BIG MOTHER HAN 3: Drawing in Buyuk Valide Han

Well, she’s gone. My drawing partner from the past six months, Gabrielle who got me up on this blog, is now drawing her tucchas off in Rome.  I’ve never had a drawing partner, and my we had fun, both drawing and hanging out. We’re about the same height and coloring, and she’s half my age. Everyone thought she was my daughter.

Gaby & Me ©2012 Trici Venola


Our last drawing session was up on the roof at Buyuk Valide Han. We meandered up there about a month ago the first time, on a miserably cold dark day, and held out for about two hours. We knew she was leaving, and wanted to make the most of any dry weather. Here’s what I got: not much:

Up On the Roof WIP 1 ©2012 Trici Venola

And we had a swell pizza. This beloved place is just out the back door of the Han complex. If there’s a better in the Old City I don’t know where.

That Great Pizza Place ©2012 Trici Venola

After that day the snow set in and drawing outside was impossible. About ten days ago, we staggered up there anyway to finish the drawings. Plein Air, brrrrr.

Suleymaniye Vista ©2012 Trici Venola

But here’s the view, isn’t it wonderful? That’s Suleymaniye Mosque on the hill up there. It was built by the great master architect Mimar Sinan, still studied all over the world, back in the mid-16th century for Suleyman the Magnificent. It’s been in renovation for the past five years. It used to look like God had been living in it for half a millennium, and now it looks like a movie set. It actually is a movie set; they shot part of the new Bond movie up there last fall.

Bosporus Vista ©2012 Trici Venola

And there’s the Yeni Mosque in front of the Galata Bridge in Eminonu, and beyond it the Ataturk Bridge across the Bosphorus. We’re looking up toward the Black Sea.

The Guys in the First Courtyard ©2012 Trici Venola

Where are we? You go all the way through Buyuk Valide Han: up the steep driveway and through the first little courtyard, through the Big Han parking lot with the Shiite mosque in it, clear to the back. If you’re lucky, you’ll meet one of the all-time great faces: Cemel.

The Best Face in the Han ©2009 Trici Venola

I’ve never encountered a face like this. Cemel tells me he’s got several brothers look just like him, but this is a two-shot of his face alone. You’d do a lot worse than to get a shoeshine from him, too.

Cemel at Work ©2012 Trici Venola

Through the arched Byzantine passage, past the sunken courtyard, and out the back door of what I call the Church Han. Back in 2009 there was this kid, Firat. He hung around for hours when I drew the Han, and since he did not demand it I drew him. He was so excited. Firat’s probably in the Army now, but here he is with his first mustache.

Firat Holding Still ©2009 Trici Venola

Like all portraits, I did this in about ten minutes and rendered it later, along with the background. Notice the pen strokes, how they can really strengthen the illusion of depth. Here’s a photo of the Church Han courtyard:

The Church Han Courtyard ©2012 Trici Venola

As you may remember from older posts, the roof, a barrel-vault arching across from side to side, came to just above the tops of the arches. The altar area is straight ahead. Just at the exit, there’s an astonishing work of art on the stone wall: the electrical panel for the Church Han. Lost in admiration at the sheer audacity of this job, I once started to draw this but got lost in the wiring. See?

Wired: Big Mother Han ©2007 Trici Venola

Then a hard right and a climb up a flight of tilted cement steps stuck precariously onto the side of the centuries-old wall. It’s stone and brick, with horizontal wood spacers in places. A mason friend told me that these take stress and keep the wall from collapsing. The wood is hard to recognize but wood it is. Here’s what the place looked like in fall 2004.

BVH Back Porch ©2004 by Trici Venola

I found this unfinished take with a note: Too damn cold. Later. This is common when one does not have a drawing partner. It was far colder when Gabrielle and I were up on the roof finishing those bloody drawings. This roof, like the much larger one of Buyuk Valide Han’s biggest structure, is covered with small domes, each topping a workshop. This smaller han’s domes used to cover the church, and possibly a monastery or convent.

