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Main entrance section of the original building of Or Ahayim Hastanesi, the Balat Jewish Hospital, Balat, Istanbul, 2013.  Inscriptions, extent and obliterated, on its facade give insight into realities of past and present-day Istanbul.  (Fuji X100) Click on image to enlarge.

Main entrance section of the original building of Or Ahayim Hastanesi, the Balat Jewish Hospital, Balat, Istanbul, 2011. Inscriptions — both extent and obliterated — on its facade give insight into realities of past and present-day Istanbul. (Fuji X100) Click on image to enlarge.

The Or Ahayim Jewish hospital in Balat was founded and built in the last decades of the 19th century.  Its construction and original endowment was funded by large donations from wealthy Istanbul Jewish families, as well as by masses of small coins placed into collection boxes by Istanbul’s far more numerous Jewish working poor.   The monumental former entrance way as shown above, built in 1898 to replace an earlier structure, was designed by Architect Gabriel Tedeschi who, if I am correct, was also the architect of the Ashkenazic Synagogue (built as the Austro-Hungarian Synagogue) near the Galata Tower on Yüksek Kaldιrιm in the Karakoy section of Istanbul.  Today, Or Ahayim complex comprises the only buildings in Balat still standing on the shore side of the Golden Horn coastal road, on what is now a park but was once the site of a shore-front slum.

A Shining Light

The Hebrew name “Or Ahayim” literally translates as “Light of Life” — and a true light of life the hospital has been and remains to be for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.  Originally founded as a dispensary for the Jewish poor, the hospital, still funded and administrated by the Jewish community of Turkey, now serves the almost completely Muslim population of Balat, a sign of the commitment of Istanbul Jews to the city in which they live and have been rooted since early-Ottoman times and, in the cases of those who can claim Romaniote origins, far longer.

Cautious Discretion or Imposed Anonymity?

In the face of realities of contemporary Istanbul, the identity and history of Or Ahayim, like those of many other “minority” institutions, seems discreetly obscured.  The “history” page of the hospital’s website never directly mentions the institution’s specifically Jewish identity but subtly suggests such by listing the characteristically Sephardic- (and, in one case, Ashkenazic-) Jewish family names of the original founders and donors, including, amongst others: Dalmediko, de Kastro, Gerson, Molho, Halfon, Levi, Kohen, and Grayver.  Some of the donors named held military titles, including one physician with the naval rank of Admiral, others held the honorific of “pasha.” My own favorite amongst the names listed is that of Yuda Levi Kebapçıoğlu — kebapçıoğlu meaning “son of the kabob vendor,” an honorific seemingly rooted in hard work and, in culinary terms, more to my own taste.  Likewise, the website mentions that the hospital housed refugees that arrived in Istanbul from Russia in the 1920s and Poland in the 1930s but similarly sidesteps any mentions of their ethnicities.

The facade of the hospital also displays a ambiguous blurring over of identity.  A very large Hebrew letter inscription in the central panel of the architrave at the apex of the structure, formerly visible from afar, was plastered over late sometime late in the last decade (according to my memory either soon after disturbances in the aftermath of the Israeli incursion into Gaza or the Mavi Marmara affair).  Vague traces of the inscription can be seen in the full sized raw file of the photo above, my reading thereof being the Hebrew words “Beit HaHolim Or Hayim” (Or Ahayim Hospital). Somewhere in my archives, I have a photo taken early in 2008 in which the inscription was still clearly legible. Oddly, a similar blurring over of the inscription is shown on the ostensibly vintage illustrations on the hospital’s website.  Two other inscriptions near ground-level, both less obvious to passersby, still proclaim the origin and  identity of the building: Over the main doorway, in Latin characters, the words “Musevi Hastanesi” (Jewish Hospital) and, on a small plaque tucked away at the lower left corner of the facade, in Hebrew characters but in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish, the former language of the Jews of Istanbul) the inscription “Ispital Or HaHayim” followed by the Gregorian date 1898 and its Hebrew calendar equivalent, 5658.

