Thursday, October 23, 2008

Stumbling Upon an Artists' Colony

have an interest in studying and exploring and writing about places where different cultures and religions come together and Istanbul's past and present seems a perfect fit. Two days ago I went looking for a Christian church, curious to see how an Eastern Orthodox community tucks itself into this predominately Muslim city. As in keeping with most of my adventures, I found something other than what I had set out to find. At one point, on a street corner, a policeman, a taxi driver and an elderly man in a business suit all gathered round me to try to understand what I was looking for. The older man asked, "Agha Sophia? Agha Sophia?" Meaning the large Byzantine Cathedral built in the time of Constantine.

"Yok, kucuk, Agha Sophia" No, a small Agha Sophia, I explained, hoping he would understand that I meant church. My Turkisk-English dictionary, too heavy to carry, I had left in my room.

"Kucuk? Kucuk?" he asked, because undoubtedly I wasn't pronunciating correctly.

The policeman rested an arm on the machine gun strapped across his chest. "Small? Small Agha Sophia?"

"Yes!" I smiled and nodded.

The elder man walked at least a half of mile with me out of his way toward the church. Along our route he asked people of its exact location. "Dort cadsessi," the fourth street, a fruit vendor had told him. When we reached the correct street the old man waved good-bye but stood waiting for the traffic to pass and for me to cross the cobbled stone road. When he thought I was hesitating, he waved me on, pointing to the church. I dared not waste a second to look for a landmark so that I could retrace my steps in this knot of a village within the city, as I was afraid he would waste even more of his time by taking me by the hand and leading me the rest of the way there.

Down this lane, I first came across a pile of split wood, perhaps half of a cord, wondering how it got there as there were so few trees in sight. A few steps further, I received an answer to my question when I came upon a wood artist's studio. A man and women inside welcomed me. Munir Erboru offered me a seat and told that he has been wood-burning images for twenty years. His student Hasipekaya has been studying with Munir for two years. She is also a computer programing student at a university in Istanbul.

When I asked them about the church at the end of the alley, they smiled and said it was a mosque. It hasn't been a church since 1453. Stepping through the gates to the old church, now the Kucuk Agha Camii, or mosque, I could see remnants of what might have been a cloister wall, which later became part of a medresseh, a religious school, and now served as an artists colony. Ney, reed flute musicians, wood furniture restorers, jewelry makers and miniaturists gather here to work and teach.

This church-mosque-artists studio and street felt imbued with a creative spirit of no specific and yet all faiths.

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