Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Koran Exhibit

We find ourselves continually returning to the small gallery inside the entrance of the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum to see the gorgeous special exhibit of the Koran. Our numerous visits are prompted, in part, by the free admission and the proximity to the Blue Mosque, a favorite destination amongst our visitors. This intimate exhibition has been extended from its original closing date of December 1st, and we have been repeatedly delighted to find it still open, allowing us a closer look at these beautiful works of art.

Stepping out of the crowds in Sultanahmet, we enter the dark gallery where instrumental music sets the tone of hushed solemnity. The illuminated Korans glitter like jewelry in spotlighted glass cases. The exhibition is in honor of the 1400th anniversary of the revelation of the Koran, and it includes pages from some of the earliest known copies. Many of the books are quite large and the selection comes from all over the world. We are particularly taken with one from Northern Africa that uses turquoise and orange adornments throughout the text. Most of the books are written on parchment, several on antelope hide. The material itself is seductively beautiful. The translucent pages of a favorite example show the ghostly calligraphy from the opposite side behind the bold, dark ink strokes of the open page. 

One of the oldest examples 

A favorite of ours from Northern Africa 

Detail of the above 

The shadow of text from the opposite side of the page makes this example a real favorite of ours.

From India

The edge design makes decorative use of the original ruler marks. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum

The collections of the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum occupy the top floor of a U-shaped palace, the former residence of Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasa. Walking from the Blue Mosque across the Hippodrome, we entered the museum and climbed the wide stone staircases. The long hallway at the top has numerous small rooms along its length, full of glass-cased objects. There are some beautiful pieces here, and some historically important objects, but, to our eyes, the stars of this museum are at the end of this hall: the large palace carpets and glittering illuminated books. These treasures are displayed in the high-ceilinged, pallicial South wing. 

We were expecting to be interested in these carpets, but our reaction was more of awe than curiousity. The longer we looked, the more we were drawn in. One carpet, depicting a garden, uses the strangest visual language, one that seems related to minaturist paintings. All the trees and plants are flattened down so that the viewer sees both the birds eye view of the symmetrical garden plan, and the individual foliage from the ground perspective. We originally assumed that the straight sections dividing the garden were footpaths, but, on a later visit, a student pointed out that these were waterways with fish in them. The carpet looks so symmetrical, but there are little individual animals and details scattered all through the pattern.  

The sense of movement within patterns that, at first glance, look symmetrical, is mesmerizing. It is repetition, but not machine repetition. More like a continuous knitting together of the whole, with subtle shifts of form and color. The scale of these pieces is fantastic. Even though they weren't meant to be seen on the wall, we love encountering them in this way, being overwhelmed and enveloped in color and pattern.

A Qiblanuma: an astronomical instrument that helps find the direction of the Ka'ba' in Mecca.  

We often see this type of tile in mosques. It depicts the Ka'ba', the cube-shaped black building, the holiest site in Islam.

With it's missing boarder, this off-balance grand carpet is one of our favorites. 

The "Garden Carpet" 

Detail of the Garden Carpet with a smashed down tree and fish. 

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts students looking at illuminated Korans.

Illuminated Koran


Saturday, January 8, 2011

Greek Patriarchate

At the bottom of the hill where we live, a most important site resides quietly behind an unadorned stone wall: the Greek Patriarchate, the Vatican of the Greek Orthodox Church. The Patriarch himself resides and presides here, not exactly the ultimate leader like the Roman Catholic Pope, but “the first among equals.”

It is impossible to write about the Greek Orthodox Church in Istanbul without the feeling of a long-standing siege creeping into the description. Our neighborhood, Fener, used to be almost entirely Greek. Today the Greek population is nearly non-existent. The reasons for this are Middle-East-complicated. There have been official population exchanges between Greece and Turkey, as well as governmental policies aimed at driving the population out. Talk about Greek and Turkish relations to anyone of Greek descent and it isn’t long before six hundred plus years are being recounted. The bad feelings run deep, and the whole of the history seems incredibly complex and politically spun on both sides. In the midst of the land that witnessed all this conflict, the Patriarchate still calmly resides in this city, as has been the tradition since Istanbul was Constantinople.

Two days ago, we went to the Patriarchate for an Epiphany service with our friends Kate and George, and their daughter Ella. They are visiting us this week from Philadelphia. George was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church, and it was really special to go to the service together and see the Patriarchate through his eyes. While the Patriarchate is a major pilgrimage site for Greek tourists, there are long stretches of time each day when it is empty of people. The building itself isn’t considered terribly architecturally or visually important. However, the first time we stepped inside we felt awash in the warm sensation of the familiar. While we are here to study Islamic art and architecture, the pull of our own upbringing in Christianity is undeniable. Even though our backgrounds are far removed from Greek Orthodox traditions, there is a visual kinship that we understand without having to think about it. How strange, in an Orthodox church unlike any church either of us had ever seen in our youths, and on another continent altogether, that the continuity of visual imagery alone could produce this sensation of home.

