Büyülü Fener: A Magic Lantern to Istanbul’s Past

A middle-aged man passes under a vivid yet rustic sign that reads BÜYÜLÜ FENER, which fits like a puzzle piece among the colors of cafes and apartments that flood this block in Balat. He pushes open a glass door that rests under a row of rainbow stained glass. Once inside he’s greeted with a welcome from the owner, Gediz, as he scans the walls and shelves. This isn’t your typical antique shop, which pop up all over the neighborhood.

A Unique Antique

Not just because Gediz is the only female owner in the area, but because instead of the other shops where you feel like you’re walking into an old Ottoman tea house, here it’s like you’ve entered the Art Director from Turkish Mad Men’s supply warehouse. On the walls are rows of small tube TVs, record players, and typewriters flashing with vibrant colors. One of the record players spins a song from the 1960s that only the Turks seem to recognize.

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A Piece of our Past

The man’s eyes stop on an unassuming collection of retro cigarette packages. “Can I buy just this one?” he asks. Gediz tells him of course, but that it’s not worth much without the rest of the collection. “That’s fine. They used to sell this box in Cyprus when I was a kid there. So, when I saw it it immediately brought me back to my time there as a child.”

And that’s why people come to Büyülü Fener (magic lantern in Turkish), not necessarily to find the next rare find of the antiquing world, but to bring back a fond memory or experience. Gediz told me that what really separates Büyülü Fener from the other antique stores is that hers isn’t one; it’s a nostalgia shop.

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Balat a Microcosm of Praxis

In a city that is rapidly modernizing, the gentrification can be dispiriting. And, when your commute consists of passing block after block of Soviet-style apartment buildings, you want to find the colors, diversity, and romance of the storied Istanbul. That’s what propelled Fener-Balat to become such a hotspot for tourists, expats, and locals alike. Büyülü Fener fits this neighborhood aesthetic perfectly. It’s what drew Gediz here in the first place. Cihangir had become flooded with overpriced housing and Karaköy had been overrun with chain stores, making a small business nearly impossible. But here, every business is personally owned and new people are moving in droves, but they haven’t destroyed the neighborhood’s character. In fact, as long as they adapt to their surrounding culture they can help enhance it. The neighbors across the street are Bulgarian immigrants on the first floor, Syrians on the 2nd, and from eastern Anatolia on the 3rd. Imams walk the street and wave at the employees from the nearby Ecumenical Patriarchate. Women with head scarves will chat with their neighbors in mini-skirts. Gediz says there’s a weird balance where if you don’t judge, no one will judge you. This is why Fener-Balat is where the city on the cusp of two worlds analogy comes alive. When you live in a sterile apartment and work a sterile job, it feels like the old Istanbul is dead, but you can still find it here.

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I always assumed that antique shops were a staple of the neighborhood, but apparently, I was wrong. Büyülü Fener was only the 5th and opened a little over 2 years ago. Now there are 19, with that number changing every day. While the store may be new, Gediz tells me that opening it has been her dream since she was a teenager. After daring the corporate world for many years, while simultaneously filling her apartment to the brim, she decided to pursue her dream to open her own place and live the laid-back lifestyle of Balat.

A Bit of Nostalgia

She began collecting when she was 16. At first, it was anything that interested her, but then it slowly morphed into attaining collections as well. The evidence is on display everywhere. There’s an eclectic record collection with many hailing from Turkey’s rock heyday in the 1970s summed up with a Barış Manço print in the front row.

Turkish and international records. Photo by: Talha Ayar

Apparently records are making a comeback and many people who buy them don’t even own the players. However, she still sells them, and they all work because Gediz and different specialists team up to restore all the gadgets and electronics in the store. She will buy paintings and photos that barely get settled on the wall before they’re sold. Retro gas lamps are probably the highest selling item for locals, but tourists love trinkets because they can fit them in their suitcase. There are collections of old soda bottles, miniature alcohol bottles (still full), postcards, and a slew of things that you didn’t even know would make you feel nostalgic.

Mementos

The nostalgia bug hits me hard when I see an old tin toy car that looks like a larger version of a Hot Wheels toy. Across from the entrance, you’ll notice a giant one, like a Cadillac version of all those Fisher-Price commercials I saw as a kid where you actually can ride in the car. Not one to show bias, a miniature burgundy stroller, perfect for a toddler to play house in, rests opposite the car and in front of the original signage for Balat Hastanesi.

The Cadillac (or Ferrari) of toy cars. Photo by: Colin Craig

I bee-line my way towards the sign and begin sweeping through the box of Swiss and Turkish postcards underneath it, I can’t help but read all the messages people wrote their loved ones that now live on through the curious eyes that pry into them. It seems every item in the store has a story. A special one sits in the corner of the store on a 1950s era stove top. An old cast iron sauce pan lacquered in floral patterned paint looks banal at first. But, Gediz tells me these were exclusively made in Western Europe and discontinued there about 40 years ago with the development of lightweight cooking materials.

