Been All Around This World: A Trip to Turkey

This post was contributed by Sean Swanick, the Librarian for Middle East and Islamic Studies at Duke.

This past summer I was fortunate to visit Turkey and Morocco. In my previous blog post, I documented some of my experiences sleuthing for books in the Maghreb. This post concerns my time in Turkey, where I was again on the lookout for books, ephemera, and related materials to enhance Duke University Library’s growing Middle East and Islamic Studies Collections.

Turkey is a remarkably diverse country with a population of some 85 million people. My purpose was to find (elusive) books, make new contacts, and to continue expanding my knowledge of Turkey, Turkish, Ottoman, and related matters to better help students and researchers.

In Turkey, I spent time wandering the many delightful sahaf çarşılar (second-hand book markets) of Istanbul, the country’s capital city.  This was followed by visits to Diyarbakır and Mardin, two smaller towns in the south.

When I arrived in Istanbul, a second mayoral election was in full swing.. There were lots of posters, booklets, and related ephemera for the major political parties. I personally was able to collect some of these materials, which will be added to our growing Turkish political ephemera collection.

Spray painted official ephemera for Mayoral candidate, Ekrem İmamoğlu. Mr. İmamoğlu would eventually win the election. This was his campaign slogan and reads: Everything will be fine.

Besides visiting numerous sahaflar, I also went to a number of museums in Istanbul, such as the Pera Museum, Istanbul Modern, Sakıp Sabancı Museum, Museum of Innocence, Istanbul Photography Museum, Istanbul Research Institute, and the recently opened Yapı Kredi Vedat Nedim Tor Museum. At the Yapı Kredi there were two excellent exhibitions. The first concerned photographs of Ataturk called Hoş Geldin Gazi: Atatürk’ün İstanbul Günleri (1927-1938) (the catalogue will soon be at Duke Library for you to explore further). This was the first image of the exhibition:

It reads: Yaşasın Reis-i Cumhurumuz (Hooray for the President of our Republic.)

The other exhibition displayed the archive of Turhan Selçuk, aptly called Turhan Selçuk Retrospektifi. Turhan was a famous and influential caricaturist, who had a knack for finding humour or satire in most subject matter. We have many satirical journals for you to peruse, and two years ago I led the curation of Yasak/Banned, a Duke University library exhibit highlighting these collections. The Turhan exhibition had many highlights, including the following:

Istanbul is a city known as Der Saadet, an Ottoman-Turkish combination of an Arabic word (saadet) and a Persian word (der) together meaning the “Abode of Happiness.” Certainly, anyone who has visited Istanbul would agree. The city offers everything a curious traveler might want: books, diversity, museums, restaurants, spectacular views, incredible history…in short everything that is the abode of happiness.

So-called ‘umbrella-street’ in Beyoğlu, Istanbul.

From Istanbul, I flew to Diyarbakır in southern Turkey. Diyarbakır has witnessed inhabitation since at least the 1300 BC, during the time of the Assyrian kingdom. In its current conception, there are two cities: yeni ve eski (old and new). The old city contains the historic walls dating back to the 4th century, when the Romans colonized the city, while the new city contains shops, new housing, military barracks, and government offices. Diyarbakır is home to a wide variety of people, languages, foods, and traditions.

While the city structure, architecture, food (especially ciğer/ceger, or liver), and people are incredibly generous, thoughtful, and helpful, for me it is always about the books. There are several terrific bookstores in Diyarbakır, in both the new and old cities. In the old city, I spent several hours in bookstores while also taking-in some of the cultural activities, like visiting the Diyarbakır Dengbej Evi, Dengbej is a traditional form of story-telling. Two bookstores were of particular interest. Ensar Kitapevi holds an enormous collection in Turkish, Kurdish (Soranî and Kurmancî), Arabic, Persian and a few English titles. Subjects are as diverse as the languages represented: history, literature, cultural studies, language manuals, etc. But even more, the building was awe-inspiring with many reading nooks to sit and read at one’s leisure while also being offered local teas and coffees. Here’s a photo to entice you:

The other noteworthy bookstore in Diyarbakır, and the one with which Duke will be working closely to acquire Kurdish and Turkish materials is Pirtukakurdi. Based in the new city, the shop opened a few years ago. I spent most of a day with these bibliophiles as we discussed issues related to Kurdish languages and books. Here’s a photo from their warehouse:

From Diyarbakır, I hired a taxi to Mardin, a trip that should normally take one hour; my trip took a bit longer, since we stopped a few times to take-in the views and to help a fellow with a flat tire. A gorgeous drive through Mesopotamia on a new highway was enriched by conversation with the taxi driver and the radio playing Selda Bağcan.

Mardin is another city that divides the new from the old. The new city contains the famous state-run university, Mardin Artuklu University. The old city is built on a hill, a mountain really, overlooking the vast expanse of Mesopotamia and its farmland. Mardin is famous for a number of reasons, including its diversity, its Churches, Mosques, and formerly Synagogues. Süryani (Syriac language) is still spoken and taught here; in fact, the people of Mardin speak Süryani, Kurdish, Turkish, and Arabic, sometimes in the same sentence: a truly remarkable experience of linguistic diversity. There is certainly some truth in the Turkish proverb: Dil bilmek, bilgeliğe açılan kapıdır, which translates as “knowledge of languages is the doorway to wisdom.”

In addition to the cultural sites mentioned above, the Sakıp Sabancı Mardin Kent Müzesi museum is a tremendous resource, offering exhibitions of its permanent collections, Mardin city history, as well as travelling exhibitions, such as the one on modern photography, to which I was treated during my stay in Mardin.

Mardin is also near the Syrian border. Prior to 2011 and the pain and devastation that has been inflicted on the locals by so many domestic, national, and international actors, the border was open with more-or-less free passage, especially for the trading, bartering, and buying of goods and services. Those days are now long gone, replaced with a heavy military presence and ubiquitous checkpoints. Shortly after I visited the border town of Nusaybin, for example, a Church in neighbouring Qamishli, Syria was bombed. The ramifications of these actions are felt by many people, not just the victims.

On my last night in Mardin, I was able to meet with Engin Emre Değer, an incredible person, originally from Istanbul, who moved to Mardin a few years ago. Engin works with a theater troupe, whose main purpose is to help the many Syrian refugees living in Turkey, particularly children. Listening to his stories of the encounters he has had and the joy he hasbrought to so many was remarkable. One of Engin’s projects is the Flying Carpet Mardin Children’s Music Festival: https://muzikhane.org/fcf. The festival takes place over a few days with free music and a circus-like atmosphere.

This summer’s book buying excursion was full of remarkable experiences. The books Duke University Library is acquiring continues to enhance the reputation of the Library, as well as the scholars for whom it primarily serves. Over the coming months, I will highlight some of these collections while also providing suggestions and ideas on how to make the most of these unique materials.

All photos were taken by Sean Swanick.

One thought on “Been All Around This World: A Trip to Turkey”

  1. Thank you for sharing your fascinating account of your journey to my much loved second home! What a mesmerizing place, so steeped in history and culture!

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