As I’ve said in basically every blog post thus far, people make a good place great and while all people can be interesting, there are a few groups of people here in Turkey that have really intrigued me. Some are a dying breed, some living icons of Turkish culture, and others are just weird in all the right ways.
On free days around Istanbul and on trips around the country I’ve gone out of my way to try and find some of these colorful characters and learn a bit about them, what they do, how they live, and,most importantly for this post, to try and get their pictures.
ISTANBUL’S LAST QUILTERS
Quilting in Turkey is a trade. Rather than spending time with grandma a young man would come into a master quilter’s shop every day and learn all the necessary skills over cups of tea, surrounded shimmering fabrics. A traditional Turkish quilt is quite a bit different than what you’re probably thinking of. For one, nearly all of the stitching is done by hand and secondly, they weigh about as much as a small truck. While most quilts are a simple cotton, stitched with straight lines or squared spirals, some are made out of silk and stitched with incredible patters and motifs. What’s even more impressive is that these patterns are often freehanded; near perfect symmetry coming from years of experience.
A fancy quilt with tens of thousands of individual stitches, can take up to seven full days of labour. While seven days of quilting may seem reasonable, their hands move so fast and steadily that they can finish a normal quilt in a short afternoon.
The quilter’s shops are always full of bright colours, fanciful patterns, and old men.
From all the quilters I’ve spoken to its been many many years since any new apprentices have learned the trade meaning that it’s really only a matter of time before the trade disappears altogether. But lack of apprentices isn’t the only issue killing the art. The other major issue is the worldwide shift in culture where we are quick to replace and rarely bother to fix anything.
An old Turkish quilt would be pulled apart every couple of years, the wool or cotton stuffing would be washed and aired out, then the whole thing stuffed and stitched back together again. The old wool mattresses would be cleaned and remade every summer. A sign that summer is well underway in the villages is when you see rooftops covered in ragged wool airing out after being washed.
While I was having tea with a pair of quilters, one from the Black Sea region and another who came over from Kosovo sixty years ago, a woman came in. When she entered she asked the men if they remembered her, apparently she had come nearly fifty years ago to get a blanket made for her hope chest. Many years later, after being married, and having children, she was now having a small blanket made for her grandson!
It will be a sad day when these beautiful shops and incredibly skilled craftsman disappear in the next few decades.
One of the men I spoke with at Istanbul’s colourful pigeon market told me that pigeon keeping is not a hobby, it’s a sickness. “People go into debt to get a house they can’t afford just to have a flat roof for their birds. A man will leave his wife but not his birds.”
As strange as it may seem, pigeon keeping is a hobby with a massive and incredibly passionate following. One of the first pigeon fanciers (yes, that is the official word for someone who keeps pigeons as a hobby) that I met kept 40 pigeons in a back room in his office. As you can imagine the place was a bit of a mess and the racket of that many birds kept inside is quite something!
While pigeon keeping had more utilitarian purposes in the past, today’s pigeon fanciers are in it just for the joy of it. While there’s potential money to be made, most spend far far more than they could ever hope to earn back. Rather than provide eggs or the ingredients used for tanning leather or making plaster, these pigeons do backflips, sometimes race, and mostly just look nice.
While you’ll see men out on rooftops and abandoned lots with their birds, by far the best place to catch a glimpse of the pigeon subculture is at Istanbul’s weekly pigeon market where crowds of people (99.99% men) gather to buy, sell, and just admire birds. Here you can get jewelry, name tags, feed, medicine, supplements, cages, and all manner of bird related paraphernalia.
Here you’ll see all sorts of interesting breeds, and, best of all meet all sorts of interesting people. Some have a dozen, others forty, and some four hundred and fifty pigeons! You’ll meet young men who have only been raising their own birds for a number of years and others that have been keeping birds for 65 years!
It’s a rather foreign subculture to most yet, when you get down to it, not all together that much different than many other hobbies.
While kebab and donair may be Turkey’s most iconic dishes outside of the country, once you come to Turkey there’s no denying that the most iconic food nation wide is the simit. Simit is a dense bread ring coated in sesame and baked crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside. Millions of these twisted bread rings are made daily in specialty bakeries around the country and consumed by throngs of people and seagulls alike. Despite what people say, it is nothing like a bagel.
While I’ve probably eaten hundreds of simit, what I really wanted was to get a glimpse into the process and the people that churn out this Turkish icon.
After checking out a few bakeries and cafes I finally found the Galata Simitçisi, a classic, wood-fire oven, bakery that produces nearly 1000 simit every day. Family owned and run, the tiny shop was a flurry of activity beginning early in the morning and continuing all through the day.
The next simit shop that I stumbled upon was in Osmaniye, where the simit are a bright orange colour. In most places the raw simit are dipped into a molasses wash to help the sesame stick, in Osmaniye they are rolled in sesame then brushed with a bright orange sugar wash before being baked.
HUNT FOR OLD SOAP
Sometime in 2018 I saw a picture of traditional soap-makers, with their great towers of drying bars, and floors covered in a bright green paste as it slowly cooled and stiffened before being stamped and eventually cut into blocks by hand. Some of these pictures apparently came from the town of Düziçi in Osmaniye but when I went there everyone told me there was no such thing in their region and that I had to go down to Antakya (Hatay) to find such a thing. A month later, while in Antakya, I had found evidence of such places but couldn’t confirm an actual place. After much searching, I finally got connected with a soap factory in the area where I got permission to take some pictures.
Hatay is famous for its laurel soaps with many locals making their own small batches at home. Using laurel oils in this region goes back thousands of years and is connected to Greek myths about Daphne weeping and being turned into a laurel tree. The site where this myth takes place and the waterfalls that are her tears are just a short drive from the city itself.
Arriving early in the morning it was immediately clear that this was not the place I was looking for. While the whole process was done by people with no automation to be seen, this place was clearly much more of a factory.
In fact, a handful of guys manage to produce and process five tonnes of soap daily.
Apparently, the process used at this factory, though still natural, allows for a quicker processing time so soap doesn’t need to be stacked in strangely shaped rings to dry, nor is it cut by hand. While the hunt for traditional soap-makers continues, getting the chance to take a few pictures in the factory was awesome!