Hood: Çemberlitaş. Inhabitant & Words: Emir Barın. Photos: Deniz Sabuncu.
*A ‘han’ refers to a structure that was usually placed on long roads to serve as an inn for travelers to stay in. Business hans, on the other hand, existed in cities, and some still remain.
Çemberlitaş neighbourhood covers a very small area. Suppose we draw a circle with the Column of Constantine in the center. In that case, we can define the area as what is between Nuriosmaniye Mosque in the north, Cağaloğlu Anatolian High School in the west, Çemberlitaş Student Girls' Dormitory in the south, and Çemberlitaş Anatolian High School in the east. Or we can call it the neighbourhood where the Grand Bazaar has fewer tourists, where trays buzz around in the evening collecting empty dishes, where birds take a breather in the square of the Cistern of Theodosius where crafts and handicrafts are passed down from master to apprentice, where 'go today and pay tomorrow' is still in effect, and where traces of every community that existed Istanbul in the past can be found. This is Çemberlitaş, the place where the Column of Constantine is located, which is overshadowed by the Çemberlitaş Hammam and other touristic stops. It is the next stop after Sultanahmet on the tram.
Emir. Without any posing, the way he is.
Today, Çemberlitaş is one of the most touristic spots in Istanbul, but the fact that its recognition as a ‘han’ is actually a new reputation. Since the Byzantine Period, the road between the Column of Constantine and Topkapı Palace was known as the protocol road, and ambassadors, viziers, and soldiers used to stay at Çemberlitaş before being admitted to the palace. The state's most important marches and processions were held on this road. For this reason, the area was a very important center in the Byzantine period and remained so in the Ottoman Period. Therefore, the communities it has hosted in the past have left traces of themselves in the neighbourhood both culturally and architecturally. Among these traces, apart from the well-known Column of Constantine and Çemberlitaş Hammam, which are described as the oldest surviving monument of Istanbul from the Byzantine period, among the lesser-known structures of this region are definitely the Tomb of Mahmut II, and the cemeteries with the most well-kept tombstones of Istanbul, the Press Media Museum, Cistern of Theodosius and Şerefiye Square, Köprülü Library, one of the oldest libraries of Istanbul, and Kubbealtı Madrasah, which still publishes and provides education today.
The center of press, print, craft, and lastly, tourism
Before the 2000s, Çemberlitaş was a highly intellectual neighbourhood. Since the neighbourhood has been the center of Turkey's press and printing industry since the 1800s, the old inhabitants of this area were mostly printers, ink printers, postcard makers, and people supplying materials to them. Since the 1900s, as a result of the relocation of these companies to organized industrial zones and the tourism boom, the number of these people has decreased in the neighbourhood. Currently, there are mostly hotels, restaurants, and shops selling touristic goods and jewelers in the old ateliers since the neighbourhood is close to the Grand Bazaar.
Carpets. Tourist's favorite.
The fact that Çemberlitaş is home to rich historical heritage including Çemberlitaş Hammam, the Column of Constantine, the Cistern of Philoxenos, and hans, alongside now abandoned ateliers for certain crafts, and the small business culture we were more used to seeing in the past, make Çemberlitaş touristically more attractive. However, this can also cause some developments that might hurt its fabric. It is a dilemma of 'can tourism end tourism?'
Especially in the Çemberlitaş area, which is located right in the middle of Sultanahmet and Grand Bazaar, there is a very intense flow of tourists during the day. Many places are turned into tourist shops and hotels. On the other hand, of course, there are still well-established stationeries, shops selling printing tools, and a very small number of ink-engraving shops, of which we, as Barın Han, are one of them. It should also be noted that only a few of these places still remain, and it has become increasingly difficult for them to survive in the area. However, even the existence of these ateliers is, in a way, a type of resistance to this transformation. We can foresee that at least these ateliers will remain in the Çemberlitaş neighbourhood for many years, especially since those who are interested in the jewelry business are located in this region and the Grand Bazaar is still a lively center.
Çemberlitaş, its tourists, and locals
Barın Han and the neighbourhood residents’ ‘Thursday Meetings’
With its libraries, madrasas, printing houses, and museums, Çemberlitaş has always been known as an area frequented by intellectuals throughout history. Thanks to the concentration of artisans and craftspersons in this region, it has also become an important center in terms of design. With regard to traditional arts, since many museums and mosques have the writings and works of very valuable calligraphers, the calligrapher and bookbinder Prof. Dr. Emin Barın took a lot from this region. In addition, the expertise of this region in the art of books was also reflected in Emin Barın's works. We can say that Emin Barın’s workshop and its neighbourhood made great contributions to the work of carrying the past to the future.
