Travels With Gloria

Finding beauty mile by mile.

Category: Istanbul

Innocence and Experience

Lug Von Siga F/W collection. Photo by Ayten Alpun, via Cool Hunting.

In 2008, Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk published a novel called The Museum of Innocence, about a man who creates a shrine to a doomed love affair with a much younger woman who doesn’t reciprocate his feelings.

On April 28, Pamuk will open an actual museum called The Museum of Innocence, a physical tribute to the shrine and the novel.  I don’t think anything like this exists in any other city, and in fact I had a hard time both conceiving of what the museum actually is and writing the sentence that precedes this one. I’m really sad that I missed this while I was there, just for the chance to wrap my brain around the idea of a museum centered around the characters in a work of fiction.

Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence, under construction. Photo via The End Of Collection

Meanwhile, the look book for Turkish fashion designer Gül Agiș‘ Fall/Winter 2013 collection centers around some of the same themes, exploring forced marriages between young women and much older men in rural Turkey.

”My tears are my witness.” from fabrika.photography on Vimeo.

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The Man Who Saves The World

Dünyayi Kurtaran Adam: the limit of my knowledge of Turkish culture before visiting Istanbul. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

I have a confession to make.

A few months ago, when I bought a ticket to Istanbul pretty much on a whim, I knew only one thing for sure about Turkey. Was it the fact that the Ottoman Empire brought Islamic culture almost to the gates of Vienna in the sixteenth century? Was it the sacking of still-Byzantine Constantinople by their fellow Christians during the fourth Crusade? Was it the beauty of Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace?

It was none of those things.

I knew that, in the 1980’s, Turkey made its own version of Star Wars. The special effects and John Williams’ score were ripped directly from the genuine article, because (this part of my research is a little shaky) apparently Turkey hadn’t signed some international copyright treaty that would explicitly ban such behavior. Or maybe that isn’t true, maybe the Turkish film industry just thought, hey, you know, we’re Turkey. Hollywood has no idea we even make movies. Our language has lots of umlauts in it. We can do whatever we want.

Turkish Star Wars action figure. Image via the Starswar Collector Archive.

For a long time, Turkish Star Wars existed for me in a web of rumor. It was discussed in hushed tones over bong rips and rounds of Goldeneye on Nintendo 64 in the dorms my freshman year at Emerson. A few people boasted of having seen it, and yet nobody could produce a copy. We had no way of verifying any of it in this barely-internetted era, so the stories got more and more ridiculous. Some insisted that there was a whole movement of Turkish copycat films: Turkish Jaws, Turkish Superman, Turkish Wizard Of Oz.

 

And then one day, after I left Emerson for New York, I was digging through old VHS tapes at Kim’s Video in the East Village. It was there: a Radio Shack brand blank tape with a moldering label scrawled with the words TURKISH STAR WARS, a bootleg of a bootleg of a bootleg. I took it home. I’m not sure if it was the cheap production values, the seizure-inducing jump cuts, or the fact that it of course had no English, but it was completely inscrutable. I watched twenty minutes or so, grew bored, and switched it out for The Happiness of the Katakuris, which I’d also picked up that day.

By the time I bought that ticket to Istanbul a decade or so later, the internet had changed everything. Nothing will ever be shrouded in as much mystery as Turkish Star Wars — which Wikipedia now reveals is actually titled Dünyayi Kurtaran Adam — used to be. The world is now laid out in explicit facts and fictions. This film was made; here’s its IMDB page and a clip from YouTube. The kid from the Life Cereal Box did not die after mixing pop rocks and coke; that’s an urban legend. There are obvious benefits to the new way of seeing the world through a constant stream of information. I don’t think Barack Obama would be president if it weren’t for the good people at Snopes. And, hell, I wouldn’t have bought a ticket to Istanbul on a whim if the internet hadn’t laid bare the details of Delta’s winter fare sale.

But a part of me is nostalgic for a time when you could believe that Turkish filmmakers had created a shot for shot reproduction of Star Wars down to the pastries in Princess Leia’s hairdo, and that they might have even done the same for E.T., The Excorcist, and Gone With The Wind.

