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Identities and Traditions

Spolia, Seljuk Mausoleum, environs of Eskişehir, Turkey, 1997. Scan of print of b/w negative, Rolleiflex T Tessar f3.5. Click to enlarge.

Spolia embedded in the facade of a Seljuk-era mausoleum, environs of Eskişehir, Turkey, 1997. Scan of print of b/w negative, Rolleiflex T Tessar f3.5. Click to enlarge.

Two examples of spolia, the re-use of architectural building and decorative elements outside of their original contexts.  At its most basic, appropriation and utilization of spolia provided ready sources of materials and a seeming dedication to recycling.  At a deeper level, however, use of spolia usurped and appropriated the might and worth of  rulers, donors, and civilizations who originally built the monuments from which spolia elements were taken, and imbued new structures with added significance.

Hellenistic builders appropriated spolia from ancient monuments in Egypt and the near-east, Romans did the same, Byzantium appropriated spolia from Romans, Greeks, and their predecessors. The Ottoman empire, in turn, harvested spolia from Byzantium and its predecessors.  In Istanbul, for example, free-standing obelisks and columns columns supporting the porticoes of great Sultanic mosques were taken from ancient temples and public buildings throughout the span of lands absorbed by the Ottomans.

Spolia at its most prosaic

The photos above and below portray the appropriation and application of spolia at the smallest of scales and at its most random and utilitarian.  In the image above a pastiche of non-monumental classical elements adds a bit of decorative “pizazz” to the entrance way of an otherwise sparse Seljuk-era mausoleum. ( Whether the spolia elements were emplaced during the original construction of the mausoleum or after-the-fact is beyond my competence to assess.)  In the image below, an inverted Byzantine capital is re-purposed to serve as the base for a garden-variety, hand-powered water-pump, itself re-purposed as a spout — an unintentional symbol of the triumph of the needs of small-scale basic craft over Byzantine grandeur (nb. the pump/capital ensemble is set in the courtyard of a Han designed nearly half a millennium ago by the great Ottoman architect Sinan, but occupied over the past century by the no-frills ateliers of independent metal workers).  In both cases, the utility of spolia, and maybe even a drop of pride at its display, trumps any pretense of design.

Liberation from the terror of design

Subjectively, the (non-)aesthetic of such utility and pride in the display of the the recycled resonates deeply for me.  Decades ago, I spent years living and working in the Netherlands, a country in which strict, linear, minimalist design ruled and constrained life in the public and private realms.  Building facades, both legacy and new, were characterized by uniformity of height and materials and by an absolute minimum of decoration.  In the field of graphic design, tiny type-faces and eschewal of serifs ensured that the covers and pages of Dutch publications were geometrically beautiful … but highly unreadable.  For the Dutch, so it seemed, form trumped content and, as often as not, utility as well. During my years in the Netherlands, one of the leading design practices was an Amsterdam firm, Total Design, a name tastelessly similar to “total war,” Germany’s slogan in the final years of World War II for complete commitment of resources to the ruthless and murderous pursuit of victory — an apt, albeit tasteless, metaphor for the compulsory imposition of uniform aesthetic dictates on all aspects of life.

I find the seemingly arbitrary aesthetic of spolia far more compelling.  The combination of random elements taken out of their original contexts transcends uniformity, negates original aesthetic and pragmatic dictates, generates spontaneity, and creates profound (and even humorous!) mergers, not only of materials, surfaces, and patterns, but also of times, spaces, cultures, and intents.  In short, it enables continuous rearrangement and represents a triumph of accretion and serendipity of the imposition of design.

Spolia, inner courtyard, Rüstem Paşa Hanı (aka Kurşunlu Han), Perşembe Pazarı, Istanbul. Print of b/w negative, Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8, 2002. Click to enlarge.

Spolia, inner courtyard, Rüstem Paşa Hanı (aka Kurşunlu Han), Perşembe Pazarı, Istanbul. Scan of b/w negative, Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8, 2002. Click to enlarge.

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.