Rooftop Domes ©2012 Trici Venola

Up here on top, the domes are weedy in places, holey in others. See them sticking up above this doorway?

There are several workshops up here, built onto the roof. Right at the top of the stairs is an earsplitting din. Glance in and see hundreds of spools furiously spinning, winding brass wire. The smiling proprietor is partially deaf, as was his father before him, but still employed.

Roof Shop Spools ©2012 Trici Venola

There used to be a cypress tree growing up here, and a rusty old weaving machine and a tribe of bronze tabby cats. And down at the end a shanty with a million-dollar view, in which dwelt a happy bearded man and a lot of barking dogs. There were more chimneys, too. One day in 2007 I was told in the Han that weaving machines had been banned. I came up and found a pile of rubble, a tree stump, and one lonely chimney. The Forces That Be had swept it all away. No one knows why.

That last morning, I got to the roof about fifteen minutes before Gaby. I’d just set up when I noticed the air turning thick. This jocular group was cleaning stove parts. In no time it looked like Armageddon.

Rooftop Smoke ©2012 Trici Venola

I leaped up and away, and fifteen minutes later there wasn’t a trace of smoke. Thanks to its location, a natural castle moated by seas, Istanbul has remarkable powers of recovery. Here’s my final drawing. Suleymaniye is undoubtedly the most magnificent mosque in Turkey. Its proportions are perfect. The four minarets (one is hidden by the dome) are of graduated size, and give a different aspect from every angle.

Up On the Roof ©2012 Trici Venola

As you can see from the rough at the beginning of this post, I tried to draw the top of this historic Ottoman chimney, but my own proportions got away from me. To my chagrin the top didn’t fit on the paper, and I’d already invested a few bone-shattering cold hours. So after I finished the drawing, I drew the chimney-top, and Photoshopped the two together.

Up On the Roof Composite ©2012 Trici Venola

Gaby with Chimney ©2012 Trici Venola

You know what? I like the first one best. The complete chimney throws off the balance and pushes the whole composition too far down. But we should pay attention to this fine old Ottoman chimney, because it is the very last. The much bigger roof of the main part of Buyuk Valide Han was covered with them, but now there are no more anywhere. Or so I am told by architect friends.

Tower of Eirene.detail 1 ©2012 Trici Venola

At the end of the roof is the Tower. This is the one I mentioned in Big Mother Han 2, the tower the guidebooks peg at 11th century but the guys in the Han call 6th. It lost its top in an earthquake in 1926 but is still impressive. A young woman was taking photographs of it, with a ruler for scale. We asked her, in a polite way, what she was doing. Her doctoral thesis, no less. At last, an expert. “What is the name of the church?”  Unknown, and this from a Turkish graduate student. She commiserated on the complete lack of information. She’s looking to find out, and I’m rooting for her. One tiny puzzle piece: an 18th-century writer referred to this tower as the Tower of Eirene. A churchly friend thinks it was a bell tower. And there it must rest.

Gaby Smoking Nargile ©2012 Trici Venola

As did we. We packed up and wrapped up, and my drawing fell facedown on the roof, which accounts for its murky wash shading in places. We clambered down the steep steps, me clutching the handrail, and out the Han, charged up the icy street and flung ourselves gasping into the clamorous color and warmth of the Grand Bazaar. Straight through, out the top and over the cobbles to the nargile cafe at Corlulu Ali Medrese. This haven deserves its own post, so I will leave you with this picture of Gabrielle smoking a snowy farewell nargile. In Rome, in Paris, in Laramie, Wyoming, draw on, girl, draw on.

All drawings Plein Air.