Erasure of Urbanity

Erasure and obliteration of Hebrew inscriptions, six-pointed stars, and building construction dates according to the Jewish calendar from communal structures and residences originally built by Jews has been a feature of renovations and gentrification of quarters of Istanbul including Galata and Kuzguncuk.  Whether intentional or out of ignorance, such erasures dovetail with the present-day rejection of the past urbanity of Istanbul as well as with the reformulation of identity and history in a self-styled, and thus increasingly, homogeneous and mono-religious Turkey.

 

A Long-Vanished Nightspot: A patch of pavement, a corrugated metal fence, and a rundown cottage on a main thoroughfare in Sofia, Bulgaria –  the likely location of a nightclub once owned and run by  Keva, a legendary Romani (Gypsy) vocalist in the years preceding the Second World War.  In its day, Cafe Keva was a popular gathering-place for Sofia residents of diverse ethnicities and walks of life.  Fuji X100, 2014. Click on image to enlarge.

The probable site of a 1930s nightspot, Cafe Keva, owned and run by a popular Romani singer of the time, Sofia, Bularia, 2014. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

A Tentative Return

After a six-month hiatus, I’ve decided to reactivate this site, in part due to the encouragement of a small circle of readers in New York, Luxembourg, Vienna, Sofia, and Istanbul.  We’ll see how it goes…

A Long-Vanished Nightspot

A patch of pavement, a graffiti covered corrugated metal fence, and a rundown cottage from a past age on a main thoroughfare in Sofia, Bulgaria – the likely location of a nightclub once owned and run by Keva, a legendary Romani (Gypsy) vocalist in the years between the two world wars. In its day, Cafe Keva was a popular gathering-place for Sofia residents of diverse ethnicity and walks of life.

The prosaic stretch of sidewalk portrayed in the photo above is one of many subtle, non-monumental reminders of the presence, history, labor, and  social and cultural contributions of the Roma (Gypsy) population of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital.  Over the past century, processes of nation-forming and of economic change, coupled with social and spatial segregation, have solidified and sustained the marginalization Roma.  In parallel, the official historiography and anti-minority sentiments of Bulgaria’s self-styled mono-ethnic society and the pretensions of its post-communist monied classes have booted Roma out of their rightful places in urban consciousness and mainstream memory.

Monuments Spatial Rather Than Physical

As mentioned in a previous post, a decade ago, at the behest of an obscure US congressional commission, I conducted an extensive survey of architectural monuments across present-day Bulgaria germain to the histories, lives, and identities of a number of “minority” religious and ethnic groups, Roma amongst them.  Output included databases, background monographs, and a shortlist of sites worthy of conservation or restoration.

My recommendations for sites relevant to Roma history focused as much on spatiality as on edifices.  For Sofia, my recommendations included a program of markers, urban walks, and print- and/or computer-based mapping that would identify relevant locations but also chart the progressive displacement of Roma from the interactivity of Sofia’s urban core to the isolation and apartheid of its urban – and, along with it, social and economic – periphery.  I now debate implementing the project on my own.  (Note: Some years previously, I had begun to map the outward displacement of the Jewish population of Sofia during the late-19th and early-twentieth centuries. Indeed, in the aftermath the selection of Sofia as the capital of newly-independent Bulgaria nearly a century and a half ago, neither Gypsies nor Jews were considered welcome in the city’s redeveloped, self-consciously “European”-style inner core and were exiled to its furthest-most reaches.)

Afterword …

A test for Sofiotes: Anyone who’d like to hazard a guess as to the exact location of the patch of sidewalk in the photo above is welcome to post a comment, as is anyone who would like to share more about Cafe Keva or any other markers of Romani life in Sofia, past or present.  I should mention that the location portrayed above was pointed out to me years ago by Dimitar “Mitko” Georgiev, a resident of the Roma quarter of “Fakulteto”  whose family has lived in Sofia for generations.  If the location of Cafe Keva as portrayed in the photo is correct, he gets the credit; if it is wrong, I’ll take the blame.

