Anatolia – How to save a dying culture

Tourists in Istanbul, shopping some souvenirs. But will they get authentic Anatolian items here?

Tourists in Istanbul, shopping some souvenirs. But will they get authentic Anatolian items here?

“made in China” is an Expression we all know. But have you ever wondered What all the cheap Souvenirs, made in China, offered in numerous gift Shops do to the authentic cultures?

Bangkok, London, Paris, Singapore, New York, Istanbul.
These were the most often visited cities in the world in year 2013 and therefore it is perfectly justifiable to call Istanbul a ‘touristic city’.

Where there are many tourists, one thing must not be lacking: Souvenir shops.
This applies to Istanbul as well.

One of Istanbul's numerous gift shops by night

One of Istanbul’s numerous gift shops by night

On almost every corner tourists have the possibility to shop all kinds of souvenirs, be that a postcard for the beloved ones at home, a magnet with an “Istanbul”-lettering for the own kitchen, or a hand-made and for Western conditions still cheap leather hand bag.

Beside these typical magnet/pen/cup-souvenirs, which can be found with a different city name on it anywhere else in the world as well, there are also ‘Anatolian gift shops’ in Istanbul, which sell ‘authentic’ Turkish items like hamam towels, Turkish lamps and the worldwide famous Anatolian carpets and kilims.

What many people don’t know though: Mostly not even these ‘traditional’ carpets and kilims are manufactured in Turkey anymore.

 

A dying craftsmanship

“Instead they are mass-produced in China. Carpets, kilims, tableware, jewellery… Whatever you can buy from an Anatolian artisan – there will always be something comparable, ‘made in China’, probably not even half as expensive”, tells Nilüfer Sener, the founder of Ark of Crafts.

The advancing globalization and mass production in China and other low-wage countries has become a serious problem for the once unique Anatolian craft in recent years.

At first sight, the copied objects, made in China look the same as the real Anatolian relicts. Carpets for example are designed in traditional Turkish patterns, but the procedure of manufacturing and the quality of the used materials have only few in common with the Anatolian model.

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These handmade pieces of jewellery by Anatolian artisans differ from Chinese copies – in price, but also in quality and ‘meaning’

 

“They differ in quality and even more important, they differ in ‘value’. A value, which is not measureable with money. But nowadays it is sadly often the monetary price, which leads to a purchase decision. Too often”, sights Sener.

This is why in many cases local Anatolian artisans cannot compete with cheap made-in-China-objects anymore. As a result, lots of local artists and craftsmen from Anatolia have to close their workshops and find other jobs.

 

 

In former days it used to be common for artisans to pass on their knowledge about their craft to the future generations. Today most of artisan parents don’t teach their children in their handicraft anymore, because they wish for safer jobs with better career opportunities for them.

“Anatolian arts and crafts are currently slowly dying and with them a great part of the Turkish culture”, summarizes Sener this development.

 

Not everything is lost yet

“The good thing is: it is currently happening, so there is still something we can do about it”.

And Sener does something about it. When she and her friend Cigdem Toraman travelled all through Turkey two years ago, they found few remaining Anatolian artists. Struggling with their businesses though, but still there.

“We realised a second problem, Anatolian artisans suffer from nowadays: The sales of their works in times of globalization and internet. Almost none of the artisans were online.

They are sitting in their workshops, in the middle of Turkey, producing stunning artworks and the rest of the world just doesn’t know about it”, tells Sener.

In general only very few people know about Turkey’s extremely rich cultural heritage and the beauty and complexity of its arts and crafts, which mainly underlies the many different cultures, Turkey was influenced by – from the Byzantine till the Ottoman Empire.

That had to be changed. Sener and Toraman’s aim was it, to open Anatolian objects up to the world, so they left their professional life behind and founded ‘Ark of Crafts’, an e-commerce business to support local Anatolian artisans.

Their website offers an online shop, which sells high-quality products, handmade by local Turkish artists throughout the entire world.

But it’s more than just a selling platform.

As Ark of Crafts collaborates with other organizations as well, their website acts as broad network, which links projects like Anatolian Artisans from Washington DC and NGO’s like HADD advocating for workers’ (especially women workers’) rights together. General information about Anatolia and its culture is given, exhibitions all around the world are organized and promoted and every artists whose work can be purchased on the online shop, is introduced with a short biography and an overview of his work.

Ark of Craft's shop corner in Adahan Hotel, Istanbul

The place where handmade Anatolian item are perceptible – Ark of Craft’s shop corner in Adahan Hotel in Istanbul

 

And it’s even more than a linking website.

Being present on the Internet is important today and offers great opportunities to open Anatolian products up to new markets, but in some cases, being online is not enough. This is why Sener and Toraman have a ‘shop corner’ in Adahan Hotel in Istanbul, where they exhibit and sell their products.

