MARRAKECH: Drawing the Kasbah

All my life I wanted to go to Morocco. Everybody in my generation, it seemed, hit that old hippie trail and came back glowing with wonders. Crosby, Stills & Nash released “Marrakech Express,” conjuring up exotic imagery enjoyed by everyone, it seemed, but me. And for years: See some piece of delicate furniture with an exquisite filigree pattern, it’s from Morocco. A soft brown robe with a hood, perfect for coming from the hot tub at night… “Oh, I picked this up in Morocco.” Hooded robes, hooded eyes, French accents, fezzes, intrigue…oh, to be on that train…

The Old Hamam ©2013 Trici Venola

The Old Hamam ©2013 Trici Venola

At last, I got to go. And when I came back, I loaded up the movie Casablanca and watched it yet again, and you know, they nailed it. People don’t dress that well,  and nobody is as beautiful as in that movie, but those production designers knew their stuff.


Musee Said, an old palace in the Souk.

Around 1975 a friend described sitting up all night on a rooftop in Morocco, drawing and dreaming.  He strongly suggested I do the same. It only took me four decades, but here’s the view from Riad Twenty, our digs in Marrakech. In a single life-changing stroke of fortune, someone gave me a holiday there and told me I could bring a friend, so I invited my sister Penelope, who lives in California. We hadn’t seen each other in seven years.

The Souk from the Roof

The Souk from the Roof of Riad 20 ©2013 Trici Venola

This recent summer in Istanbul was challenging, with no end in sight. Tourism took a powder after the Great Gezi Park Gassing, and money was tight. My new book, Drawing On Istanbul 2, months delayed, was still at the printer when I left. I knew I’d come home to a pile of bills, and I’d been unable to line anything up to take care of them. So I went on this magnificent holiday and forgot about coming home. A nice trick if you can do it. This will change me, I thought. The person I am when I get back, she’ll know how to deal with it. That person is now me… and she did. The book is taking care of everything. At the bottom of this page, you can see about getting one, and now I can tell you about Marrakech.


Sheltered by the Atlas Kabe mountains, watered by their snowmelt, it’s a prized and cherished garden spot, full of exotica. In the three-hour drive from the airport in Casablanca, our guide Hicham told me that the French loved Morocco for its fertility and warmth. We drove past many cactus farms, encouraged by the King to promote economic stability. Eight ethnic groups, said Hicham, normally fight, but now there is peace since all owe allegiance to the King. I noticed two things right off: minarets here are not spikes but square towers with domed tops, and the cactus is that pale green paddle stuff. After so long in Istanbul’s congestion, my cramped eyes felt like they were stretching.


Riad 20 courtyard, from their website.

RIAD TWENTY: In the middle of Marrakech’s Old Medina or souk– the marketplace– is this classic Moroccan family house, two tiers of tiled rooms around a central courtyard with a pool and a tree, sparkling white with curlicues and patterned tile, beautifully restored its owner, designer Robert Bell. DSC00992MonkeyPenny and I breakfasted each morning on the roof with Butterbones the cat, who started out shy and grateful and wound up a howling demanding banshee. Hicham would show up to ask what we’d like for dinner and to suggest a trip or drive us somewhere. Saida the chef, Fadawa the maid and Rabir the houseboy would bustle around making us feel special. We were so safe and spoiled in the riad that we had to remember Robert’s warning to take care outside. The transition was immediate from this island of calm to the souk, a cacophonus labyrinth of narrow steep-walled streets, alleys leading off into mysteries, all thronged with trade.

Seven Arcs Passage in Kenaria  ©2013 Trici Venola

Seven Arcs Passage in Kenaria ©2013 Trici Venola

SnakesSince those halcyon hippie days, two generations have grown up in Tourism, and the atmosphere is bracing: yelling hucksters in striped djellabas, bemused tourists in shorts, donkeys pulling carts, guys sharpening knives, beating drums, little old covered ladies begging, and motorbikes, the scourge of the Middle East.

DSC01175Whole families crowded onto one bike, young guys being important, old men being speedy, power women in full chador and hijab, all blowing exhaust. One must walk single file far to the right in the narrow streets to avoid getting bumped. Then a short passage and wham! Peace:

DSC01127 … and these daggers I love.

Daggers at Musee Said  ©2013 Trici Venola

Daggers at Musee Said ©2013 Trici Venola

The people take good care of anything green. Parks are plentiful and clean, and here’s a tree growing right in the middle of the marketplace for 200 years.

The Tree in the Medina ©2013 Trici Venola

Tree in the Medina ©2013 Trici Venola

BURNING HEADS We got there just before Aid al-Adha, or Kurban Bayram in Turkish. This is a Muslim holy day celebrating the Sacrifice of Abraham. Remember, God asked him to kill his son Isaac? As Abraham obediently got ready to cut Isaac’s throat, God relented and let him kill a sheep instead. So once a year, all over the world, sheep and cows and goats all die ritually. The family buys the best animal they can afford, and many hire a professional to do the slaughtering. The meat is shared with the poor.


What this looks like in Marrakech is streets full of doomed sheep, slashed with red paint, in carts, tied in gardens, carried over shoulders. The morning of the day is full of baaing, which gradually dies out as the air fills with the coppery smell of blood. Later that day and the next, every shop is closed and the streets are full of people burning heads and hooves. They’re burned until they are white bone and then used for all sorts of things.

Burning the Heads  ©2013 Trici Venola

Burning the Heads ©2013 Trici Venola

Bone and curly sheep horns show up in furniture, as paperweights, as the design element of the curlicue and in musical instruments, like those shown here with their maker, famous bass guitarist Mustafa. All over the Medina, guys looking through my book recognized him.

The Music Maker  ©2013 Trici Venola

The Music Maker ©2013 Trici Venola

The day after Aid al-Adha, a little brat in the street threw a sheep’s testicle onto my sketchbook as I was showing this drawing of an alley to Penny. I threw it right back at him.

Crooked Alley House  ©2013 Trici Venola

Crooked Alley House ©2013 Trici Venola

After I drew this, I walked into the drawing and discovered that the bottom of those houses built over the streets look like this:



Jardin Majorelle's Brochure

Created by painter Jacques Majorelle and opened to the public in 1947, the Jardin became derelict after he died. Yves St Laurent and his partner Pierre Berges bought and began restoring these gardens in 1980, and it’s too bad the word “fabulous” is so overused.

Blue Bamboo Pavilion  ©2013 Trici Venola

Blue Bamboo Pavilion ©2013 Trici Venola

One can wander all day in the stands of huge bamboo, cobalt and emerald everywhere, worlds of color, hanging flowering vines over dark and pale pools streaked with red carp. Imagine the parties there! Through the zigzag branches of enormous exotic cacti glow the flat blue, violet and lemon walls of the Berber museum.

Berber Treasure  ©2013 Trici Venola

Berber Treasure ©2013 Trici Venola

Inside, this set of jewelry, a Berber family’s entire wealth in silver, amber and stone, stands glassed and glowing with a dozen others in an infinite starry night. The room is actually tiny, mirrored all around, the low black roof pierced with thousands of pinholes. I stood two hours to draw this, undisturbed by the guards although no photos are allowed, and made many friends.


Berber Village with Students  ©2013 Trici Venola

Berber Village with Students ©2013 Trici Venola

The Berber Refrigerator  ©2013 Trici Venola

The Berber Refrigerator ©2013 Trici Venola

Mountain PussycatThe Berber are tribal people native to Morocco. They seem well liked by everyone. We saw many of their villages salted throughout the mountains. The highway runs along a river below towering mountaintops. Along the lushly forested river are enchanting restaurants: suspension bridges rock above the water from the highway to the tables below. The color of the land goes from ochre to blood to rose to peach, all overlaid with pale green vegetation and slashed with cobalt blue paint: on tables, pots, tree trunks. We stopped for lunch and played with a raffish orange cat at the edge of a stream. Penny even made it to the top of the waterfall while I elected to stay and draw the Berber Refrigerator: the water hits the whirligig, spins it and sprays onto the cooling bottles of soda.


Most of the structures out in the country are built of taliwaugh– I’m spelling phonetically here– handmade mud bricks. After a few centuries, this rounds and erodes and sinks back into the land.

Camel Plow

We saw many women’s collectives along the roads. At one in Marrakech, we had bought Argan oil, famed for its good effect on skin. Now out in the hinterlands were the ragged-leafed Argan trees, native to Morocco, drought-resistant, endangered and protected by Unesco and the nice profits from their oil. Here’s one full of goats.

Goat Tree  ©2013 Trici Venola

Goat Tree ©2013 Trici Venola

The awful truth is that Argan oil is extracted from undigested pits harvested from goat shit. Goats climb the trees to eat the fruit. Traditional methods involve boiling, pounding and straining by many well-employed women.  I pulled this photo off the Internet, which hastened to inform me that there are nice sterile machines to make Argan oil. Fooey on them, I’ll take the traditional method, and my skin likes it too.

Argan Oil Production

Argan Oil Production, from Wikipedia.

After much driving we came to Ossauria, a coastal which gradually came out of the mists to greet me as I drew. The fort is five hundred years old. I thought the French had built those spherical cornices, but they’re Arab. Hm, could the French have gotten this architectural inspiration from the Arabs? The French were here from WWI until the ‘fifties, when they were booted out. But there remains a vivid French presence: in aesthetics, in language, in voices and faces. Even the King is partly French.

Fortifications at Ossauria  ©2013 Trici Venola

Fortifications at Ossauria ©2013 Trici Venola

A lot of people didn’t want their pictures drawn, but Fadawa our maid was happy to pose, and very proud of her braces. Women everywhere were smiling through braces which have recently been made affordable. 

