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Istanbul İstanbul

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, is an Ottoman 17th century imperial mosque. The design blends traditional Islamic architecture with Byzantine elements from the neighbouring Hagia Sophia Mosque.

Istanbul İstanbul

The Hagia Sophia Mosque (foreground) was built a thousand years earlier as a Christian cathedral by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I when Istanbul – then called Constantinople – was part of the Roman Empire.

Istanbul İstanbul

After the city (formerly known as Constantinople) was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the city’s Grand Bazaar was built to stimulate the Ottoman economy. Comprising 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops, it became a major engine of Silk Road trade. Today, a staggering 90 million people pass through the Bazaar each year.

Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

Considered one of the first shopping malls of the world, construction of the Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar began soon after the conquest of the city by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Over the next 150 years it expanded in size but by the beginning of the 17th century it had taken on the form we know today.

Comprising 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops, this enormous trade hub employs some 26,000 people. It attracts between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily. A staggering 90m people pass through it each year.

During the height of the Ottoman Empire the Bazaar was the hub of the Mediterranean trade and an engine of trade along the Silk Road. European travellers marvelled at the abundance and variety of goods that were bought and sold here.

Today, its vaulted passageways are still lined with shops selling everything from cheap plastic products to luxury Persian carpets.

It’s easy to get lost and lose track of time in this vast labyrinth. After completely losing my bearings, I took refuge at a cafe that had been in Bekir Tezçakar’s family for four generations. Bekir insisted I try the home-made lemonade. I obliged and happily quenched my thirst whilst chatting to an Iraqi trader with bright blue eyes.

After a brief pit stop I set off in the direction of one of the exists he helpfully pointed in the general direction of. Some time later, I eventually found my way out.

Within the labyrinth
A jeweller. The lighting conditions are far from perfect in the bazaar and this shot just looked much better in black and white.
A steady stream of human traffic
A river of visitors
A textile trader
Tourists and locals mingle in the bazaar
A kurdish trader. Another that worked better in black and white.
He was a great subject so here’s another
A boy carrying tea
Tea break for this trader
A family shopping trip
One of the four marble drinking fountains
Tea break for this security guard
The antique market department
Portrait of a trader
One of the smarter carpet shops
The Iraqi trader I sat and chatted with for a while
A textile trader
Portrait of a sweets trader
Not the grandest but one of the entrances/exists

Istanbul İstanbul

The Bosporus, the narrow strait that separates the two halves of Istanbul, and Europe from Asia, ensured that it was not only overland trade routes flowing through the city. The Bosporus was and remains one of the busiest sea lanes in the world.

Istanbul İstanbul

Ayten Tiryaki is the first woman since Ottoman times to hold an Ijazah (a licence or permission to transmit knowledge) in both calligraphy and illumination. Learn more about her and her art form in the story link on the right hand side.

Ayten Tiryaki, master calligrapher and illuminator of Istanbul

Ayten Tiryaki, in her shop and workshop on the Asian side of the Bosphorus in Istanbul.

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.

You can learn more about Ayten and her work on her workshop’s website and on her Instagram.

Ayten talking to her son Musa
Ayten Tiryaki talking about one of her calligraphy and illumination pieces
A detail of one of Ayten’s creations.
Some of Ayten’s calligraphy materials. She puts silk in her ink pots to keep the ink fresh.
Ayten adds silk to her ink pots to keep them from drying
Ayten at work
A calligraphy teaching sheet. Each Arabic letter has a idealised propotion shown here by how many dots make up their length and height.
Ayten at work
Ayten’s shop and workshop sells a unique collection of paper. Nowhere else in the world can this many types be found in the same place.
Hand made paper sold at Ayten’s workshop and shop
One of Ayten’s family members preparing paper for calligraphy and illumiation. He is covering the paper with a thin layer of egg white.
One of Ayten’s family members preparing paper for calligraphy and illumiation. He is covering the paper with a thin layer of egg white.
One of Ayten’s family members preparing paper for calligraphy and illumiation. He is covering the paper with a thin layer of egg white.
Ayten with two of her students. In total she has 80 students. She has graduated 27 students meaning they have ‘ijazahs’. “Of course some students are frustrated that I haven’t given them the ijazah yet but it is my reputation too. I represent my masters and they represent theirs so it is a big responsibility,” she says.
Ayten with two of her students
Ayten showing some details to her students
Ayten showing some details to her students
Ayten uses some rabbit fur to rest her hand on as she writes
Ayten uses some rabbit fur to rest her hand on as she writes
Ayten Tiryaki, master calligrapher and illuminator.