THE PALACE UNDER THE CARPET SHOP: Drawing In the Corridors of Lord

Ivory Angel NY Met ©2002 Trici Venola.Bas-relief4 X 4″ 500-700 CE

The bridal processional walks singing along Akbiyik Street, trailing clouds of incense. Between rows of arches and marble columns, through hotels and hostels, bars and cafes and shops, the grand company spirals up through the bad bald renovation of the Stairway of Lord, chanting with every step, and continues on toward the Four Seasons Hotel. Heavy silks and pearled brocades sweep through groups of backpackers drinking beer and smoking nargile, tourists haggling over carpets and ceramics, hotel check-ins and waiters juggling trays, as the Empress and her attendants and priests walk from her marriage, in the Church of Lord, to its consummation in the Imperial Bedchamber of the Magnaura Palace.  Sometimes I spend so much time drawing these antique ruins that the past becomes superimposed on the present.

Just Under Your Feet ©2003 by Trici Venola. The main entrance below the carpet shop, looking down into the Dome Chamber. That’s the Four Seasons at the top.

Cartoon Asia Minor ©2008 by Trici Venola


I found this place back in 1999.  I’d heard about the Byzantine palace they’d found but couldn’t get in anywhere to draw it. I was out on Kutlugun Street in Sultanahmet across from Four Seasons Hotel, crazy, thinking about them building on the ruin before I could draw it. A guy stepped out of a carpet shop. “Do not cry, Madam,” he said, “we have the Magnaura Palace in our basement.”

In the Dome Chamber. ©2005 by Trici Venola

What they have is a section of the Corridor of Lord, part of the Magnaura Palace Complex. Every structure on the street is built over a chunk of the Corridor. But the Basdogan family at Asia Minor Carpets spent half a million dollars digging out theirs.  I started drawing it that day, and I’ve been drawing it ever since. It’s a spectacular ruin. You can see it under Asia Minor Carpet Shop and from the back of Albura Kathisma Restaurant. Don’t walk where the floor is wet! I love it so much I wrote a story about it. Here’s an excerpt. For our post, I’ve included my Plein Air drawings of the place.


(Fall 1999) …As lights came on I began to see dim walls of pitted stone blocks. At the bottom of the wall to my left was a low arch. One of the electrical cords traveled along the wall and into this black hole. It lit up suddenly. The wall was so thick it was almost a tunnel. I stuck the sketchbook under my arm, bent double, and went in.

Double Door in Lord ©2005 by Trici Venola. From the Passageway, looking across the Bath at the first room.

It was a little irregular room with a tall vaulted ceiling. Amid the stones of one wall was a broken terracotta pipe. A bath? Across was the entrance to another archway. I crowded through it into a narrow passage, rough stone walls going up into shadows, iron prongs sticking out from the stones above my head, hammered into them in some forgotten necessity a thousand years ago.  

Lord Passageway ©1999 by Trici Venola. Looking back to the cement wall.

 I walked down the passage on warped wooden planks. The orange electrical cord looped along ahead of me, buzzing, strung here and there with glowing yellow bulbs. At the end of the passage it disappeared through a tall opening in the stone wall. I followed the cord through this opening. I smelled damp earth and age. The yellow lights made aureoles in the dusk.

I was in a big dim space, looking down the wooden catwalk at a brick archway about fifteen feet high, plugged almost to the top with rubble. Between the rubble and the arch was a black hole going back forever. The walls on either side were stone. At the bottom were cement sacks and a shovel. Above was a dome made of small red bricks in a spiral pattern. To the left and right of the arch were more pitted brick archways, at right angles to the one in the center. Each led to another spiral brick dome over another archway, each full of rocks and dirt that went off into the shadows. In the center arch, next to the black hole, was a bright square yellow lamp. The electrical cord swooped along to this and stopped. End of the line. I was in Byzantium.

— From ‘Just Under Your Feet’, Encounters with the Middle East, Solas House, Palo Alto. © 2007 Trici Venola.

The Indiana Jones Arch ©1999 by Trici Venola. Dome Chamber,  the drawing I did that first day.

In this early attempt at drawing old stone. I just outlined every brick. After so many centuries, each one has a separate personality. The cat clearly said, “What are you doing here?”