Pretty Fadawa with Braces  ©2013 Trici Venola

Pretty Fadawa with Braces ©2013 Trici Venola

Leading to the Marrakech Kasbah is an eleventh-century gate covered with fifteen-year-old wooden restoration and topped with storks’ nests occupied all year, for the storks never leave Marrakech. Just as I finished a little girl leaped up on the two cement blocks and posed for a second, long enough to catch her in the drawing. I crossed the street and showed her. I was hoping it would be all right when she reached up, threw her arms around my neck and kissed me.

Storks On the Kasbah Gate  ©2013 Trici Venola

Storks On the Kasbah Gate ©2013 Trici Venola


The TimTam Door  ©2013 Trici Venola

The TimTam Door ©2013 Trici Venola

TIMTAM HOUSE A doorway in a wall of the souk leads through many passageways to a tea garden of filigree and tile and tall flamelike canna lilies, and beyond to high arched windows, balconies, skylights. This is TimTam House. The owner, Yunus, told me that it was built in the 19th century by the Minister of Justice, and that it was quite plain. Yunus’s grandfather bought it in 1936. The exquisite decoration is all from 1942. While in America they were creating the movie Casablanca, in Marrakech they were creating this.

In TimTam House  ©2013 Trici Venola

In TimTam House ©2013 Trici Venola

“My grandfather was more generous with artisans than most, said Yunus, and he got –” he gestured to the high filigree walls. Artisanship like this is rare, now. After his grandmother died, the family converted the house, now subsumed by the Berber Market, to a garden restaurant and carpet shop. Penny and I had spent hours in the garden, enjoying actual face time. Seven years ago she came over and took us along the Mediterranean coast and up to Kapadokya. We don’t see each other often, but when we do, we swing. Here she is on our last afternoon together.

Penny at TimTam House  ©2013 Trici Venola

Penny at TimTam House ©2013 Trici Venola

I had a few more days after she left. Back in TimTam, missing her and drawing in the garden, I kept wondering if they would ask me to move to make room for the paying customers, but everybody treated me like Picasso. Passages lead to the center of the house, now a carpet shop, where I spent five hours drawing patterns and talking with Abdul and Jamal. Then I ran into that colossal door, the 19th century original to the house, the Minister of Justice’s door, now leaned up against an interior wall. I spent my last day drawing it, imagining the sun and storms and desperate faces it has seen. Walked home in the dark so happy that I easily avoided a common peril in the souk with its eight-foot-wide streets: being run into by an old man in a djellaba on a motorbike.



Dawn Clouds at Atlas Kabe ©2013 Trici Venola

Dawn Clouds at Atlas Kabe ©2013 Trici Venola

As Hicham drove us toward the mountains, I was drawing masses of dawn clouds over the plains when I saw a great shoal of cloud foaming across the horizon. Above it could be seen the tips of the mountains, the Atlas Kabe: High Atlas.These mountains are the reason for the Sahara, as they block the clouds. Snowmelt from them runs down and waters Marrakech, the jewel of the plains.

Into the Cloud ©2013 Trici Venola

Before the Cloud ©2013 Trici Venola

 We drove into the first rain I’ve seen here. The car surged up past pine forests, stands of silver birch, the occasional explosion of a palm tree, whole mountainsides pebbled with fruited cactus.

Berber Village with Trees  ©2013 Trici Venola

Berber Village with Trees ©2013 Trici Venola

Donkey Rider 2

The rivers are mostly dry this time of year, but the riverbeds are thick with trees. The land is every shade of peach, and the tiles on the houses are green. People came in and out of the mist. The road twisted upwards into the clouds. Rain starred the windshield. We drove along switchback curves, unimaginably high. On one side, the mountainside was barely visible. On the other side, a sheer drop into solid white. Lurching from side to side I fixed my lipstick, in case I met God.

Berber Village 3  ©2013 Trici Venola

Berber Village 3 ©2013 Trici Venola

Berber houses are long low rectangles punched with a row of square windows. Being built of the mountains they are often barely discernible against the land.

Mountain RetreatGroups of them are built on the barren hillsides, in the lush river valleys, straddling the very spines of the mountains, both sides of the houses dropping off into swirling clouds.

Barren Mountainside  ©2013 Trici Venola

Barren Mountainside ©2013 Trici Venola

On the highway these have evolved into towns. In one, we drove right up to a kebap place. Hicham squinted through the window at the sheep’s carcass, hung up on display. He grunted and we drove away. “Looks yellow,” he said, “not good.” We breakfasted further along, in a bustling town of steep mountainsides, fruit stands, tractors, tour busses, cardboard over puddles of rain. A tiled room with a balcony over a riverbed, intended as a cool refuge from the heat, but in the rain it was full of steaming people. We had meatballs, and let me tell you, ground beef patties cooked with sliced tomato and red onion will hold you all day.

Rainy Mountain Cafe  ©2013 Trici Venola

Rainy Mountain Cafe ©2013 Trici Venola

Hicham had given his water bottle to a kid by the side of the road with car trouble. I kept asking him if he wanted water, and he kept laughing and refusing. “You’re a Bedouin,” I said. “I am,” he said. I had been joking. I knew his mother was Berber, with blonde hair and blue eyes, and red cheeks, he said, from the altitude. But his father was Tuareg. What is Tuareg? “Bedouin,” he said, “they walk the Sahara from end to end, they know no country.”

Hicham  ©2013 Trici Venola

Hicham ©2013 Trici Venola

No Umbrellas Here

Many women along the road were wearing robes of purple and lavender and rose. In the infrequent rain nobody carried an umbrella, walking in laughing groups to school. We passed a couple of little kids bundled into bright yellow snowsuits, two women in magenta hijab, many people in Berber blue, a pure cobalt blue, dyed with indigo. The road twisted on up, tiers of highway above us glimpsed through bits of mist. We stopped for pictures next to a few buildings huddled between the road and a sheer drop, staring across space to bare grey mountainsides rising to a jagged ridge high above.  Far below was a smear of green: a Berber village. Back in the car, we looped on up toward the summit and at last flashed past a sign on a shuttered shop: ALT 2260 M(eters). Then the mist vanished and the world turned gold as we sailed down the desert side of the mountain. The river widened, and all the green bushes and trees in this world were there. The mountains were rocky moonscapes in dark red, dun, grey.

Village at Mountain's Foot  ©2013 Trici Venola

Village at Mountain’s Foot ©2013 Trici Venola

At the foot of the mountains, after I drew the settlement above, Hicham turned left and drove out through flatlands.

Rock Village

Donkey CartIn a small town, he drove up to the mosque and parked. Here is the mosque, he said, gesturing to the rounded minaret, and here is the car, so you can find it. This was Ait-Benhaddou. Beyond is the Wazizih desert and then the Sahara. We walked through the town and came out of a doorway halfway up a hill. I stopped in shock. Across a wide white wash rose a mountain of towers. Spiky-topped towers pitted with rounded windows and doors, ridged with eroded carving, fringed with emerald palm trees, rising there at the edge of the desert. An Oz of sand. Hicham had driven us to the Kasbah.

The Kasbah at Ait-Benhaddou  ©2013 Trici Venola

The Kasbah at Ait-Benhaddou ©2013 Trici Venola

I spent the next three hours drawing. We crossed the wash on a bridge crowded with tourists. This was disconcerting as I felt I was at the end of the earth, but tourists are why such places survive. Everyone in the Kasbah was either working a guesthouse or selling souvenirs. It seemed appropriate. Kasbah means residence, but thanks to the movies I associate it with a marketplace. Some of the towers are occupied and some are ruins, but you can walk up into them. Climbing up the narrow streets and steep stairs, I looked into a face of delicate beauty, a classic Berber boy’s face, wearing blue and topped with a huge black turban. I’ve seen a face like that on a postcard and wondered where in the world…

Street in the Kasbah  ©2013 Trici Venola

Street in the Kasbah ©2013 Trici Venola

I climbed up the rocks above the ancient town and sat looking down into the towers. They looked like huge sand castles. People there said they are 300 years old. Nuts, said Hicham, a lot older. I drew until it was time to leave. Walking down through the towers I found them rounded like caves inside.

Ait-Benhaddou on a Postcard

Ait-Benhaddou on a Postcard

At the edge of the wash, some Tuareg guys were hustling dune buggy rides to the Sahara. They wore traditional pale blue robes and big black turbans, and their dune buggies were the sort where the wheels look like coke cans turned on the side. I realized I was walking in the actual desert. The white sand was silky, fine, clean, softer than California beach sand. I did not want to wash off my sandals.

Sheep and Sugar Cane

The ride back was quieter as I was drunk on the day.

Berber Village on a Postcard

Berber Village on a Postcard

Long loops of road through the golden afternoon, then silence and grey as we zoomed into the cloud. As we hurtled up, above us shone a spectral image: silhouettes of moving cars glowing through the fog as if across a lit street between dark buildings. It was a shaft of light up on the summit. It took less time to return as we had used up every camera device in the car. All through the long drive back through the gathering dark I couldn’t speak a word, but I was smiling, because at long last I have been to the Kasbah.

Two Women Magenta Hijab

All drawings Plein Air, done in sketchbook format, dimensions 18cm X 26. All drawings and photos (unless otherwise specified) © 2013 by Trici Venola. Riad Twenty is available for holiday rental, and Hicham is the manager. You can find them at  

DRAWING ON ISTANBUL 2 is NOW AVAILABLE! through, any minute.

