Sketching Istanbul’s Hans Part 1: Büyük Valide Han

This blog is reposted from Yabangee.com where I and my friend Emilie Varlet are regular contributors.  Emilie and I, as close friends and sketchers, have been collaborating on a writing/drawing project since the Fall 2014.  Here is Emilie’s contribution to the first part of our Han Series.  Mine is soon to follow…

Emilie Varlet and Gabrielle Reeves began exploring Istanbul’s hans in the summer of 2014, when they first started their sketching adventures in the city. They have since become fascinated with these buildings and how they reflect the city’s vast history. In this series of articles, they will share their discovery of these ancient places through drawing and how this exploration has really deepened their love for the city.

Buyuk Han Sketch 5, G Reeves

“Rooftop” Gabrielle Reeves

 

Büyük Valide Han

We sit on borrowed cushions, perched amongst the onion bulb protrusions of the han’s roof, above the hubbub of the anthill streets below, soaking in the luxurious calm. We take in the panorama of this ancient city spread out before us — a model that we never tire of, whose beauty is arresting and timeless. Behind us, an artisan releases pigeons and calls to them. They flip in the air in response, the long feathers on their legs making it look like they are wearing legwarmers.

The journey here is like a treasure hunt, as we wind up behind Eminönü’s backstreets, feeling our way with memory’s fingertips. We take a slightly different road each time, until we eventually wash up at one of its entrances. The Büyük Valide Han feels like a secret we’ve stumbled upon. We walk up to the second story, led by the distant clicking of hammers, and go past artisans’ studios to find the gatekeeper, a jolly man named Mehdi Bey. His crowded keyring also holds the one that opens to door to the rooftop. No password is required, however, just perhaps a few coins.

Buyuk Han Sketch, Emilie Varlet

“Han Sketch” Emilie Varlet

 

We sit, tools in hand, and sketch what we can see: The majestic domes that reign over the skyline, the Bosphorus bridge, and the clusters of buildings growing organically from every direction — a cacophony of angles and an ode to the beauty that can be found in chaos.

It is humbling to sit atop so much history. The building — one of the biggest hans in Istanbul — is as layered as the city it lives in. Originally a Byzantine structure, and later a palace, it was built anew in 1651 as a han and money-maker by Kösem Sultan, a harem girl turned powerful Sultan’s wife, and one of the only women to single-handedly rule the Ottoman Empire. Once a caravanserai and a storehouse for goods coming from the Golden Horn, the han is also said to have housed Kösem’s ample fortune, which disappeared when Kösem was strangled, in some versions of the story, by her long, flowing hair. A less grisly part of the han’s history is that it housed some of the city’s first illegal printing presses, and that the first quran was printed here.

Today, the Büyük Valide Han is very much alive. It isn’t just a crumbling building or a polished monument, but a functional space. It houses various artisans: lamp makers, tailors, and jewelers. On one of our first visits, we were eagerly ushered into a fabric dyer’s workshop, where bra straps bubbled like oversized spaghetti in blackened pots of blue and pink water, and where we were shown the process of dying silver colored buttons to gold with ordinary kitchen tools — illusory alchemy. The joy of sketching at the han has also been in meeting these various characters and getting a peek into the city’s rich world of atölye and their craftsmen.

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“Buyuk Valide Han Sketch” Gabrielle Reeves

 

After some time spent drawing, afternoon turns to evening, the call to prayer rings out, and the light starts to dim. We slowly pack our things, thinking about the journey and the people we’ve met, and take a look at the work we’ve made — our drawings, love letters to the city.

Buyuk Han 6

 

 

A Little Drawing at the Han

Yes, I am enamored with this place.  Ever since my first trip to Buyuk Valide Han nearly 4 years ago, I am always eager for another visit.  Whether its a day of yoga and picnicking on the hot rooftop in the summer, or sitting bundled up in the corridors drawing doorways and arches while a kind worker offers a warm salep in the dead of winter…hours pass by at the Han as if I were in a time warp.

Last Saturday, we visited the Han to do a bit of research and a quick interview for an upcoming article I am collaborating on with Emilie.  After our conversation with the Kapıcı, or doorman, we climbed up to the roof to take a look at a view that has become so familiar, yet endlessly breathtaking.  On that day, a warm Lodos wind was blowing in from the south, making it difficult to even remain standing as the wind whipped our hair around.

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Me and Ozgur on the rooftop, photo taken by Emilie.

 

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When the wind was no longer tolerable, we settled ourselves on some cement steps in the corridors below for a quick drawing.  I have recently been carrying around a small sketchbook with me, in order to do more daily drawing, even when I only have a minute.  The pocket sized notebook makes it easy to complete a fairly detailed sketch in a short time.  I was happy to see that regardless of its size, the little drawing still had presence.

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Ozgur and I left early as Emilie finished her graphite drawing, which turned out incredibly lovely.

 

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Emilie‘s sketch

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Buyuk Valide Han Revisited

I believe I wrote a long post in the past about drawing at Buyuk Valide Han, so I will skip the details on the history of this place, but I couldn’t help sharing some photos from my last visit here.  It is a great place to explore if you like peaking into what was once a Byzantine chapel and finding a workshop filled with nargiles and oil lamps.

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“Suleymaniye Camii” Mixed Media on Paper

During my last stay in Istanbul, I climbed onto the roof of the Han and did a 4 hour drawing in the sun.  I love this spot because the view can be drawn a million times and never gets old.  It’s wonderful to watch the ferries in Golden Horn, while listening to the grinding from the workshops below, and talking to the ocasional tourist who comes up to enjoy the view.  When my drawing was done, I wandered my usual way back through the Spice Bazaar and across the bridge to Karaköy and then to Beyoğlu.  I had a wicked sunburn, but a good drawing, and an appetite for a summer of art making…
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