Open To the Sky ©1999 by Trici Venola. Dome Chamber entrance before the stairs were put in.

The Basdogan Family finished their excavation, three full rooms and the Passage, plus a small cistern behind that broken pipe. They installed two staircases and a plywood floor and topped parts of the ruin with glass, and put in a cafe with a large sign over it: Palatium.  In 2005, obsessed, I drew a schematic of their excavation. Here it is.

Magnaura Chunk Schematic ©2005 by Trici Venola.

In the story above, I went into the first room at the bottom of the drawing, up through the Bath and Passage, and into the Dome Chamber at the top, which is Kutlugun Street. The bottom is Akbiyik. Both run parallel along the Marmara slope of Sultanahmet. The shape of the streets is determined by the shape of the Corridor. See?

Google Maps Istanbul ©2012. My additions.

Here on Google, that big dome conglomerate at the top is Hagia Sophia. That Four Seasons, now gorgeous, was the actual Midnight Express prison, built on the ruins of the Magnaura Palace. You can still see graffiti from prisoners there. The Magnaura was the Imperial Palace from the 4th to the 8th centuries. The galleries were still around in 1200, as this CGI take from Byzantium 1200 shows:

Corridor of Lord CGI © 2007, Walking Through Byzantium. © Used by permission.

In places along Akbiyik street you can still glimpse tall pointed arches and old stone. Here’s what Byzantium 1200 thinks the inside upper gallery looked like.

Corridor of Lord CGI ©2007, Walking Through Byzantium. © Used by permission.

According to various sources, including one that quotes an 8th-century Book of Ceremonies, the Empress’s procession walked to her marriage, her ceremonial bath, her bedchamber and back again. I wonder if the actual consummation was witnessed as well.

The Passageway Door ©2006 by Trici Venola. From the Dome Chamber, looking into the Passage.

Drawing down under the street I wonder about a lot of things. There’s the dripping of water, great silence and a sense of waiting. Ghost stories seem sensible here. I heard of something in tall boots that told the carpet shop tea lady to move along, and one night watchman tells lurid tales of spooks running up and down the stairs. I myself saw only a black cat-sized shadow detach itself from a black doorway down there, skitter across the floor and evaporate before my very eyes.

In the Corridors of Lord ©2008 by Trici Venola. A double window next to the Indiana Jones Arch. By now I had learned to draw old stone. You do it slowly.

The best story was from an old lady in the neighborhood. In Kathisma Restaurant, next to the entrance to this excavation, there’s a tunnel tricked out to look like a wishing well. The old lady said that when she was a kid, they used to go in there and come out on the Marmara Sea. An adult tried this in the 1960s, but he got stuck and died, so be warned.

Bronze Foot Lamp NY Met ©2002 Trici Venola.400-500 CE

Copper Alloy Dragon Lamp NY Met ©2002 Trici Venola. c300 CE

Tiny Ivory Madonna NY Met ©2002 Trici Venola c550 CE Constantinople.

Rock Crystal & Silver Cross NY Met ©2002 Trici Venola c500-700 CE

I remember that Bishop of Constantinople in 1453, coming in full pomp with all his attendants to meet Mehmet the Conqueror. He handed over the keys to the city, and, according to witnesses, walked into the wall of Hagia Sophia and disappeared forever. There are these small doors in Hagia Sophia, and many, many tunnels. That must have been quite a processional, all those priests quick-stepping down through secret passages to the sea. They would have worn their best to meet the Conqueror, and carried all their jewels and all their prayers to avoid meeting their Maker. Red and blue and gold, furs and plumes, torches, little lamps. The Pilgrim Foot was a common Christian theme.  Fantastical creatures pre-date and permeate Christianity throughout the Middle East, a tradition now echoed only by those gargoyles on Notre Dame.  Perhaps the hurrying processional carried small ivories like this Madonna or the angel above. Or reliquaries with bas-reliefs similar to these silver ones of Apostles Peter and Paul. After all they were running for their lives.