HERE IN ISTANBUL: In Sultanahmet, at Jennifer’s Hamam in the Arasta Bazaar. Elsewhere, ask at your local bookstore. DOI2 is available through Citlembik Publishing. You can buy a signed copy from me personally at any of these upcoming events:

NOVEMBER 30 (Saturday) 3:30-5PM at GREENHOUSE BOOKS on the Asian Side at Hilmi Pasha Caddesi No. 2/B, Kozyatagi, Kadikoy, Istanbul Turkiye 216 449 3034

DECEMBER 1 (Sunday) 4:30 PM at MOLLY’S CAFE on the European Side in Galata at Sahkulu Sokak No 12, 90 212 245 1696. Directions: head down from Tunel on Galip Dede. Take the second right past the Dervish Monastery and continue on down to No. 12.

DECEMBER 5 (Thursday) Official Launch Party at KALAMAR RESTAURANT in KUMKAPI, 7:30 PM. Caparis Sk. No: 15, Kumkapi. 90 212 517 1849. From the Shore Road (Sahil Yolu or Kennedy Cad), turn in at the Kumkapi Gate on the Marmara Sea. By tram, go toward Bagcilar, get off in Beyazit and walk straight down the hill on Tiyatro Caddesi to the famous row of fish restaurants at the bottom. PLEASE COME!!!


KYBELE HOTEL: Drawing in the Power of the Goddess


Mike's Lamps ©1999 Trici Venola

Mike’s Lamps ©1999 Trici Venola

DSC00524Kybele Hotel, one block from Hagia Sophia in Sultanahmet at 35 Yerebatan Caddesi, next door to the Yoruk Collection. Far below in the shadowy Basilica Cistern is the giant upside-down stone Medusa. Moss greens her face like uplighting. Up here in the street, all is brilliant color: Kybele is painted turquoise and gold, pink and purple. It’s designed to make your eyes happy.

Slow Pan Kybele ©2004 Trici Venola

Slow Pan Kybele / Yoruk ©2004 Trici Venola

DSC00530Why write about a hotel? And why have I drawn it so much? Because it matters to me. But then it matters to a lot of people. It’s their porthole on Istanbul. From Japan to San Francisco, from Moscow to Paris to New York, diverse, eclectic and interesting people all find a home in Kybele. From this spot, in the center of the oldest part of one of the oldest cities on earth, you can see the whole world.

A Winter Day at Kybele ©2000 Trici Venola

A Winter Day at Kybele ©2000 Trici Venola

Bigwig, A Poet ©1999 Trici Venola

Bigwig, A Poet ©1999 Trici Venola

Charm isn’t something you can manufacture. It has to evolve. It comes about when every single thing in a place matters to someone. Kybele is probably the most photographed hotel in Istanbul, with a wall of rave reviews culled from hundreds. In a district fraught with amusing taste, theirs is impeccable. People work here for years. The maids are important. The waiters are important. The managers and the chauffeur and the chefs are important. And they all treat you like you’re important.

Laura 99

Laura 99

Kybele Lobby 99The place is immaculate, the food in the restaurant good, the music an eclectic mix. Kybele’s famous hanging lamps inspired lookalikes all over the city, lamp shops on every corner.

Kybele’s sixteen rooms are always full. People come back year after year. Architects, archeologists, artists all congregate among the antiques in the lobby. Its creators, brothers Mike, Alpaslan and Hasan Akbayrak, form a perfect blend of art, logic and mysticism that carries over into the decor and general feeling of the place. When they sold it last July 1, shock waves went through the international community. Like many others, my first reaction was to think I would die of sadness. Yet everyone was still sitting out front playing backgammon like always. A cloudy summer day, with a hot breath of storm.

Mike In the Clouds ©2013 Trici Venola

Mike In the Clouds ©2013 Trici Venola

So I sat there in shock and drew Mike and his sons, kids I watched grow up. These faces cheered me right up.

Ozi and Timur 2013 ©2013 Trici Venola

Ozi and Timur 2013 ©2013 Trici Venola

I was there so long that I got to meet the new owners. We should have known that, like everything else in its history, Kybele would attract the best.

Gözde Birer ©2013 Trici Venola

Gözde Birer ©2013 Trici Venola

Ismail Take One ©2013 Trici Venola

Ismail Take One 2013 Trici Venola

Far from an ending, the sale is a continuation and expansion. The  brothers Akbayrak and their legendary carpet and jewelry business are still next door, at Yoruk Collection. The staff is unchanged. And there are these interesting new faces at the hotel helm.  We all love this place, and so I’m celebrating its people and spirit here. In these perilous times, we need every little island of peace and beauty we can get.

Mike & Nihat ©2007 Trici Venola

Mike & Nihat ©2007 Trici Venola


Susie and Ayda ©2007 Trici Venola

Susie and Ayda ©2007 Trici Venola

Kybele from Çatal Hoyuk

Kybele from Çatal Hoyuk

Kybele. A name that conjures up a dancing procession with cymbals and bells. She’s the ancient powerful Anatolian Mother Goddess of Asia Minor, inspiring temples, sacrifices, orgiastic worship. Aspects of her later incarnated into Artemis and then into the Virgin Mary. Images of the goddess abound on the Internet, but in all her many forms, Kybele is female power. Ruler of hearth and home, she arrives in a chariot pulled by lions, accompanied by wild music, by wine, by smiles.

Mike & the Hittite Kybele ©2004 Trici Venola

Mike & the Hittite Kybele ©2004 Trici Venola

There have always been powerful women around Kybele. For starters there are Susie, Gamza and Kazumi, who married Mike, Alp and Hasan.

Susie Oh La La ©2004 Trici Venola

Susie Oh La La ©2004 Trici Venola

Their mothers and friends come in and out from Germany and Turkey and Japan. Their kids grew up independent and interesting, and there have always been fabulous guests. So naturally two of the three new owners are power women as well. Here’s Nur Katre. I haven’t heard her music yet, I haven’t read her writing. I’m betting it’s good.

The New Owner ©2013 Trici Venola

The New Owner ©2013 Trici Venola

Kybele Tympanon, Louvre

Kybele Tympanon, Louvre

Nur’s parents, Gözde and Ismail Birer, seemed nice enough, except I couldn’t talk to them. That damned language thing. A pal, Elizabeth, was at Kybele, she spends her summers resurrecting and reconstructing wooden furniture from the Court of King Midas, circa 740 BCE, found in tumuli near Ankara, and stays on her way in and out each year. Kybele sold, I said. Nobody had told her. I was sitting with Gözde and we were trying to converse without much luck.  But Elizabeth is fluent in Turkish, and she began to translate. Half an hour later we were gasping for air, laughing up in the garden. A newspaperwoman, politically awake, very funny. Ismail as it turns out is an expert in antique textiles, very dry, aesthetically adept. All thoughts of our precious place going to boring strangers had fled. What a relief!

Gozde and Ismail with Cats ©2013 Trici Venola

Gözde and Ismail Birer with Cats ©2013 Trici Venola

It’s mostly women who make the textiles sold at Yoruk Collection and for that matter everywhere: women weave the carpets and embroider the suzanis, women tie the tassels and bead the hats. Tribal art represents years of the lives of women. They love women at Kybele, and we know it.

Dreams In Lace ©2004 Trici Venola

Dreams In Lace ©2004 Trici Venola


Mike's Famous Rug Lecture ©1999 Trici Venola

Mike’s Famous Rug Lecture ©1999 Trici Venola

Alpaslan On the Medusa ©1999 Trici Venola

Alpaslan On the Medusa ©1999 Trici Venola

The Akbayrak brothers were selling carpets and textiles in Sultanahmet when there were only four stores. Back then, the Sultanahmet was shabby and dusty, but the trees, innocent of municipal pruning, were huge and healthy, and the antiquities were appropriately blackened with age. You had to beg someone to help you find a carpet salesman. Mike, Hasan and Alpaslan Akbayrak opened the Yoruk Collection on Yerebatan Caddesi, just down the street from the Basilica Cistern. They were wildly successful. Japanese collectors found them. American diplomats found them. They bought two splintering Victorian wooden houses next door, gutted and rebuilt them, painted them vivid colors and filled them with antiques, in order to give their carpet customers a nice place to stay. Kybele Hotel opened in 1992.  It has seldom had an empty room or a dull day since.

TV and Elizabeth

Anthropologist & Find ©2000 Trici Venola

Anthropologist & Find ©2000 Trici Venola

Among the earliest tribal textile dealers, Kybele and Yoruk Collection set the tone for Sultanahmet, championing handwoven textiles like ikat, hand-embroidered suzanis, gorgeous stuff now collected all over the world. The textiles at Yoruk Collection are mind-boggling. And some of the jewelry is that stuff you’ve seen in the movies: The Other Boleyn Girl and others.


The Brothers Akbayrak ©1999 Trici Venola

The Brothers Akbayrak ©1999 Trici Venola

Breakfast at Kybele ©1999 Trici Venola

Breakfast at Kybele ©1999 Trici Venola

FINDING MY WAY HOME    I stumbled into Kybele ahead of my luggage one morning in September of 1999, angry, discouraged and sad. I was in Turkey to draw, but of course I had fallen in love, and it was not going well.

A big earthquake in August had scared tourists, and Sultanahmet was empty. A contact at the Turkish Tourist Office in Washington had put me in touch with a travel agency, after I explained my plan to draw in Turkey for three months and put the stuff up on my website. There wasn’t any money for projects like mine, but the agency contacted hotel owners. I paid for my own trip, but they asked hotels to contribute housing. Kybele was the first one.

Mike & Kate 99 2

An all-night fight with my boyfriend had left me numb. Still I noticed lamps hanging from the ceiling like fantastic fruit. The bearded hippie on the desk wore an embroidered cap and invited me to breakfast. I followed the glowing lamps through the lobby. My mood lightened with every step. The place looked like the love child of Oscar Wilde and Isadora Duncan.