Side note: I would really love it if someone could explain the existence of these ripped off Star Wars action figures from Turkey. Clearly they are not relevant to Dünyayi Kurtaran Adam, which doesn’t much resemble Star Wars at all and wasn’t branded as Star Wars in Turkey. And yet they share the same bootleggy mistranslated weirdness with the phenomenon of Turkish Hollywood ripoffs. I think this is just a coincidence allowed for by the time before the internet allowed everyone to share the same mass culture and also allowed huge megacorporations to make serious bank by enforcing mass culture uniformity. But who knows?

Disclaimer: Turkish Gone With The Wind does not exist. As far as I know…

Sixteen tons, and whaddya get?


Shoeshine stand, Galata. Photo by Sara Clarke.

 

A couple more photos from my Istanbul Working series.

 

Kofte sellers, Beyoglu. Photo by Sara Clarke

Magic Carpet Ride

Turkish carpets are big business. The first thing you read about when you flick open a guidebook to Istanbul is tips for dodging rug salesmen.

The problem with this?

I love carpets. Unlike the vast majority of visitors to Turkey, I actually want a Turkish carpet. I just can’t afford one.

So I did the next best thing and bought a kilim. A kilim is a flat-woven rug that’s more rustic and “tribal” looking than a traditional Oriental carpet.

It turns out kilims aren’t actually that cheap, either. My carpet seller guy showed me some unbelievably intricate Armenian pieces that run upwards of $700. Even in rustic handicrafts, I apparently have champagne tastes.

So I cut a deal. It turned out that for $60, my carpet salesman was willing to part with a very basic floor model from Kayseri, an industrial city known for cranking out Turkish carpets by the millions.

If you’re desperate for your own Turkish carpet and don’t have a trip to Istanbul planned anytime soon, it turns out West Elm is now selling one-of-a-kind floor coverings from around the world. They’re made with ethical labor practices (something I’m not sure I can claim for my $60 Spice Market special), and aren’t really that expensive compared with what a bland beige American-style area rug will run you.

Maybe you share my love of carpets, textiles, and handicrafts, but you still can’t afford a Turkish carpet no matter what. You could knit up the American handicraft equivalent from this pattern. Add a stripe or a fringe, and you’ve got something a lot like a very simple knitted kilim.

Chthonic is a nice word.

Basilica Cistern engraving by Thomas Allom. Featured in Robert Walsh's book Constantinople, published in 1839.

Did you ever think, “I want to go to there!” and then realize that you’d already been there? And that it was every bit as amazing as it looked in the picture?

This is the Basilica Cistern, in Istanbul (which was Constantinople when this engraving was made!). It’s an underground water… uh, cistern… that was created so that Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul would be impervious to siege tactics. Seriously, the city stored years worth of food and water and encouraged all Constantinopelians* to do the same, so that if there were ever attacks on the city, they could simply outlast their attackers. This actually worked, and is part of why Istanbul is such an old city that it’s had three different names so far.

Photo by Sara Clarke

No longer used to store water, the cistern is so impressive that it’s become a tourist trap very popular with visitors to Istanbul. Which is fine, because seriously, this place is Creepy Looking. There are crazy medusa heads, huge ghostly fish, and the lighting is super eerie. You should go.

You should also go check out Old Book Illustrations, which is where I found the engraving above. They have a bunch of interesting Orientalist engravings of Turkey on their blog today.

Bonus photo:

This is possibly my favorite picture that I took in Istanbul. Inside the Basilica Cistern, for reasons that I hope are obvious to everyone, there’s a spot where you can dress up in Byzantine costume and be photographed by this dude. For money, I imagine. Anyway, I snapped a picture of these people in the process of negotiating their Old Timey photo. Which was probably wrong, especially since now I’m putting it on my blog, and for all I know they’re nice middle class folks from Bursa who totally read traveling artsy fartsy blogs just like this one every day (Hey guys!).

Seriously, that emo girl is definitely in my key demographic. Photo by Sara Clarke.

*I fully just made this up. I have no idea what demonym is appropriate to describe people living in Constantinople before they became known as Istanbullus like they are today.

A distant mountain looms ever closer

The Buyuk Valide Sultan Han, Istanbul. This caravanserai was built in the 17th century by the mother of Sultan Murat IV. It's still in use today, though probably not selling silk or jewels. Photo by Sara Clarke.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Silk Road. Sometimes at night, if I can’t sleep, I imagine I’m not under an Ikea duvet in my Brooklyn apartment but instead bedding down in a caravanserai somewhere between Trebizond and Palmyra, circa 1350. For some reason, this always helps me drift off. It’s better than counting sheep.