Peter & Paul NY Met ©2002 Trici Venola.Silver bas-reliefs c 7″ high 500-600 CE

I drew these little images in museums, most of them in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, a magnificent evolved place that allows me to wander with my sketchbook and my mind, in the wake of the grand processional of history. It continues to wend its way along these streets, sun lancing in the arched windows, reflected flames gleaming in the surfaces of old marble bowed with the collective weight of panoply and prayers. Just under your feet, steps recede into the earth, domes push up weeds, arches bear up under traffic. Forty fathoms below that the goddesses are pagan, the angels’ wings come out of their hips, the lions have nearly human faces. Down and down and down go the passages, the great processionals in a honeycomb of antiquity. Workmen with iPhones jackhammer away, following the pipedream of progress, but they have never found the bottom of Sultanahmet.

All of Them Angels ©2005 by Trici Venola. Stone angels from the Archeological Museum, Istanbul 400-1400 CE, Ataturk, Van Cat and the Marmara Sea.

— All drawings Plein Air by Trici Venola, from the Drawing On Istanbul Series. All full drawings done in sketchbook format: 18 cm X 52 cm, drafting pens on rag paper. We appreciate your comments!

BIG MOTHER HAN 2: Drawing in Buyuk Valide Han


Sinan in His Workshop ©2012 Trici Venola

My father was a self-proclaimed working stiff. Erick E. Venola– or Lieutenant Colonel Erick E Venola, Retired, according to my mother’s adorable grandiosity– was an unassuming man. After serving in WWII he continued in the Army Engineers Reserves and supported us all–he wanted my mother at home– by working for AT&T, the telephone company. To make more money, he ran the boiler room at the main plant in downtown LA, a demanding job that required he work alone all night. He liked it. My mother said it was because of his solitary Finnish nature. Erick E Venola had started life in Harlem, New York City, in 1918 as Eino Erkki Venalainen, the only son of Finnish immigrants. Finns are very very close to Turks. I see echoes of my hardworking craftsman father all over these hans. I loved my father, and I love working stiffs.

Salt of the Earth ©2012 by Trici Venola.

Han means Workplace, and Buyuk Valide Han is full of these guys who show up and work all day at some anonymous job to support their families. They’ve been doing it here for 500 years. They were all in the Army. Some are in a multigenerational family business, some slave for others. Most would rather do something else, but this is the hand life dealt them. They cobble it together as best they can, and make it work.

Big Mother Han ©2009 by Trici Venola. 35 X 50 cm, Plein Air, pen and ink on paper. Available.

This is the Third Courtyard of Buyuk Valide Han. Can you see that it was once a church? We are looking down the nave at the altar. The arches down the left are openings to a side gallery once topped by domes, and are mirrored (out of the picture) on the right. The very top is later addition.

Big Mother Han.detail ©2012 by Trici Venola

A barrel-vault ceiling joined the two sides, and I’ll bet that’s the original floor down there: varicolored marble and granite chunks polished by centuries of feet, ground into dirt.

Big Mother Han.detail ©2012 by Trici Venola

This was a church clear up through Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453, and continued under the Ottomans. I learned all this during a week in May 2009, while I was drawing this picture. The people in the Han told me. I found zero on this anywhere else.

The guidebooks peg this section of Buyuk Valide Han at 11th century, but the 3rd- and 4th-generation workers here proudly tell me it’s older, a lot older. They and their families have been preserving it for centuries– whitewashed and plastered, sure, but preserved. I believe them. I also believe the Byzantine brickwork I’ve seen under adjacent hans, like this one just down the hill, and gems like these in the Han itself.

Left: Frescoed flowers on plaster. Right: brick detail in an old window.