“We want to give our costumers the possibility to see all these artworks with their own eyes. To see and to touch them, to smell and to feel them.”

And this is exactely what one should do.

When entering Ark of Crafts shop corner one doesn’t know where to look at first: Hundreds of beautiful items stand all around and catch the eye with their bright colors and elaborate details. Handmade soaps and candles spread a pure scent that has nothing to do with the fug of plastic, which greets one very often, by entering one of the cheap made-in-China-souvenir shops. And beside pieces of jewelry, potteries, tableware, paintings and pillowcases (the list could be continued forever) there are the traditionally hand woven Turkish carpets and kilims.

Anyone how has ever touched a made-in-China copy and then gets in contact with a real kilim, will notice the difference immediately. Every pattern is a unique copy and even though the wool feels softer and smoother, the entire carpet is tighter and more stable. They feel like something, that really will last a lifetime.

With Ark of Crafts Anatolian culture finally got a contemporary stage and it shows:

“There is a return happening. It still applies that many people shop along the line ‘the cheaper, the better’ but I feel like more and more costumers become aware, that it does make a difference. Whether they buy a cheap and soulless made-in-China copy or the authentic item, with the actual cultural background. I believe that it has a different meaning and gives the owner a different feeling and I see, people start discovering that, too”, smiles Sener.

The establishment of several start-up companies, dealing with Anatolian cultural items in recent years, shows she is right.

 

A modern touch for the modern taste

Selen Özturk is the founder of one of these start-ups. Even though her approach differs from Ark of Craft’s, her main aim is the same: to keep alive Anatolian culture. Therefore Özturk founded her own interior brand in 2013, which is called Mesele and based on the following beliefs:

“Actually there are so many high quality products made in our country…
Actually there are so many crafts we have forgotten about…
Actually, maybe the newest doesn’t mean the best…”

Mesele basically offers traditional Anatolian items, made out of best local Turkish materials, manufactured in Turkey by authentic Anatolian craftsmen. The entire concept is local and traditional – except for the design.

Mesele’s designers work a lot with universal and international symbols for “a modern touch”, as they call it, to achieve a contemporary design.

“We sell items, which often have no more actual use nowadays. To still be able to inspire people for Anatolian culture today, I linked these ancient objects to something modern, with which my customers can identify”, explains Özturk her concept.

Turkish hamam bowls and towels are a good example for this. Once used to cover and wash yourself in public Turkish bath houses, the so called ‘hamams’ they are not essential anymore, as everybody has their private showers and bathtubs at home today.

“But still these objects form a big part of our culture and tradition and I see it as my personal concern, to keep them alive. This is why we still manufacture them – in contemporary design for the modern market.”

Some Mesele items, ornamented with the symbol of "Hope"

Some Mesele items, ornamented with the symbol of “Hope”

 

Özturk and her team design their products themselves, but nevertheless they support Anatolian craftsmen, by providing them orders, supplying them with best materials and paying reasonable wages for the manufacturing. Just as a proper fair-trade concept.

And the concept is bearing fruit: Mesele’s products are popular, among local people as much as among tourists and in year 2014 they also received an ‘official’ acknowledgment with the ‘Elle Decoration International Design Award’ for their felt pillows.

 

Similarly works Mine Halil, a professional kilim weaver. She is one of the few remaining artists, who can still afford practising her art in Istanbul. The PhD student has been studying ‘Traditional Turkish Arts’ at Marmara University in Istanbul for 10 years now and is also a lecturer herself. At Sakarya University in Serdivan (150 km east of Istanbul) she shares her knowledge about designing and weaving carpets and kilims.

Similar as Özturk from Mesele, also Halil invented a ‘contemporary’ form of traditional kilim weaving.

“I have worked together with the Turkish academic and painter Prof. Dr. Mustafa Aslier for several years and one day we thought ‘Why not combining our art forms?’”

Since that day, Halil has weaved kilims, based on the models of his best paintings. Her kilims are still woven in the traditional Anatolian way – only the patterns are innovate, but this is exactly what attracts her costumers and ensures her success as an artist.

Mine Halil while weaving a kilim in her studio in Istanbul. Visible in the background: the outlines of the painting, she uses as template

A long way to go

About the current return, Sener mentioned, Halil says:

“I guess we are well on the way, but still have a long way to go. Yet too many people are not willing to pay a reasonable price for high quality products, when they can get cheap Chinese copies next door. But I know many people, who would never decide on a Chinese kilim again, after seeing and touching the authentic ones. So I guess what we need most is time.

Time to spread consciousness for and knowledge about our culture, arts and crafts”.

 

Author’s note:

Dear reader, thanks for your interest in Anatolian arts and crafts. Feel free to use the last quote as an inspiration for your next time being a tourist, no matter where you are heading.

To all the dying cultures we can help to survive, simply by investing in the right holiday souvenirs. Cheers! 😉

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