April in Istanbul

May 7, 2008

April in ‘Stambul,’ what a lovely site it is as the city prepares for 2010, then designated the CULTURAL CAPITAL of EUROPE. The variety of tulips newly planted in a wild array of color dazzles the eye causing excitement, wonder and expectation of more as one whisks along toward the hotel. Those staying in the Sultanahmet area notice the hippodrome and environs are also clothed in exotic hues, more so than previous years. From the fringed to the multi-colored, the historian is reminded that the tulip was taken to Europe by diplomats who fell in love with them too. Ongoing renovations also greet the visitor with the closing of some sites, but fortunately, not the popular ones. Such an ancient place has seen many changes over the years.

Due to family illness, my trip to Mimar Sinan’s birthplace was postponed, but I did have the opportunity to experience anew my favorite city while guiding friends on their very first adventure to the ancient capital. This even provided opportunities to see some new sites such as the Yedikule.

The station of Cankurtaran, just below Sultanahmet, has commuter trains running often for a quick trip to the towers where the Theodosian wall begins its journey north to the Golden Horn. The damage from the railway built right through the wall fortunately did not hurt the towers which are a bit further from the shore. Suffering from many battles and a multitude of earthquakes over the centuries, these large structures still stand majestically.

One can spend a long time investigating the remnants of history found in the buildings, but we chose to walk along the west side of the walls. Here the imagination runs wild with what Constantinople might have looked like those many years ago for all along the wall’s edge are various vegetable gardens with their accompanying houses. The horse carts, children playing and people tending the fields are just a hint of the old life, and picturesque for the city dweller. Any gate through the wall provides a way to head back “home,” and an enjoyable walk in the small streets with the possibility of stopping for a refreshing beverage or a bite to eat. A map is necessary to find the tram because it is a long walk but fun for those in shape.

Before my travels to The City, I had noticed an article about Les Arts Turcs. This organization run by Nurdoğan Şengüler and Alp Akşahin promotes the various arts of Turkey whether it be painting, music, food or the many others, and have various tours and activities. Their doors are open to everyone including the foreigner, and they give suggestions to those seeking help on various matters. At the moment Les Arts Turcs has a photo contest; they are looking for the best pictures of Istanbul. With next years winners included, they will choose the top 100 for display when İstanbul is the Cultural Capital of Europe. They also hope to have them published in a small book available at the same time. Check them out at www.lesartsturcs.com for more information.


March 13, 2008

Ağırnas near Kayseri in central Anatolia is Mimar Sinan’s hometown.  Good evidence of this is the firman that permitted his relatives to unencumbered residence in the area while others in Ağırnas were removed to repopulate Cyprus after the Ottomans finally defeated the Venetians in 1573.  However, try finding the town on a map.

With the upcoming “birthday” of Sinan [celebrated 9th of April I was told,] it was important to locate his town.  While writing “Sinan Diaryz,” I had not been successful at this but it didn’t seem that important then.  Now, with a desire to visit on his “birthday” and see the museum dedicated to him, it was.  Searching through many new Turkey travel maps at a local book store, a town was finally found, but possibly the name Ağırnas is no more for only Mimarsinan was discovered.  Is this the same town?  That will soon be known for sure when I travel there shortly.  To be continued………………………………. 

Adventures in Anadolu

December 1, 2007

Asia Minor is called Anadolu by the Turks but in the U.S. we say Anatolia.  Think about it, Anadolu, it’s like saying full with mother.  We know that the fertility or mother goddess [ Kybele,Artemis, Diana, just a few of her many names] has been important since ancient times from the many relics discovered.  Figurines of her have been found from the 9000 year old town of Çatal Hüyük near Konya to Efes at Selçuk where a wondrous temple to Artemis was erected in 334 BCE.  With the name Anadolu, the mother is still honored.

İstanbul is at the apex of the Thracian peninsula which is considered to be part of Europe not Anatolia, and this is where most first time visitors arrive.  However, on my first adventure to Turkey in 1993, I landed by boat on the shores of Anadolu.  On the most recent trip I had the good fortune to meet a couple who arrived by train from a two-plus year stint in Sofia, Bulgaria working for the Peace Corp.  The wonders of travel are meeting interesting people with a different approach to life thus renewing the spirit.  Andrea and Michael fit that category and introduced me to “couch surfing.”  A network of people around the world occasionally share their home with travelers who find each other through the Internet site www.couchsurfing.com . This enables those interested, in encountering the side of society most tourists miss and others dream about. 