One amazing thing about visiting Istanbul (probably the dorkiest amazing thing) was the fact that caravanserais still exist there. In Turkish they’re called hans, and a lot of them are still in use from the times when merchants crossed deserts on camels loaded down with silks and incense. Did I mention that Constantinople was the Western terminus of the Silk Road?

Nowadays the caravanserais are mostly used as home bases for far less exotic enterprises: in Turkey “han” is still the word for a sort of proto strip mall, a courtyard lined with shops selling headscarves or kitchen knives or knockoff Adidas sneakers. There’s usually an upper level for storage and whatever else you use the “back room” of a shop for anywhere else in the world. Once upon a time, back in the Silk Road days, merchants lived in these upper level rooms, and they watered their camels at a fountain at the center of the courtyard.

I did a little prowling around in some of the old hans of Constantinople, but it wasn’t enough. I think what I really want is to be a time traveler. Honestly, this is what all travelers to places like Istanbul probably want: to see an exotic old world that doesn’t exist anymore, if it ever really did.

And, thus, I am considering buying a PS3 in order to get this video game and make my nighttime daydreams a reality:

Screenshot from Journey, developed by Thatgamecompany. Image blatantly stolen from BoingBoing.

It’s called Journey, and it’ll be available March 14. My birthday is the 29th. Coincidence? Hey, it would be cheaper than getting me a spot on one of those fancy Silk Road tours that carefully shelters rich Westerners through the backwaters (backdeserts? backsteppes?) of Uzbekistan to visit the ruins of places like Samarkand and Tashkent. Though I would also accept that as a birthday present, no worries there.

For true Silk Road dorks and ethnomusicology geeks, I highly recommend any of Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project collaborations (buy on iTunes if you want your fellow ethnomusicology dorks to eat dinner tonight). This is music for mental time travelers.

H/T Boing Boing for the thing about the video game.

Our Lady Of Wisdom

Photo by Sara Clarke.

A couple days ago I asked the question, “Is preservation always the right thing to do?”

Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia — or Ayasofya, as it’s known in modern Turkish — is a prime example of that dilemma.

On the one hand, it’s possibly the most beautiful building ever. It was built by the emperor Justinian in 537 AD, so it’s obviously of historical interest. As a church it was converted from the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople to a Roman Catholic cathedral from 1204 to 1261, and then in 1453 the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet The Conqueror chose to preserve it as a mosque. So it’s also a holy place for people of various religions. There is no question that Hagia Sofia is worthy of historical preservation.

I’m going to ask that question anyway.

What if Ayasofya had been allowed to fester as Istanbul city life crept away from the old Byzantine center?

Photo by Sara Clarke.

What if Mehmet hadn’t been interested? (Which is a whole other architectural question, really, since the archetypal mosque structure used worldwide can be traced to Hagia Sofia, but let’s leave that for now.)

Photo by Sara Clarke.

What if Ataturk and the other founding fathers of the modern Turkish state had been a little more Soviet in their approach to religion and had closed it down rather than turning it into a museum?

Photo by Sara Clarke

What if they’d been a little more American in their approach and had let it stand as a mosque until attendance dropped and the building sank into disrepair, only to be turned into a shopping mall when Istanbul’s fortunes improved?

I guess the question I’m asking here is, how does the act of historic preservation affect — or maybe the right word is reflect — the march of history itself? What would Istanbul be in 2012 without Hagia Sofia, or with a Hagia Sofia that is still the mosque of Ayasofya, or the Mall Of Enlightenment, or a derelict site explored by intrepid travel photographers?

The Art of Work

Photo by Sara Clarke.

I got a little lonely in Istanbul, so I started taking portraits of people who work on the street. It began with the fishermen on the Galata bridge which spans the Golden Horn. Then there were the roast chestnut sellers. Finally, I discovered that your average roving bread vendor will pose for you for the price of a simit.

Photo also by Sara Clarke.

For true street vending artistry, though, you have to go to China. It makes me a little sad that we never see this genius’ face:

(Stay tuned for more of my Turkish Street Vendor photo series.)

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