Thursday, May 30, 2013

Taksim Through Time

In the last few days, the news has been full of stories about the protestors in Istanbul's Gezi Park, who have been camping on the site in order to prevent its imminent demolition as part of the controversial Taksim redevelopment project that has taken over the heart of the modern city for the past several months. In response to the protestors who say that the park should be maintained due to its history, Prime Minister Erdoğan stated at the announcement ceremony for the 3rd Bosphorus bridge: "If it has a history, go and research the history of that place they call Gezi Park," indicating that the site has had many lives over the past 200 years, and that this is merely another chapter in its history. His comment raises a critical point--that the stories we tell ourselves about the history of art and architecture can be used to make permanent decisions for the future of a site. Today, at a moment when the urban fabric of Istanbul is, for better or worse, in the midst of dramatic transformation, Stambouline looks back to the different moments of the place we call Gezi Park.  


[2] The eponymous "Taksim"
reservoir, 1731
[1] In this 16th-century representation of 
Galata, the area that is now Taksim was just 
garden and pastures. Matrakçi Nasuh, 1537
The area that is now Taksim Square was essentially a pastoral hinterland until the 18th century; most early city views [1] do not even include the site because it was not considered to be part of the city proper. In the 1730s under Sultan Mahmud I, the elaborate waterworks from the north of the city were directed to this point and collected in the stone reservoir [2] that still stands today on one side of Taksim square, at the mouth of Istiklal Avenue. The tower itself was referred to as the taksim, deriving from the Arabic-Ottoman term for "division" or "distribution," as the reservoir served to redistribute water to the different neighborhoods down the hill, such as Pera and Galata, with the hydraulic design taking advantage of the natural slope of the terrain. Yet even until the mid-19th century, the area of Taksim remained on the forested periphery of the Pera neighborhood. By 1850, what is now Gezi Park was a cluster of Christian cemeteries at the end of the Grande Rue de Pera (now Istiklal). 



[3] Plan of the Barracks and
the Adjacent Park.
Pervititich Map, early 20th c
In order to construct the first park of Taksim (b. 1869), these cemeteries were moved en masse to the neighborhood of Şişli in the 1860s (which will be the topic of a future post). The one exception is the Armenian cemetery, which remained next to the new park and both of these sites can be seen in a later insurance map. [3] It appears that this park as well as the cemetery was located due west of what is now Taksim Square, approximately where the Divan and Hyatt Hotels are now. Looking at the map, we can see that the park featured winding paths in a circular pattern, with a gazebo "orchestra" to the north. Apparently, the park immediately became a favorite site for afternoon promenades in the city. 


[3] Main entrance gate to the Taksim Barracks, ca. 1860s

Next to this park were the barracks, labeled  on the map as the "Top Kışla."  According to Zeynep Çelik, these barracks were also constructed in the 1860s under Sultan Abdülaziz, as part of the effort not only to modernize the Ottoman military but also to create landmarks in open spaces punctuating broad avenues, in the fashion of Baron Haussmann's transformation of Paris one decade earlier.  The barracks were a large structure, with a huge open courtyard for military drills and reviews. The main gate to the barracks [3] boasts an Orientalist flare in a hodge-podge of Ottoman, Indian and "Moorish" design. The entrance recalls what is now the gate of Istanbul University in Beyazit Square, which was also built around this time. (On the Wikipedia entry for the barracks, it says that the barracks were built in 1806 under Selim III, and I have seen this information repeated in many recent stories about Gezi Park. It is possible that a previous military structure occupied the site in the early 19th century, but it seems most plausible that the building we see in photographs was primarily built in the 1860s, with perhaps some later renovations.)

[4] The Barracks converted into a football pitch, 1930s.
Image Source
With the coming of the Turkish Republic in the 1920s, the barracks, now located in the center of the modern city and with a large open courtyard, naturally lent itself to be converted into a new football stadium. [4]  From the photograph, we can see the main gate was located in the center of the south facade, looking on to what is now Cumhuriyet Avenue. As the Monument to the Republic (1926) can be seen in the bottom right corner of the photograph, and we know that the stadium was demolished in 1940 to make way for the present Gezi Park, this image was therefore probably taken some time in the 1930s.  