Andrea and Michael are “surfing’” through Anatolia with plans to travel to other countries as long as the desire and finances afford.  Spending two weeks working on an olive farm for room and board is one way to pinch pennies, and their blog site www.glory-ho.com  shares this experience as well as other “surfing” adventures.  We met by chance in Eğırdır on a rainy night over a cup of çay in a pension restaurant. Traveling all day by bus is exhausting but a refreshing beverage and good conversation sends one to bed in comfort.

The eleven hour bus trip was worth it to see my friend Kadir Can.  His Galeria Nomad [for carpets] and Nomad Bike Tours and Rentals is what introduced us two years ago.  A bike tour of Lake Eğırdır was inorder on such a delightful fall afternoon during apple harvest. This year the time had come to investigate the recent discoveries at Sagalassos.

The spectacular site high on Ak Dağ near Ağlasun, 80 kilometers to the southwest of Eğırdır, has been inhabited by many people but the Roman ruins are what remain today.  The outstanding reconstruction of the Antonine Nyphaeum alone makes the visit worthwhile.  Constructed sometime between 161-180 CE, during the tenure of Marcus Aurelius, the monumental fountain was weakened by many earthquakes with the one in 650 probably completing the destruction.  It now stands, with original as well as reproductions, pieced together to form the handsome structure again.

On to İstanbul to meet Ahmet Sezgin, a student studying Mimar Sinan. His PhD research is fascinating; it takes a different perspective, the construction of Sinan’s identity in Turkey.  He is one of the project coordinators of “Respect to Sinan” Project of the CEKUL Foundation, and they have published a map of Sinan sites in İstanbul as well other parts of Thrace.  Soon they hope to have English on their site, www.cekulvakfi.org.tr , and possibly some of their publications translated as well.

I learned from Ahmet that Sinan is honored each April in his home town of Ağırnas, and that a dwelling thought to be Sinan’s boyhood home is now a museum.  It can be very cold there in April but for the Sinan enthusiast it would be an interesting addition to their studies of the Master.

Edirne’s Kervansaray

October 28, 2007

The Selimiye is the major landmark in Edirne but the Eski Cami to the west on the main thoroughfare cannot be missed. To its west the bedesten, completed in 1418 by Mehmet l, still functions as a covered bazaar.  Heading south is a tea garden followed by Rüstem Paşa’s kervansaray across the street. The area is a bustle of shops and restaurants, and one can imagine it was the same in Sinan’s day. This is probably why Rüstem chose the area for his building; he could envision a profit after the expenses of his kervansaray. 

Renovated about 1965, the kervansaray received the Ağa Khan Architectural Award recognizing the preservation of this important structure. The rental spaces fronting the north façade again house thriving businesses as does the interior with the hotel and restaurant-bar. This gives access to the small as well as large courtyard for a view of much of Sinan’s design, but first walk around the exterior to see the fortress like structure of the other walls.

Facing the stores one notices the curve in the façade.  An amusing story relates Sinan’s desire to preserve an exceptionally beautiful old plane tree. True or not, this feature certainly turns what could have been a boring row of shops into one of architectural interest.  There are many more details in this building worth mentioning but discovering them on ones own is part of the fun of traveling.  See you there.

Sinan’s Edirne

October 22, 2007

The post of 4 October discusses the historical architecture in Edirne that influenced Sinan.  Once those buildings have been seen, it is time to visit the master’s works starting with the earliest, Rustem Pasa’s Kervansaray of 1554.

What does Sinan say about Rustem: an excerpt from his “Diaryz.”

“I was collected by the devsirme, but that was not the only means of adding boys to the ranks of the Yeni Ceri.  The occasional nobleman saw a road to power and volunteered for the elite corps, the Slaves of the Gate.  Usually discouraged, some managed to gain admittance.  However, many Yeni Ceri were the spoils of war, enslaved and brought back to The City to be sold or incorporated into the wealthy households.  After a battle, a fifth of the booty, or pencik, was reserved for the Sultan, including those enslaved.  The intelligent slaves of high caliber were schooled in the palace, eventually becoming Slaves of the Gate.  Two such talented brothers, Rustem and Sinan, were among the captives of one of the many Balkan campaigns of the 1520s.  They were trained in the palace school, an unusual circumstance given that swineherds were considered as unclean as the animals in their charge; therefore these men were generally undesirable.  However, both showed promise immediately, and their unseemly background was overlooked, with the consequence that the two eventually advanced to comfortable positions in the court.  Rustem’s intelligence gained him the prized position of Grand Vizier.