The rare saucepan (bottom-left). Photo by: Colin Craig

She lifts up the top to an engraved “Made in Turkey”. “It’s the only one I’ve ever seen in all my years of collecting that was made here,” she says. So, maybe the rare finds are here as well.

The Business of Antiquing

I finally ask her how she knows what to buy and that it will sell? She says it’s impossible to predict what items people will buy, so she gave up trying. Instead, she buys things that she’d want to decorate her home with and that sometimes that’s beyond just an eye for commerce. “It’s hard for me to sell some of this stuff because I like it and I become sort of attached to it,” Gediz tells me. She then shows me her favorite item, a toy robot resembling R2D2 and when you open its head there’s a cassette player inside. I ask her how much she would charge for something like that. “It’s not for sale. This is still part of my personal collection.”

Robot cassette player. Photo by: Sveta Nekrasova

If you think you can pry it from her, come to Büyülü Fener in Balat from 10-7 any day but Monday and try.

This article was originally printed here on yabangee.com. All photos are the property of the photographers.

Another attack in Turkey :(

News has reached American soil, but many details are still unclear here in the city about a car bomb in Istanbul that has killed 11 so far and injured 36. An English language Turkish source has this to say about today's terrorist attack. This is the 3rd attack in Istanbul this year. The first coming on January 12th in the historic Sultanahmet district, killing 10--all German and Peruvian tourists. The next on March 19th, killied 3 Israelis and 1 Iranian on Istiklal, the main shopping street. Not to mention, attempted attacks on police stations in poorer suburbs of the city that sporadically occur. In Ankara, the capital, there have been almost 60 killed this year. And, in the southeast there have been countless attacks, shootings and bombings between the military and Kurdish rebel groups. Car Bomb

Generally attacks have come from two groups this year, Daesh (ISIS or ISIL) and Kurdish Separatist groups (mainly, PKK or TAK). Both groups have had a particular M.O., at least in their Western Turkish attacks. Daesh has targeted civilians and popular tourist destinations, while the PKK and TAK attacks have mostly targeted police and military positions.

Today, a remotely detonated car bomb was triggered, seemingly to take out a police bus passing at that moment--where 7 seven officers have died as of publication. 4 civilian casualties and countless injuries blur the intentions of this attack, which took place on the outskirts of the old city and mere blocks from one the city's largest and oldest universities, which so happened to have final exams starting today on the 2nd day of Ramadan.

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Thankfully all my friends and family are safe and our lives continue to be as unaffected as they can given these almost desensitizing attacks. But, not everyone else is so lucky has been. The past few months have been relatively quiet compared to the end of 2015 and start of 2016. Let's hope it stays that way.

Hagia Sofia's History and Highlights Cheatsheet

DSC_0094 Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya is probably the must-see historical site in Istanbul; a city that's full of them.

The Name

In Greek, it means Holy Wisdom and the building served as a Greek Orthodox Church when it was ordered to be built by Emperor Justinian close to 1,500 years ago. It was the Byzantine's 3rd attempt at a grand church after the 1st two were taken down by fires and riots.  Completed in 537 AD, it stands as a landmark of the area's Christian, Muslim, and imperial history. It was converted into a Mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and has been a Museum since 1935.

There's a lot to process when you get in there. So, I'm going to give you a little help with some of the most important locales. Whether you don't want to pay for the audio tour or guide, just want to impress someone with your knowledge of near eastern history, or you aren't in Turkey and want to see what you're missing out on. Here is a view of some of the most impressive sites in the world.

Imperial Door

The first thing you'll notice when you finally get inside (Get a museum card, so you don't have to wait in line!) is the Imperial Door. This massive bronze door opened only when the Emperor arrived and sat beneath one of the most impressive mosaics, which I'll mention later and opens up to a majestic view of the lower gallery where most of the attractions stand. This is because churches at this time focused on the east side of their corridors. This trend continued when it became a mosque because Mecca is south-east of Istanbul and therefore the mihrab and other vital facets are located in this area. Above the door sits one of the more famous mosaics, which I'll talk about later. Also, when you enter, there are two massive indents in the floors that were caused by two statues that stood for close to 1000 years.

    Minbar

Where the Imam would lead Friday services, it sits on top of about 40 steps where you can allegedly see the imprints from the original chair. It has an epic stature next to the altar and overlooking the coronation block. It also stands near the mihrab (formerly the altar) in the apse area. When you visit, you'll notice the mihrab is slightly off center. This is because it pointed straight to Mecca (south-east of Istanbul) and was altered from its centered position during the Mosque conversion. Above the altar is a mosaic of the Virgin Mary and another one of the archangels Michael and Gabriel (though these images are hard to discern nowadays). The minbar is just an aspect of maybe the most fascinating part of the museum, the apse.

