Monday, May 28, 2012

ISTANBUL: Museum of Innocence, Mevlevi Lodge, Pera Museum, Modern Art Museum

Whirling Dervish Dance Floor, Mevlevi Lodge, Istanbul
In late May, I spent ten days in Turkey, which as my seat mate on the plane to Istanbul suggested, was not nearly long enough! My purpose in going was to participate in a writing workshop in Istanbul, which included daily excursions throughout the city. (More about those in future posts.)  We stayed in an area called Beyoglu, a hilly neighborhood full of shops, cafes, museums and hotels, and topped by the Galata tower, which offers a 360 view of all of Istanbul from the viewing area on the top.  Istanbul has dozens of museums.  Here are four in Beyoglu that I visited.

Museum of Innocence 

Museum of Innocence
On our first evening in Istanbul, our group set out to walk to the Museum of Innocence, located in the Çukurcuma neighborhood of Beyoglu, not far from our hotel. The museum, which opened in April 2012, is a construct of the book of the same name by Nobel-Laureate Orhan Pamuk.  It displays a collection of objects evocative of everyday life and culture of Istanbul during the period in which the novel is set. The book, published in 2008, is a long and detailed account of the obsessive love that Kemal Basmaci, a wealthy businessman, bears for Fusun, a lower class shop girl 12 years his junior. In the story, Kemal assembles a collection of objects as a monument to the two women in his life, Fusun and his fiance.  In the process of writing the story, Pamuk scoured antique shops in Istanbul, collecting objects both as mementos of the events of the story (with the plan to assemble them in a museum), but also, in some cases, to inspire the action.  So, the objects both drove the story and reflect the story.
Orhan Pamuk in Museum of Innocence
There are 83 chapters in the book, each with its own exhibit. The exhibits are on three floors.  At some level the museum is a giant doll’s house.  Some exhibits are assemblages of small objects, not unlike the boxes made by Joseph Cornell in the 40's and 50's.  In one instance, the objects are mounted in an old printing press type tray.  Others are like tiny theaters with red velvet curtains, sometimes open, sometimes closed. (Apparently some chapters are still in progress and the curtains will later be opened.)  Luckily, the title of each box is in both Turkish and English, as are quotes on the wall. Each one is provocative.  “It was the happiest moment of my life though I didn’t know it.”  This quote is from the beginning of the book but is a theme that reappears throughout the story.  Two people in our group were reading the book and helped explain the meaning of the exhibits.  In one chapter Kemal keeps seeing the ghost of his lover all over Istanbul.  In the exhibit for that chapter, we see small black and white photos of various places in Istanbul depicting crowds of people, one of whom is a woman dressed in red. In another chapter, Fusun loses an earring.  In that case, one of the objects is a single earring.  On the top level of the museum is a display of Pamuk’s handwritten manuscript for the book and sketches of his plans for the display cases.  In many ways, the museum reminded me of the Kafka Museum in Prague, with its intellectual and philosophical overlay of ideas and reality.  There is the fiction of the museum in the book intersecting with the fiction/reality of the author’s actual museum.

Mevlevi Lodge

Courtyard and cemetery in Mevlevi Lodge
 Istanbul is a city that assaults the senses with the intensity of its colors, sounds, tastes, and smells, and the mix of water and land on two continents.  For a peaceful interlude, a visit to the Mevlevi Lodge, an 18th century Sufi monastery, is a welcome change. Located just off busy Istiklal street, this beautiful garden, cemetery, lodge, and small museum are open to the public.  On the day I visited almost no one else was there except for the ubiquitous cats, which are everywhere in Istanbul.

Drawing of Whirling Dervishes in Mevlevi Muse
Originally, Sufis were disciples of the poet Rumi, who lived in Konya in central Anatolia in the 13th century. The Sufi sect is famous for its whirling dervishes.  The museum has large wooden dance floor where whirling dervishes perform on Sundays.  A number of other places in Istanbul also have performances of dervishes and I went to one of these.  The performances are solemn events–no clapping is allowed–and mesmerizing, as the dancers slowly twirl to somber music in their long white skirts in their ritual dance.  In the side rooms of the Mevlevi museum there were displays of calligraphy and paper marbling.  I recently read the book The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak, a good introduction Rumi and Sufi beliefs.

Pera Museum

One day I visited the Pera Museum, located not far from the famous and elegant Pera Hotel where Agatha Christie stayed while writing Murder on the Orient Express.  The Pera Museum’s permanent collections feature Anatolian weights and measures and ceramics, but the main attraction was a visiting exhibit on the upper three floors of the museum, showing paintings and prints by Goya.  The rooms were crowded with groups of school children and other visitors.  One wall displayed prints from his dream sequence with bizarre images of animals and humans.  Another series showed children playing; another showed his bullfight series.  Two large oil paintings of royal figures in the main room seemed surprisingly modern with their realistic and unflattering expressions.

Modern Art Museum
At the end of my stay, I went to the Modern Art Museum, located in an industrial style building along the waterfront.  In one gallery, there were contemporary pieces, including a number of videos, not necessarily by Turkish artists. One of my favorites was the projection of swaying trees in luminescent green onto the walls of a dark room.  If one moved close to the wall, one’s shadow became part of the art.  In another gallery, one could follow the development of Turkish art in the modern era, which follows trends seen elsewhere in Europe and the U.S.  A photography gallery on the ground floor has wonderful black and white photos of Turkish rural life. The museum restaurant on the waterfront side of the building has a spectacular view.

You can read about the Istanbul writing workshop that motivated this trip in my May 23 post at
For a wonderful compilation of photos and writing from 14 members of the Writing Istanbul group, go to this online magazine Writing Istanbul at


Bizim gizli mabedimiz.. said... every thing about Istanbul

Tom Watson said...

Looks interesting, ill be sure to check it out. Cheap property in Istanbul