Most of those in contact with Rustem found him to be a very difficult man, mean-spirited and tight-fisted.  It was no surprise to learn that he lived alone, surrounded only by his valuable collections.  In court there was much talk about this disagreeable man and his need of a friend, any friend.  I was surprised, then, when I heard that Hurrem Sultan [Suleyman’s wife] found him to be a good choice for her daughter, Mihrimah, commanding that he come often to the salon for discussions about their union.  Others speculated that these two each found an ally in the other, and that with this betrothal Hurrem would be in a more intimate position to manipulate the ambitious man.  I, for my part, found it advantageous to stay away from those who persisted in the gossipping and tongue wagging.  It was in the same year, 1539, in which Mihrimah was married off to that unpleasant man that I became Royal Chief Architect, praise be to Him.

That fortuitous union advanced Rustem rapidly through the ranks after he entered the Divan in 1541.  He was promoted to Fourth Vizier, Second Vizier and untimately to Grand Vizier in 1544.  Many considered him to be one of the top three of Kanuni Sultan Suleyman’s many grand viziers……………………………

As Grand Vizier, Rustem knew any and all of the many financial opportunities from which to profit handsomely, and did not hesitate to take advantage of those that would fatten his purse.  He collected illuminated manuscripts, Iznik tiles, land -anything of value, for that matter.  During his life, it is said, he accumulated enough wealth to be the richest self-made man in the Empire, if not the world, and I find this easy to believe.  Even though he was considered to be a tightwad, he did let go of much of it by sponsoring many pious foundations.”

Later in his diary we find this entry about the kervansaray:

” When on the many arduous campaigns in the Yeni Ceri corps, we had long marches and then wearily set set up camp.  But for the merchant or traveler who walks about twenty miles a day, a massive structure in the distance, the kervansaray, is a welcome sight.  Each spaced a day’s journey apart, they provide free lodging as well as a safe haven for up to three days, praise be to Him most generous.  Indispensable to the trade routes, these austere, fortified buildings, designed to accomodate the traveler as well as his goods and animals, were introduced to Anatolia by the Selcuks.  With massive exterior walls, doubled-storied with only one entrance that was secured at night, the kervansaray affored merchants peaceful sleep in rooms above the commotion of the pack animals below.  In their arcaded courtyards are small mosques, fountains, and, lining the walls, cells for securing goods as well as kitchen facilities for feeding the guests.  If there are any windows, they are situated safely up high in the second story. 

In the city these same accomodations might be called a han and usually are included in conjunction with a pious foundation.  Since fortification is a lesser requirement there, the exterior often is fronted with rental spaces, their revenue contributing to the upkeep of the han and on occasion providing a tidy profit for the patron.  This bonus was not lost on the greedy Rustem Pasa.  The skinflint was always in the market for such advantageous properties, and had the uncanny ability of finding them in the city centers, a difficult job.  Edirne was no exception; in 1554 he was able to purchase a parcel close to the Ulu Cami, on which he commisioned me to build a kervansaray.”

It is possible to have the ‘kervansaray experience’ but with more comfort since the building has been renovated and is now Hotel Kervansaray.

Edirne 2007

October 14, 2007

I never tire of the old Edirne.  It is an exciting destination for those who love Turkey because the hustle and bustle of Istanbul is subdued in this western town thus allowing a relaxing investigation of what is offered.  Easy to reach by bus, one only need catch the tram from Sultanahmet tranfering to the metro at the Yusufpasa stop to get to the bus terminal [otogar.]  Radar bus company goes frequently with a ride of about 2 1/2 hours on the toll road.  Total time is a little less than four hours when one takes into consideration getting to the otogar and finally arriving at a hotel in Edirne. 

On arrival at Edirne’s otogar, ask for a shuttle to the Selimiye.  That takes the visitor to the old part of town where the antiquities await.  After settling in and freshening up at the hotel, the next thought is always about something to eat.  By now the traveler knows the wonderful foods Turkey offers, and they might have noticed that certain towns have specialties.  This is true of Edirne.  Theirs is fried liver [ciger.]

This was a food seldom cooked properly when I was a child, more often than not, overcooked, dry and tough, and a thoroughly unappetizing sight.  Consequently not many developed a taste for it. What a surprise, then, when those with me are informed that we are going to eat the best liver ever!  If some protest,  they soon find that it’s absolutely delicious.  Thinly sliced, lightly dusted with flour and quickly fried for a minute or less, its tenderness and fresh flavor are preserved.   The crispy outside is a sharp contrast with the moist interior.  Ahhhhhhhhhhh, it’s just wonderful!  Accompanied by fried peppers, small red ones, the texture is similar to potatoe chips with a “kick” because of the heat.  If this is not spicey enough , try some of the pickled peppers, then cool off with a cold ayran, a refreshing yogurt drink.  One always wants another portion of this town’s delicacy, a good enough reason for a return trip.  Can’t wait to get back.   See you soon Edirne!