Big Mother Han.detail ©2012 by Trici Venola

It’s sublime, isn’t it? –with the bones of the church showing through the flesh of the workplace. Rumors abound of possible restoration, and I hope they may die. There are a million kitsch restorations in the world, but nothing like this exists anywhere: a live, irreplaceable, visual and visceral testimony to what has been and what is. Turning it into a fake old church or fake old caravansary would destroy that, besides being an insult to the hundreds of thousands of lives spent here in one vocation or another.

Walking along the passage formed by workshops built into the side galleries, one can look up and see the empty circles of vanished domes. That tower in the background is where Kosem Valide Sultan, the awesome dowager Sultana who built the Han,  is supposed to have hidden her treasure. It’s been dug, plumbed and sifted for centuries, but she must have meant some other tower, for no treasure was ever found that you could spend.  Here’s one I could draw: a surviving dome and window alcove of the church, now high above a workshop built into the space. I’ll have you know that I slogged up to Buyuk Valide Han last Wednesday in that blizzard and stood bolt upright, freezing, drawing, just to share this, and that’s why this post is so late. Wednesday, you say, and now it’s Sunday? You don’t think I did a whole dark drawing in an hour standing up in the cold, do you? I did the minimum I would need and the maximum I could stand, took photos, came home and spent hours rendering. Here’s where we started:

Chapel Workshop Rough ©2012 by Trici Venola

And here’s where we wound up: 

I was in too much of a hurry and blew the bottom of the drawing. Had to paste another piece of paper over it and work from a photo like this one, but I’m happy with what we got.

Like the workmen who have preserved them, my father would love the surviving frescoes. He made exquisite small things with his hands. A Christmas village out of cardboard, glitter, toothpicks and spit. A tiny George Washington town coach, complete with handles and windows, a miniature stagecoach. AT&T recognized this ability and put him in charge of installing PBX switchboards in the new music center downtown. Our low-income family had season tickets to the Music Center because he’d thought up the name for their newsletter, Top o’ The Mall.

Big Mother Han.detail ©2012 by Trici Venola

Why didn’t he go for big money in the movie studios? Stability. He referred to AT&T with rueful tolerance his whole life, but he told me once that when you can’t find employer loyalty, you should find another job.

Big Mother Han.detail ©2012 by Trici Venola

Big Mother Han.detail ©2012 by Trici Venola

He had that thing about stability because he’d been shifted around as a child. His father, Peter Venalainen, was a big black-haired Russian Finn who loved opera. He changed our name to Venola so people would think we were Italian, took to drink, and died just after Grandma divorced him. She joined the Women’s Christian Temperence Union and chopped up New York bars with an axe along with Carrie Nation, a movement that led to Prohibition. She and Daddy moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as a cook for movie people on location. He grew up in various friends’ houses and always wanted to stay put. So no career Army for him, it was the Reserves, Command and Staff, weekends off to the plane in uniform to one place or another. My mother loved him in uniform. He would never wear it for show, despised people who did. This grieved her for she enjoyed being seen with him in all his officer regalia. “Your father moves armies around in Vietnam,” she told us while counting out the grocery money.  He came up through the ranks in WWII, trained troops and never went overseas. He felt sorry for those whose lives peaked in that time, because his flowered slowly, with his family life. He read everything, sci-fi and action adventure and history. A champion marksman, he had a passion for guns, but never imposed it on anyone else, although he took a mighty pride in my brother’s gun expertise. He could fix anything. He gave every kid we knew a special pet name. We liked to hang out in his garage, a place of clutter and wonder.

Big Mother Han.detail ©2012 by Trici Venola

Here he is with my mother in 1947 or so, in the backyard of our house in Echo Park, LA. It’s a picture of the American Dream. I like to think of them as they are here, young and unvanquished.