 

Balat, Istanbul, late-afternoon, December 2011. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

Late afternoon light. Balat, Istanbul, December, 2011. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

The birthday last month of a friend with a sharp and compassionate eye for the poignancy and ironies of urban details provided an impetus for me to cull the archives and print images including the ones above and below, both taken late afternoon some years ago in the quarter of Balat on the shore of the Golden Horn, Istanbul.

Changing Populations

For centuries, Balat and surroundings had been home to Jews, Armenians, and Greeks.  From the 1940s on, these “minority” populations, both of Balat, and of adjacent, once mostly-Greek, Fener, the seat of the Orthodox Patriarchate, plummeted.  Traditional occupations, including those of Jews as boatmen and stevedores in Istanbul’s once-nearby port facilities (which, during the mid-20th century, in search of ample space, shifted outwards towards the urban edge) faded away, contributing to the departure of poorer Jews for Israel and better-off ones to newer neighborhoods north of Taksim Square, along the upper shores of the Bosporus, and on Istanbul’s Asian side.  Armenians followed similar patterns of migration within the city.  Greeks were pressured to leave Balat, Fener, and, for that matter, all of Istanbul en masse following the anti-minority riots of the mid-1950s and a series of expulsions and seizures of property thereafter. By the 1960s and 1970s, Balat became the province of a new wave of residents, emigrants from towns and villages in north and central Anatolia.

Recently, the population of the quarter has begun to change again.   Neighborhood ties have loosened and descendants of the new arrivals of two and three generations ago seek better housing elsewhere.   Developers have razed older structures at the northern edge of Balat and begun to build modern, higher-priced ones in their place.  Refugees from Syria, Arabs, Turkmen, and Kurds, monied and poor, have found homes in the Balat’s still ample stock of dilapidated housing.   The very same housing supply provides a magnet attracting a first wave of gentrifiers with tastes for traditional housing near the urban core and with sufficient financial resources to purchase and renovate individual apartments or entire buildings.  Their presence is signaled by the openings of antiques stores and espresso bars.  Their arrivals and the arrivals of those in their footsteps cause local real estate prices to skyrocket.

Afternoon Light and Shadows

As some buildings are razed and others renovated, as established locals depart, and as gentrifiers pursue their dreams of authenticity and refugees build new lives in the face of uncertainties, memories and echoes of those who lived in Balat long before  them vanish.   Decades of newer residents walk past shuttered synagogues, underused churches, and Jewish and Christian communal buildings only peripherally conscious of what was once central to the lives of those who they replaced.  One thing still remains constant, however … the afternoon light, ricocheting off the facades of Balat’s east-west streets and shrouding its north-south ones in shadows.

Row Houses, Balat, Istanbul. Late afternoon, December, 2011.  The nameplate of a Jewish physician on the entrance-way of one of the houses is one of the rare signs of the remaining presence of Jews in the buildings of what was once one of Istanbul's most densely populated Jewish neighborhood.

Late afternoon shadows, row houses, Balat, Istanbul, December, 2011. The nameplate of a Jewish physician on the entrance-way of one of the houses shown  is a of the rare signs of the remaining presence of Jews in the buildings of what was once one of Istanbul’s most densely populated Jewish neighborhood. Click on image to enlarge.

Rowhouses and Sea Walls Saved by … Automobiles!

Six or seven years ago, I joined a friend/colleague from the architectural department of one of Istanbul’s universities to trace the remainders of Byzantine and Ottoman sea walls in the court yards and backstreets of Balat closest to the water’s edge.  Over the centuries, progressive silting, intentional landfill, and the construction of a shore line roadway and green space had stranded extant fragments seawalls a few hundred meters inland.  The purpose of our survey was to ensure that historic seawall fragments would remain untouched in the face of a proposed real estate development project that would transform rows of houses, like those below, into upscale townhouses by restoring their facings but fully gutting, enlarging, and rebuilding their interiors.  Ultimately, the project did not go through.  Ironically, it was done in by the automobile: to wit, Istanbul residents of the income levels the development consider automobile ownership and parking within meters of their doorsteps as an entitled prerogative.  The narrow streets of Balat simply could not provide sufficient access and parking space.  Automobiles to the rescue, thus!

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.

