Kucuk Ayasofya: Drawing With the Masters


Spot KucukAyasofya ©2012 Trici Venola

In its Ottoman incarnation, our Byzantine basilica of Saints Sergius and Bacchus became Kucuk Ayasofya Camii, which means Small Hagia Sophia Mosque. Built in 527 and converted to a mosque in 1509, it remains a beloved local landmark. Renovation has rendered it all shipshape, but the charm of its Medrese is unchanged: a grassy garden studded with broken antique marble enclosed on three sides by stone workshops topped by leaded domes. Originally a religious school, its actual name is Huseyin Aga Medrese, after its builder, Chief Black Eunuch of Sultan Beyazit II, who also built the portico in front and converted the basilica to a mosque in 1503.

The original old medrese masters wore turbans and cited the Koran. Now they are master artisans registered with the Turkish government. Huseyin Aga Medrese is a center for Turkish Master Craftsmen.

In My Name Is Red, novelist Orhan Pamuk describes Ottoman painters of miniatures running the artworks from workshop to workshop, where one artist would paint the woman, another the horse, another the trees. Each had attained such mastery that they could paint in the dark, and the reward for a lifetime of hard work was going blind. As can happen, exquisite results can come from ghastly suffering. Pamuk tells a story of a Sultan who commanded a great master to paint his cumulative work and then had him blinded, so he could never surpass it. The master then had his revenge. Sightless and sick of living, he created the greatest work of the age from memory for someone else, and then killed himself. Pamuk was likely writing in part about this actual location.

In happier echoes of the horrors of yore, these beautifully-rendered copies of antique miniatures are often painted on the backs of hand-lettered book pages. Here’s a Noah’s Ark, often seen, for after the Flood, it’s supposed to have fetched up on Mt. Ararat, in Eastern Turkey. Two painters occupy adjacent workshops in one corner of the Medrese. Under the leaded domes, masters of calligraphy, ebru (marbelized paper), block print, and shell inlay all occupy the small stone chambers with those low-slung doorways, which come to my forehead.  I can’t count the times I’ve whacked into a lintel in this garden. Is it because people used to be smaller? Nope, those old religious leaders built to encourage humility. If you didn’t bow to the Master when you came in the door, you were bashed in the head. And now, at least at Huseyin Aga Medrese, artists are getting their due respect.


Ahmet Sezen and his wife Ebru were just kids back in 2004, newly engaged, with a jewelry workshop in the last building next to the mosque. Ahmet was already rising fast in the world as a master of shell and silver inlay. Later they moved into my building. We were bonded by our mutual love of cats. I used to feed ’em up on my roof. It started with a pair I called Peachy and Danny, after those rogues in The Man Who Would Be King. Then Peachy turned up pregnant, and soon I was feeding thirty cats, up on the corrugated plastic roof of the balcony. Here’s one dimly seen above the view of the snow and the scaffolding around the mosque.

Cat on Roof ©2005 Trici Venola

In 2006 friends found a two-day-old kitten. Its tail was half as long as my little finger. Its paws were little rat claws, eyes squeezed shut over a flat little snout. I named it Pete and kept it alive all night, and in the morning took the little starving thing downstairs to Ahmet and Ebru’s, where their cat Arife had some kittens. And when she accepted the frantic newcomer, we could hear those ferocious feeding sounds clear out on the street.

Just Married! ©2007 Trici Venola

Years passed. Pete grew up and had to be re-named Esmeralda, and boy, is she fat and cranky now. Ahmet and Ebru got married and had a son. And Ahmet became a recognized, registered Turkish Master of shell inlay, and was able to move into the beautiful and prestigious Huseyin Aga Medrese. A few years back, he was exhibiting at a festival in Taksim Square when someone from the Greek Orthodox Church found him, and now he is building reliquaries for saints as well as jewelry, furniture and keepsakes.