Little Girl Selin ©1999 Trici Venola

Little Girl Selin ©1999 Trici Venola

A small girl with a huge white hair-bow burst into the breakfast room yelling GunAYdin! Good MORNing! The hippie was Mike, the little girl was Hasan’s daughter Selin, and I was home.  My troubles skittered away like spiders in the sun. I should worry, I had friends.

Akbayrak Family October 99 ©1999 Trici Venola

Akbayrak Family October 99 ©1999 Trici Venola

I have been drawing Kybele Hotel ever since. Through besotted love and manic joy, catastrophic illness and recovery, career change and homesickness, through TV interviews and groups of those fascinated as I am, by the layers here of culture and time, through the long, slow, joyous attempt to understand this place, Turkey, at the center of the world, the hotel has always been there and I have kept drawing it. I should worry, I have friends.

The Mosque Alarm Clock ©2000 Trici Venola

The Mosque Alarm Clock ©2000 Trici Venola


Ali & Sedat ©2009 Trici Venola

Ali & Sedat ©2009 Trici Venola

Apo, Kybele’s excellent chef. We all learned his name in a hurry.


And, since he’s standing next to Apo down in the kitchen wielding a big knife, we learned Huseyin’s name pretty fast, too.Huseyin Chef's Helper

Adnan 2013 ©2013 Trici Venola

Adnan 2013 ©2013 Trici Venola

Once I complimented Kybele’s Driver, Adnan, here on his cheery demeanor, which takes some doing when you’re driving all the time in Istanbul traffic. This is a town where taxi drivers can be psycho. “It’s just my face,” he told me, “I am 24 hours smiling.”

Dursun is unobtrusive, but wherever he goes, it’s clean, and you have whatever you need. I missed drawing Emir, but he made up for it with this smile.



Emir yesterday.

Kybele’s thousands of lamps used to be kept in order by an old man who crawled around in the ceilings, wiring everything so that they could be turned on in batches. He eventually went to the Big Light In The Sky, to be replaced by Huseyin, shown in the Kybele garden.

Huseyin in 2004 ©2004 Trici Venola

Huseyin in 2004 ©2004 Trici Venola

Aysha and Huseyin’s mother, Muberra, are Kybele’s longtime housekeepers.Aysa and Muberra


Vefa 2009Vefa has been Kybele’s manager since I can remember. Be nice to Vefa! He’s the guy who books your room. Also on desk is his cohort, the charming Chetin. It’s a good idea to be nice to him as well.

The night man is and always has been Elvis.

Elvis 99His real name is Taner, and he works very long shifts. Many jet-lagged conversations have I had with Elvis down in the lobby at 4AM. Once I got all the way to the airport without my passport and called, frantic. Elvis located the passport and sent it by taxi to the airport, telling the driver enough so that he could find the total stranger with zero Turkish, the one bouncing up and down with anxiety, and I made my plane. Here’s Baby Elvis in 1999.

Hasan wEzzie 2009Vefa’s brother, Hasan, started at Kybele when he got out of the Army in 2001. Now he’s all grown up and married and a Daddy and everything. He grew up here: poignant memories of Hasan heroically carrying all of the suitcases, backpacks, shoulder bags and purses of an entire party of pretty girls up Kybele’s steep stairs all by himself in ONE trip, earning many oohs and aahs.

Baby Hasan

I drew him with the tiny abandoned kitten he and Serdar found in Kybele and kept alive until they could foist her off on me. I still have her, fat and demanding, but cute.

Elvis 99

Elvis in 1999

Serdar started at Kybele when he was seventeen. A tall rangy kid, always with the latest wild hairstyle. He learned English a lot better and faster than I’ve learned Turkish, and he applies it daily now at his swell job in Canada. Here’s Serdar in 2004.

Serder Working Late ©2004 Trici Venola

Serder Working Late ©2004 Trici Venola

And here he is at his wedding in 2011.

Serdar and Tachelle ©2011 Trici Venola

Serdar and Tachelle ©2011 Trici Venola

StormStorm would talk your ear off. He was a good worker. His problem was that he had too big  a brain. It was full of thoughts that slopped over continuously in floods of talk. Storm picked up English overnight. He sharpened his thoughts talking to the Kybele customers as he worked. He was entertaining as all hell.

There wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity for him, but a visiting philanthropist from Arizona noticed the brain (with a nudge from Alp) and sent him to school in America. Such things don’t happen very often. Storm worked his butt off at school and aced the courses and got scholarships. He works in Silicon Valley now. He came for a visit awhile back. He said the weirdest thing about being where he is is that everybody is very very smart.

Happy Mike in Winter ©2001 Trici Venola

Happy Mike in Winter ©2001 Trici Venola

Sukru and ApoŞükrü, shown here with Apo, a man of many affectionate nicknames: “Jay Leno,” and “Sugar” being a few. Şükrü’s son Serkan started at the hotel very young. When still a teenager he could deal with anything. He could talk down a fight, eject a drunk without a scene and still bring you your cappuccino before it got cold. Today, after the Army and some odd jobs, he’s back at Yoruk Collection. Here he is with his new wife, looking positively merged. She’s a talented graphic designer, so fast on a Mac that her nickname is “Speedy Gonzales.”

Newlyweds Merged 2013 Trici Venola

Newlyweds Merged 2013 Trici Venola

Sultanahmet is full of little boys who work: carrying tea trays, shining shoes, selling roses. Most of them are Eastern Turks, working to help the family. Alpaslan told me one day that they had hired dozens of these boys, but that they’d all flaked out after awhile. All except one. Erkan started with Kybele when he was 13. He learned English and Japanese and exquisite social skills, grew up and got married and has a lovely family and is the manager over at Yoruk Collection. Here he is in 2009:

Dreamboat Erkan 2009 ©2009 Trici Venola

Dreamboat Erkan 2009 ©2009 Trici Venola


Erkan and Ali Sanci ©2000 Trici Venola

Erkan and Ali Sanci ©2000 Trici Venola

There are no elevators, and there are no televisions in the jewel-box rooms. Nobody seems to miss them.

Hasan in the Turkish House ©2004 Trici Venola

Hasan in the Turkish House ©2004 Trici Venola


Kelly 13

Upstairs in the Garden is the Turkish House, a highly ornamental structure of carved painted wood that houses the multi-lingual Kybele library. The Turkish House is built like traditional old country houses: a row of cabineted rooms.  Once there were some Peace Corps volunteers staying there, en route from Romania. Over breakfast in the elegant garden, one of the girls described going in and out of her flooded apartment building in the dark with two flashlights tied to her hips, wading through floating things she didn’t want to identify.

Birds & Cages ©2004 Trici Venola

Birds & Cages ©2004 Trici Venola

Alp and Rayan 99

Alp and Rayan 99

Between dangerous assignments in Iraq in the early 2000s, a photographer caught his breath at Kybele. He was fascinated with the pair of doves nesting in the Garden amid Mike’s collection of empty bird cages, and I did this drawing for him. I wish I had some of the photographs he took of them. He described taking pictures of Saddam Hussein’s palace after that bird had flown.

Raymond and Ajata were madly in love and expecting their first child. She was eating everything in sight. They went back to Paris and I never saw them again. Here they are on the verge, forever happy.

Raymond & Ajata ©2004 Trici Venola

Raymond & Ajata ©2004 Trici Venola

Lynn from Kentucky took up textile dealing at seventy.

Our Sweet Lynn ©2007 Trici Venola

Our Sweet Lynn ©2007 Trici Venola

Marta from Moscow is a frequent and welcome visitor, along with her growing family.

Marta ©2013 Smetana

Marta ©2013 Smetana

Mr Pete ©2013 Trici Venola

Mr Pete ©2013 Trici Venola

Mother Mary ©1999 Trici Venola

Mother Mary ©1999 Trici Venola

Mr Pete drives a Harley and always brings T-shirts for the staff.  Below, Mother Mary was  so called because she and Mike figured she was old enough to be his mother. When we lost Mother Mary, there was a large wake at Kybele. This picture was passed out with the mourners. Mother Mary’s husband Father Bob remarried, and the entire family comes year after year.

At Mike's w Father Bob ©2004 Trici Venola

At Mike’s w Father Bob ©2004 Trici Venola

Jeannie and her partner Rhonda had the most beautiful hair anyone had ever seen. Big blonde, sleek black. They brought belly-dance tours over from Canada, stayed at Kybele, dancing like a couple of goddesses. Everybody fell in love with them and stayed that way.

Jeannie ©2004 Trici Venola

Jeannie ©2004 Trici Venola

Japanese architects have for decades been stabilizing the Byzantine architecture of Hagia Sophia. Legendary Turkish architect Mimar Sinan buttressed it in the Renaissance, and now it’s the Japanese helping it stay vertical. They send all their architectural students there to study. That’s them out walking on the roof, and that’s a clutch of them over there in the Kybele lobby under the lamps. One day I’ll have to draw them.

A Sucker For Kids ©1999 Trici Venola

A Sucker For Kids ©1999 Trici Venola

Half the staff speaks Japanese, not to mention Hasan and Kazumi and Selin.

Hasan en Famille wCats

Bernie the BirdThe Akbayrak kids are all multilingual, and a League of Nations they are. Selin, the little girl with the big white bow, grew up so smart it is scary. I sat next to her at the computer one night a few years ago. She was chatting online in Japanese, watching a video of a teenaged girl band in Tokyo singing in English, conversing in Turkish on one side and commenting in English to me on the other. It’ll be fun to see what she does with her life.

Alp's Daughters

Zeynep 2004Alp and Gamza’s daughter is studying fashion design in New York. I used to call her Brown Sugar because of her hair. Zeynep drove everybody crazy, she had so much energy. Whatever she does in life will probably involve numbers.

Mike and Susie’s daughter Yonca married Mlado from Serbia.