The Golden Horn from the boat dock at Kasımpaşa. In the background, the Mosque of Sultan Selim Yavuz, 2012. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

The Golden Horn from the boat dock at Kasımpaşa. In the background, the Mosque of Sultan Selim Yavuz, 2012. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

The Golden Horn: (Halıç in Turkish), a long, narrow body of water — an estuary actually — that, wedge-like, splits into two the core of the European side of the inner city of Istanbul.  In Byzantine times the Golden Horn served as a safe harbor, shielded from currents and the depredations of raiders.  In times of danger, an iron chain barrier was stretched across its entrance-way, providing security that in the end proved illusory (in the face of not being able to sail into the Golden Horn, 15th-century Ottoman conquerors simply dragged their boats up and down the surrounding hills entered the Golden Horn from its banks).

From Harbor to Relic

In Ottoman times, the Golden Horn was a gateway to docks, wharfs, entrepôts, and workshops that lined its length and to the thriving markets on the slopes above it. By the early-twentieth century, as manufacturing functions moved further afield and maritime traffic increased and ships grew in size, the harbor function of Istanbul was displaced outward, first to nearby Karaköy, then to the late-19th-century Anatolian rail-head at Heyderapaşa. Later, as Istanbul sprawled far to the east and along the shores of Sea of Marmara, the harbor function shifted even afield to new lower-density industrial zones and truck traffic transfer nodes offering proximity to highways and ample space for handling containerized freight.

From Conduit to Barrier

As its utility declined, the Golden Horn changed from a conduit to an inconvenient barrier to be traversed.  By the start of the 20th century, a floating pontoon bridge across the Golden Horn facilitated movement to and from the commercial neighborhoods of Galata and Eminönu on opposite sides of the mouth of the Golden Horn.  By the end of the century, the pontoon bridge was replaced by a fixed structure and two additional bridges had been built, one for local automotive traffic and the as part of a ring-road highway bypassing the inner city. Last year, a fourth bridge, for pedestrians and Istanbul’s growing underground metro system, joined their ranks.

Axes of Infrastructure and Subjectivity of Trajectories

Recently, I’ve been doing some longer-form writing on the subjectivity of our mappings of urban geography and on the effects that radical changes in axes of public transportation have on our trajectories, imaginings, and horizons.  As a user (as well as an observer) of public transportation, the opening of the metro bridge and the axis of underground transportation it enabled, suddenly allowed me to move in only minutes between locations that had once taken an hour or two to reach.  Now, I can visit in a single morning or afternoon I can visit parts of the city that I previously had to schedule for separate days.  Better yet, I can now jump back and forth between disparate worlds.  The new metro line  transcends social disparities and well as space. Stylish Nişantaşı and working class Fatih, physically at opposite ends of the city, geographically and in terms of worldview are now neighbors time-wise.  The Istanbul of traditional religious faith and economic activity is now of a piece with modern, secular, high-tech and high-income Istanbul.  Rapid public transport across Golden Horn creates a breach an aquatic and cultural “Berlin Wall”  I look forward to observing the outcomes.

The Golden Horn from Eminönü, 2012. In the background, the start of construction of the Halıç Metro Bridge. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

The Golden Horn from Eminönü, 2012. In the background, the start of construction of the Halıç Metro Bridge. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

Photographic Postscript

Framing…

These last  days, while commuting back and forth between the Asian and European halves of Istanbul — a city of broad waterways, vistas, and dramatic light reflected on strong currents — I’ve come to long for the telephoto lenses I’ve usually eschewed. For years, “normal” or near-“normal” focal-length lenses — 80mm on 6×6, 135 on 6×9, 35 and 50mm equivalent on APS — have been the longest that I’ve used.  None of these lenses enable me to transcend distance, compress perspective, or pluck far-away subjects from their surroundings.  My “work-around” has been to frame faraway subjects within the contours of serendipitously present foreground objects.  Not the best solution, perhaps, but one that can result in unusual  compositions and juxtapositions as well a consistency in “language” of perspective and field of view.

Earlier this week, an acquaintance of many decades, Doc Searls, posted a nice weblog post featuring images and quotes from my recent entries on Bubkes.Org.  In his commentary, Doc suggested that horizontality is the defining characteristic of human perception and, with this, of photography as well.  I disagree … I’m a partisan of the vertical.