You can visit Ahmet <www.sedefkar.com> in the Medrese and find all sorts of goodies, prices  basement to spire, depending on scarcity of material, amount of labor, and size of project. Here he is at work. It’s very cold now, and Arife will stealthily steal onto your lap and settle in, purring. If you look carefully, you can see that she has sneaked into this drawing.

Ahmet & Arife At Work 72 ©2012 Trici Venola


Down in the corner of the garden where the ducks hang out, next door to Ahmet, is Block Print Master Tahsin Istengel <.tahsinmeister@yahoo.com>

Most of his prints are from his own drawings, but here he is with a block cut from one by our Gabrielle just before she left. All day long he wields blocks of wood or styrofoam or rubber, armed with an exacto knife. Tahsin makes the most amazing patterns, singly or in combinations on bolts of cloth. In drawing him, trying to combine master, method and results, I found myself drawing the print. The temptation was too much, and I stamped with the actual block, inked in red:

I noticed that his prints incorporate shapes from the environment. The drawing’s nice, but I had to go and render it. Which is better? Ask the ducks!

Block Print King ©2012 Trici Venola

I haven’t yet drawn anything for Tahsin,  but I guarantee it will involve a duck. Here’s a grand slam display: a photo of one of Ahmet’s reliquaries and bolts of Tahsin’s hand-stamped cloth.


In Byzantine times, there was a street leading from the Great Palace down to the Church of Sergio & Bacchus. In Ottoman times the street ran from Sultanahmet Mosque down to Kucuk Ayasofya. Here’s a drawing of it from 1850. See the street?

Today Kucuk Ayasofya Caddesi runs from the Marmara side of the Arasta Bazaar, behind the Blue Mosque, down to Kucuk Ayasofya. I started this drawing up at the top of the street in 2004. You can see the fabulous old mosque down at the bottom, against the silver sea.

Kucuk Ayasofya 2004 ©2004 Trici Venola


Guys in the Neighborhood ©2008 Trici Venola

With renovation came a swell park where once there was a row of factory buildings. The neighborhood artisans got a big shot in the arm, a shot called Tourism. Textile repair shops became cafes, my house became a hotel. I moved down the street, and now relentless hotelization has moved me across the Golden Horn.  But I still feel that Kucuk Ayasofya’s my ‘hood. I go there all the time. I love it.

Sultanahmet West.Corner ©2008 Trici Venola

One of the girls next door told me that Kadirga, the name of this neighborhood, means a man swaggering along with big dignitas. She told me this as a bunch of big-bellied bureaucrats were parading toward Kucuk Ayasofya. The tot above, lugging the big water bottle, is a happier version of this. I called him Little Big Man, and he is indeed growing big and strong. The huge old ruined hamam below is near the entrance to the mosque. Early on, too poor to eat out, I sat in a doorway and drew this scene as though I had my face pressed to the window of Turkey.

Chesme at Night ©2004 Trici Venola

A short time later I did the drawing below from the same spot, and by then we were friends.

All Down the Day at Chesme ©2004 Trici Venola

I started this drawing in September 2004, in bright noon, left it, and didn’t finish it until the dark of a day in November, so the light and season changes as you move down the page, hence the title: All Down the Day At Chesme. Things like these keep me working Plein Air. Chesme means Fountain, and there’s a fountain put up by a sultan who wanted everyone to have fresh water. It still works.

Ali's Fruit Stand ©2008 Trici Venola

Ali was the greengrocer next to Chesme Restaurant at the Fountain. He was a landmark. I lived on soups made from Ali’s produce, which was, like all Turkish food back then, totally organic and very cheap. Ali’s retired now, but Chesme restaurant remains the best value in the neighborhood. Oh the happy times there.

