The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Istanbul’

How to Say No in Turkish

October 20, 2015 | by

Navigating a new language.

A postcard of the harbor in Constantinople, ca. 1914.

Some people see learning a language as an obstacle course or, more euphemistically, as a second coming of age. Whichever way you look at it, when it comes to Turkish, English speakers are faced with a much harder task than with an Indo-European language.

Why does the Turkish alphabet not contain the letter w? Very few Turkish words remind me of their equivalents in the languages I know; nothing follows a familiar pattern. Over and again, I read meanings into words that turn out to be false friends. Why does engel mean “obstacle,” kalender “unconventional” (it can also be a male first name), tabak—“dish”? Why do you “drink” a cigarette—sigara içmek? Why is a sunflower called a “moon flower,” and a hornet a “donkey bee”? Who came up with the idea to choose inmek for “get off”? Will I ever learn to stop dotting the ı? Read More »

Infinite Reality

April 9, 2014 | by

Reviving the art of Turkish miniatures.

goodfellas mini

Goodfellas, drawn by Murat Palta in the style of traditional Turkish miniatures.

In Turkey, people used to yawn when they heard the word miniature. “He looks just like one of those guys in miniatures” was a good way to insult someone. Generations of students have learned to ignore, or dislike, the art of miniature and the broader category of traditional Turkish arts—tezhip, the art of illumination; ebru, paper marbling; cilt, bookbinding; and hat, calligraphy. After all, uncool people practiced them—better to keep one’s distance.

Miniature paintings date to the third century A.D. They’re small paintings used in illustrated manuscripts (decorated books, basically) to depict scenes from the classics: the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Bible. Illuminated bibles—like the Syriac Bible of Paris, believed to have been produced in the Anatolian city of Siirt—helped spread the message of God. In Asia, miniatures developed into an independent art form, with techniques quite distinct from those of Western painting. As Wikipedia says, in Persian miniatures,

walls and other surfaces are shown either frontally, or as at (to modern eyes) an angle of about forty-five degrees, often giving the modern viewer the unintended impression that a building is hexagonal in plan. Buildings are often shown in complex views, mixing interior views through windows or “cutaways” with exterior views of other parts of a facade … The Ottoman artists hinted at an infinite and transcendent reality (that is Allah, according to the Sufism’s pantheistic point of view) with their paintings, resulting in stylized and abstracted depictions.

Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād was one of the most prominent practitioners of Persian miniatures. Read More »


Divine Wisdom

January 8, 2014 | by

Hagia Sophia Schezar Flickr

Photo: Schezar, via Flickr

On May 28, 1453, the Byzantine emperor Constantine XI entered Hagia Sophia, “the church of the divine wisdom,” to pray. Constantinople was under siege, and the fate of the great basilica was unclear. The emperor prayed there before returning to the city walls, where he coordinated the defense effort against the army of Mehmed II, who would be christened conqueror by day’s end.

As the two armies struggled to outmaneuver each other, those caught inside Hagia Sophia waited anxiously, fearful of what might happen if the capital of Greek Orthodoxy fell into Muslim hands. Emperor Justinian had commissioned the church in 532 A.D.; planned by the mathematician Anthemius of Tralles and the physicist Isidore of Miletus, and built by more than ten thousand laborers, it was intended to symbolize the magnificence of Christianity and become the seat of the Orthodox patriarch. Twenty years after its completion, two major earthquakes shook Hagia Sophia and destroyed its eastern arch. After extensive renovation, it reopened in 562 A.D. to the delight of Justinian, who, three years before his death, saw his great church survive one of nature’s worst calamities.

On May 29, 1453, Mehmed II and his army entered the city, immediately marching on Hagia Sophia. In their book Strolling Through Istanbul, John Freely and Hilary Sumner-Boyd describe how Mehmed “dismounted at the door of the church and bent down to take a handful of earth, which he then sprinkled over his turban as an act of humility before God.” Read More »


It Was the Best of Titles, It Was the Worst of Titles

November 4, 2013 | by


In March, Michele Filgate wrote about Meriç Algün Ringborg’s Manhattan exhibition “The Library of Unborrowed Books” for this Web site. For that exhibition Algün Ringborg selected and exhibited titles that had never been borrowed from their respective libraries—an idea both clever and touching. Last month she opened her new, similarly bookish exhibition in Istanbul’s stylish Gallery NON, which is currently hosting its first show in a new building on a bystreet cutting through Istiklal, the city’s cultural center.

“The Apparent Author” consists of a sound installation which amplifies the voice of an author going on and on about her artistic goals, ambitions, and potentials (it feels as if she prefers speaking over the more difficult task of writing a book). Moving along, the viewer is confronted by two silent videos of the hands of the same author (in one video she ties a knot, in the other she performs a trick with a pen—both movements seem equally devoid of purpose). Then we come to what is, implicitly, the author’s workplace; we see the manuscript of a romance-thriller novel composed entirely from example sentences found in the Oxford English Dictionary, whose random and yet strictly disciplined order serves as the point of departure for the exhibition.

As an Istanbul author trying to finish a first novel in English, I was particularly fascinated by one piece: a shelf holding more than one hundred books devoted to helping authors finish their manuscripts. In fact, I immediately took out my iPhone and made a recording of the manual titles so that I could read them in more detail back home. (With the exception of Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel, I hadn’t read any of the books on Algün Ringborg’s shelf.) My fast-panning video is fifty-three seconds long; typing the titles of all the books in it took almost an hour. Below I present the fruits of my labors: a full list of the library’s titles, which Algün Ringborg says are all taken from actual books. I checked them on Amazon; she is right. However absurd their titles may seem, almost all those books are sold under the site’s Education & Reference department.

My feelings shifted from laughter to sadness when I tried imagining not only the readers of those books, but also the authors, themselves in desperate need of attention from the people they are meant to educate. Read More »

A Library Grows in Istanbul, and Other News

June 7, 2013 | by


  • The British comic novelist Tom Sharpe has died at 85.
  • Protesters have erected a makeshift library in Istanbul. “The books, arranged on shelves laid on breeze blocks below a tarpaulin, range from left-wing philosophy to author Dan Brown. With contributions from individuals and bookstores, the number of books has swelled to more than 5,000.”
  • Author John Green makes a passionate appeal to “strike down the insidious lie that a book is the creation of an individual soul laboring in isolation … because it threatens the overall quality and breadth of American literature.”
  • Narrowing this list down to only ten misbehaving literary rogues must have been a challenge. (And we are offended on Bukowski’s behalf.)
  • And without further ado: a dog who allegedly has a “grasp of the basic elements of grammar.”



My Day in Istanbul: A Tear-Gas Tourist’s Notes

June 4, 2013 | by

Taksim Square and Gezi Park had been triumphantly peaceful since the weekend. But there’d been heavy action overnight in the nearby Beşiktaş and Dolmabahçe neighborhoods. Monday morning I left our apartment on the slope just below Taksim and walked down to Kabataş to get a glimpse of the damage. Kabataş lies right beneath on the Bosphorus; Dolmabahçe and then Beşiktaş are directly north from there along the shore. To our south rise the headland of old Constantinople, the minarets of Aya Sofya, and Blue Mosque.


At Kabataş I started up the shore road. It’s always jammed. But northward now, an almost inert standstill. There was debris from some of last night’s blockades, brilliant in the sunshine. Read More »