came to Turkey, almost every man I met wore a moustache. The Turkish moustache was everywhere, and I assumed the range of different styles was a matter of personal choice. It wasn’t until I stumbled across an article in the then Turkish Daily News, sometime in July or August, that I realised the complexity of the subject. I carefully cut the article out, unfortunately omitting the date and author, but here’s the content word for word.

Which moustache do you like?

Cartoon by Margaret Hogan

“The type of moustache that is in among men is the pos bıyık, or the moustache just hanging down from the nose over the lip. However beer foam tends to cling to these moustaches. The cember (or crescent) beard denotes strict religious beliefs. A much longer version of this style is called a hacı sakalı, or the beard of someone who has been to the hajj, and thus is holy.

The bearded hajj pilgrim has a beard prayer read by an imam in Mecca; after the beard has been prayed over, it is never cut, except for maintenance purposes. A goatee epitomizes education and culture. One can assume the goateed man has either studied much philosophy or literature and can expect him to quote memorized stanzas out of classics or poetry and, of course, to smoke a pipe.

The pala bıyık, or styled (and manicured) moustache, is usually curved and treated at the tip with brilliantine or wax. The men with these moustachios are a rare and treasured breed, though their wives and lovers may be sympathized with. One may be sure that they are men who enjoy their life to the fullest.

The moustache location between the nose and mouth on a man’s face is called the moustache bed, male sources say. The moustache bed must be good in order for a good moustache to result.

An almond moustache is one similar to Adolph Hitler’s, perched above the lips.

Beards or moustaches of extreme length, just like extremely long hair on a woman, take on universal or archetypal proportions, signifying wisdom, maturity and holiness while non-extreme but controlled styles remain as expressions of cultural norms.”

A Turkish moustahce from the Ottoman years.

Ottoman moustache

Whisker politics took off during the second period of the Tanzimat, the Ottoman Empire’s modernization movement in the 1800s, and continues today, albeit in different forms. In the 1970s and 1980s moustache styles directly indicated political allegiance. These days the pos bıyık style is usually referred to as bushy, and is seen on officious officials or maganda, Turkish Romeos who model themselves on John Travlota’s character Tony Monero in Saturday Night Fever. A full beard is still favoured by the deeply religious while the lumberjack style made popular in America is favoured by young men about town. Goatees are no longer only the guise of intellectuals. They are frequently worn by youth hoping to be seen as wildly fashionable by copying the manner of their favoured popstars. The last time I saw a man with a pala bıyık, it extended several feet out from either side of his face, and he was walking the streets of Sultanahmet charging tourists to take his picture. The Hitler or almond moustache is most often favoured by conservatives, in reference to both their politics and their religion.

Malkoçoğlu Balı Bey, an Ottoman soldier under the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent.

Malkoçoğlu Balı Bey

Whichever style a man flaunts, having facial hair is of enormous importance in Turkey, just as it is in neighbouring Middle Eastern countries. Over the last few years increasing numbers of baby faced men have been coming to Turkey to have lip hair transplants. Price is one reason but the main influence is the increasingly popularity of Turkish television series based on Ottoman history. These have a huge following in the Arab world, and the moustaches being sported by the Turkish cast are in high demand.

I have to confess that although I’m not a big fan of facial hair, I love the idea of moustaches being full of secret codes and meanings. What about you?

 

* BTW this last photo features the scrumptious Burak Ozçivit, a famous Turkish actor and model who played by the role of Malkoçoğlu Balı Bey in the immensely popular historical soap opera Muhteşem Yüzyıl.

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Taksim backstreets – Dreaming in Russian, talking in Turkish

Come check out the Taksim backstreetsBehind the bright lights of shops selling well-known fashion labels on the one mile long Istiklal Street linking Taksim Square to Tünel, lies a warren of Taksim backstreets containing a surprising wealth of cultures. But you have to know where to look. Next to traditional Turkish restaurants featuring linen-covered tables and the wailing sounds of fasil music accompanied by the clinking of rakı glasses, are thriving reminders of the former Ottoman Empire, home to Turks, Armenians, Jews, Greeks and Albanians, and many more.

Included in this multicultural mix were the Çerkez people. Known in English as Circassians, their presence in Turkey goes back to the time of the Sultans when the women were prized for their pale skin and high cheek bones. Later, large numbers of them came to Istanbul after they fled Russia during the 1917 revolution. Many continued on their way to Europe and America, but the White Russians who stayed settled in the Asmalı Mescit neighbourhood of Taksim.

Come and explore the Taksim backstreets with me!I often go to Taksim to catch an exhibition at Pera Museum or Salt Gallery. Afterwards I head to the cosy Erra Goppa restaurant for lunch. The menu changes daily but always features the Çerkez staple fıccın, a flat pastry meat pie. If I’m lucky Çerkez tavuğu is on the menu, chicken cooked in a spicy walnut sauce. Before heading home I like to window shop to see what’s new before popping in to one of the numerous retro fashion stores and bookshops in the area. If I’m there at night I eat at Fıccın, another establishment serving Circassian food, with a good wine list.