Erick & Loramae Venola in 1947

Both my parents are gone now. They lived good lives and died when they were old. In their souls they would have understood my Turkish epic, chasing a dream on a shoestring at this age, but in parenthood they would have been horrified. So I talk to their souls. I show Mama the Bosporus and the Dolmabache Palace, and I show Daddy Hagia Sophia and these Turkish workshops, so like his own, the men with hands and eyes and values like his. For his birthday, which was 94 years and a week ago. In my mind I walk Daddy all over the Han in his khaki workpants and checked shirt and green Asian eyes, his magnificent workman’s hands.

Big Mother Han.detail ©2012 by Trici Venola

He would fall in with these guys and compare welding techniques, admire tools. He would study how the place was adapted, how it was put together in the first place.  He would be fascinated with the whitewashed Byzantine arches leading from one shop to another, from one holy alcove to another.

Big Mother Han.detail ©2012 by Trici Venola

Where a monk walked and muttered and prayed, a blue-jeanned, blue-jawed guy in a stocking cap is listening to the radio and screwing together nargile pipes. I think Daddy would love this. I find I do. I was raised with a work ethic that has evolved, in my lifetime, to a zen-like devotion to my craft. As dancing is to a Dervish, creating something is prayer to me. So no kitsch church restoration, please, Buyuk Valide Han is perfect and sanctified already.  No matter how you find God, holy is holy.

Daddy & Friend,. Photo by Kurt Wahlner, Christmas 1987. All other photos ©2012 by Trici Venola. All drawings Plein Air by Trici Venola.

BIG MOTHER HAN 1: Drawing in Buyuk Valide Han


Oscar Wilde’s classic story The Picture of Dorian Gray is about a man who stays young and angelic-looking no matter what. HIs portrait, however, reflects the marks of his horrifyingly dissolute life, gradually becoming monstrous. I’ve always thought monsters were more fun to draw.

So you’ve got the Grand Bazaar, a jostling festival of color, light and noise. It’s five and a half centuries old. Then you’ve got the 17th-century Buyuk Valide Han, its dim and hoary second floor looking like the grandmother of all ghost stories.

Han means Workplace. Buyuk means Big, and Valide was the title given to the Mother of the Sultan. This particular mother was Kosem Valide Sultan, whose iron hand dandled for thirty years a succession of puppet rulers: child sultans, viziers and Janissaries. Mother of Sultans Murat IV and Ibrahim, she built Buyuk Valide Han shortly before her death in 1641. One urban legend says that she so angered one of her sons that he imprisoned her here.


Up From the Spice Bazaar ©2007 by Trici Venola.

Up the steep hill above the Spice Bazaar is an area called Mercan. Crowded between other buildings is  the yawning mouth of Buyuk Valide Han.

It’s the biggest  in Istanbul, three main courtyards and dozens of workshops and stores. Its front two courtyards are Ottoman, but the back courtyard is Byzantine. It’s too big and rich for one post, so there will be three, maybe four.

On a freezing cold day last week, just before Istanbul got locked into its present snowy embrace, Gabrielle and I went there, determined to get in some drawing time. Here she is  standing next to the rusted door:

and a closeup: metal hammered over wood. Notice the tiny door cut into the huge one.


The entrance courtyard: desiccated stone arches, and little shops hung on them. I sat on a step one afternoon years ago, Plein Air drawing, and soaked in this place. This barber is gone now, but he was there for about a hundred years, or so he said.

The Barber ©2007 by Trici Venola.

There’s another tall arched entrance leading into the central courtyard. A typical Istanbul han is a two-tiered arcade, arched openings fronting alcoves topped by domes, around a central courtyard. In Silk Road days, the caravansaries would put their camels and donkeys and horses in the courtyard, and camp and trade in the alcoves. Later these evolved into shops. The Buyuk Valide Han is so big that there’s a mosque in its central courtyard, now a parking lot ringed by stores. These are busy. The grim and grisly second floor is an Art Motherlode, so we headed up the steep cement steps and into the dark past.

Thirty years ago this place was jammed with trade: apprentices tearing around, teaboys trotting up and down the steps, people haggling and arguing and creating. I think China killed it. But what’s left is a feast of drawing: odd angles, lots of peeled-back plaster revealing Ottoman brickwork, burned-out domes, wildly creative electrical wiring. And  wonderful, evocative doors.


