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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.