Come and eat what they're cookng in Erra Goppa restaurant.Taksim never sleeps and at night the area is a vibrant mix of bars and clubs, gypsies and roving musicians. I love dancing and my favourite place to go is called Babylon. Even though it’s no longer located in an old Byzantine cellar it’s a great place to dance into the early hours under the spinning silver disco ball. On the way home I might stop for coffee and baklava before heading home to sleep as the sun comes up. Despite the passing of time, the Bohemian air the White Russians brought to the city of Istanbul is still very much in evidence.

 

If you enjoyed this post, check out my category “Discover Istanbul” (see drop down Categories menu on the right hand side towards the top of this page). I’m sure it’ll inspire to you to go exploring!

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Osman Hamdi Bey – Jack of all trades, master of all

Osman Hamdi Bey & TortoisesIstanbul has long been known for its historical collections of art and antiques, such as the overwhelming wealth of jewels in Topkapı Sarayı and the priceless Hereke silk carpets in Dolmabahçe Palace whose gigantic crystal chandeliers reflect the waves of the Bosphorus from outside. Elsewhere the hills of the city are dotted with the former palaces and architectural follies of the Ottoman sultans, crammed with lush furnishings and exquisitely delicate trinkets of the past. Yet in the last decade or so Istanbul has also become home to numerous modern art galleries, both big and small. From the Foucauldian inspired fortress of the Istanbul Modern, to the mansion formerly home to the Sakip Sabanci family that now houses a formidable permanent collection, there is something for most tastes.

My favourite is the Pera Museum. Located on Meşrutiyet Caddesi, I remember when this street was lined with grimy unloved buildings, largely over-run by poverty and neglect. These days the grandeur of this area formerly known as Pera in reference to the European population who lived here in the mid-19th century, has been brought back to life in the beautifully restored commercial buildings, many of which have been converted into upmarket hotels. The most well-known of these is the Pera Palace Hotel which did start life as a hotel. It was once frequented by Agatha Christie and her ilk, and remains famous for Room 101 where Atatὒrk stayed when he was in town. The Pera Museum is just up the road and on the opposite side of the same street. The museum has a marvellous ever-changing roster of exhibitions from artists as diverse as Frieda Kahlo, Alberto Giacometti and Andy Warhol, to name a few. In addition, it contains the Suna and Inan Kıraç Foundation’s Orientalist Painting Collection, which includes the works of Osman Hamdi Bey.

Osman Hamdi BeyI can imagine that the multi-talented Osman Hamdi Bey would have been much admired by Agatha Christie and Mustafa Kemal Atatὒrk, given the way he used both his creative talents as well as his analytical mind. Originally destined for a career in law, first studying in Istanbul and then in Paris, Osman Hamdi Bey succumbed to the lure of the French Orientalist painters, studying art and archaeology while mixing with Young Ottomans in the French capital. Despite a strong desire to stay in Europe and pursue a career in the arts he remained true to his roots as the son of a loyal Ottoman Grand Vizier and on his return to Turkey took up numerous high level posts in the Ottoman administration.

Amongst his many achievements he was instrumental in establishing the guidelines which enabled the development of the art world in Turkey and ensured the protection of important artefacts. As an archaeologist, Osman Hamdi Bey supervised important digs such as the Commagene tombs on Nemrut Dağı and many others. He initiated the building of the Archaeological Museum that still holds many of the items he helped to find. In his role as director of the Imperial Museum he drafted laws that to this day stop Turkish antiquities from being smuggled out of the country. In addition he instituted formal studies in art which resulted in the founding of the Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts. He is also considered the pioneer of the museum curator’s profession in Turkey.

These days Osman Hamdi Bey is most famous for his 1906 painting The Tortoise Trainer. It broke Turkish art world records in 2004 when it was sold for three and a half million dollars. Much has been written about the meaning of this painting, and it is still the subject of much debate in Turkish universities. What we see is a figure, believed to be based on the artist himself, dressed as a dervish standing in an elaborately detailed room, peering down at tortoises slowly crawling across the floor. Osman Hamdi Bey routinely painted figures in his works, situated in traditional Ottoman settings. Consequently, on the surface The Tortoise Trainer appears as a poetic rendition of Ottoman life, incorporating the quirky fact tortoises were used in the palaces for illumination by having candles attached to their shells. However some critics argue this work contains a sarcastic message. Osman Hamdi Bey is believed to have cast himself in the role of a teacher, enlightened by the West, attempting to train the Ottoman population, as symbolised by the tortoises, who resisted attempts to make them change.

Predominantly known today for his paintings, Osman Hamdi Bey was so much more than a painter. He was one of many great men alive in Turkey at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries who made important contributions to the state, which would carry on into the new Turkish republic.

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