[5] Gezi Park Plan. Pervititich Map.
SALT Galata
As for the Gezi Park itself, [5] it was created in the 1940s. The Park's official name, as can be seen on the plan, was İnönü Gezisi, or the "İnönü Esplanade," after İsmet İnönü, the second President of Turkey under whose government the park was created. It was designed on a bilateral axis, with neat rows of trees surrounding a wide open area to the west. To the east is the set of stairs that anyone who has ever waited for a bus in Taksim has come to know and love. For over 70 years, Gezi Park has served as a pleasant green space in the center of the bustling city.

[6] Projected recreation of the Ottoman Barracks, 2013 

Currently on the cusp of transformation, the potential demolition of the Gezi Park and the re-organization of the wider Taksim Square causes us to reflect on how tenuous architecture and landscape can be. So tenuous, in fact, that in a week's time the Google Map attached to this post will most likely become irrelevant. And the projected recreation of the Ottoman barracks [6] in the form of a shopping mall and residential housing (and, yes, a park) also raises the question--how can we respect the past, while still being able to move forward? After looking to the history of the site of Gezi Park, it seems that two conclusions are possible: that change is an inevitable part of a city's development and should be taken in stride, or, perhaps, as very few monuments manage to stand the test of time, it is all the more important to fight for the ones that matter, before it is too late. 

Or, on the bright side, maybe it is never too late, because all of your favorite buildings can always be resurrected in the form of a shopping mall.


ÇELİK, Zeynep. The Remaking of Istanbul: Portrait of an Ottoman City in the Nineteenth Century. Seattle: University of Washington, 1986.
Modern Turkish Architecture. Edited by Renata Holod and Ahmet Evin. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1984.





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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Calligraphic Panel from Hacibektaş Museum

[1] The final resting place of Haci Bektaş Veli,
founder of the Bektashi Order.  The tomb is now
 also a museum.
In a previous post, we saw that many dervish lodges were decorated with framed panels hanging on the wall. These works quite often featured calligrams (Turk. yazı-resmi), which is the fancy art-history-term for an image that is composed of calligraphy; the text itself is typically a simple prayer in Arabic. Today throughout the Balkans and Turkey, it is not unusual to find tucked away in the corner of an ethnography museum these kinds of panels, with perhaps the Arabic text for the bismillah in the form of an animal (storks and lions are popular), or an everyday object (like fruit, or jugs). As far as we can tell, these kinds of panels were not only hung in dervish lodges but also private homes or even cafes, so they were an important element of what could be called an Ottoman visual culture. Unfortunately, because these panels are considered more of a folk tradition than fine art, they are often not well preserved and are becoming more rare. 


[2] Calligram of a Face, Hacibektaş Museum
This is not the case, however, at the Hacibektaş Museum. [1] Located in the modern Turkish town of the same name, this city is the birth place of Bektashism, one of the Ottoman Empire's most popular Sufi orders. Ever since the banning of the orders in 1925, the site has served as a museum, and there you will find plenty of calligrams. 

One such example [2] is a human face, with Arabic text forming the contours of the head, mouth, cheeks, eyes and ears. The text itself ("Ya Allah, Muhammad and 'Ali")  serves as an invocation to God, the Prophet Muhammad, and his companion 'Ali, who is  greatly revered within the Sufi tradition. The initial letter mim in Muhammad forms the eyes of the face (with little pupils drawn inside), and the letter 'ayn in 'Ali form the apples of the cheeks. The two dots for the letter ya have been turned sideways to make a pair of earrings. 


[3] Detail of Image 2
The pairing of these three names, Frederick DeJong explains, may be significant in light of a concept in Bektashism whereby Allah, Muhammad and 'Ali form a kind of trinity (the "üçler") through which one comes to know divinity, the greater truth (hakikat). The fact that the Arabic text comprises a human face might also connect to the idea that the divine presence is manifest in every human being, and every material object. 

If we look even closer at this work [3], we will discover an interesting clue about how these kinds of pieces were made. Along the edges of the black lines, there are very small pin pricks, which are evidence for a practice called "pouncing," an early modern method for copying images. If you wanted to duplicate something, all you had to do was carefully prick holes along the lines of an image, then place the panel over a blank piece of paper. If you dusted the panel lightly with soot, then removed it, on the blank paper below you would get an outline of the image, and from there you can basically play connect-the-dots to get a decent copy of the original. In this way, popular compositions like this one could be reproduced and disseminated with ease. It is no coincidence that these kinds of calligrams seem to be found in every corner of what used to be the Ottoman Empire. 

