The tiles at the Edirne Selimiye

The Edirne’s Selimiye is Sinan’s most beautiful, most graceful construction.  It also sports arguably the finest, best-painted, most beautiful Iznik tiles ever.


Tiles at the Muradiye in Edirne

The Muradiye complex in Edirne — like the Muradiye complex in Bursa — was built by a pious Sultan (Murad II) for a religious community he always said he intended to join himself (and did — twice, each time abdicating in order to do so).

Both complexes were built well outside city walls – suggesting another calculation behind the foundation: religious communities of single men living together are famously troublesome and the Sultan may have been shipping the dervishes out of his way. Each foundation was a vast project for its time: a large, beautifully decorated mosque (which doubled as the dervish residence). a medresa (school), a soup kitchen.

As the cities grew, both Muradiyes became located downtown; but the dramatic shrinkage of Edirne in modern times (from perhaps 250K in 1600s to 20K today) means that the Edirne Muradiye once again lies outside the city walls. One reaches it via a dusty road with a few low lying buildings, an itinerant vendor selling fresh cheese out of a donkey cart, old men playing backgammon in the shade of a weeping willow. The mosque is locked, but in the summer the hoca gives religion lessons to seven ragged gypsy children; he lets you in and leaves you alone to do all the photographing and sketching you want; and if you speak two words of Turkish, he’ll treat you to the sweets from his lunchbox.

The tiles of the Edirne Muradiye are very special. They were clearly painted by a master painter; not every one is unique – there are several repeats – but most are; no similar Iznik tiles have been found anywhere else.

The Fountain of Life Room at the Çinili Koşk, Istanbul

Istanbul gets very hot and very humid in the summer; the Northwest Room of the Çinili Koşk, once within the walls of Topkapi, was set up as a cool hiding place from the city’s summer heat. Windows and doors open North-West and North-East — the room never catches direct sunlight; and its walls have been decorated with dark blue tile — a pleasant rest for the eyes from the strong Mediterranean sun. The tiles were fired then painted in gold — a very lavish form of decoration since it does not last. A recent restoration wisely repainted only those tiles where gold had been completely lost, but left those which had only been partly worn untouched.

In 1590, a marble fountain had been set into the wall of the room to cool it further.

In 1904, Osman Hamdi Bey (the founder and first director of the Istanbul Archeology Museums, and the excavator of the Sidon Necropolis) painted the fountain:

Two more Hellenic sarcophagi from Sidon (Istanbul Archeology Museums)

Diggins from the Necropolis of Sidon fill five gigantic halls at the Istanbul Archeology Museums. A number of styles are represented, including recycled Egyptian sarcophagi, and the quality of carving is extraordinarily high throughout. Here are two more sarcophagi from the same room where the Alexander Sarcophagus stands.

So-called Alexander’s Sarcophagus at the Istanbul Archeology Museums

The Alexander Sarcophagus is one of four massive carved sarcophagi, forming two pairs, that were discovered during the excavations conducted by Osman Hamdi Bey at the necropolis near Sidon, Lebanon in 1887. Originally thought to have been the sarcophagus of Abdalonymus (died 311 BC), the king of Sidon appointed by Alexander immediately following the Battle of Issus (333), it was demonstrated convincingly by Karl Schefold to have been made before Abdalonymus’s death, its still-classical manner uninfluenced by the style of Lysippos. Some scholars now believe the sarcophagus was made for Mazaeus, a Persian noble and governor of Babylon. Six Ionian sculptors’ hands have been distinguished, working in an Attic idiom, most probably in Sidon.  It now rests behind glass at the Istanbul Archeology Museums.  The quality, accuracy and detail of the carving is absolutely incredible and unmatched by any antique tomb I have seen anywhere.  The sarcophagus was once painted — traces of paint can be clearly seen in several paces — and must have looked a lot like the decor of a South Indian temple.