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Apse

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The apse that is mentioned and the picture above incurs quite the crowd in front of it. It was the central area for spectacles at Hagia Sophia. The throne directly faced another area that is of particular importance: The Omphalion.

 The Omphalion

Ostensibly, it's just a spot on a marble floor with different color tiles and doesn't appear to hold any importance, besides the fact that it's roped off. In actuality, it's the spot of the Byzantine Emperor's coronation. This exact spot was the place for emperors such as Basil I & II, Irene, Zoe, and Alexius, to see their ascension to power.

The Omphalion. The throne was placed in the middle circle.

I find this to be such an important site because even though it has an unimposing appearance. It is the exact spot of the transference of authority for the most influential person of the most potent empire for about 1,000 years.

Calligraphic Roundels

The Islamic calligraphic roundels that hang from the walls amongst the numerous Christian mosaics are another fascinating aspect of the Museum and provide a contrast between Christian and Islamic history. These roundels are the largest calligraphy plates in the world and spell the names of Allah, Mohammad, and six of Mohammad's brothers. They were apparently placed during Aya Sofya's transition into a mosque and illustrate the separation from Christian art and architecture.

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Mosaics

Christ as Pantocrator

What Hagia Sophia is maybe most known for are its mosaics. Just like looking at a Rembrandt painting can tell you about the Dutch Golden Age or Baroque Age, these mosaics fill you in on beliefs and ideas from the Byzantine heyday, as well as their decline. The first mosaic you'll notice (and there's lots of them) is the Christ as Pantocrator (Ruler of All) above the Imperial Door.

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Here you'll see Christ seated with (who's probably) Leo VI kneeling before him. Gabriel is on the right side of the frame and Mary on the left. My shitty photography makes it difficult to recognize the book in Jesus's left hand, but the Latin inscription reads, "Peace be with you. I am the light of the world". (John 20:19; 20:26; 8:12). This mosaic dates back to the late 9th or early 10th centuries.

Deesis Mosaic

The Deesis Mosaic is probably the most famous and is located in the upper gallery. It marked the beginning of the Renaissance of Byzantine art. It was completed in the 13th century and is notable because of its attention to detail in facial features, vibrant colors, and because it was ordered to be created to mark the end of Roman Catholicism in Constantinople. It shows the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist pleading with Christ Pantocrator for humanity's salvation.

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Empress Zoe Mosaic

Another illustrious design is the Empress Zoe Mosaic that dates back to the 11th century. You see Christ Pantocrator surrounded by Empress Zoe who holds a scroll to symbolize all her past donations to the Church, with an inscription above her head reading, "Zoe, the very pious, Augusta." Next to her, is her 3rd husband Constantine IX holding a bag of money to show his donation to the Church. His inscription reads, "Constantine, pious emperor in Christ the God, king of the Romans, Monomachus." Above Christ's head are the letters IC and XC meaning, Iēsous Khristos in Latin.  The faces in the mosaic have been scratched off previously and are believed to have been initially created for another Emperor and Empress or just one of Zoe's previous husbands.

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Chamber of Warriors Mosaic

The Chamber of Warriors Mosaic is the last one I'll discuss. There are numerous others to see, like the Alexander or Mary Mosaics. The Warriors' Mosaic is interesting because it flanks Mary, with baby Jesus on her lap, with Constantine I holding a model of his namesake, Constantinople, and Justinian presenting a copy of his most celebrated accomplishment, a model of the Hagia Sophia.

Photo:http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/06/Istanbul.Hagia_Sophia075.jpg

There are countless other beauties to behold in and around Ayasofya, including other mosaics that have as rich a history as the ones mentioned above, remnants of the 2nd Hagia Sophia, Tomb of the Sultans, the Library, the Weeping Column, the Marble Door, and many more. I can only suggest you visit this place yourself to understand truly how it feels.

Why You Need to See It

If you've been on the fence about visiting this place, then you may want to take advantage of the opportunity while it lasts. There has been a big push to convert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, especially after comments from Pope Francis acknowledging the Armenian Genocide. Protests started on the weekend of May 23rd to turn the structure into a mosque again. Causing massive outcries from secularist Turks as well as Greeks who see Hagia Sophia as a significant feature of their religious history.

What this conversion could mean is a few things for visitors. Much like the rest of the famous mosques in Turkey, it will remain open to public visitation (probably) and close only during prayer times. The most significant changes would be the carpeting of the floor, covering items such as the coronation square. Also, the legendary mosaics on the walls will be covered with plaster as the depiction of religious figures aren't allowed. So, some of the more impressive and must-see sights will be forever hidden from view.

While the idea of changing it back to a mosque has been debated for a few years, it's only been talk up to this point so that I wouldn't freak out quite yet. Though, with the current political climate and the rising of Islamist policies from the ruling AKP, I wouldn't put it past them to push forward with this plan.