Monday, May 26, 2014

here comes the baklava

Rumour had it that a stop at the famed Imam Çağdaş was a must. From my understanding, the restaurant has been around since 1887, and ships about a tonne of its fine baklava to all corners of the globe each year. A tonne. In preparation for the sugar rush, we ordered a mix of kebabs to line our stomachs— some familiar, like the good old Urfa and Patlıcan kebabs, and some I have never before seen and will never remember the name of. For instance:

The combination of spiced meat, butter, garlicky yogurt, and aubergine was simply out of this world (ok, out of curiosity and a slight pang of hunger, I just looked up the kebab on the Imam Çağdaş website)— the Ali Nazik is a perfectly justifiable reason to unbutton the top of your pants or loosen any drawstrings at the waist in public. Really.

Then there was the baklava.

I was instructed by a concerned waiter that the proper way to down this sticky piece of heaven was to first carefully wrap it in a piece of paper, then eat it by hand. I confess that I do not have much of a sweet tooth, nor do I find baklava particularly exciting, but this was fantastic. The syrup balanced perfectly with the pistachios and pastry— and my, oh my... those pistachios were good!

I think I've been converted into a baklava lover, and might have to return to Antep some day to sample more baklava at other sweet shops and restaurants— you know, to see if the city really has the best baklava in Turkey. So far from what I've tasted, Antep's claim to fame seems to hold truth...

a peek at old antep

Sunday, May 25, 2014

a magpie's dream

On my way back to Istanbul I spent the night in Gaziantep (also known as Antep), rumoured to be the home of the best baklava and pistachios in Turkey. Antep also has one hell of a mosaic museum and metalware bazaar, and both were on my agenda. As the bus slowly navigated the city's busy streets, which were crammed with faded bloc apartment buildings, I wondered if the appeal of Antep lied solely in its baklava. We soon arrived at the old quarter, which seemed a world apart with its yellowed stone buildings, striped with black.

The Bakircilar Çarşısı, or Coppermith's Bazaar, is a magpie's dream— under the cool shade of the tarp, thousands of shiny, beautifully crafted objects dazzle the eye. Conversations get lost in the tapping of hammers against metal, and every now and then, the heat of a blowtorch forms a passing pocket of temperature.

Antep quickly grew on me.

the return to harran

The sun was blinding, casting sharp shadows, and the cloudless sky was cut by the glossy blue-black wings of barn swallows. The earth was ochre beneath my feet, and from the ruins of the ancient university of Harran, I could see the village's famed adobe houses with their beehive-shaped roofs. It seemed unchanged from when we visited last year— a comforting thought when living in a country where buildings, highways, and bridges seem to sprout up between blinks.

I wandered in between the few remaining beehive houses, relics of a once great Upper Mesopotamian city. The air was heavy with the smell of animal. In the shade of her doorway, a woman wrapped in a purple headscarf and robes of dusty velvet sat, leaning against the old wooden door, muttering. Her wrinkled face and hands were marked with faded bluish tattoos, the symbols too blurry to pick out as anything other than crosses. I asked if I could take her portrait, and with a wave of her hand, she consented. I tried asking what the tattoos signified, but her response was so garbled, I was unable to understand a word of it.

I snapped away under her piercing gaze, trying to use the opportunity to take as many photographs as possible in the hopes of coming away with something useful for future projects. As I began to put my camera away, she asked for some money. When I fumbled around in my wallet for some change, my fingers came up with nothing (and I didn't have any bills either). I sheepishly tried to explain that I was currently penniless, and was called a liar with unmistakeable clarity. I apologised and moved on, with a trail of insults behind me. I felt guilty.

I found shade in the courtyard of the "cultural center", a small adobe structure enclosed by a rectangular wall. The courtyard was arranged with low tables of embossed metal trays and Urfa's distinctive wooden stools, farming tools, and a table of scarves in various shades of violet, embroidered with white patterns. This is where Pedro and I had a çay and sketched last year— where I drew the portrait of Jamila, tore out it out of my sketchbook, and gave it to her.

