Thursday, June 26, 2014

sweat, oil, and leather

Every June or July for 653 years, men from all over Turkey have been gathering in a field on the edge of Edirne to throw each other around while donning leather pants and dripping with olive oil. The Kırkpınar Yağlı Güreşleri Festivali is the oldest continuously held sporting event in history, and legend has it that the festival began when Ottoman soldiers were looking to entertain themselves while on their way to conquer Edirne. The two finalists wrestled each other so intensely through the night, that they were found dead in the morning. They were buried under a fig tree, where a spring erupted from the earth upon the conquest of Edirne. The site was named Kırkpınar, or forty springs.

The wrestlers, or pehlivan, compete in a three-day event for the title of Başpehlivan (Chief Pehlivan) and the coveted golden belt. Pehlivan come in all shapes, sizes, and ages, and are placed in categories according to their height. The Yağcı pour natural olive oil from copper urns onto the bodies of the pehlivan, who then help grease each other up in a very brotherly manner.

The heat was stifling, and the smell of olive oil was heavy in the air. Muscles glistened and twisted as the crowd cheered and booed, and the drums thundered like the combined pulses of each wrestler. Had the referees been dressed in something less modern than a t-shirt and baseball cap, I would have sworn I was sitting in the Ottoman Empire.

Multiple matches occurred simultaneously on the field; each match limited to 40 minutes or until a man fell onto his back— or worse. There were only a couple of incidents this Sunday that sent some devastated pehlivan limping off with a medic, or on a stretcher. I was impressed by the camaraderie and mutual respect that was shown between the pehlivan.

Friday, June 20, 2014

the beauty of the written word

I had once come across a set of photographs in an in-flight magazine, of a beautiful mosque with giant swashes of calligraphic text painted on its walls, and these images rooted in my mind as something I needed to see in person. Over time I had forgotten about those inky loops, knots, and scimitar-tails on white— they had nearly left me until I visited Edirne and remembered that this was precisely the place where the mosque stood. I didn't know the name of the mosque, and so we hopped from one beauty to the next until we found the Eski Cami.

The night was cool and tinted orange from a nearby streetlamp. It was quiet, another world from Istanbul, and from the gate of the Eski Cami, I spied the alifs and laams of the name of God, like black spears pointing to the sky. My heart leapt in my chest, as I knew I had found what I was looking for.

The humble Eski Cami was built in the early 15th century during the Ottoman Empire, and it truly is set apart from other mosques in Turkey by its distinctive calligraphy. I needed to see the Eski Camii in daylight, and I needed to sketch it.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

fried liver

Liver is not for everyone, and I certainly thought it wasn't for me, as nearly each time I have had it in the past, I would succumb to a violent body shudder and reach for something in the way of a cola to burn the aftertaste away. But we were in Edirne, and the local specialty is fried calf's liver, and though I get queasy about eating baby animals, I thought I would give it a try.

We had reached the blue hour, and we were hungry. Wandering through the crooked streets near our hotel, we came across a long line of other hungry people, who were waiting for a seat at a ciğer salonu (literally, liver salon) called Aydın. I supposed that if I was going to put myself through another possibly horrible liver experience, I should do it at a place where people are willing to wait half an hour for their liver.

Waiters and a man in a pristine white shirt were buzzing around, serving patrons and barking orders at each other with impressive determination and speed, that it wasn't long before we were seated. In a matter of minutes, a basket of bunny bread and a plate of chopped onions and tomatoes was placed on our table along with a plate of what looked to be deep-fried dried hot peppers. Curious about these peppers, I bit off the end of one of them only to set my mouth on fire— but soon, the tava ciğer arrived, and I forgot about the burning.

The liver was thinly shaved and battered, delightfully crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside— only the tiniest hint of the liver taste that I dreaded hit my tongue. It was delicious. I couldn't believe it, I liked liver! In fact, I liked it so much, that the next day I had it again elsewhere.

I actually found myself craving fried liver the other day, and wondered how silly I would be for making a two hour drive for a plate of it. Maybe an excuse like the upcoming oil wrestling festival would be a valid reason for that drive...

Friday, June 13, 2014

the magnificent mimar sinan

The Selimiye Camii in Edirne is believed by many to be the masterpiece of chief Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, the Michelangelo of the Ottoman Empire. Mimar Sinan built over 300 structures from mosques to bridges, under the patronage of three sultans.

The imposing, stoic exterior offers no hint of the light and colour that lives inside that great dome.

Monday, June 9, 2014

calligraphy and geometry

As Edirne is a mere two hour drive from our doorstep, it seemed a perfect place for a weekend getaway. I've always been curious about Edirne— a Thracian city near the Greek and Bulgarian borders, once capitol of the Ottoman Empire before Constantinople, host to an annual oil-wrestling festival, and famous for its fried liver and fruit-shaped soaps (this last one baffles me).