Yonca at Kybele 03 ©2003 Trici Venola

Yonca at Kybele 03 ©2003 Trici Venola

Maya One ©2009 Trici Venola

Maya One ©2009 Trici Venola

New Year’s Eve a few years ago, they expected their first child. Over in the corner were Susie’s mother from Germany, Kazumi’s mother from Japan, and Mike’s mother, Turkish. Waiting for Mlado’s mother to arrive from Serbia, all gabbled away in their three languages in perfect communication. Maya, shown here at one month, is the proud owner of Maya’s Corner, that purple and pink kebab place between Kybele Hotel and Yoruk Collection. Now four, she bustles in importantly. Yes, this is my shop, she says.

Mike Christmas Bling ©2004 TV

Mike Christmas Bling ©2004 TV

Necla and Cat ©1999 Trici Venola

Necla and Cat ©1999 Trici Venol

Lolling Alp ©2000 Trici Venola

Lolling Alp ©2000 Trici

Long ago I made a couple of books of pictures I’d drawn of the place. These sat on the piano for years, gradually falling to pieces as scores of jet-lagged people leafed through them. People still find the books near the piano and since I jammed a new card in the back, I get emails. I send them here, to the blog.

Alp Christmas Bling

Alp Christmas Bling ©2004 TV

Perfect Evening Stagger ©2000 Trici Venola

Perfect Evening Stagger ©2000 Trici Venola

Hasan Christmas Bling

Hasan Christmas Bling ©2004 TV

It’s only two months since Gözde and Ismail and Nur bought the place but it seems they have always been there.  I shared Iftar with them there, they like it so much. Vefa and Chetin are still on desk. Everyone else is where they ought to be. The family is still next door, at the Yoruk Collection. They left my books on the piano. The Eternal Backgammon Tournament continues. That seems to be the way it will be. So I upgraded the copy on my commemorative Kybele drawing in the new book in the nick of time before it went to press. Here it is, and it looks to stay this happy.

Kybele Medly ©1999-2013 Trici Venola

Kybele Medly ©1999-2013 Trici Venola

Weeks ago, I went over to Kybele to draw the lobby for this blog.

Kybele Lobby ©2013 Trici Venola

Kybele Lobby ©2013 Trici Venola

DSC00569I worked for hours. As waves of nostalgia surged up and threatened to drown me I couldn’t help noticing that the framed picture at left is hung exactly in the center of the wallpaper design. Not a trick missed!! Then Gözde came over and we had a cappuccino. My Turkish is improving, and so is her English. As always, I found it difficult to leave. I have always enjoyed the company of the Goddess.



All drawings Plein Air by Trici Venola. Drawing On Istanbul 2 is now at the printer’s: stay tuned. Original art is for sale from the Drawing On Istanbul Series: send me a message via this blog if you are interested. Prints are available at the DrawingOnIstanbul Store at We love your comments.

GEZI PARK: Drawing Trees in Istanbul


Benediction ©2006 by Trici Venola.


My head foaming clouds, sea inside me and out

I am a walnut tree in Gulhane Park                                                                          an old walnut, knot by knot, shred by shred                                                            Neither you are aware of this, nor the police

I am a walnut tree in Gulhane Park                                                              My leaves are nimble, nimble like fish in water

My leaves are sheer, sheer like a silk handkerchief                                    pick, wipe, my rose, the tear from your eyes

My leaves are my hands, I have one hundred thousand

I touch you with one hundred thousand hands, I touch Istanbul                   My leaves are my eyes, I look in amazement

I watch you with one hundred thousand eyes, I watch Istanbul

Like one hundred thousand hearts, beat, beat my leaves                                            I am a walnut tree in Gulhane Park                                                              neither you are aware of this, nor the police

–Nazim Hikmet


NAZIM HIKMET RAN, 1902-1963  If you say his name on the street in Turkey, everyone will look up. Often described as a romantic revolutionary, he was frequently arrested for his Communist beliefs and spent much of his life in jail or exile. He spent quite awhile up the street from Gulhane Park in the prison made infamous  by the movie Midnight Express, now a swanky Four Seasons Hotel. I wonder if he wrote The Walnut Tree there. His passionate determination is much admired, but what makes him loved is his literary voice, immediately familiar, direct and clear. I’m not a big fan of Communism, but I sure relate to his rage at nuclear war and persecution of all kinds. It was Nazim Hikmet who wrote that Byrds song I Stand At Every Door, the one that sent shivers up everyone’s spine, of a little girl nuked at Hiroshima, set to music by Pete Seeger and sung at  sit-ins throughout the Peace Movement. This was the man who said, “Living is no laughing matter.”


Turkey is rich in trees. There are so many you can’t believe it. I’m from that desert: Los Angeles, where trees improve your property values. Trees are a big deal to me. It’s human nature to take something for granted that comes easily. But I know that it takes forty or fifty years for a tree to get big, and plenty of natural water and light for them to be beautiful. When they are cut down, or made ugly with chainsaws, it puts me in a state of mind I can only describe as savage. I try my best to keep my actions positive. One way is to celebrate the trees that remain by drawing them.

Wind in the Leaves

Wind in the Leaves ©2007 Trici Venola.

To fight something, don’t dwell on it. Cease to fight at all. Concentrate instead on what you want to replace it. Concentrate not on what you hate but on what you love. Here’s what I love: the glorious trees of Istanbul, the wonderful trees of Turkey.

Wall of the Great Han

Wall of the Great Han ©2007 Trici Venola.

They are everywhere. Shooting perkily up out of an old wall, greening a grey landscape, dappling a seared cement square with cool shadows.

Looks Like It Grew There

Looks Like It Grew There ©2005 Trici Venola.

It took me years to learn to draw foliage, and it was everywhere. First, I treated it as a decorative element, whiting it out.


AyaMoonlight ©1999 Trici Venola.

Then I tried to draw each leaf, which can work but didn’t for me. Finally, with this olive tree,  I realized that leaves are a texture, treated the clumps of leaves as single shapes and lit them accordingly.

Olive Tree

Olive Tree ©2000 Trici Venola.

When I learned that, the drawings got better. And as I ceased to take trees for granted I began to draw them more.


All the world knows now that  Gezi Park, behind Taksim Square, was slated for destruction by the government, to be replaced by a shopping mall tricked out to look like an early 19th-century Ottoman barracks torn down in 1940. This banner in Cihangir shows the proposed mall, with graffiti trees added in the subsequent protests. This banner has since been removed, and a huge portrait of Ataturk draped over the Cultural Center up on Taksim Square.

MUSTAFA KEMAL ATATURK  Winston Churchill, after losing his entire army to the Turks at Gallipoli, said that a general of Ataturk’s status comes along once in a thousand years, and it was just his rotten luck to be up against him. The way in which the Turkish people revere Kemal Ataturk can hardly be overestimated. If you combined George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, all the Kennedys, and Martin Luther King,  Americans might feel that way about one single person.


Ataturk, hero of Gallipoli and the Turkish War of Independence, was the founder of the Republic and a human being. He was called a drunk in his lifetime and he said, yes, that’s true, and kept putting the country together. As he was dying, in the late 1930s, there was no effective treatment for alcoholism. The fledgling program of AA was not well-known outside of a few people in America.

Atat_rk6Ataturk continued to work despite the crippling disability and died in 1938 of complications caused by the disease, leaving behind the first secular Republic in the Middle East and an iconic collective memory. Conservative Muslim Prime Minister Erdogan’s widely-reported recent dismissal of Ataturk as “a drunk” sparked outrage and a spew of anti-PM graffiti signed “Sons of the Drunk.” Because of this polarization with the current government, and because there is no new unifying symbol for Turkey, Ataturk was taken by the Gezi Park Resistance as their symbol. This is particularly ironic because many women in the park were covered, and Ataturk declared war on headscarves. The current government has restored headscarves to the public venue, legalizing them in state buildings including schools. Here are a couple of people in Gezi Park displaying Turkish Patriotism.

Soup to Nuts at GeziPark

From Soup to Nuts in Gezi Park ©2013 Trici Venola.

Ataturk also loved trees. He once chided a gardener for truncsating a tree growing into his house, said to leave it alone, rather they should move the house. He was concerned that Ankara, necessarily made capital of the new Turkish Republic by its protected central location, was so arid. Traveling frequently by car from Istanbul, he stopped always under a lone magnificent tree by the side of the road. And then there came a day when, to widen the highway, they had cut it down. The great general and statesman probably felt the same as we all do when this happens: the sense of helpless fury, the utter incomprehensibility of someone doing that to a living tree, the hopelessness of that empty space where an hour ago was a living spirit of green and giving, not to be replaced in a human lifetime. I think he must have felt all this because he did what I do. He cried.

Big Cypress

Big Cypress ©2005 Trici Venola.

OFF WITH THEIR HEADS  Chopping crowns off trees, along with the branches, has become a regular Turkish custom.  It wasn’t always. School children told me that the Prophet Mohammed said, “To cut off the top of a tree is to cut a head.”  The Ottomans loved trees, planting avenues of them, surrounding all the mansions and monuments. The Grand Bazaar was surrounded by tree-shaded gardens. All of them have vanished now. “You’ve got to control trees in a civic area,” says a French friend, native of the land that invented pollarding, the practice of making grown trees into lollipops. It makes me wonder about towns in Bulgaria, where the trees are as big as thunderheads. How do they do it? I believe they leave them alone, and tend to their plumbing.

Boris & The Empty Plate ©2007 Trici Venola.

THE CROWNS OF THE TREES  Gulhane Park, of Nazim Hikmet’s walnut tree, is a rolling greensward on the grounds of the Topkapi Palace in Sultanahmet. It’s got lots of tall trees, a rare thing in Sultanahmet where most of them have been truncated. Parks have been literally cut in half– Kadirga Park near Kumkapi comes to mind- by the removal of all the branches off of many of the trees, but Gulhane Park, Maçka Park, and Gezi Park and many others still have their crowns.

