Faces of Kaleiçi: (3) The Waning Art of Meerschaum Carving

Faces of Kaleiçi: (3) The Waning Art of Meerschaum Carving

Meerschaum carver Bayram Şen displays his handiwork. (PHOTOS Dorin Lucas)

April 16, 2012, Monday/ 17:25:00

For those who missed the first two installments of this series, Kaleiçi is a district in the original walled city of Antalya.

Its narrow, stone-paved streets, often no more than lanes, meander with no apparent design. With twists and turns they lead you unexpectedly past deserted gardens or through walled courtyards where you might find a street dog dozing in the sun or a family cat peering watchfully from the window. Kaleiçi streets are lined with old Ottoman houses, some abandoned and decaying with time, some under restoration, while others stand proudly restored to their original Ottoman design. Their doors are freshly painted, and the windows are clean and shiny. Sometimes, the enticing aroma of frying onions or a newly baked cake waft from hidden kitchens, making you stop and linger. These streets of Kaleiçi with their sights and smells beckon for a leisurely stroll back into another, more serene era.

Serenity will surround you while exploring this old city, but behind those stone fronts and stuccoed garden walls there exists a thriving community of multicultural, multi-national people who live or work in Kaleiçi. The old city is known for its unique tourist attractions, shopping and dining opportunities and many other things, but the most important assets of Kaleiçi are the people and the stories found behind the scenes.

Historic surroundings

Kaleiçi has several entrances, but the most favored is that of Hadrian’s Gate, an imposing tri-arched edifice built in the second century to honor the visit of the Roman Emperor Hadrianus and his wife Sabina. To pass through the gate, you must first descend a short flight of steps and cross a short causeway of glass. Pause here and look around. At this point, you are standing exactly at the ground level of the second century. Two meters below the current ground level represents over 2,000 years of accumulation. Continue through the gate and ascend the next flight of steps where you will enter a small plaza. Veering slightly to the left is Hesapçi Sokak. Throughout history and into Ottoman times, this street was one of the main thoroughfares of the ancient city, running from the gate to the sea.

Following along Hesapci Sokak you will come across a wide variety of interesting shops. Rug merchants mark their storefronts with vibrant displays of handcrafted carpets and textiles, while spice sellers show their exotic wares of intricate and aromatic pyramids of herbs and seasonings. Ubiquitous souvenir vendors stake out their presence with street tables filled to the breaking point with “genuine” Turkish items ranging from textiles, handbags and handmade goods to pottery and glass-inlaid lanterns (very nice for a patio or deck). Sprinkled along the street are small boutique hotels and restaurants with secluded shaded gardens that seem to beg you to come in for lunch or tea. Weather permitting, local artists exhibit their latest oil paintings, hoping one will find a new home. Visitors, businesspeople, shopkeepers, students, lovers and locals move about and mingle together along the street, and at certain times the scene takes on the feeling of a colorful street fair.

Although many shops along Hesapçı Sokak sell similar things, there are unique craftsmen, offering selections of handmade items found nowhere else in Antalya. Ottoman Çarik, a shop selling handmade Ottoman slippers, is only a few meters from Hadrian’s Gate on the left. The NeNe Collection, featuring an artist who hand decorates ceramic ware in the authentic Ottoman Kütahya style, is on the last side street before reaching the sea. Progressing along Hesapçı Sokak and just before you reach the Broken Minaret, you will find a closet-sized, cubbyhole of a shop to your left. You will see a prominent display of small, white objects, lovingly arranged on rows of narrow shelves. As you move closer, you will find a charming display of delicately worked, lidded bowls, animal figurines, busts of famous people, dancing whirling dervishes and pipes, all intricately carved from meerschaum, the famous white stone of Turkey.

This is Lületaşı, (shop of meerschaum). Its proprietor, sole employee and prime carver is Bayram Şen who, if time permits, will ask you in for a glass of tea. The interior of his shop is crowded with one padded stool, one unpadded stool, a small, low table and a teakettle, bubbling quietly, anticipating tea time. The walls hold more meerschaum carvings and a few magazines in a cubbyhole complete the decoration. The lack of shop space often motivates Bayram Bey to unofficially extend his area to a few rickety chairs across the street, where, if not in his shop, he can be found enjoying Antalya’s spring sunshine while chatting with friends or indulging in the traditional Turkish pass-time of “people-watching.” The shop is always under his watchful eye, and a pause to admire his work will bring him swiftly to your side. He likes nothing better than to answer questions regarding his meerschaum carving. Bayram Bey admits he is somewhat limited in his command of English, but he assured me that he could always find a translator if necessary.

