I have a fascination with the story and lives that are hidden behind objects. Behind any given thing, whether it’s a piece of art or an everyday item, there is a process and group of people with a specific set of skills born of experience that it took to produce it. People spend a lifetime working out those processes, honing their skills through repetition. While the end result may be ordinary or even mundane, there is always more to it than meets the eye. People spend a lifetime in workshops or factories, each with their own rhythm and culture, their own set of specialized tools, and each of these trades leaves a unique mark on the tradesmen.
Here is a brief glimpse into the stories that lay behind these objects that we are so likely to only see for the thing it is, rather than where it came from and what type of people made it.
Taking a turn down a side street in the historic heart of Diyarbakır I was suddenly assaulted by an incredible clanging accompanied by flashes of light and billowing smoke. I had stumbled into the city’s blacksmiths district.
If you look at maps of any historic city in Turkey, you’ll often see streets and neighbourhoods named after the trades that had once kept shop there. Neighbourhoods and streets named after tanners, felt makers, or fisherman. While these places were named after the tradesmen who worked there, in most cases the craftsmen and producers have moved out of the old city to the relatively modern industrial parks. I imagine that the tanners, with their use of all sorts of manures, were the first to be kicked out of the city centers.
But here in Diyarbakir the blacksmiths district was still alive and well in the heart of an ancient city that dates back thousands of years. The black stone walls rang with the sound of hammers on anvils, the heavy thudding of power forgers coming down on soft metal, and the pop and sizzle of welding. Plumes of smoke poured out of a kid’s hands as he drove the red-hot tang of a sickle through a wooden handle, blowing hard at it to keep it from bursting into flame. While he kept the handles from burning up, there were plenty of flames shooting out the end of the handle.
Work was done at a frantic pace, so for once I didn’t attempt to stay and chat.
Cobbler of Sultandağı
I got to share a few cups of tea with a village cobbler in Sultandağ, sitting across from an 800-year-old caravanserai. A steady stream of locals came through the shop looking to have their broken shoes repaired, some needing new laces, a sole replacement, a tear sown shut. One elderly man bent over double walked unsteadily into the shop, bringing with him a pair of home-made leather boots, the soles of which had worn through.
Cobblers, or kunduracı, as their known in Turkish are a disappearing part of the Turkish social fabric. While they once made shoes themselves, they’ve become shoe repairmen more than anything else. Their numbers have declined as imported or mass-produced shoes have taken over and a culture of throw away and buy new has crept in. Yet, the service they provide is still of genuine value. In villages where money is tight, the cobblers manage to keep busy, usually repairing the broken straps or worn soles of shoes that others would have thrown away. This of course helps stretch the budgets of villagers and keeps shoes that still have life in them out of landfills.
The Master Boat Builder of Yalıköy
In a quiet bay hemmed in by steep, green-clad cliffs is a collection of sheds and shelters full of curved beams and scrap wood. Clamps, drills, planes, and all manner of saws lay heaped on workbenches alongside dusty blueprints and notebooks. The tarp walls cast a strange blue light on everything inside. The smell of cut wood mingles with the smell of salt in the air.
The sheds and shelters make up the workshop of Nedim Usta, a master boat-builder who’s been making traditional wooden boats for over sixty years. As master builder Nedim works alongside his son and another employee, keeping busy with three boats being built at a time. The boats are made of local hardwoods, mostly chestnut. Curved ribs are attached to the heavy keel, and planks are heated and bent to form the boat’s graceful curves. The outer hull is then given a few coats of epoxy which seal it from any leaks, though this comes at the expense of the beautiful wood tones.
After sixty years bent over and under boats, Nedim Usta’s back doesn’t straighten and his hands are rough, though he still manages the technical aspects and gets under the curve of the boats with hammer and nail-set to prep the outer hull for its resin coating.
While the shop is busy keeping up with demand, there are few people with experience like Nedim Usta’s and, as always there’s the question of modernization and how much of the boat market modern mold-built fiberglass boats will take over. In the meantime, Nedim’s son has years of experience and knows the trade well, making the future of this traditional craft hopeful.
Istanbul’s Traditional Candy Makers
Candy is something that most of us probably take for granted. In the form that most of us today would recognize, it’s a fairly recent invention, only made possible by the industrial production of sugar combined with a disposable income to spend on something fun and frivolous. Ever since then inventors have been coming up with new and creative forms of sugar-based sweets, making for an ever-shifting candy market.
Just a short walk from the bustling crowds of foreign tourists coming and going from the Egyptian Spice Market is a little shop that has not shifted with the
fickleness of candy buyers and has carried on in an almost unchanged shop for over 150 years.
The business has stayed in the family and the work has only changed slightly. Sugar is boiled and poured out onto a marble workbench where it begins to harden. The massive lump is divided and different colours and flavours are added and folded in. The heavy balls are rolled and folded and rolled again, slowly taking shape and cooling. Once the sugar has reached the right texture, malleable, yet stiff enough to hold shape, long ropes are pulled out of it and twirled into rods. The sticks are rolled back and forth on the cool marble to harden and straighten them until they become smooth and brittle.
Once they’ve had some time to cool the rods are cut down into little circles and ready to be packaged.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get pictures of all the stages of candy making as the lead candy maker put me to work.
For more short stories and images like this see Pigeons, Soap, Quilts, and Simit.