Swiss Hotel & Maçka Park ©2000 Trici Venola.

I drew the plane tree at the top of this post in 2006 to protest the truncating of the Sultanahmet trees. This particular tree survived the renovation of the entire square behind Yeni Camii- Mosque- in Eminonu. The government cut down all the others and demolished all the little hobbledehoy cafes for a modern generic terraced area there in the Spice Bazaar. The ends of the great tree’s branches have been cut off. This has an aesthetically disquieting effect, as the natural growth twists and turns until the ends, when all the new growth points straight up as if drawn by a ruler. Locals say it’s 450 years old. UPDATE December 2013: It grieves me to report that the tree did not survive. It’s still there, but not a leaf in sight all year. It likely lost its taproot when the government tunneled out a parking structure under it.

Typical Topkapi Tourist

Typical Topkapi Tourist ©2012 Trici Venola.

The huge tree at right in the picture above was planted hundreds of years ago at the Topkapi Palace by one of the Sultans. The trees below, planted in the early 1960s, shaded the sweltering ruins of the Boukoleon Palace until last year, when they were cut down to stubby sculpture. I miss them.

Boukoleon Snow

Boukoleon Snow ©2008 Trici Venola.

A tree’s roots are as deep as the tree is tall. Tree roots are holding Istanbul up out of the Bosporus. Cutting them can collapse your ruins, make way for landslides, weaken your foundations. But the main reason I hate seeing the trees butchered is quite selfish: I like to look at them.  “Oh, they’ll grow out,” people say airily. Yes, after I am dead. After the tourists have gone home. And they’ll look awful in winter for years to come. And aesthetics are not taken into account by the chainsaws. So when I see a natural tree, without the bunched-fist look of a grown-out stump, I draw it. It takes forever, but it’s worth it.

Outside Rustem Pasha

Outside Rustem Pasha ©2007 Trici Venola.

I went nuts when they shortened the trees in Sultanamet. Boy, was I glad I had drawn them when I could!

Ayasofya In Winter

Ayasofya In Its 1463rd Winter ©1999 Trici Venola.

The Byzantine architectural detail behind the tracery of those branches is an art lesson in itself.

Ayasofya Moon

Ayasofya Moon ©1999 Trici Venola.

There are still plenty of trees around Hagia Sophia. One plane tree was spared entirely.  One day they may be allowed to grow out again. They’ll never look completely natural, but they do recover in about ten years if allowed. The current practice is to cut the branches just about every year. And I mean cut. Candy-ass terms like “crop,” “prune,” or “trim” don’t begin to describe the amputation of living leafy trees into stump sculpture. I see I am going to have to post one picture of this. I’m going to use one that proves the chainsaw-wielders have heart.

Bony Birdnest

But oh, if they were trained! It’s a good way to create jobs for unskilled labor. Imagine if those guys, with all that energy, were sent to Forestry School! To learn to plant! To nurture! Just imagine!

Ayasofya Rising

Ayasofya Rising ©2004 Trici Venola.

Back in 2006, nobody seemed to notice or care that the trees were so denuded. Many actually died from the radical cutting, standing barkless and grim for years before they were removed. So I talked to the guys on the street. Let’s talk about this miracle, I said to many a carpet tout, photosynthesis. A tree eats from its leaves. The leaves take light and gas and turn it into air. They eat carbon dioxide and create oxygen. This is why trees in a city are a good thing, since people breathe oxygen and choke on carbon dioxide. Trees without leaves cannot do this. The dying tree immediately puts out a spray of leaves to survive, and people say “Look! It’s coming back!” To a Californian tree-hugger, this is like saying about a woman with her lips, ears, breasts, arms and top of head cut off: “Look! She’s really all right! She is trying to smile!”

Island Pine and Sea ©2007 Trici Venola

Island Pine and Sea ©2007 Trici Venola

But she does smile. The trees keep trying to give us what we need. This miracle happens every day, all around, everywhere I look. It keeps me sane.

Hagia Sophia Agape

Hagia Sophia Agape ©2011 Trici Venola.

A city of 20 million and counting needs all the air it can get. People living near parks tend to feel better.  Plenty of trees in the city makes it a better place to live in, better air to breathe. Shade is nice too.  Shade in fierce sweltering August, shade to walk in, shade to sit in. We need our trees. That they are most beautiful with the hundred thousand leaves, the hundred thousand hands, reaching out to us, making air! –that’s just a bonus. We need every leaf. And I thought I was the only one who thought so. Now I know I’m not alone.

Gezi Park

Gezi Park, first week of protests

Everyone will tell you these days, It’s not about the trees. Not anymore. But that’s where it started. Regardless of what side you’re on, the imagery coming out of Turkey these days is stunning. The Gas Mask Dervish:


The Woman in the Red Dress, hair flying up as the gas hits her face, now performance art in Santa Monica, California:


Performance Art on the Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, California.

The Barricade at Cihangir, where actual young Turks protest another shopping mall under a giant ad of a hypothetical young Turk brandishing a credit card.

Cihangir Barricade 2

Two women in black chadors, wearing masks of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. The Prime Minister exhorting people to go home.

imagePeople walking across the bridge at dawn to join in Taksim Square:

The BridgeAn old lady in a headscarf, pulling grimly on a catapult.

Çapulcu Gramma, viral on Internet. Please provide credit if you can.

Çapulcu Gramma, viral on Internet. Please provide credit if you can.

Masked police blackly stalking through swirling clouds of gas, bashing in all directions.


Police Clearing Gezi Park. ABACA/ABACA/Press Association Images

The Prime Minister striding across the world stage, handed sheaves of red carnations, carelessly tossing them in relays into a huge crowd of fanatical supporters.

AKP-Rally-5An interlude of black humor: this screen dump was gleaned off of YouTube, with an ad for guest suites popping up on a video of police chasing people near the Istiklal.

Istanbul Is Waiting for YouThe Pianist in the Rain, playing twelve hours for peace in Taksim Square until he collapsed in exhaustion.

Piano Man DawnThe Mothers ringing the Square: hundreds of women handfasted in the rain while their children stayed in the park.

MothersThe Standing Man, cloned into infinity all around the world, silence echoing, in front of a leader eighty years gone, joined nightly now by hundreds in Gandhian silence.

StandingMan Gunduz

Performance artist Erdem Gunduz standing on 17 June.

Standing Man 19 June

The Standing Man Protest 19 June.

And as I write, late at night on 22 June, new images described on Twitter as gas creeps up onto my balcony half a mile from Gezi Park: hundreds of wet red carnations litter Taksim Square, brought to honor the dead from the protests and dropped as people fled the water cannons.

Protesters Throwing Flowers

Across the Golden Horn in the tourist area of Sultanahmet, you’d never know there was any unrest. Still hordes of tourists canceled, alarmed by images of violence. But the rest of the world has become violently, exuberantly aware of Turkey. The tourists are now coming back. They have to. The imagery alone might compel them.

Tomb Tree

The Tomb Tree at Corlulu Ali Pasha ©2004 Trici Venola.

I asked a bunch of people what they wanted. Later someone sent me an anonymous message in English, signed Çapulcu: in Turkish Marauder, which was adopted by Gezi Park protesters after the Prime Minister called them that early on.  It said: What do I want? I want trees with tops. I want trees with tops everywhere. I want historic landmarks saved and incorporated back into daily living, like the Post Office and Haydarpasa and the SeSam Cinema Building and the Spice Bazaar.* I want preserved ruins and monuments with historic integrity. I want tolerance for all religions, races, sexual preferences. I want a place that doesn’t look like any other place on earth, because it couldn’t happen anywhere else but the center of the world. I want Turkey, as it is, was, and can be, the land that always was, the Republic that can be free. 

Have Camera Will Travel

(*Note: Haydarpasa Train Station was put at risk after its roof fire burned unchecked some years ago. It may become a hotel. SeSam Cinema Building is to be torn down and replaced with a mall. The police used water cannons for the first time at that demonstration. People are upset at losing the magnificence of everyday life here to hotelization and generic globalization.)

Dance In the Woods ©2007 Trici Venola.

Dance In the Woods ©2007 Trici Venola.

In the course of the Gezi Park Occupation, the trees in Gezi Park became billboards for resistance.


I don’t know what these signs say, but I do know that they all express a desire for freedom in one form or another.

DSC00270Here’s John Lennon saying “Imagine” 33 years after his death.


The spirit of every maimed and murdered tree in Istanbul rose up in Gezi Park and blew a big raspberry at the Forces of Chainsaw.


The government has not said what they will do. Of course they can do as they like. Just now, I am happy to say that they are laying in new grass in Gezi Park, cleared a week ago and worn to the dirt with protest.

DSC00255I hope the government does the right thing, and listens to the people who live in the area and need the green space, as well as other things that make their lives worth living.


I devoutly hope that these trees, now stripped of their messages, will not end up as a bunch of sad stumps. But if they do, the images from Gezi Park have already flown out into the media, and some of them are so scorching that they will continue to reappear again and again. That’s one way these trees will always live; in the media. We humans can’t breathe it, but we can use it to ensure that we will from time to time be able to come up for air.

Winter Distance

Winter Distance @2001 Trici Venola.


Signed limited prints from the Drawing On Istanbul Series now for sale at the DrawingOnIstanbul Store on Buy a gorgeous print and do your bit for the arts!

All drawings Plein Air, © Trici Venola for the Drawing On Istanbul Series. Most photographs by Trici Venola. If you see an uncredited photo and know the photographer, please let me know so I can credit them. We love your comments.