The Patriarchate was very crowded for Epiphany, with masses of people spilling out into the street that leads from the walled complex across a park and down to the edge of the Halic. The smell of incense and beeswax enveloped us as we followed the circulating crowds into the golden light of the sanctuary. The crowds shuffled in loops up and down the side aisles, stopping to touch icons housed in lip-printed glass cases. Two groups of cantors volleyed the song of the service back and forth, the clear winners being the group of black-curled younger men with strong, deep voices that drowned out a huddled group of older clerics. The Patriarch himself was often out of view, behind the archway in the golden screen at the front of the church. He emerged for brief moments, like Punxsutawney Phil, producing a hail of flash bulbs. We got a much better view of the man called the Green Patriarch (for his focus on the environment) when he passed just beside us in the procession to the Golden Horn. We never understood all the details of the tradition that came next: a crucifix was thrown from a boat into the icy water and a dozen men dove to retrieve it. They emerged pink and happy to an adoring crowd, the cross-bearing winner encircled by tv cameras.

The Patriarch distributing communion

In the courtyard outside the church 

From the balcony

Detail of hand painted interior

At the Halic with the divers

Making sure there are no international incidents

The outside of the Patriarchate on a normal day

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Spice Bazaar

The Egyptian Bazaar, or Spice Bazaar, is one of the oldest markets in the city. Located next to the New Mosque, it is at a major crossroads in Istanbul. Here the Bosphorus meets the Golden Horn, the Galata Bridge connects the two sides of the European part of the city, and numerous ferry terminals provide the connection between the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. Nearly impossible to transverse on a Saturday, the Spice Bazaar is truly a spectacle. But it is not a mere tourist trap. It still has a corner on the spice trade here, as well as other necessities that bring out the natives: cheese, pickled vegetables, nuts, tea and coffee. 

Built in the 1600s from the same stone used to erect the New Mosque, the L-shaped Spice Bazaar is the covered center of a huge mercantile area that spreads through the winding streets that lead to it. Some of our favorite places are along the outside edges of the Bazaar. We bought a gigantic and fabulous pair of scissors from an all-scissor shop near one of the Bazaar entrances.  We come here to buy our Turkish coffee from the most famous vendor in the city, Mehmet Efendi. The coffee is so freshly roasted and ground that it is still warm through the paper sack. To get it, we wait in the ridiculously long line, watching the caffeine-infused workers pack the stuff at a jittery speed, only to find ourselves at the front in no time at all, without even having had time to get our money in hand and ready for the cashiers. 

Crossing the flow of foot traffic from the coffee vendor into the arched side entrance of the Bazaar, just a few dozen feet away, can take a full fifteen minutes on a really busy day. Inside, vendors volley pick-up lines in English, vying for attention. The mounds of jewel-colored spices are beautifully stacked. Display is of the first importance in Istanbul. There are also vendors of Turkish delight eager to pop a piece of the stuff into your gaping, awe-struck mouth. These same vendors are selling “Turkish Viagra,” an all-natural concoction that varies from vendor to vendor, but is basically a ball of nuts and dried fruit to big to swallow. 

The bazaar used to be just spices and edibles, but now textiles and tourist souvenirs have made inroads, and there are some lovely linens and carpets. The L-Shaped Bazaar building and the side of the New Mosque create an outdoor courtyard where the pet and plant market reside, as well as many tea and lunch tables set up under the trees. Sometimes we stop for some overpriced apple tea, an ubiquitous product sold in the Bazaar, made by infusing dried apple bits in hot water. 

Once, we climbed the narrow blue-tiled staircase to take our tea in Pandelli, the historic restaurant above the main entrance to the Bazaar. Sitting aloof from the noise of the masses, with views of the Galata Bridge, it is worth coming here just to see the gorgeous tiled rooms of the restaurant. Encircling the room is a row of signed black and white celebrity photos. We were delighted to realize that we were sitting beneath Audrey Hepburn, who had been photographed seated at our very table. 

Entrance to the covered Spice Bazaar

The hanging items are dried eggplant shells, dried red peppers, and (on the right) dried gut of some kind. All are for reconstituting and stuffing.

Cheese vendors around the outside walls

One of the many charming vendors.

Side streets around the Bazaar

Tea in Pandelli