Over the obligatory glass of tea, he confided that he was originally from a village in the province of Eskişehir, where his father was a noted meerschaum carver. Following tradition, he joined his father’s business when he was 16 years old and learned the art of carving meerschaum. Twenty-five years ago, he left his village and moved his family to Antalya for a healthier climate and has been carving meerschaum here ever since. All in all, he has spent over 39 years carving meerschaum products and feels his skills improve with each piece carved. He is a very pleasant man who loves to chat not only about his carvings but also on the origins of meerschaum. He will tell you its history.

Meerschaum can be found in limited quantities around the world, but the most extensive deposits for this unusual stone have been mined for the last 300 years in the province of Eskişehir. Eskişehir is situated on the Anatolian Plateau near Ankara and once sat on the site of a vast ancient sea. As eons passed, the bodies of countless marine creatures settled onto the sea floor, where they accumulated, forming a substantial layer of soft, white material. This material was subsequently covered over and compressed into soft, moist rock called sepolite. Sepolite (hydrated magnesium silicate) is usually a brilliant white, but more rarely, it can take on tints of other colors from minerals and organic matter surrounding it during formation, hence the occasional light pink or amber colors. As millennia passed, the sea dried into a flat plain, concealing the layers of sepolite deep underground. Further unstable geological forces eventually fragmented the single layer of meerschaum, causing it to fracture and shatter into disparate layers dispersed randomly into the surrounding earth. Because of this random scattering, there is no way to mine the material in a normal method.

Mining for meerschaum

The method of extracting the stone from the earth is even more unusual than the stone itself and hasn’t changed much in the last 300 years. It is a method that is extremely dangerous and totally unnerving to watch. Claustrophobic miners need not apply. A promising site is selected and a vertical shaft is dug to a depth necessary to reach the meerschaum level. This shaft sometimes reaches more than 20 meters below. A tripod and winch apparatus is constructed over the open hole, and a man who possibly considers himself part mole as well as totally invincible is lowered by hand down the shaft in a bucket. When he reaches the bottom, he collects any visible meerschaum and then starts burrowing away in a series of horizontal galleries (raised floors), moving earth and collecting stones in a bucket as he goes. These side tunnels might extend as far as the miner feels like crawling, but what is absolutely terrifying is that neither the mine shaft nor the tunnels are apparently reinforced in any way to prevent them from caving in. Laughing, I asked Bayram Bey if he had ever gone underground to mine meerschaum. He didn’t really answer but just smiled and gave me a look that seemed to say, “Do you think I’m crazy?”

When meerschaum is freshly mined, it has a characteristic soft and soap-like texture resembling sea foam, hence its name, which is German for sea foam. In this malleable condition, the stone can be readily carved. The stone, once collected, goes through a series of necessary steps before actual carving begins. The stone is washed thoroughly and left to soak for about 15 minutes. This prevents it from drying out prematurely. Then it is washed again and inspected for flaws or fault lines that would ruin an otherwise beautiful carving. The next step entails dipping it in bee’s wax to protect the surface again from dehydration or damage while carving. The actual carving process begins almost immediately, with the soak and wax procedure requiring repeating sometimes up to eight times to keep the stone from drying out and becoming impossible to carve. When the piece is finished, usually after a day or so, it is coated once again with bee’s wax, and set out to dry where it will gradually assume the harder, stone-like appearance found in finished products. As a finishing touch, the piece is buffed with a fine cloth, giving it a shine after which it is ready for market.

From the 17th century to modern times, meerschaum has been in high demand, particularly when the craze for meerschaum pipes was at its height in Europe. But after the dangers of smoking were medically proven in the late 20th century, the demand for pipes diminished significantly. When asked about the reduced market for meerschaum pipes, Bayram Bey conceded that the demand has dropped to some extent, but he brightened when explaining that the market is still excellent for collectors who wish to enhance their collections with meerschaum items, which are unrelated to smoking, such as boxes, animal figurines, whirling dervishes, and busts.

As for the future of meerschaum carving, he gave a typically Turkish shrug and rolled his eyes upward and said as long as people buy, he will continue to carve. It is his life. “İnşallah,” (God willing) he said. “İnşallah,” I replied, and I hope he will be there on Kaleiçi’s Hesapçi Sokak, carving his meerschaum for many years to come.