October 4, 2007

We go from the Ottoman era to the 2nd century when Hadrian founded a Roman city in the heart of Thrace west of Constantinople and no surprise then when he named it Hadrianopolis.  Shortened later to Adrianople, it was only after the Turks conquered the area that it became Edirne.  As the Ottomans slowly lost their grip on most of their conquests, the city became a border town with Bulgaria and Greece. 

As one travels to this antique city, there are reminders of even earlier inhabitants.   These are the many tumuli that can be seen from the road, the symmetrical hills in the distance that look out of place in the undulating sunflower and wheat fields.  Thousands of dolmen dot the landscape but go unnoticed for their small size blends in with the terrain.  Dolmen are very ancient tombs of natural stone usually consisting of two side pieces topped by a third.   With the number of people that found this area so pleasant, it is no wonder the Ottomans felt the same.

They had a difficult time overcoming the defensive walls of  Constantinople as did many others before them.  By the late fourteenth century the Ottoman armies bypassed the Byzantines and headed west ending up with the prize, Edirne, as their new capital.  Many campaigns began here as they added new territory from Europe and Africa to their growing empire.  With added wealth from their new acquisitions, they contributed to the architecture of the city and today many fine examples remain.

Some of these buildings are of interest to the Sinan enthusiast for the mini history lesson to be gleaned from them.  The Eski Camii is an excellent starting point since it was finished in 1414.  To the southwest and in view of the Selimiye, is this smaller version of the Ulu Camii of 1396, or Grand Mosque found in the old capital, Bursa.  Here there are nine domes supported by massive piers while at Bursa the larger mosque hosts twenty domes.  Along its axis through the mihrab the third dome from the kibla wall was open with only a wire screen to keep out the birds.  Below was a fountain.  It has been suggested that Sinan was influenced by this arrangement when he placed a fountain inside the Selimiye.  Although the Eski Camii is without an inner fountain, standing in the mosque one can imagine the sound of the water with light flooding in from above.  Its absense does not diminish the impressiveness of this building, and the calligraphy and other detailing are on a par with the Ulu Mosque at Bursa.

A short fifteen minute walk on the north road fronting the Selimiye takes the visitor to the Muradiye Camii of 1436.  Go at prayer time to insure its being open, but if not the views of the Selimiye are worth the visit.  A small “T” shape mosque recently repaired, its main attraction, besides the antique painting on some walls, is the blue on white tiles that surround the prayer hall.  Strongly influenced by the Chinese, these ceramics do not have the polychrome one thinks of coming from Iznik.  Those colorful tiles would be developed in the sixteenth century contributing to the detailing in Sinan’s work, but the varied designs in cobalt blue of the Muradiye are extraordinary.

Finished in 1447, the Uc Serefeli Mosque cannot be missed given its four distinctive minarets.  Its hexagonal plan supported the largest dome to date, an advance in Ottoman architecture.  Considered to be one of the most influencial buildings on his designs, Sinan did six hexagonal plans.  The Sinan Pasa Mosque of 1558 at Besiktas is a small version of the Uc Serefeli but with the piers diminished while later in 1576, the Sokollu Mehmed Pasa Camii in Kadirga shows the innovative talent of the architect when he reduces them almost to a mere detail.

In 1488 the architect Hayrettin built for Suleyman’s grandfather Beyazit a Kulliye across the Tunca River to the northwest of the Eski Camii.  The medical complex has been restored and the wonderful displays make an inviting museum.  However, its hexagonal room should be noted because the beauty of this building can only inspire any architect.  Sinan’s medrese built in 1550 for Rustem Pasa in Istanbul, although an octagon, captures the same magic.  A walk of a mile or so, no one complains because it is a wonderful adventure especially when one knows what awaits. 


September 21, 2007

 Edirne goats

While considering a trip to the Ottoman’s second capital, Edirne, I think back to 1999 when I first visited the antique town. It is unforgetable, that first view of the magnificent Selimiye Mosque dominating the skyline. Those sixteenth century Ottoman travelers surely marveled at that grand sight Sinan created as they slowly made their way to town.