Konya Konya

Konya marks the final resting place of the 13th century Persian poet, Islamic theologian and Sufi mystic, Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi. Sufism, sometimes defined as ‘the inward dimension of Islam’, dates back to early Islam and takes many forms.

Konya Konya

The tomb of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi.

Istanbul İstanbul

Rumi introduced to his followers the practice of whirling as a physically active meditation. Through the act of whirling, dervishes turn towards the Divine presence, grow through love, desert their egos and strive towards perfection. They then return from this spiritual state better able to love and be of service to the whole of creation. The tall felt hats they wear represent the tombstone of the dervish’s ego.

Whirling Dervishes of Beyoğlu, Istanbul

At the heart of Istanbul’s smart Beyoglu district is Galata Mevlevi House. Built in 1491, it was the city’s first Sufi Dervish house and dervishes still practice their whirling here today. Sufism has been defined “Islamic mysticism” and “the inward dimension of Islam” and dates back to early Islamic history, around about the 8th century.

The practice of whirling came late and originates from the teachings of the 13th-century Persian poet, Islamic theologian and Sufi mystic, Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi.

Whirling is a form of physically active meditation and produces an ecstatic state in the Dervish allowing them to be or feel closer to God. Through whirling, dervishes ‘turn towards truth, grow through love, desert their egos and arrive at the perfect. They then return from this spiritual journey better able to love and be of service to the whole of creation.’

The tall rough wooden hats they wear represent the tombstone of the dervish’s ego, and the white cloak, his ego’s shroud.

This was the third whirling dervish performance I have witnessed and it was no less mesmerising than the others (one in Cairo and the other on the outskirts of Istanbul).

Whilst this dervish house is more tourist-focused than the others, the setting – as you can see from the photos – is stunningly beautiful. It is well worth a visit.

The performance begins with chanting from the gallery
Then the dervish start their whirling
One of the Dervishes deep in a meditative state
One of the Dervishes deep in a meditative state
The Dervishes hat represents the tombstone of his ego
The setting at this Dervish house is particularly elegant
The Dervishes white cloak represents his ego’s shroud
One of the senior Dervishes (in the black gown) checks and corrects the form of those whirling
The most senior Dervish offers prayers as the ceremony comes to an end
And then leaves the performance area
The most senior Dervish is then followed by the others in order of their seniority
The Dervishes bow toward the Mihrab – the direction of Mecca – before departing at the end of the performance
Watch a video of the performance with some slo-motion around the halfway mark

Eastern Anatolia Doğu Anadolu

Eastern Anatolia was once part of the Christian kingdoms of Armenia. It is home to numerous churches, some dating back to the 10th century, such as the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Lake Van.

Eastern Anatolia Doğu Anadolu

North of Van, past Mount Ararat (left) where Noah’s Arc is believed to have come to rest, lie the ruins of Ani (right) which was once one of the world’s largest cities.

Eastern Anatolia Doğu Anadolu

Located at a key junction of the Silk Road, it was known as ‘the city of 1001 churches’. The destruction caused by the Mongols in 1236 and by an earthquake in 1319 means that only a few vestiges of that city remain.

Eastern Anatolia Doğu Anadolu

Numerous caravanserais survive in this region. For thousands of years, these were the places where travelling merchants would rest, wash in the hammam (bathhouse), pray in the mosque, treat their injured or ill horses and camels and share news. Typically they were built every 30km — a day’s journey apart — and they formed the backbone of the Silk Road trading networks. There were also used to quarantine travellers before they entered cities in case they carried the plague.