JUST UNDER YOUR FEET: Drawing in the Corridors of Lord

Tunnels under Hagia Sophia? Here’s my experience with one of them.

Just Under Your Feet ©2001 Trici Venola

Just Under Your Feet ©2001 Trici Venola

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.

Rock Crystal Cross ©2002 Trici Venola

Rock Crystal Cross ©2002 Trici Venola


Cartoon Asia MinorI 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.”

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 and some photos.

Tunnel Door

(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 Trici Venola

Double Door in Lord ©2005 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?Rock CU 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 Passage ©1999 Trici Venola

Lord Passage ©1999 Trici Venola.

 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.

Indiana Jones Arch

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.

Indiana Jones Arch ©1999 Trici Venola.

Indiana Jones Arch ©1999 Trici Venola. Dome Chamber, the drawing from 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 Trici Venola

Open to the Sky ©1999 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.

Lord Schematic ©2005 Trici Venola

Corridor of Lord Chunk Schematic ©2005 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?

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.

Behind hotels 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 ©2005 Trici Venola

The Passageway Door ©2005 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 Trici Venola

In the Corridors of Lord ©2008 Trici Venola. By 2008, 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.


Gennadios II meets Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453

Gennadios II meets Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453

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.

Dragon Lamp G2002 Trici Venola

Dragon Lamp ©2002 Trici Venola

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.

Foot Lamp ©2002 Trici Venola

Foot Lamp ©2002 Trici Venola

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 at the top of the page.

Ivory Virgin ©2002 Trici Venola

Ivory Virgin ©2002 Trici Venola

Or reliquaries with bas-reliefs similar to these silver ones of Apostles Peter and Paul. After all they were running for their lives.

Peter and Paul ©2002 Trici Venola

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

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.

Two ArchesJust 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.

Ivory Angel ©2002 Trici Venola.

Ivory Angel ©2002 Trici Venola.

— 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!

This post originally appeared early in 2012 under the title: THE PALACE UNDER THE CARPET SHOP: Drawing In the Corridors of Lord. I’m closing in on finishing a new book, so instead of the usual week I took a night and upgraded this for you. It’s one of my favorites.

KAPADOKYA / CAPPADOCIA 2: Drawing in the Echoes of Faith

Holy Ghost ©2003 Trici Venola

Holy Ghost ©2003 Trici Venola

THE HEART CHURCH  It was chill near-darkness at the bottom of a natural stone formation shaped like a fat rocket ship about to take off. Perfect peace, and the silence sang. I felt veins of power surging around me from a point directly below, down in the bones of the earth, throbbing up to converge again at the point in the sky. I thought of those ‘Sixties pyramid people, claiming that a pyramid shape brings together mystic geological forces. I  believed them for the first time.

CIMG0155 copy

I was down in the bottom chapel, below ground, in a rock formation that has been a church since early Christianity, and likely a Pagan temple before that.  Someone long ago painted the darkness white with little red hearts on it. It was almost too dark to draw at all but I tried. There were  graves cut in the floor, their occupants long gone to dust. I could lie here in the dark, I thought, in this singing silence, feel my bones become one with the earth, content for all eternity. But  –like that line in Gladiator— NOT YET!!

The Heart Church ©2006 Trici Venola

The Heart Church ©2006 Trici Venola

Can’t die yet, there’s too much to draw. Much of it here in Kapadokya, the central steppes region of Turkey, a spiritual refuge. Everyone else in the world spells it Cappadocia and pronounces it with a soft final “c,” but since the original name– Katpatuka in Old Persian– means Land of Beautiful Horses, and Kapadokya sounds like a galloping horse, and that’s what the people who live there call it, we’re using Kapadokya.

Cold Hill Caves ©2006 Trici Venola

Cold Hill Caves ©2006 Trici Venola

Those hearts, by the way, look like a natural abstraction of apricot leaves. There are a lot of apricot trees here.


First-time readers might enjoy the previous post, which is an overview of Kapadokya’s history and my first trip to the place in 1999. I loved it on first glance and have continued to come back for close-ups, like this one of a kid with a Biblical name become Turkish, in a ruined rock church with a vanishing saint.

Zekeriya and A Saint ©2003 Trici Venola

Zekeriya and A Vanished Saint ©2003 Trici Venola

Spring: High Season is upon us here in Istanbul: hotels filling up, all the monuments jammed, monstrous cruise ships blocking the views, throngs trooping through the bazaars. Some friends, in shops and hotels, don’t sleep again until winter. There are all kinds of projects to finish immediately, and only me to do them. And all I can think about is that just about now, in Kapadokya, beneath the sheer rock walls punctuated with caves, the high grass in the bottoms of the canyons is shooting up green, and the drifts of cottonwood blossoms on the ground can be combed with your eyes. So fooey on all these Istanbul distractions. I’m back to Kapadokya, and I’ve got you with me.

CIMG0048 copy

While Kapadokya is full of former tourists who fall in love with the place and buy up all the caves, the locals mostly want to move into cheesy apartment buildings just out of town. Some families still live in caves.

I climbed up the mountain above Urgup one morning and was struck with an obviously occupied cave complex. A seamed dark woman, shaped like a pillow tied in the middle, came out to hang up her laundry. Awhile later, a young beautiful echo of her stumbled out sleepy into the morning and found me drawing her house and her mother.

Gunik in the Morning ©1999 Trici Venola

Gunik in the Morning ©1999 Trici Venola

Nine AM, and the sun full in my face. The air sharp and glittering, little flies everywhere. Only the drawing kept me from going nuts with them. I squinted into the white under a giant scarf rolled like a turban, and drew and drew.CIMG0126

After the two-hour drawing session they invited me into the house for tea. Inside it was big and clean, with plastered walls, electricity and plumbing, lace curtains at the little square windows cut in the hill. I imagined all the empty caves I’ve seen, filled with lively people. Friends who grew up in caves describe scooting up and down the ladders between, calling between the caves, the cosy enclosed feeling of a cave with a fire pit, the way every little thing has its own alcove. I know I sleep better in a cave than any other place, deep perfect sleep all the night long.

The View from Uchisar ©2007 Trici Venola

The View from Uchisar ©2007 Trici Venola

GREEKS AND TURKS This land is beyond ancient. A thousand armies have trekked through here:. Hittites, Romans, Armenians, Seljuks, Greeks. Arab raiders in the 7th and 8th centuries drove the Christians into underground Hittite cities, converting chapels to pigeon coops and painting designs all round the pigeonholes.


Christians came up from underground and repainted frescoes in the cave chapels before decamping a few centuries later. Some Greek Christians stuck it out until the population exchange in the 20th century, building square houses of embossed brick like this one in Mustafapasa.

Kid in Mustafa Pasa ©1999 Trici Venola

Kid in Mustafa Pasa ©1999 Trici Venola

The Christian monasteries here were Greek, and the Byzantine Christians were the genesis of what we now know as Greek Orthodox. All across Anatolia the Greeks left their buildings, temples and myths; a few of their descendents are still here as Turks.

CIMG0019The 20th century brought about a great dissolution of the centuries-old relationship of Greeks and Turks in both countries, scars which are still healing. Reading Louis de Bernieres’ Birds Without Wings broke my heart but fed my understanding. Two governments, two faiths, but one people. It’s everywhere: in the music, the food, the way the people look and the way they dance. I hope that this century brings about greater harmony than the last.

Old Couple in Ayvali ©1999 Trici Venola

Old Couple in Ayvali ©1999 Trici Venola

THE BIG CHURCH Are you ready for this place? It was March 2006 and cold enough to numb your hands in gloves, but there wasn’t any question of missing these drawings. Now called  Durmus Kadir after its owner, this great stone basilica is a premier example of Goreme’s legendary 1001 cave churches.

Big Church in Goreme ©2006 Trici Venola

Big Church in Goreme ©2006 Trici Venola

Like all cave chapels Durmush Kadir’s interior is carved out of the rock all of a piece: a sculpture of a church to emulate the diverse columns, alcoves, domes, altars and pulpits in a conventionally constructed church elsewhere.

The Podium ©2006 Trici Venola

The Podium ©2006 Trici Venola

This one gets a lot of action. Months later in Istanbul, a woman looking through my sketchbook suddenly let out a yelp and pulled out a photo of herself getting married on this very podium. Today the area in front of Durmush Kadir is much spiffed-up, presumably to make it attractive for events. Across the valley is this apartment, replete with carvings.

The Guest Room ©2006 Trici Venola

The Guest Room ©2006 Trici Venola

Spacious inside, It looks like a VIP suite to me. During the Middle Ages, Goreme was the seat of enormous ecclesiastical power. Ecumenical councils were held here. Pilgrims journeyed from all over to convene here.

CIMG0051 copy

Thousands of monks tilled these fields, tending the huge flocks of pigeons. Valued for their dung, which still fertilizes all the food grown here, and for their messenger abilities, pigeons are treasured here still. Below Durmush Kadir’s church is a refectory, where hundreds of cowled monks sat for their supper. The drawing below was done through a chain-link fence. That modern wall marks the present property line.

Refectory ©2006 Venola

Refectory ©2006 Trici Venola

IN TOWN Pat Yale, justly famed for her wonderful travel books about Turkey, lives in Goreme with about nine cats, and in 2006 I was lucky enough to house sit. Not only did I get all these swell drawings, but two of the cats kittened while I was there, giving us a grand total of fourteen. The cats midwifed for each other, too.

CIMG0142Something about the details in the monochromatic landscape makes Kapadokya perfect for the kind of work in this series, and I can’t stop drawing. So I sat in the street and drew this:

Two Hats in Goreme ©2006 Trici Venola

Two Hats in Goreme ©2006 Trici Venola

I had company in the street. For two hours she watched me draw those two hats, and then she posed unblinking, glinting up at me, until I had her, including that fabulous shadow of the oya scarf trim on her face. “Gotcha,” I said, and showed her. She nodded violently and vanished. On one of Pat’s walls is an antique pink cotton quilted jacket, very worn. It’s a classic Kapadokya jacket worn by a woman who lived and died here long since. I picture it on someone like this.