One can experience that same awe by traversing the berm to the west that protects the old Edirne from the annual flooding of the Tunca River. Beside the river are expanses of grass intermingled with small vegetable gardens and a variety of trees that begin the dream of Sinan’s day. Topping the berm, a gentle curving, dirt path establishes the atmosphere of those years long past with the dusty evidence of the various farm animals sometimes seen walking along the route. To the east below sit the rustic houses adjoining the many cobblestoned lanes meandering up to Sinan’s mosque crowning the far hill , the “hub” of the berm, for it always seems to be the same distance from the traveler walking the path.

How could this scene be any better I wonder as I amble along. It can’t! As long as modern buildings don’t compete with the scale and grandeur of this treasure by the Ottoman master architect, the Selimiye’s position is established as the jewel of Edirne, and will impress future generations.

An excerpt from ‘Sinan Diaryz’

September 9, 2007

“Praise be to God for this humble servant’s long life and praise to Him for continued good health through all the years that enabled such productivity.  And thanks to the Creator for the many talents bestowed on this wretched slave and for the ability to share them with the Empire.  Thinking back to 1512, that chance came on the wind those many years ago when I, Sinan, was only a young man of 23.  The day started like any other, only it was considerably mild for a summer day, in fact, there was a cooling breeze.  That is what brought it to our attention, my father’s and mine, the incredible dust cloud off in the plain below picked up by that little breeze.  From our vantage point on a second story roof, we could see it moving closer.

The roof topped an almost completed house in our small village of Agirnas located in the Karaman province of central Anatolia.  The structure was not of the usual mud brick but of more durable stone, and rather large for our town, constructed by my father with my assistance.  He was a good teacher, praise be to Allah.  All I knew about dressing stone and carpentry was learned from this good man.  Side by side we worked hard on many structures in our village but Allah willing, I would learn even more.  Little did I know that fateful day as the blowing dust advanced, that I would learn nothing more from my father, and would not even be there to help finish the lovely house.

The dusty cloud told us a great deal.  It was too large to be a local on his donkey returning from a journey to Kayseri, our closest city.  The size could only be from many men and horses, but why would they come to our small village?  Unbeknownst to us,  the devsirme was about to reach us.  Over the years the devsirme had developed into a periodic collecting of the fittest Christian youth throughout the Empire to serve in the Sultan’s army, the Yeni Ceri.  As we sat on the unfinished roof watching their arrival, we speculated about the meaning of such a group of what looked like children mixed with soldiers.

Now, as I look back on my life and compile my recollections in this year of our lord, 1588, I am amazed how that summer day changed me in ways unimaginable to a simple villager.  The Sultan’s men were looking for youths of fifteen or so, not yet set in their ways, young ones able to be molded into the best fighting force anywhere.

When the dust finally materialized into the Jannisary Corps, the Yeni Ceri, a call went out for all the boys to assemble in the town square.  Not knowing just who was wanted, I stayed on the roof with my father, watching the excitement below.  Only the strongest, fittest, and smartest were desired, ones with social skills and talents.  That day it was determined that all young men should report to the square due to the lack of boys to fill the quota.  To my surprise the call included me, so I reluctantly descended and joined the gathering.  Families crowded into the square with their sons, hoping for the best.  For the poor, the best was a future with the Yeni Ceri, where food, money, and a chance, if the boy were clever, for advancement were in the offing, insallah.  For me as an apprentice stonemason from a long line of men who worked in stone, the Tascioglu and Dugenci families, I already had a good livelihood and saw no future as a soldier.  The inspections began with those obviously sick and slow being immediately rejected.  Some time passed as teeth were checked, eyes inspected, bodies poked and prodded.  While questions were asked and answered, the best were slowly discovered and called forward.  I was one of them.”

Sinan awaits, let’s go to Istanbul!

Anatolian Adventures

July 15, 2007

At long last Americans have discovered Turkey.  They either have just returned from a fantastic sojourn in Anatolia or are about to embark.  Those coming home now know what many before have learned, the populace embrace the newcomer with a captivating friendliness that leaves one with the desire to return as soon as possible.

sokollu minaret

Not only do the people capture the visitor’s heart but the broad spectrum of antiquities inspires the imagination and a wish to learn more.  On this list are the remarkable works of Mimar Sinan who is finally receiving some recognition for his contributions to the architectural lexicon.  Sinan Diaryz: A Walking Tour of Mimar Sinan’s Monuments will give those returning to Istanbul an opportunity to delve with gusto into the world of the master architect and live through his eyes if only for a while.  Many sites on the Internet now list the book. 

mihrimah view