I scanned the faces of the ladies who were relaxing in the shade of the awning, but Jamila was not among them. Suddenly, a woman too young for the depth of the lines between her brows, approached me with narrowed eyes.

"I know you!" she announced. "You came before, with your big, big man." Her hands reached into the air, trying to match Pedro's height.

My laughter brought out her own. I held up my sketchbook, and she nodded with a smile. I asked where Jamila was, and she explained that Jamila had moved to Istanbul in search of work. Jamila was her sister. She then pointed to one of the bee-hive roofs of the center, and told me that my drawing was on the wall inside.

I was deeply touched. I stood there grinning to myself as I remembered the encounter with Jamila— how she tried to keep a serious expression for her portrait, but could not control the corners of her mouth. I hope that wherever she is, she's still smiling.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

the return to göbeklitepe

Last year, I had the privilege of being invited to join a group of Turkish artists on their tour of Urfa. One of the places we visited was Göbeklitepe, a prehistoric temple built by hunter gatherers around 10,000 BCE. Göbeklitepe is the oldest temple ever found, and what astonishes me is how complex it is— each T-shaped pillar (which is believed to represent the human form) weighs between 40 and 60 tonnes, and is intricately carved with images of birds and mammals. The pillars are arranged in concentric circles, a bit Stonehenge-like, but predating it by 6000 years or so. Mind you, all this was accomplished before the invention of the wheel and what would be considered an organised society.

I had been warned by one of the archaeologists who I have been in contact with, that the site would be covered by a wooden structure in preparation for a future roof, and though the beams got in the way of my photographic aims, the beauty and magic of the place was not lost.

And as I hoped I would, I found the friendly, familiar face of Mahmutbey. I met Mahmutbey last year as he patrolled the site, which rests on his land. He helped me decipher some of the reliefs, explaining that the creature I was sketching was a fox, and pointed out a small rabbit I had not noticed. I so enjoyed meeting him, that when I returned to Istanbul I drew a small portrait of him to give to a colleague who was taking a long weekend in Urfa, which happened to include a trip to Göbeklitepe. To my delight, I was given photos of the portrait delivery.

Mahmutbey remembered me, and accepted my request for another portrait sitting:

What I love most about sketching is how it can bring people together, making the world a little smaller. After all, it brought Pedro to me.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014


With the old town of Urfa under intense restoration, there are plenty of hidden courtyards with craftsman working away, and if you're lucky, you can get a little tour of their work spaces.

Sunday, May 4, 2014


Urfa had gone through a lot of changes since my visit in last May— renovations on the old stone buildings were well under way, and the crumbly old facades I fell in love with last year were now smooth, gleaming ivory in the sunlight. Clouds of dust snaked through the narrow alleys, muting the harsh southeastern light and confusing the division between man and stone; their hard hands and faces white, wrinkles and lashes coated.

The word usta means 'master'. Around a bend in the labyrinth, we came across an usta and his apprentice laboriously painting the doorway of a house in a traditional floral pattern. Watching him was a small film crew, documenting the process on camera. According to one of the crew members (whom I later found out was somehow tied to the cultural preservation of Urfa), this type of folk painting is dying out as there are fewer people in younger generations who are interested in learning how to do it.

The man explained that this type of wall decoration signifies that the inhabitants of the house are good, trustworthy people; they have been to the Hajj, and will offer their home and hospitality to anyone who knocks on their door.

I was suddenly drawn to a dull chipping sound— the sound of metal hammering away at something hard. Just past the corner was another usta, an usta the man said, who was the very last of his kind. Every move of his calloused hands was deliberate and fluid, every cut into the stone accurate. He sat upon his legs in the white dust, with an unwavering focus. I hovered above him mesmerised— nothing pulled his attention from that stone. At some point he paused to look up at me, and I took the opportunity to ask if I could photograph him. His face cracked a smile, and I received the nod I hoped for.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

the magic of urfa

is carefully tied to the relationship between light and its sand-coloured walls.