Have pen, will travel. Sending letters.
A letter from Turkey. In which are introduced a number of pencil and watercolour sketches done during an excavation campaign.
Turkey, autumn of 2013
today’s letter is all about scratching and scribbling. Lately, wherever I go, I hardly ever leave without one or two pencils and a small sketchbook in the pocket of my jacket. Now, I am telling you, that’s not only pretty useful when you need to note that important phone number or write down a grocery list, but it also offers a lot of potential to record these little details one is coming across each day. In particular ‘en route.’ Sketching is, by the way, a great chance to learn a different way of perception. While we tend to see the world through the view finder of our digital cameras these days trying to capture the moment, drawing, really is about observing, about taking time and looking closer. So, if you don’t mind, I really would like to invite you to have a look into the sketchbook of my last autumn’s expedition to excavate in south-eastern Anatolia. What do you think?
While the town of Şanlıurfa (or in short ‘Urfa’ – the prefix ‘şanlı’ meaning glorious (thus, ‘Urfa the Glorious’) was awarded to the town in 1984 due to commitment in the Turkish War of Independence 1919-1923), known as Edessa in ancient times, can be regarded as a metropolis nowadays, its old town still breaths this exotic oriental atmosphere. You really should see these narrow alleyways, the rising slim towers and those minarets, and outstanding oriel windows! The bright and shimmering light, the exotic architecture, and the buzzing street life are downright asking to pause and let the scene sink in.
By approaching Urfa’s old bazaar and entering the former caravanserai it was established in and nearby, you would leave behind the street noise, immediately being captured by another most bustling atmosphere. Imagine busy sales booths, chatty salesmen, and veiled women passing by. Imagine the crowd dragging you along. And then, suddenly a small byway opens up, releases you from the stream right into the heart of the old way-station … which turns out to serve as small tea room these days, offering some peculiar local delicacies as I noted at a page with some quick sketches I took over a coffee or two (noteworthy among these: ‘Menengiç kahvesi’ – a coffee made from the roasted skin of fresh pistachios, and ‘Mirra kahve’ – a very, very strong brew of coffee).
Sitting in a café gives you also the perfect occasion to have a closer look at the people around you, to discover all the little local peculiarities – without actually being too flamboyant and intrusive. Even more, the sketchbook is quite handy in situations where a camera would be a bit too flashy. Like then I was attending Friday sermon and prayer in that historical mosque the other day for instance (well, you should have received that letter by now, haven’t you). I’m pretty sure, waving with my SLR camera would not only have caught quite some attention but probably also some unease (and for good reason, I can almost hear you murmur). A quick pencil sketch on the other hand, cautious and unobtrusive, helped to capture the scene and only earned a curious look or approving nod.
And then, leaving the dim hall of the mosque, turning around the next corner, you will suddenly find another place behind the pines, quietly dozing in the shadows. Another place telling yet another story to those listening. Like for example these headstones at a small, old Ottoman cemetery right behind the mosque’s courtyard seeming so far from the busy promenades on the other side of the dignified building. Yet more things to discover! In that note in German accompanying the sketches I’m commenting on the stones’ anthropomorphic character due to the depiction of headdresses and I am curiously pointing out that the tombs of important personalities are marked in green.
Yet more sketches evolve from everyday situations, like at the excavation site itself. While digging in ancient dust can be some kind of ‘daily grind’ as well, it also brings enough diversion to be recorded by the attentive observer. You know, the kind of technical notes to remember how to tie this darned tripod and secure its stability.
And not to talk of those other situations allowing you to document all these little work steps taking place at an excavation. From physical digging to precision work at the sieves and individual workmen portraits – it all finds a place in that little paper-bound booklet. Or the little daily occurrences at the roadside. You can imagine that range and variety of motives is quite immense once you got the chance to lean back and discover the moment.
Usually, I do most of these quick sketches with a pencil, adding slight nuances of shadow and light, and – if necessary – a short note on the colour scheme. The real coloration is done at later point, in a calm moment at the excavation house with a bit more leisure. You know, watercolour needs some time to dry, so patience is another factor – and, I’ve got to admit, a challenge sometimes.
But this should be enough for the moment. I guess, I quite cluttered you with pictures and sketches this time. Until next time, my friend – fare thee well.