Old men playing cards, young girls feeding the gulls, fishermen awaiting a catch, a carpenter working a lathe, women some covered some not walking arm in arm, dogs and cats wandering the streets with independent lives of their own. There is so much life to Istanbul, so much to drink in. It’s a clean city but only just. It’s wonderfully lived in and rough around the edges. The signs of modernity are plentiful but you can still hear and smell and feel and touch the city of the past.
Through the artist Dr. Veeda Ahmed – a former student at The Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts – I had been put in touch with a calligraphy and illumination Hodja (master) living on the Asian side of the Bosporus. I was interested to learn more about these art forms so rooted in Turkish history and culture which have survived and continued to thrive for centuries.
Ayten Tiryaki’s workshop and shop – where her family produces paper, and where she teaches and works – is made up of five or so neatly arranged rooms. I expected the visit to last 45 minutes at the most. Three hours later we were still chatting.
Ayten, a petite but steely lady, is the first women since Ottoman times to hold an Ijazah (a licence or permission to transmit knowledge) in both calligraphy and illumination.
To achieve this status, your commitment must be absolute. Some calligraphers are known to spend two years practising one sentence alone. It’s serious business. As Ayten tells me: “it is not just art but a means to give people a message about Islam.”
As a student she recalls visiting the Topcapi Palace’s precious collections: “it took my breath away”. The art reached its zenith during the 16th century and has only experienced minor modifications since from a handful of its greatest proponents.
Ayten is a teacher now, a master with around 80 apprentices. Ijazah status can only be bestowed on an apprentice by their master. This title, however, is not permanent. If standards drop, you can be stripped of it. There is near constant appraisal process. “Of course some of my students are frustrated that I haven’t given them the Ijazah yet,” she tells me, “but it is my reputation too. I represent my masters and they represent theirs so it is a big responsibility.”
As well as tutoring her apprentices and managing the business, Ayten is currently illuminating an original Qur’an that will go on display in Istanbul’s giant new Yeni Çamlica Camîi mosque once complete.