Lovely Little Girls ©2008 Trici Venola

These little girls are growing up now, but on Saturdays they used to come to play at my house, where I would tie many ribbons in their hair. My framer, Baki, is around the corner, in a cavernous building between a teahouse and a calligrapher. Five personable brothers still run Pekar Market, open early until late. And across the street is Ayhan Kesap Butcher Shop, with Ayhan, the most cheerful butcher in the world, and his equally cheerful wife Ayla.

The Butcher and His Wife ©2011 Trici Venola

The cats still congregate at his kindly front door. Ayhan inspired this sticker. I’m putting it out at 300 DPI. Feel free to print your own!

My life in Kadirga, in those early days of little money and no language, was fraught with inconvenience bordering on catastrophe. But I was doing the right thing and I knew it. This from a letter in spring of 2005: There’s a blood moon tonight, red as a tomato. Saw the beginning, shrouded in thick cobweb cloud, and the end. Saw one in Spain, from a train crossing the plain (I am not kidding) and one in from a hospital window in Southern Turkey. Both times were also during excruciating changes in my life. The blood moon: mystic, impossible, inarguable, reminding me that the world is rolling on in its mysteries despite my little human calamities; remote, alien and comforting.


All drawings Plein Air. All art ©2012 Trici Venola.


SERGIUS AND BACCHUS 1: Drawing with the Dervishes


7th Century icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchus.

Sergius and Bacchus were Roman soldiers, closet Christians martyred in Syria in 303. One was beheaded and the other died from torture. Their close friendship is the stuff of legend, so that not only are they patron saints of soldiers, but are icons of gay marriage as well. There are many churches to them, and one was built here, by the Emperor Justinian.

Medieval map of Constantinople. Note Hippodrome left and above our little church.

He felt he owed them. Prior to becoming Emperor himself, Justinian was accused of plotting against the reigning emperor Anastasius. Sentenced to die, he was freed after Anastasius dreamed that Sergius and Bacchus intervened. Justinian started their church in 527, the first year of his reign.

With the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, Justinian’s Byzantine basilica  became a mosque called Kucuk Ayasofya, in Turkish: Small Hagia Sophia. Its Turkish name refers to the stunning innovation of its being constructed around a central dome on an octagonal base, like its larger, later namesake.

Designed by Anthemios of Tralles, one of Hagia Sophia’s architects, it was started five years before the Nika Rebellion cleared the way for the huge project of Hagia Sophia, and proved that such a structure could work.

Kucuk Ayasofya today

Sergius and Bacchus was built just inside the city walls on the Marmara Sea, in the neighborhood now known as Kadirga. Various sources cite an earlier monastery. In 519, Justinian had built a church to Saints Peter and Paul. Sergius and Bacchus was supposedly built on that. No trace remains, or so they say. Hmph. If any of those people had lived in the neighborhood, they might have found this in the city walls:

Sergius & Bacchus WC ©2008 Trici Venola.

Sticking up at the edge of a picnic area of grass and trees, it looks like a giant fireplace and is stuffed with trash and homeless, who have spray-painted “WC” on the lintel. But neglect also means integrity: the carving is untouched. This was a magnificent portal rearing out of the very sea. Above the lintel is cement, but the posts are of white marble. We are across the railroad from basilica at the edge of the original enclosure, fifteen feet above where the water was. There are three cavernous entrances, but this one still has its Greek inscriptions on both sides, fire-blackened but still legible. The fires are from homeless guys cooking mussels in winter. I find it ironic that this church is still sheltering the needy.

This remnant of grandeur ends at the cement wall of the train tracks. In 1871, Sultan Abdulaziz decreed that the Orient Express could run its railroad smack through the spectacular Byzantine monuments all along the City Walls on the Marmara Sea side of Sultanahmet. An ariel view shows the railroad slicing through palaces and temples alike. The constant vibration of 142 years of trains has shaken the foundations of Byzantium. The railroad is going to be a park now, but we don’t know when. When I lived there I loved the trains roaring by, but had I been blogging in the time of Abdulaziz I would have had to zip my lip to keep it from being lopped.

