Weekend update 2

I’ll let the students get you an update on their weekends, but here’s a rundown on what we did. The lead-up to the weekend was pretty standard fare. Our intrepid students have a deadline today (Monday) for their studio project – the re-design of the Kabataş pier. It includes, as part of the first phase of the project, a masterplan charette to look at the site as a whole and to propose a couple of potential schemes for a newly considered pier. The site’s pretty messy (but functional) and students are trying to get at large and small scale programming ideas and strategies for how the site can become a more vibrant and engaged public space – in keeping with the rich civic culture that Istanbul offers. Stay tuned for details after today’s review…

Friday was the opening of the 32nd Turkish Film Festival at the the Lütfi Kırdar Convention Center in Taksim. There was a red carpet walk (a first for me, and where, also a first, I was introduced as a budding and gritty documentary film-maker from Johannesburg), television and radio crews, Patricia Arquette (?) and Bille August and the host of the Turkish cinematic glitterati and hordes of cinephiles. The evening began with a ceremony honoring some of the greats of Turkish cinema – with awards to the actress Lale Belkıs, the cinematographer, Aytekin Çakmakçı, the scriptwriter and author Ayşe Şasa, and the distinguished actor Ahmet Mekin. This was followed up by the premiere of Pedro Almodovar’s new film “I’m so excited!” about the happenings on a plane – featuring Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas (for about 1 minute), then a motley crew of largely unknown actors and actresses (at least to me) and their shenanigans and (to use a term popularized by Juan, one of our students) “tomfoolery.” We enjoyed the company of our Turkish family – the Butlers – and following the conclusion of the evening, took a long, slow walk back to our apartment – stopping for the requisite wet-burger – a late evening snack favorite by the looks of it – and a kaşarli patso – a hunk of bread, loaded with french fries, cheese, pickles and given extra heft by the liquid beauty of mayonnaise and ketchup. We were pretty full afterward – but then passed by a great baklava joint. Chaos ensued.

We got home and discovered that we were locked out of our apartment. After 45 minutes of furious phone-calling, door banging, bell-ringing and street yelling, a sleepy sister-in-law apologetically opened up the door and let us in. Through all this brouhaha, a sympathetic and noisy neighbour (Saleh), offered to have us come and hang out with him and his sixty guests (“I don’t know who HALF these people are” he said) to wait it out. “Hopefully,” he added, “the babysitter didn’t leave the gas on.”

Saturday saw summer roll in to Istanbul. We hiked up to the Rumeli Hisari – the castle built on the European shores of the Bosphorus by Mehmet II in preparation for the siege of Constantinople in 1453. It holds a spectacular position at the narrowest part of the Bosphorus Strait and is one of the less frequented city landmarks – which for the life of me I cannot understand. It’s a beautiful, enormous structure – essentially an open air museum – that is almost completely open and accessible. You can stroll along the battlements, up and down the walls and explore the massive structure to your heart’s content. I sat and sketched from one of the lookout points, and watched the enormous tankers cruise down the Bosphorus, on their way from the Black Sea to the Marmara.

On Sunday, we walked up to the Rüstem Paşa Mosque (by Sinan) and spent a while in Iznik tile wonderland. Built for the miserly Rüstem, the mosque was lavishly decorated by his not-so-miserly wife, Mihrüma Sultana (the daughter of Sulayman the Magnificent). Draped in Iznik from base to pendentives, the octagonal domed structure sits on the second floor of a market near the Spice Bazaar. This will followed up by a long visit to Sinan’s Süleymaniye – Istanbul’s masterpiece of classical Ottoman architecture. It sits on the highest hill of the city and is an enormous külliye (complex) that includes a Qur’aan school, several religious schools, a hospital, a soup kitchen, public baths… Recently renovated, the building is stunning.

I’ve noticed, over the past few years, that each of the mosques we’ve visited seem to have their own personalities. What’s particularly remarkable about the Süleymaniye is that it achieves a kind of monumental intimacy. While the Rüstem Paşa is stunning – it is a visual feast with some of the best preserved Iznik tile in the city – its small size is deceptive and it achieves a kind of pseudo-imperial grandeur by virtue of it’s lavish decoration. While Sinan’s aesthetic was generally more spartan (an apocryphal story claims that he refused to add the bucketloads of Iznik tile, but relented when threatened with beheading), the Süleymaniye’s vastness is made more human and more intimate because of his polished, and increasingly, restrained and masterful vision. The second of his Imperial complexes, the old Grand Master called his Süleymaniye the work of a novice. Work of a novitiate, it most certainly is not. This building, for me at least, is an embodiment of sublime serenity.

Dinner on Sunday was at Çiya, a great restaurant in Kadiköy – “Chalcedon,” where the first Greek colonists set up shop – on the Asian side of the city. The restauranteur and chef, Musa Dağdeviren, a kind of food anthropologist – explores an incredible range of Turkish food, flavors and recipes. Elif Batuman (a Turkish American writer in residence at Koç University) wrote this piece in the New Yorker a few years ago. She writes that Çiya has been “Variously described as a “laboratory of Anatolian cuisine,” an “ethnographic museum,” and “the garden of lost cultures and forgotten tastes,” Çiya is the creation of Musa Dağdeviren, a forty-nine-year-old chef from southern Turkey, who has masterminded an ambitious project to document, restore, and reinvent Turkish food culture…” and “Tapping into a powerful vein of collective food memory, Çiya was producing the kind of Turkish cuisine that Turkey itself, racing toward the West and the future, seemed to have abandoned.”

To contrast the sublime with the profane, our way back to the Ferry station at Kadiköy was a little hurried (I needed to get back to our center to close up for the night), a little funny, beautiful, and surreal – not unlike Istanbul itself. Three Fenerbahçe football club fans (I think they played a game last night – and won) jumped the rail at the ferry station and made a beeline for the safety of the crowd waiting at the door to the pier. Spotted by security, they were called back and loudly berated (keep in mind the entire ferry station is filled with about 300 people) for stiffing the municipal coffers. A few locals cheered, demanded their immediate eviction from the station and an immediate imposed penalty of a crippling fine (for such blatant tomfoolery). At this point, we realized that the other 280 people in the ferry station were ALSO Fenerbahçe fans. Cue the Fenerbahçe fight song, belted out at what seemed like yedi milon decibels. Realizing their obviously outnumbered odds (and unlike the Byzantines in 1453), the two hapless security guards decided to beat a hasty retreat. Flush with their (second) win of the night, the Fenerbahçe song serenaded us all the way across the Bosphorus, back to Europe, with the evening skyline of the historic peninsula in front of us, and there, on Istanbul’s highest hill, the Süleymaniye quiet and serene.

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