Iznik pottery at the Çinili Koşk, Istanbul Archeology Museums, Istanbul

The quality of design and painting on this plate richly deserved the painstaking gluing together of the thirty some pieces into which it had been broken. Other delightful pieces at the Çinili Koşk include this fanciful 16th century pitcher (missing a handle), dug up near the Grand Bazaar:

(what would you call this pattern? “Castles in the clouds”? “Earthquake”?)

and two very beautifully painted lamps:

Edirne’s Eski Camii

The Old or Friday Mosque is not Turkey’s most famous, but it is perhaps her most storied. Founded by one Sultan-brother, continued by another, finished by a third — its construction history reflects the violent nature of early Ottoman succession. Many saints were associated with the institution, its walls bear inscriptions by famous calligraphers. It was here that European campaigns (the Turks campaigned every year but the decision where the campaign would be directed — East or West — was usually not made until the last moment) were announced by the grand mufti by preaching the Friday sermon here — with sword in hand. (The sword is still preserved in the mosque’s treasury — in case it’s ever needed, I suppose).

The Yeşil Türbe mihrab

The mihrab is a specially decorated niche in the wall of a mosque indicating the direction of Mecca. Some tombs have them as well. This one belongs to the Yeşil Türbe, or Green Tomb, of Mehmet I Celebi (1382-1421), in Bursa. Though the tomb dates to 15th century, it was heavily damaged in the 1855 earthquake and sources say that “most of the tiles were replaced” subsequently.

I have not been able to discover whether the current decoration of the mihrab reflects in any way the tilework which was there originally. The tile colors and patterns are different from anything you will ever see in Iznik; and while upclose some of the work seems crude, from a distance of a few feet, the result is phenomenal: it is hard to leave the tomb; at night one wakes up thinking about what it was like to stand in front of it.  Note that the mihrab is a subtly three-dimensional work:  in addition to the (obvious) honey-comb niche, the whole work consists of gently curving surfaces.

A few Topkapi shards at the Kutahya museum

Two days spent with artists in Kutahya who are trying to revive the great art of Iznik pottery teaches you mainly one thing: how difficult the technique is. The art of making quartz pottery has been lost. Old Iznik was 85-90% quartz, making it not only incredibly durable – you can whack quartz pottery with stones and not even make a chip; but also strangely luminous: the colors on quartz pottery are richer, more vibrant, instantly recognizable, and irreproducible in any other material. Thus, one aspect of the project is to find the formula for the bicuit. Another is to find the right glaze to match it – quartz is water resistant and both paint and glaze stick to it with difficulty; meaning that they tend to run (“smear”) in the kiln. Then, there are problems with the painting technique. Unabsorbent and slow drying as it is, quartz presents special problems with color mixing (applying one on or next to another) and shadowing (applying different shades of the same color). Which in turn leads to problems with the paints themselves: it has been possible to get good results with green and blue; but the special red – the “Armenian red”, always a secret – remains elusive: there are problems trying to discover the precise shade of red; but also obtaining a semi-transparent color (which will allow shadowing) and which will lie flat on the surface (instead of forming round, three-dimensional beads).

So, you have spent two days looking at the modern experiments and then stumble onto a couple shards from the Topkapi – perhaps late 16th century – and you are stunned by the color, the precision, the quality of painting. The artists of the past were very special people – says one of the modern day artists. They were… – he looks for a word – inspired, he says.

The Walls of Muradiye

It’s hard to stop oneself from hypothesizing — Hegel-like, historiosophically — that all the colors of a city have something in common, some common note, or accent, or flavor; and that they express somehow the character of the people of the city.

Some Iznik tiles from the Hagia Sofia Mausoleums

Through an unassuming side gate one enters a small compound hugging the western wall of Hagia Sophia. The compound consists of five tombs, four purpose built and one adapted from the former baptistery. The two most beautiful (Selim II and Murat III) can be viewed in a special 3D program to be found here (do not miss this):

Tomb of Sultan Sultan Selim II – 3D Virtual Tour

Tomb of Sultan Sultan Murad III – 3D Virtual Tour

And since 3dmekanlar has done such a superb job photographing the interior, I’ll limit this post to a few tile shots.

Some kilims from the Gülgönen family and Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum collections

Kilims aren’t carpets, they are flat weaves — “tapestry weave” — the same technique used in European tapestries.

Devrik cümle, or sentence overturned

Maureen Freely on her work translating Pamuk’s Black Book:

[Devrik cümle] is a sentence — usually a very long sentence — in which words appear in an order different from that ordained by custom and practice, and cascading clauses create a series of expectations that are subverted by the verb at the very end.

