With a population of 17 million or so, Istanbul is teaming with life. The theatre, cinema, patisserie and café culture that still remains strong in Beyoğlu dates from this late Ottoman period. This most active art, entertainment and nightlife center is a favorite destination of not only tourists but native inhabitants as well. As a young girl, I recall trying to painfully navigate the cobblestones with 1980’s platform shoes. Twenty-five years later, nothing had changed. The same platform shoes decorated the feet of young girls, but this time, all of them were cradling an iPhone in their hands, texting, emailing or calling someone. Turkey had come a long way from the donkey carts and phaeton carriages from those days.
The House Hotel, a charming 19th century landmark Armenian mansion a few hundred yards from the popular Ortaköy Mosque (constructed on its own platform in the Bosphorus in 1853!) was to be our home for the next three days. Situated on the water, we had our own dock and a lovely courtyard with restaurants, cafes and shops where we could watch the ships pass through the ancient waters of the Bosphorus. There was a street festival called IstanBLU, the Istanbul Blue Night, a music and dance festival in which the city designated various landmarks such as the bridges and streetlights to be illuminated in blue. It was an interesting juxtaposition between the disco music and the muezzin sounding his call to prayer in the mosque a few hours earlier. An ancient land with a modern twist.
We were rather dumbfounded that 1. The manager of the hotel recognized us, and 2. She thought we would be disappointed with our gorgeous little room with the modern white Turkish marble bath, the outrageously comfortable bed and l’Occitane bath products. Seriously, we were too tired to worry about a view after a 12-hour flight!
She and her husband, Yilmaz, had invited us to their home on the Bosphorus for dinner. They lived on the Asian side of Istanbul in the oldest established residential district called Üsküdar, founded in the 7th century BC as the ancient Greek city of Chrysopolis (City of Gold.)
Illuminated in blue lights, the Bosphorus Bridge, connecting Europe and Asia, was our quickest route to their lovely 3rd story flat overlooking the Bosphorus, the Bridge and the Kiz Kulesi (Maiden’s Tower). Also known as Leander’s Tower, it is a small tower in the water 220 meters off the coast that dates back to Byzantine times. Currently a popular restaurant for tourists and romantics, the name comes from one legend about a king who had a much beloved daughter. Prophesy told that she would die from the bite of a venomous snake before she reached the age of 18, so he built a tower in the water for her protection. Of course, just before her 18th birthday, the king brought her a basket full of fresh fruit and in it was a poisonous asp that took the princess’ life and thus the legend. At one point, the Tower was used as prison, a toll-booth for ships wanting to cross from the southern end of the Bosphorus through to the Dardanelles and a lighthouse.
Meral outdid herself with the meal. We began with few appetizers of cigara börek (feta cheese pastry wrapped in fillo dough in the shape of a cigar), delicate grape leaves stuffed with rice and spices (nothing like what Americans are used to), olives, antipasti, and various delectable cheeses. The main course was Michelin five-star. Mediterranean Bass baked in paper with thinly shredded zucchini, potatoes, tomatoes and fresh herbs. If mere words could impart the aroma and taste. By the time we finished with the meal, Meral carried out an oversize tray of desserts! In Turkey, there is a saying, “Tatli yiyelim, tatli konuşalim” (Let’s eat sweet and let’s speak sweet.)
I had not called in advance to warn the owner we were coming, but since it was a retail gallery, we thought, why not, we are already here. We walked up the marble staircase of the old refurbished building to the second floor. The gallery was minimalist modern with wooden floors and white walls. Very Chicago or New York in feel. When we asked for the owner, a girl immediately ran in back and out walked a tall, lithe figure of a model to greet us. She graciously gave us a tour of the gallery and invited us for espresso.
What struck me most about the gallerist was that she was heavily immersed in the art philosophically, as she spoke lovingly about “her” artists. In this age of technology and the marketing of art as a commodity, it was refreshing to see the possessiveness of her tone. It reminded me of a time when the artist/gallerist relationship was more of a personal nature, when the business of art was a mystical, romantic notion and nurturing and support were de rigeur.
The Turkish art market, I learned, is clearly blossoming into a global market. It was fascinating to see a country, when a decade earlier was in crisis, and today has become the second fastest growing economy in the world after China. The local art scene has experienced a boom in new art institutions since 2004, from galleries, artist-run spaces, privately funded museums and art centres, to art fairs and auctions. Compared to art markets in the Middle-East and India – the Turkish art market is more developed, with a solid infrastructure to support the growing art scene. With Istanbul being named the European Capital of Culture in 2010, further art infrastructure support and investment has blossomed. In 2009, London Sotheby’s had it first ever auction of Turkish Modern Art. The following year, the sales doubled. Modern Turkish art is in high demand, in Turkey and internationally, but Turks also have a global perspective and are collecting artists from abroad. Turkey’s transformation is not only economic, but also cultural, especially since the launch of the Istanbul Biennal Contemporary Art in 1987.
We made it as far as Yasemin Aslan Bakiri’s CAMHANE (Glass House, an ancient Byzantine house recently excavated in 2005 by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality and turned into Yasemin’s glass studio and gallery. Bakiri, one of Turkey’s most successful glass artists, has exhibited and sold her work to various museums, galleries and collectors internationally since 1986. Her trademark glass caftan recently sold at Christie’s in Dubai.
Salvador Dali? The Istanbul Modern Museum? Maybe on another time. For now, we sat around the stove, warming our hands, as I had the duty of turning the chestnuts over as they were roasting.
Our time in Istanbul was a magical experience of art, architecture, gourmet meals and exquisite friends. We were not tourists. We were honored guests. Meral and Yilmaz opened their architecturally stunning home and showed us a taste of Turkey most tourists will never see. Lunch and tour of Yasemin’s Byzantine glass workshop and gallery in the Golden Horn was a voyage worthy of The Odyssey. I would advise anyone to become friendly with a Turk. Your life will be far richer than it has ever been.