Being a former capitol of the Ottoman Empire, the city boasts several stunning mosques, the most famous of which was built by Mimar Sinan himself (often referred to as the Michelangelo of the Ottomans): the Selimiye Camii. This, however, is the Üç Şerefeli Camii, a slightly smaller but no less grand mosque built in the 15th Century. What amazes me, is that as the Renaissance was raging in Europe, this was happening here:

While the human body was studied through to its bones and captured in all its glory by Renaissance artists, Muslim artists turned to the beauty of the written word and mathematics. Sentient beings were seldom represented in Islamic Art at the time, as it was believed by some that the depiction of sentient beings was a form of idolatry, though beautifully rendered humans and animals were brought to life in miniature paintings. Elegant calligraphy and dazzling geometric patterns flowed across the surfaces of mosques, while churches in Europe commissioned paintings and frescoes of Biblical figures to adorn their walls.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

mahmut bey and göbeklitepe

Sketching at Göbeklitepe this year was not as easy as last year, as the site is now under a temporary wooden shelter, but it's still such a marvellous place to get out a pencil and sketchbook. Last year, I regretted that I hadn't asked Mahmut bey if I could sketch him— it was a mix of shyness and a little bit of the pressure of being in a group that was on the move that held me back, so I was determined to get a portrait of him in my book this time around. I was pleased that he remembered me, and even more so that he agreed to patiently pose for a sketch under an unforgiving sun. I have no idea how much time passed, but after a while, he started to get fidgety.

A group of important-looking people had arrived with a police escort to inspect the site, and he broke his stoic pose to keep an eye on their whereabouts. Eventually, he glanced up at the sky with his squinty eyes, and politely asked if I could just take a photograph of him instead. Grateful for any time with him, I thanked him with a handshake and watched him disappear under the wooden structure. I was left with a decent pencil sketch of him and a photograph, which I used for colouring, while in my hotel room later that night. I'm pretty happy with the result, and glad that I overcame my shyness— after all, if portraits are my favourite subjects for sketching, I have to get comfortable talking to people!

Click here to see two sketches from last year's visit to Göbeklitepe.

Friday, June 6, 2014

meeting yunus bey

In a shady courtyard in Urfa, I asked the wrinkly-eyed father of a tobacconist if I could draw him. He seemed confused but kindly accepted, leaning against the tree he was sitting under for support. His eyes darted back and forth between my face and the white page of my sketchbook, occasionally straying toward his son and the small gathering crowd, searching for answers. He indulged me for a good twenty minutes and the çay that his son offered me, and when I handed him the book for his approval and signature, those eyes of his formed a brief film of wetness.

I have missed sketching.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

dove love

Call the bird a dove, and everyone loves it. Call the bird a pigeon, and suddenly the poor thing is a "flying rat." Well, not in my presence! I have a deep appreciation for every member of the dove family, including our humble pigeons, otherwise known as Rock Doves.

To celebrate the recent return of YouTube in Turkey (yay!), here's a terrible video of the old news story of a Turkish truck driver who refused to continue his route upon discovering a dove had laid her eggs in a nest she built upon his truck. The man would not move his truck until the baby birds hatched and fledged. Love for doves is a big thing here in Turkey, where it's not uncommon to see a rooftop coop of fancy pigeons carefully tended to by a burly man with a cigarette dangling out from under his moustache— and behold:

Some ancient artist in Zeugma felt the need to include this little pidge in a mosaic.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

little stones, and a farewell to old friends

The Zeugma Mosaic Museum in Gaziantep is simply stunning— if you ever find yourself in Antep, have a baklava, then visit the museum. The floors and walls are covered in massive, detailed mosaics of mythological figures, animals, and colourful geometric patterns. I imagine the feet that walked on these works of art, the cool stones smooth under toes and heels— these masterpieces which once decorated the villas of the elite of Zeugma. Zeugma was an Ancient Greek (then Roman) city on the Euphrates, an important stopover on the Silk Road.

Who arranged these millions of tiny little stones? I get goosebumps when I think of ancient artists; people whose names and identities have been lost to time, people who worked tirelessly in collaboration or alone to create beauty that has lasted centuries— millennia, even. I like to think of their hands. Their sketches and rough drafts. Their patience.

In her own private room, the museum's most celebrated mosaic is illuminated by a spotlight in pitch-dark:

Zeugma's "Gypsy Girl" stares back at us just as she did so many years ago when her artist first laid down the siennas, umbers, and salmon pinks of her eyes. A student of mine, passionate about art and wildly curious, asked me "of all the faces here, why is hers so special that it deserves its own room?"

Is it the delicate changes in values and colours? The highlights in her irises? That one white stone on her bottom right (our left) eyelid that gives it a sense of wetness? Is it the way she stares straight at us, seemingly right into us?

"Well, why do you think she's special or unique?" I asked, in my Ms. Zaza voice.
"Oh I don't know," she sighed, "she's just so beautiful..."

While selecting the photos for this post, I came across this one and thought I'd include it, though it has little to do with what I've written about above. I know it sounds silly, but I have a thing for shoes— and I don't mean an obsession or anything like that (though Pedro might say I'm in denial on this), but I have a hard time getting rid of shoes. My shoes have memories; they've taken me places and I've experienced things in them. I remember getting this pair of Converse for Christmas one year, and I remember switching out the laces to black shortly after (the shoes faded to a brownish-grey, but the laces remained as black as ever). I rode ferries in them, climbed rocks in them, their soles met the soil of several countries, and withstood monsoons. They carried me through Antep and made it to Istanbul Atatürk Airport, where they finally peeled so badly apart, it was certain that this was their last adventure and they would be of no use to anyone.