The Silk Road

In 138 BCE, General Zhang Qian of China’s Han Dynasty was sent on a diplomatic mission to develop economic and cultural links with the peoples of Central Asia. In so doing, he set in motion the creation of a transcontinental trade route that would shape the world as we know it today.

The Silk Road, as it would later be called, is neither an actual road nor a single route. It refers to the historic network of trade routes that stretched thousands of miles across Eurasia connecting China with Europe. Grain, livestock, leather, precious stones, porcelain, wool, gold and, of course, silk were transported along its network of trading posts and markets. As a consequence, two thousand years ago affluent Romans could garb themselves in silk clothes made in China while gold coins bearing Caesar’s image were spent in spice markets in India.

It was not only goods that travelled these routes but knowledge, religions and people too. Gunpowder, the magnetic compass, the printing press, and advanced mathematics all came to Europe from China and the Islamic world. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam each found new converts in the lands that opened up to the East and West. Along these same routes, Mongol armies swept across Eurasia — as did bubonic plague, travelling with merchants and their animals.

These exchanges had a profound impact on the empires and civilisations through which they passed, giving them political, religious and cultural shape. Many of the more networked cities developed into hubs of culture and learning and, in some, the sparks of a golden age were ignited.

By the late 16th century, the Silk Road had lost its prominence to new maritime trade routes but the legacy of interconnectivity and exchange endured. Today, it is being reimagined on an unprecedented scale. Through China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Eurasia is the focus of the largest and most expensive infrastructure project in history. If realised, a massive network of roads, railways, pipelines and ports could connect as much as 65% of the world’s population and radically alter the flow of global trade. It is already beginning to reshape Eurasia, focusing world attention once again on the exchange of goods and ideas running from East to West. While these investments will bring enormous opportunities, they come with many risks, especially for Central Asia. Regional insecurity, rising inequality, cultural dislocation, resource scarcity and climate change — all these must be mediated if the new Silk Road is to deliver prosperity to all of those who live along it.

The Aga Khan Foundation & The Silk Road

The Aga Khan Foundation and agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) have been active in countries along the Silk Road for decades. AKDN is a long-term partner in the development of Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan.

Alongside its partners, AKDN has channelled significant financial and human resources into economic, social and cultural development in these regions. Promoting pluralism, self-reliance and women’s empowerment have been central to those efforts. AKDN’s initiatives are wide-ranging and include agriculture and food security, climate resilience, education, energy, enterprise development, financial services, healthcare, infrastructure, telecommunications and promoting civil society. It has also restored hundreds of historical monuments, parks and gardens and supported some of Central Asia’s greatest musicians to transmit their knowledge and perform on the world’s stage. AKDN’s overarching aim is to improve the quality of life.

This exhibition

The Silk Road: A Living History invites you to take a journey from London to Beijing, encountering some of the people, places and cultures in-between. The exhibition aims to celebrate the diversity found along this route, explore how historical customs live on today, and reveal connections between what appear at first glance to be very different cultures. Ultimately, the exhibition aims to help build bridges of interest and understanding between distant places and challenge perceptions of less well-known or understood parts of the world. The exhibition was created by Christopher Wilton-Steer, a travel photographer and Head of Communications at the Aga Khan Foundation (UK).

This exhibition is not an exhaustive photographic documentation of Eurasia’s people and cultures. It is a record of some of those Christopher encountered over the course of an overland journey from London to Beijing that he undertook in 2019 and therefore reflects only a fraction of the realities of these places. It is one of an infinite number of stories that could be told.


I would like to thank first and foremost the wonderful and kind people I met on my travels and who allowed me into their lives. I am grateful to Simon Norfolk, Gary Otte, Andrew Quilty, Sebastian Schutyser and Kapila Productions for allowing me to use some of their photographs of places or events I was unable to visit on my journey. I would like to acknowledge the invaluable travel advice I received from Wild Frontiers and Eastern Turkey Tours, and the support from King’s Cross Central General Partner Ltd. who have allowed for this exhibition to take place in this public space. Lastly, I would like to thank my colleagues across the Aga Khan Development Network for their support and especially the Aga Khan Foundation who shared in the vision for this exhibition.

Christopher Wilton-Steer