Some books at the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, Istanbul – digest

The Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum in Istanbul has a rich and very well displayed collection of Islamic illustrated manuscripts ranging from 8th century Baghdadi to 18th century Ottoman. I have placed the whole photo collection online here, but post herewith just a few tidbits to whet your appetite. The above is an 18th century Ottoman manuscript, in principle a ladies delight, but perfectly capable of pleasing a more-is-more kinda guy like yours truly.

The below is a close-up of a section of a page of a large format 16th century Shirazi (Iranian) Quran: note the loving detail of what is essentially barely visible “background”.  Gold “ink” was added in a number of washes with different colors and transparency.

The next page is also from a 16th century Shirazi work. Although the Latin alphabet is more suitable for recording the vowel-rich sounds of the Turkish language, it is difficult not to feel that by abandoning the Arabic script, Turks have deprived themselves of a great deal of pleasure. I like the size of the letters, too: senior-citizen friendly.  (Ahem).  Five lines of text on a page approximately 18 inches high.  The roundels mark ends of verses.

This is an end-piece of another 16th century Shirazi Quran, inscribed — crossword-puzzle-like — with the 99 names of God:

But this 13th century North African Quran is my favorite of the whole collection. How I wish all my books were as delightful to look at!

Finally, there is this: two parallel texts, each in a different color. Makes sense: why read one text, when you can read two simultaneously? For example, you could have Joseph And His Brothers, in black, on top, and As Maias in red on the bottom. Or perhaps you could have Joseph And His Brothers in black on top and a running commentary in red below: “Wow! This is crazy! This sentence is already 22 lines long!” and “How wonderful this amazing symmetry!” Etc.

Carpets at the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, Istanbul

I have been looking at carpets for three years now; but most have been Iranian.  Nothing has prepared me for the utter weirdness — Mars-and-Aztec like — of the Anatolian carpet. I had to get a chair and sit quietly for a quarter of an hour just to allow my mind to settle: like a puppy suddenly thrown among loud strangers, it had panicked and wanted to flee.

The museum’s artificial light fools my camera and there is a net loss of green, of which there is a lot here.  Use your imagination:  the grey areas are dark, dull green.

Nothing remotely as good, or as interesting, in the shops of Istanbul.  The colors, too, are different, more candy-like.

There are good soumaks (a.k.a. rahrahs) — a kind of flat-weave with an invisible structural weft and cicims (embroideries); and all are Iranian; which is great, but not much comfort if you want a carpet to sit on.  (I had determined not to bother with sofas for the living room:  available furniture is ugly and the ridiculous price will buy me a decent rug.  And I am used to, and prefer, sitting on the floor, anyway.  But for this, it has to be a rug, not an flat, bone-crushing flat-weave or embroidery).

My favorite design here is the “DK” — an extraordinary fish-scale pattern (hover your mouse over the photos and their names will appear).

Back engineering Turkish

The multilingual hero of a certain trashy action novel learns Basque in prison from a bilingual Basque-Spanish prayerbook. To do so he has to back-engineer the language’s grammar – tenses, cases, conjugations and articles.

Which is a nice way to make a 100 page book last a year.

This is – kind of – what I am doing this week, as I drive through Eastern Anatolya, reading signs: I am back-engineering Turkish; not from a prayer book, but from shop signs.

I have figured out some things already: -lik/lyk seems to be a kind of nounifying ending; -li/ly some kind of an adjectivialising suffix (egg-li sandwich, butter-li fish; spice-li salad) — perhaps meaning “with”; -ler/lar is the pluralizing suffix; -ci seems to indicate a seller and -cu a maker.  And so on.

But there is a suffix I see everywhere, and on everything, and it beats the bejeezus out of me. The phonetic rule appears to be this: the suffix takes the form -i when it follows a consonant and the last vowel before the suffix is an e, i, u or o umlaut; otherwise, it is -y; but if the last letter in the word to which it is attached is a vowel, and the vowel is an a, o, u or y, the suffix takes the form -sy; otherwise, it takes the form -si. It appears to make no difference in the meaning: üniversite, per dictionary, is university; so what on earth is üniversitesi? Likewise, banka is bank; so what on earth is a bankasy (as every bank proudly declares)?