It’s Going To Be All Right ©2004 by Trici Venola


In 2004 I moved into the street next to Kucuk Ayasofya. The writing on the drawing above says This view is much better than the old one of glittering windows and misery, and Train racketing by after the Call to Prayer, full moon soon; I think it’s gonna be all right. It had been a rocky road to Istanbul. After a ghastly series of events, I’d lost all my capital to a feral thief of a landlord over across the Golden Horn. Police and consulate could do nothing but advised me to leave the building. Then he got violent. Legendary Sultanamet artist Kubilay showed up with friends and we carried everything we could down seven flights of stairs and loaded it into taxis. Kubilay piled it in his kitchen and on his roof, and took my kitten Ygor. My friend Rayan flew in from Kuala Lumpur and we found this little duplex next to the mosque. She rented it and flew away. I was so happy to be safe in Sultanahmet with a door that closed, and me on the inside, that even the guys fixing the street had a magical glow. I wish I could feel like that always.

Guys Fixing the Street ©2004 by Trici Venola.

I was crazy to learn Turkish. My friend Zeynal offered lessons. Meeting in my home would make talk, so we met in the medrese at Kucuk Ayasofya.

They were restoring the mosque, and it was all boarded off. The restoration was controversial, as it involved the cementing-over of Byzantine mosaics discovered under centuries of plaster. Unesco had pulled out. I remember sacks of cement stacked hundreds high and a workman telling Zeynal in Kurdish that “everyone’s angry, people hate us.” Fortunately some of the exquisite 6th-century detail work is still with us, like this capital and calligraphic border at left.

The workmen were imported from Eastern Turkey, unpopular with the neighborhood which believed them terrorists. There was a big fight there once; someone hung a Turkish flag on one of the minarets and after a terrific brouhaha and a couple of shots, an ambulance came and they carried out something covered on a stretcher. Nobody was allowed in ever, no architects or journalists, and the buildings across the street blocked the view of the mosque. So like everyone else in the area, I put my money on the Medrese. I still do.

A medrese is a religious school attached to a mosque. The ones around here were built in the 15th and 16th centuries, and when the mosque was a Byzantine basilica, the medrese was often built on the foundations of the seminary or monastery. I think this one was. Here it is on Google Maps. See the railroad?

This particular one, Huseyin Aga Medrese that we call The Garden, is a grassy, flower-studded courtyard with a central fountain, full of broken bits of Byzantine and Ottoman marble bordered on three sides by workshops fronted by a tea garden. Low square doorways alternate with grilled windows in stone walls under  leaded domes.

Cold Day Medrese.detail ©2005 Trici Venola.


In 2004 there was a group of bearded men, a very conservative Sufi Dervish sect, who met in the Garden to drink tea and argue philosophy. I recognized one of them. He’d consoled me years before when I was devastated over the loss of a sketchbook.

Edip in 1999 ©1999 Trici Venola.

He taught me to say La Iliha Illalla which means Allah is All. In 2004, he took me to Sunday lunch at the home of Dervish Master Yakup Baba. We had a lively discussion about belief systems and fell out over having gay friends. This sect felt it wrong. I don’t, but we have stayed friends anyway, and I was honored to pray with them. Lost in grief over my sketchbook back in ’99, I didn’t notice Edip’s blessing, but the book I drew him in became a breakthrough work, one of my best.

Sufi Dervishes at Home ©2004 Trici Venola. Edip in center.

Then there was a group of young Turkish people who seemed to have a very good time. At the center was CC, an out-of-the-closet gay guy and his girl pal, one of those close friendships that can form between straight women and gay men.

Emine at the Black Sea ©3006 Trici Venola.

Emine is  a powerhouse of a woman, a fantastic chef with boundless enthusiasm. She introduced me to the poet Taroub and her husband Ammar, the first Iraqis I’d ever met. It was 2005, and their friends Aida and Nazar were raising four kids in the middle of Bagdad. They succeeded.