AKSEL, Malik. Türklerde Dini Resimler; Yazı-Resim. Istanbul: Elif Kitabevi, 1967.
DEJONG, Frederick. "Pictorial Art of the Bektashi Order." The Dervish Lodge: Architecture, Art and Sufism in Ottoman Turkey. Edited by Raymond Lifchez. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. 


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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Gothic Ottoman Architecture

We continue the theme of re-use in last week's post by turning to the city of Famagusta in Northern Cyprus, where there are many striking examples of adaptation and re-use of buildings. A thriving medieval and early modern city under various Latin rulers, Famagusta boasted several large church complexes, which the Ottomans would inherit upon their conquest of the island in the second half of the 16th century. Some of these churches were directly converted into mosques, resulting in some seemingly unlikely instances of "Gothic" Ottoman architecture.

[1] Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque, Famagusta
The most striking example is the Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque (before 1954 called Aya Sofya) [1], known originally as the Cathedral of St. Nicholas. The construction first began in 1298 and continued for approximately a century thereafter. The dynasty who ruled as the Kings of Cyprus at the time were the French Lusignan family, who opted for the style of church architecture most prevalent at the time in their homeland--namely, Gothic. When the Ottomans took over the city in the 16th century, the new Muslim population required a Friday mosque for prayers, and it made sense for both economic and symbolic reasons to simply convert the cathedral, which is situated in the main square of the fortified town and is easily the tallest landmark in the area. 

[2] Detail of the front facade
At first glance, the mosque appears to be a Gothic cathedral better suited for Reims than the eastern Mediterranean,  but there are a few subtle details that hint at its present use as a mosque. First, the base of the left tower turret now supports a make-shift minaret [1]. Second, if one takes a closer look at the decoration of the front porch, you can see that all figural sculptures of holy figures that typically sit in the niches or arches of a Gothic church have been removed. In one instance [2], it seems that the head of one animal sculpture has been removed, in order to "deactivate" the potential for the stone to be inhabited by a jinn. Although, after having pointed this out, it bears to mention that the style of Cypriot churches are already far more restrained in terms of decoration when compared to their continental counterparts, so the Ottoman masons probably did not have to go to much effort to make the facade suitable as a place for Muslim worship. 

[3] Interior of the mosque-cathedral
The beautiful interior of the building [3] maintains the original cathedral's high vaulted ceilings with tall windows letting in plenty of light. As most churches, the original cathedral was constructed with the altar facing due east. When the building was converted into mosque, the niche indicating the direction of  prayer (mihrab) had to instead be located SE in order to be in the direction towards Mecca. As a result, the mihrab was placed in the central arch in the south side aisle of the building, with the nave still serving as the main prayer space for worshippers, except they now stand perpendicular to the original apse of the mosque-cathedral.  

[4] Graffiti found on the mimbar
[5] View of the ceiling from the apse
There is evidence that the Ottoman Muslim prayer-goers were just as transfixed with the decorations of the tracery windows as any modern viewer might be. The 16th-century marble pulpit (mimbar), where the imam would deliver the Friday sermon, has been covered with graffiti [5]. It is an under-appreciated fact that Ottoman buildings in every corner of the Empire are covered with all kinds of graffiti, so this is far from unusual within its context. The graffiti for the most part consists of prayers and verses of the Qur'an, but there is one instance of a geometric design, reminiscent of the tracery in the glass windows located above [5]. It seems that at some point in its history as an Ottoman mosque, one visitor opted to sketch out the patterns of the art surrounding him.                                                 

Being located in contemporary Northern Cyprus, the Friday mosque of Famagusta by extension remains a contested space. Nevertheless, this mosque-cathedral stands as an extremely well-preserved example of a religious building continuously used for over 7 centuries, which suggests a need to re-think what might be included in a more inclusive definition of "Ottoman architecture."

Medieval and Renaissance Famagusta: Studies in Architecture, Art and History.
Farnham, Surry; Burlington: Ashgate, 2012. 
Ottoman Cyprus: A collection of studies on history and culture. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2009.