A rather brilliant suggestion dawned on me on Tuesday: it is the definite article. The Sugar Bank, The Sinan University. But no: my phrase book insists that Turkish has no articles. Puzzled, I went behind the wheel again. On Wednesday, in front of the ATM’si, a brilliant idea struck me in the face: it’s the equivalent of Chinese suo/wu/ Japanese jyo/ya: “place/ institution/ office/ organization/ facility”. Banking facility. ATM location. Eating establishment.

Alas, that very evening I sat down to a meal in a restaurant, opened the menu and saw: Price List –

Fiyat Listesi

List-facility? List-location? List-establishment?


So much for that idea. But a definite article would suit the formula nicely: The Price List. Is it possible that my phrasebook is wrong?

I could of course just ask. But learning a language the easy way is – well, not really exciting, is it? Besides, it will be so much fun, when someone asks me in a couple years’ time, “Where did you learn your excellent Turkish?” to say: “Oh, I just — kind of — figured it out”.

Update:  The very next day I drove past an ev mantysy (home dumplings) and then, about 2 km on, a manty evi (house of dumplings), which allowed me to formulate a new theory:  it’s a suffix indicating the end of a compound noun-phrase.  I am encouraged in this interpretation by the fact that foreign loanwords do not appear to take on the suffix.  You know:  nothing so tries a rule as good exception.

National Museum in New Delhi, continued: Sohrab dies at the hands of Rustam

This story, from the Shahnama, figures in Pamuk’s Snow.  There, Blue, an Islamist terrorist/fugitive, argues:  “This story was once read by every boy from Belgrade to New Delhi, but today not one bookstore in Istanbul stocks it. Question: is it beautiful enough to die for? Beautiful enough to kill for?” His (or, rather, Pamuk’s) argument is, in other words, that modernization/westernization has deprived Turks of their past, estranged them from it, deprived them of one source of just pride (i.e. culture), impoverished them, made them rootless.

The argument is intuitively appealing (certainly at individual level, memory loss feels like a kind of emasculation); and does underscore an important fact: modern Turks are completely unaware of some very basic aspects of Ottoman history and identity.

But the theory also reveals the inherent weakness of the very concept of national identity:  modern Turks are no more deprived of their identity than, say, Poles — (which Pamuk simply wouldn’t know — when it comes to theory-making, there is no substitute for breadth of knowledge).  Modern Poles don’t know their history, either; and what they do do know of their literature is not much worth knowing:  it is just what and how schools elect to teach it. Like Turks, we are a new nation, too: living within new borders, missing much of our genetic stock (Christian or otherwise), the economic class which had once exclusively born the right to be called Poles — “the nation” — i.e. the armed gentry — has been physically eradicated and what of it hasn’t been eradicated, has been scattered across seven continents:  with the result that today’s Poles by and large aren’t genetically related to the old Poles. The name survives, but when a name means something it has never meant before, can one truly say that it has survived?

Or consider Portugal, so very proud of her great discoveries. Yet, modern Portuguese aren’t the descendants of the discoverers — they live today in places like Goa, Macau and Brazil; but of those who did not venture on the high seas:  the left-behinds.

This miniature is also from Shah Alam’s studio.

Some Iznik tiles at the Rustem Pasha in Istanbul

My favorite is 7203 (third row, third from the left, it appears on the western wall of the mosque) — the pattern is very fine and very well executed but as you step back from it you notice that the tiny pattern coagulates into a larger pattern of barely suggested circles visible only from afar: a rather neat trick, this.

In the mihrab, the pulpit and again in a decorative panel on the outside wall (its photo appears twice in the 6th row below) is prunus, Ottoman answer to Japanese sakura.  The other day, rather like a certain hero of a certain novel by Orhan Pamuk, stepping out after breakfast onto the rooftop to take in the hazy dawn over the Bosporus, and then turning left and looking up, I saw it, against the background of the Blue Mosque:  unlike Japanese sakura’s, it’s flowering shoots grow bunched up and up-pointing, just as they appear in Iznik patterns.

Why “sex-slave” may sometimes be a highly desirable situation

You pay 10 euros to enter Topkapi and then 10 more to see the Harem.  Which is really a kind of scalping.  Didn’t stop me from doing that three days in a row, though.

Some books at the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, Istanbul – Complete Archive

This is the complete photo archive of the book collection on display at the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, Istanbul. The files are very large (1.5 MB on average) and there are 89 of them, which is why I relegate them here; and only place a digest version on the front page of the blog.