Boat-launching, fishermen's shanties, Shabla Lighthouse, Bulgarian Black Sea Coast, 2014. Fuji X100, +1.4x, "50mm" tele-converter. Click to enlarge.

The infrastructure of local, coastal fisheries: Boats, boat-launching rails, and fishermen’s shanties, Shabla Lighthouse, Bulgarian Black Sea Coast, 2014. Fuji X100, +1.4x, “50mm” tele-converter. Click to enlarge.

As a chill, gray autumn begins in Istanbul, I am warmed by recollections of the late-day glow of sunlight on the Black Sea coast at summer’s and of the fish that began to run last month and now run in even greater abundance;  fish that pack local market stalls; glistening and oily, strong-tasting fish, their names shouted to passersby by fishmongers — diminutive, mackeral-like istavrit and far tinier anchovy-like hamsi; small,delicately-colored, bluefish-like çinekop, and meaty, sleek-skinned and red-gilled palamut (bonito). I’ll leave it to  speakers of Turkish, Bulgarian, and Greek to argue over which languages the etymologies of these names belong to and — of far greater importance — which fish taste better grilled and which fried, which baked and which salted or cured.

Village of Kamen Bryag, 2005. Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8, 400 ASA C41 process b/w film, scan of print.

Village of Kamen Bryag, 2005. Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8, 400 ASA C41 process b/w film, scan of print.

The woman in the photograph above arrived at the Bulgarian Black Sea coast during the Second World War during a forced exchange of populations between Bulgaria and Romania. Together with fellow uprooted “ethnic Bulgarians,” she spent weeks on the road, traveling southward from Romania by cart and on foot from the surroundings of Baba Dag — a provincial town named after high nearby ridge, the site of one of  five revered cenotaph graves of Sarı Saltık, legendary Balkan spearhead of the Bektaşi order of dervishes.

On arrival in Bulgaria newly “repatriated” expellees from Baba Dag were arbitrarily divided amongst several villages on the Bulgarian side of the border, often without the provision of shelter.  In the village of Kamen Bryag, the new arrivals eventually built a new quarter of their own off-grid from the original settlement.  In it, they constructed low-slung, L-shaped houses in the fashion of the region, starting with one room and, as needs arose and materials became available, adding additional rooms one by one, “railroad-flat-style,” as it were.  Like most villagers, they worked worked the fields by day and, after hours, tended vegetable plots, pigpens, and chicken runs in their courtyards, yielding peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, fresh eggs, and meat for curing.

The courtyard in the photo no longer exists; it and and the vegetable garden next to it were uprooted several years ago.  In their place: a large enclosed restaurant, open in tourist season only, surrounded by neatly planted flowerbeds on one side and a towering antenna of a local mobile telephony on another.  The grandmother still lives on the plot, however, and tends the little that remains of her garden.  She is in her late-eighties now and, at day’s end, often sits on the raised curb of the newly paved road next to her former farmyard in expectation of passersby, roadside benches of the sort shown in a previous post having been removed or left to crumble.

Photographic footnote … and, following it, a story

The photo above was shot in 6x6cm format on C41 process black/white film, a film sort that yielded magenta-tinted black/white negatives when processed in “drugstore” color film developing machines.  The film was fine grained and had a broad exposure latitude, enabling individual shots on a single roll to be taken at different ASA settings, usually within one stop of the rated ASA of 400.  I took the photo at a relatively slow shutter-speed, fast enough to enabled to shot to be taken handheld but not fast enough to take into account the sudden turn of the subject’s head.  Thus, while the neck and dress of the subject are well in focus, her face is slightly blurred.  As a result, I originally rejected the photo but, on examination years later, I felt that the combination of facial expression and setting outweighed any lack of sharpness.

From Ovid to Grandmother

For a long-ago somber treatment of the region of Kamen Bryag, Baba Dag, and surroundings one can flip through the pages of Ovid’s writings during his exile from Rome, Tristia and Ex Ponto (both available in a single file on Archive.Org).  For a somewhat humorous view, one can read a story I wrote a decade ago linking the great Roman poet with the grandmother portrayed above — the full text of the story can be found by clicking here or on “Read More,” immediately below:

Read More

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.