Like snowflakes, there are no two alike. They’ve evolved individually over time, the opposite of a kitsch re-creation. The rooms that face on the courtyard are light, with people making hats or cutting plastic. On the wall side, most are bolted shut, but occasionally you find one that swings open to reveal, say, a Tolkien-like interior more like a cave than a room, with an ancient loom in it.

Each door represents many lives, much trade, much hope and toil and heartbreak before the eventual final locking of the dusty door.

There are four corners to the corridor. The first corner is bright with new paint and a modern office behind the doors. After that, each is more derelict and fascinating. Here’s Gabrielle going through my favorite, one of those places that make me nervous since I haven’t drawn them yet.

There’s a stretch of corridor so dark you need a flashlight, where the floor is original stones all lumpy with age and use.  Somewhere along in there, we found this glowing beacon.

But nobody home. I climbed up to the door above and knocked on it. It was like knocking on the cement wall. Then Gabrielle rang the bell, and what a surprise when it opened.


We had found a bronze workshop. Arches and domes covered with peeling white over plaster, various narrow implements hung on the walls, and two guys making lamps.  A hot coal stove shaped like a top hat. Hanging on the wall near a row of pliers, a small shiny bronze angel.

We oohed and ahhed. Our host Serkan ordered some tea and Gabrielle made a mighty effort with her Turkish, which in six months is a whole lot better than mine after eight years. I wandered around, and  in a pile of oddments I found three more angels holding an unfinished incense burner. Serkan picked it up and swung it by its chain. “Greek Orthodox,” he said. A censer! In church, the guy behind the priest is swinging one of these filled with lit incense. Clouds of scent billow out of the little holes. It’s Byzantine. It’s fabulous.

I get along fine if I’m not too extravagant. When I feel I must have something, I see if it follows me out of the shop. That censer swung around my head until I went back two days later and bought it. The price was so good I bought a lamp as well. If you want one, they’re Ozcan Turistik ve Aydinlatma at And I did this drawing of Serkan finishing the censer. He obliged me by firing up the welding torch and holding this pose for about ten minutes, while I scribbled away. With portraits, you want to get the gist of the expression. What makes this guy look like himself, and how do I know he’s hunkered down? Get the ear, where the hands are, get the feet right. Where’s the light? What is he holding? Oh, same thing.  I stayed for a half-hour more, drinking tea and drawing the tools.

The Lamp Maker WIP 1.©2012 by Trici Venola

When Serkan was done, the shiny censer had a deep blackened finish, exactly what I wanted. I came home and finished the drawing, and here it is.

The Lamp Maker ©2012 by Trici Venola

That’s so tiny you can hardly see it. Here, I’ll turn it sideways:

The Lamp Maker ©2012 by Trici Venola

I lit it from the welding torch, of course. This is a simple if tedious operation. You just put a shadow next to each object, exactly opposite your light source.  I drew the lamp and censer by propping them on the table and setting a light down right of them. What luxury to bring them home! Often I covet something I simply cannot have, but drawing it helps. My sketchbooks are filled with intricate drawings of fascinating and exquisite items I crave. But things are looking up. When I first moved here, in the middle of a devastating run of hideous circumstance, I didn’t have a blanket on the bed. No table, nothing on the walls, just a computer, a half-blind foundling kitten and a gig drawing kids’ books. Eight years later I still struggle with Turkish, but my walls are covered with tribal art and framed prints, the board-and-brick bookcases overflowing with literature, rugs on the floor, movies and 27 sketchbooks, now, full of drawings of Turkey, fat sleek cats snoozing in front of the windows looking out on the falling snow. I’m lucky. I hung the censer among some tribal embroidery, in front of a drawing of a Byzantine Jesus. It looks right at home.

All photos © 2012 by Trici Venola.