To continue reading (about squares, oblongs, verticals, men, and pumpkins) click here or on the “Read More” button below

Read More

Kamen Bryag, Bulgarian Black Sea coast, 2014. Fuji X100 with +1.4 tele-adapter. Click on image to enlarge.

Kamen Bryag, Bulgarian Black Sea coast, 2014. Fuji X100 with +1.4 tele-adapter. Click on image to enlarge.

A road left unpaved in a village in the process of gentrification …

The photo above is one of a several I took last month to supplement a series I shot a decade or so ago in 6x9cm format on black/white negative film using a tripod-mounted technical camera. The subject of the original series: Village roads receding into the horizon on a seaside plateau. The series was shot using small aperture settings so as to achieve maximum depth of focus.  The supplemental photos taken this summer were taken with my Fuji X100 fitted with the recently released +1.4x “50mm equivalent” tele-adapter. I took them at an aperture of f5.6, thereby throwing  roads sufficiently out of focus to achieve abstraction but maintaining sufficient focus to keep road, vegetation, and farm houses recognizable.  I was pleased with the combination of sharpness and soft-focus the X100 plus adapter was able to achieve.  Over the next months I hope to scan, post, and print several of the original black/white images.

Roadside bench, village of Kamen Bryag, Bulgarian Black Sea Coast, 2014. Fuji X100 with +1.4 tele adapter. Click on image to enlarge.

Roadside bench, village of Kamen Bryag, Bulgarian Black Sea Coast, 2014. Fuji X100 with +1.4 tele adapter. Click on image to enlarge.

Decades ago, when the village of Kamen Bryag was still an agricultural settlement, homes looked outwards and, in the hours before twilight, villagers sat on roadside benches to greet and gossip with passersby.  Today, as the old agricultural generation dies off and the vacation villas of urbanites take their place, homes look inward and their inhabitants relax and socialize in the privacy of backyards and walled compounds.

Shed and Tree, Village of Kamen Bryag, 2014. Details per photo above.

Collapsed shed and unpruned tree, Village of Kamen Bryag, 2014. Details per photo above.

Lateral view of abandoned early-20th-century mineral bath pavilion, Ovche Kupel quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2014.  Canon G10 pocket camera.  Click on image to enlarge.

Lateral view of an abandoned early-20th-century mineral bath pavilion, Ovcha Kupel quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2014. Canon G10 pocket camera. Click on image to enlarge.

Ovcha Kupel, a suburb at the very edge of Sofia, Bulgaria.  For centuries, natural mineral water springs made Ovcha Kupel an ideal place for the washing of sheep prior to shearing — and thus its name in Bulgarian.  It the late-19th and early-20th centuries, as Bulgarian’s self-consciously attempted to adopt a central-European rather than “oriental” identity, Ovcha Kupel became a spa location and later, as until today, a center for rehabilitation medicine.  The old spa pavilion at Ovcha Kupel is derelict and crumbling, an irony as Sofia attempts to market itself as a “European Capital of Culture.”  But — and please don’t spread the word too far! — one of “my” places in Sofia is a walled-in plazh (“beach”) adjacent to Ovcha Kupel’s rehabilitation hospital.  Behind the wall of the plazh: mineral water showers (five plastic spigots actually), a mineral-water-filled pool big enough for a score of people to paddle and wade in, a “beach” of raked sand somewhat admixed with sin-bleached cigarette-butts and paper scraps, and a shaded lunch counter offering quite passable salads and delightfully cold beer.  New York’s Hamptons, the French and Turkish rivieras, and the island archipelagos of Greece are fine for those who can afford them.  For now, I settle for Ovcha Kupel.

Photographic Footnote

The photo above was taken with a Canon G10, a camera that I’ve relegated to the shelf but still occasionally blow the dust off of and take for a walk.  I still like the color palette that RAW files from the G10 renders but the poor dynamic range of the camera’s tiny sensor cameras can be seen in the blown-out sunlit areas at the right of the photo, which I’ve either enhanced or compromised further through a couple of quick attempts at remedial adjustment in Lightroom.

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