We are at Barın Han. Listening to Emir.
Until the 2000s, Barın Han was in very close contact with the neighbourhood. Especially because of the value Emin Barın placed on craftsmanship and artisans, his relationship with the neighbourhood and its inhabitants was very strong. For this reason, we can separate Barın Han from other ateliers in the neighbourhood. If we look at the participants of the ‘Thursday Meetings’, which were initiated at Barın Han to support ideas, solidarity, and cooperation, and continued for about twenty five years, we know that in addition to artists, collectors, and museum directors, there were also participants from the tradespeople in the neighbourhood (for example, from Çemberlitaş Pickle Shop). This, in fact, is an indication that the neighbourhood was exchanging ideas and cooperating with each other regardless of the specialization of the time and that Barın Han was in contact with the neighbourhood.
‘Together’ and in the neighbourhood again, 20 years later
When we came back to the neighbourhood in 2019, almost 20 years later, we were encouraged to see that some of the shopkeepers are still in business today. Our neighbors in the neighbourhood were also very happy that with the return of Barın Han, cultural and artistic activities started here again and Çemberlitaş returned to its old, lively days. They also give us all the support they can. To give a few examples, pastry shops and cafés, which are very popular places to visit, have hung posters of the exhibitions held at Barın Han in their windows, put brochures around the cash register, and introduced Barın Han to their customers. The restaurant next door sent us snacks for every opening. At certain intervals, employees from restaurants and cafés come to visit the exhibitions. Although Barın Han has been empty for many years, our relationship with the neighbourhood continues from where it left off.
We are going after them. Let's see where will the road end.
We have a very close relationship with the neighbourhood. The most important structure of the disappearing neighbourhood culture is thinking about living together rather than individualism; treating all our neighbors and the neighbourhood in a respectful manner. We invite our neighbors to the exhibitions, performances, and events we organize, and try to contribute to the introduction of culture and art into their daily lives.
Concert preparations at Barın Han
The artists in the projects we host at Barın Han wish to be able to communicate with the neighbourhood, to make productions that include them, and to count them in their projects. However, even without going out to the neighbourhood, we experience this collective production in the workshop on the ground floor of Barın Han. The artists meet the masters in the bookbinding workshop, exchange ideas, learn the subtleties of marbling art and bookbinding techniques when necessary, and they create together. The continuation of the collective production that has been going on in this han for more than 50 years is one of our top priorities.
How can we develop the dialogue between the old and the new, the art and the craft?
For all these reasons, Barın Han, which has been a meeting point for many people since the 1950s, represents a space that tries to increase communication and dialogue with the city as one of the important meeting points of 17th Istanbul Biennial. The fact that Çemberlitaş, where the han is located, has a very strong history of craftsmanship, which is hard to find, turns the neighbourhood into one of the important points of the biennial in this sense.
Emin Barın's bookbinding workshop
The binding workshop founded by Emin Barın, where countless books have been meticulously bound by craftspeople since the 1950s and which is still in operation inside the han, is intended to remind the biennial audience of a craft that is about to be forgotten. This workshop, where Emin Barın first worked with the students of his esteemed student İslam Seçen, and then those professors came together with their own students and continued the master-apprentice relationship, is also an important location to observe the master-apprentice relationship and collective production. We believe that collective production and transmission can continue as long as there are ateliers similar to this one instead of hotels and eateries.
How can a han hold space for collective production?
Hans, which have been a part of Turkey’s culture for centuries, had a very important role in collective production and transmission. Today, one of the reasons for the loss of these values is the view that the business hans, especially in old Istanbul, have lost their function and that they are demolished and replaced by hotels for profitability. If we could maintain these hans as a living space and enable newer professions to develop here, we would have kept the culture of working under one roof in a respectful manner and the culture of collective production alive. Now, everyone is in their own offices and ateliers; in an environment that makes transmission, collective production, learning from each other, and cooperation difficult.
Preparations for the biennial at Barın Han
As Barın Han, it is our goal to maintain this culture. After the 17th Istanbul Biennial programme, we will continue to host international and national projects of artist initiatives, different collectives, and institutions at Barın Han. Of course, all these works and exchanges that connect with the past and present of the region will meet the audience. In the oldest settlement of Istanbul, we will try to popularise contemporary art, collective production, craft and art, and the communication between the old and the new, and turn it into a culture.