Cool Iraqis ©2005 Trici Venola.

An American film crew came to Istanbul to make a documentary about being gay in Turkey.

Two Brave Girls in Konya ©2006 Trici Venola.

CC claimed to be a direct descendent of the great mystic and poet Rumi Mevlana, 13th-century founder of the Mevlevi (Whirling) Dervishes in Konya. CC had left Konya 15 years before, after a family fight which erupted when he announced he was gay. He moved to Istanbul and bought a puppy to console him for the loss of his family. In all that time he had not been home. He’d talked to his mother, but not seen her. The film crew wanted to film a reunion and use it as a centerpiece for their documentary.

Dervishes Near Konya ©2005 Trici Venola.

So we all went to Konya: CC, Emine, the film crew, and me, who had facilitated the introduction through a gay-friendly guy at the US Consulate. The film was to include some of my drawings. Very exciting!

With His Mother ©2005 Trici Venola.

Konya today is ultra-conservative. Despite the low probability of anyone there seeing the movie, CC – in the full flush of reunion –  withdrew filming permission. The crew, out all their expenses, were remarkably philosophical about it. Emine had spent so much on the trip it took her months to recover. I had canker sores and was miserable, since the very friendly Turkish family insisted on feeding me cake, which exacerbated the problem, and I was afraid refusal would be rude. But it was worth it to get this drawing of CC, his mom, and the fifteen-year-old dog. It’s one of my favorites, with the moon outside the lace curtains. I still have the little knitted booties she gave me, and I have Emine to thank for all this Konya art.

Konya Dervishes ©2005 Trici Venola.

Konya is the spiritual center of the Mevlevi Dervishes. Founder Rumi would whirl in ecstatic joy in the streets. This has evolved into the Sema, the dance of prayer. Rumi’s poetry endures today. In the 13th century, it was powerful enough to inspire marauder Genghis Khan to spare this mosque.

Spared by Genghiz Khan ©2005 Trici Venola.

During Christianity’s dark age, when knowledge was suppressed and scientists burned along with books, the Dervishes kept reason alight. They preserved and continued science and mathematics. Clear up into the 20th Century, if you wanted to devote yourself to creativity with monastic fervor, the Dervishes would feed and house you in tekkes, spiritual centers that were closed in the dawn of the Republic. One survives in Eyup: Ummu Sinan, and last month I got to go there to draw. Here’s what I got in the first 2 hours:

and here it is after awhile, including some rendering time at home.

Dancing With the Dervishes ©2012 Trici Venola.

What I did was darken places for clarity and strengthen every line that indicated whirling, especially here, where performance-Dervish Alper Alkçay was dancing.

The Master in this group is Serif Baba, the fellow in the center with the pointy hat. These are Bektashi Dervishes, and I was lucky enough to spend last Thursday night dancing with thirteen of them, led by Huseyin here. We were with that gay-friendly diplomat, now retired, celebrating the full moon in Unkapani, spitting distance from Molla Zeyrek Mosque that was Christ Pantocrator. That brooding Byzantine presence, and a tall room at the top of a wooden house, lined with bright woven calligraphic hangings glinting with gold.

Three musicians wailed on strings and a huge tambourine-drum. There was free-form whirling, then a formal Bektashi ceremony. It involved ritualistic, stylized, and quite genuine grief for baby Huseyin, the son of Ali and Fatma, the Prophet Mohammed’s married nephew and daughter, all murdered centuries ago at the genesis of the schism between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, the two horns of the Crescent of Islam. The grieving ceremony seemed an emotional purge. I couldn’t but wonder if this is a cathartic way to deal with the pain of living, for afterwards everybody was happy. At some point all the emotions converged into the Sema, the whirling dance of oneness with God. I don’t know how this group feels about being gay. or having gay friends. All these years later, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Sergio and Bacchus c1541

All drawings Plein Air.