Mischief ©2006 Trici Venola

Mischief ©2006 Trici Venola

PAINTING IN THE DARK: THE GENESIS OF MONASTIC LIFE Kapadokya has been protected since the advent of Tourism in the 1980s. Preserved from destruction-by-development, the land here can be observed shedding itself, sloughing off and renewing. Caves last a long time, and then one day they collapse, or erosion finally eats them away. It’s the nature of this rock to shed. Dust is a part of life here. If you move into a cave, stabilizing the walls (with the help of a local expert) is a good idea. Some of these chimney chapels are so old they’re almost gone, with only the keyhole-shaped alcove or window as a clue that here is a witness to so many prayers.

Eroded Monument ©2011 Trici Venola

Eroded Monument ©2011 Trici Venola

The monolith above was once a chapel at the intersection of the main road with the path leading down to the river. Below, Laura Prusoff and her partner Nurettin look across Pigeon Valley from their Palace in Ortahisar. Over the years I’ve drawn their view quite a few times. My reward is that I can close my eyes and see it in all its grandeur. The shadows paint a new shape every few minutes, making a drawing of several hours a very different thing from a photograph.

Lions in the Valley ©2003 Trici Venola

Lions in the Valley ©2003 Trici Venola

I didn’t realize that the whole of Pigeon Valley was a monastery. It took a long time of looking, and then I could see it.


The Christians were here from the beginning of Christianity. St Paul came through Kayseri– once Caesarea– on his way to Ankyra, now Ankara, carrying Christianity with him. It found fertile ground in Kapadokya, now full of ecclesiastical ruins, abandoned by the Christians around the 15th century in the teeth of Islam. This bas-relief figure is the only one in Kapadokya. “It’s a devil,” said my friend. “But it looks like an angel,” I said. “No, it’s always my whole life been called a devil,” he said.

Now It's Called A Devil ©2011 Trici Venola

Now It’s Called A Devil ©2011 Trici Venola

Goreme sits between two valleys full of natural stone formations, many with Early Christian cave churches, part of a vast monastery complex with influences reaching across oceans and continents. By the 4th century, the Cappadocian Fathers were an ecclesiastical force to be reckoned with, forming much early Christian philosophy.

015 GV Cave copyThe very template for monastic life was cut in these rocks by St Basil, a highly educated 4th century cleric who renounced a promising career in Constantinople and Athens to become a monk. As such he became a hermit in Kapadokya, where he was joined by Future Saint Gregory of Nazianzas. I like to think of these two wearing down the stones under their knees, sallying forth in cold and snow and scorching sun, tending the fields, the flocks and the Word. They were joined by many others.

A FIeld of Sunflowers ©2011 Trici Venola

A FIeld of Sunflowers ©2011 Trici Venola

In 370 Basil became Bishop. A charismatic leader and great organizer, he reformed the Liturgy, established hospitals, and fostered monasticism as a way of life: chastity, dedication, seclusion, submersion of the single in the whole. These ecclesiastical troglodytes made the land their church. Cells, offices, stables, kitchens, cafeterias, dormitories, chapels, churches, wineries, hospitals: all were caves.

The Hospital Monastery 2011 Trici Venola

The Hospital Monastery 2011 Trici Venola

THREE MORE CHURCHES Yusuf Koc is in a cluster of chimneys out in Goreme Valley, just outside the town. A local family lives in them and tends the churches  as they always have.

Goreme Valley Longshot ©2006 Trici Venola

Goreme Valley Longshot ©2006 Trici Venola

Before the advent of Tourism, folks just sumped out their own caves. Now they police them as well, with assistance from the State.

Another Freezing Jesus ©2006 Trici Venola

Another Freezing Jesus ©2006 Trici Venola

Boy, was it cold in there. I wonder if the monks had braziers or if they depended on crowds for warmth. This chapel had columns, but was pressed into service as a pigeon-house in pre-tourism. The columns were broken off, but the frescoes preserved with only a little graffiti. See the pigeonholes built into the window?

079YusufKoc Int copy

This was painted after the 9th century. The monochromatic and geometric painting in many caves is Iconoclastic art. The Iconoclasts, like the Muslims, proscribed pictorial art. They were around for about 100 years, in the latter 8th and early 9th centuries. But this is pictorial and multicolored. and the state of preservation tells us it’s post-Iconoclast. Here are two archangels on horseback. See the wings?

Painting in the Dark ©2006 Trici Venola

Painting in the Dark ©2006 Trici Venola

I love this Naive Byzantine painting. Anatomically it’s more symbolic than realistic. Artistic anatomy peaked with the late Roman period, when the body was a still a temple. Medieval Christians were suspicious of the body, seeing it as a fount of temptation. The monastic life was about eschewing physical pleasures in favor of devotion to the divine. This is reflected in the art of the time: bodies lost under cloth or armor, an insouciant attitude towards proportion and gravity. Then again, considering that these caves are pretty darn dim inside, I wonder they could see to paint at all.

079YKInt copy

Up top in Pigeon Valley is a Black Church: fire has blackened the inside. Notice the bas-relief cross on the sooted ceiling to the right, revealed by the erosion at the window.

The Black Church ©2006 Trici Venola

The Black Church ©2006 Trici Venola

I crawled up through this opening and crouched on a big old earth spill up under the domes to get this next drawing. We know that this chapel was carved after the 6th century because of these domes. Hagia Sophia’s great dome, so big it was considered proof of the existence of God, was completed in 537 and influenced the entire Christian world. Henceforth we see domes everywhere in Christianity, including here.

Inside the Black Church ©2006 Trici Venola

Inside the Black Church ©2006 Trici Venola

This next one isn’t the last church in the valley, it’s just the last one I could get to before dark.

The Last Church ©2006 Trici Venola

The Last Church ©2006 Trici Venola

There are hundreds of hidden chapels in the rocks. Locals know and don’t tell, and this makes me happy. I like to think there’s some mystery left in the world. Here’s the inside. I had twenty minutes until dusk, did what I could, took a photo and finished from that.

Inside the Last Church ©2006 Trici Venola

Inside the Last Church ©2006 Trici Venola

This geometric Iconoclastic painting was done in cochineal –insect– blood. It’s still red, And is that an Egyptian-type Eye of God there above the doorway?

Sweeper in Goreme © 1999 Trici Venola

Sweeper in Goreme © 1999 Trici Venola

FAITH IN HUMANITY It was Nurettin who got me to put my sketchbooks in Koran covers, clear back on my first visit in 1999. “You should do something,” he said through Laura, “to let people know how important, how precious, this work is.” This was after the wife of a local politico grabbed my sketchbook and left it open and forgotten in her lap while she drank tea and chattered and I sat angry and anxious and afraid of offending her until mercifully they left and I took back the sketchbook. “Why didn’t you say something? People are ignorant,” said Nurettin, “They don’t understand original art.” 

15Sketchbook 8 On returning to Istanbul I took his advice. In the Grand Bazaar I found a pile of Koran covers in all sizes and colors, each pieced together by some shepherd or caravan housewife to keep a Koran covered, as all precious things are in Islam. I still buy as many of the right size as I can find, and they hold the original sketchbooks to this day.

07My Bookcase wSketchbooks

Faith is a powerful force. If enough people believe in a certain way, it can change things. St Basil saw this, encouraging young men to subvert their individuality and become monks: cells in a great working mechanism of faith. The land he chose was already hallowed. It’s been holy land since the beginning of time, and I swear you can feel it. It likes us. The air is good. The water keeps you healthy. The caves offer comfortable shelter, staying around 72 degrees Fahrenheit winter and summer. The rock is easy to carve. The land yields, providing soil, fertilizer, minerals, and an absence of earthquakes. Something about the place focuses faith, whatever that faith may be.

CIMG0077 copy

There’s a sense of humor. The ancient gods are still here, laughing at us.  In this region that was filled for centuries with young men trying mightily to ignore the blandishments of the physical, the land looks like nothing so much as the bared and hairy hillocks, planes, rolling curves and startling appendages of a great body, a constant reminder that we are humans on earth, our home. Kapadokya seems to conspire to strengthen this sense of belonging and inclusion, for this is the one thing we all have in common regardless of belief: our humanity.

Balloon Over the Valley ©2007 Trici Venola

Balloon Over the Valley ©2007 Trici Venola


All drawings Plein air. All art from the Drawing On Istanbul™  Project by Trici Venola. All photos © Trici Venola. All art sketchbook format, mostly 7″ X 20″ / 18 cm X 52 cm, done with drafting pens on rag paper. The Drawing On Istanbul Project is independent of any institution.  Regular readers of this blog will feel vindicated on learning that InterNations is including us in their recommended expat blog section in Istanbul. What an honor! Thanks for reading. We love your comments.

KAPADOKYA / CAPPADOCIA: Drawing Over the Rainbow

Everybody's Grandma

Everybody’s Grandma ©1999 Trici Venola.

OVER THE RAINBOW Goreme Valley Longshot

The plane landed at night. The airport shuttle hurtled through a black unknown, glimpses of dusty roads in the headlights. When I got into my room I fell asleep the minute I lay down. 

Asia Minor Hotel

Asia Minor Hotel ©1999 Trici Venola.

I woke up in a rock palace. Breakfast was being served out on the lawn. The air glittered. Far up on the smooth rock face of the hill behind the hotel was a small square black hole, my first glimpse of the famous caves of Kapadokya. I drew the hill, the hotel balcony, an apricot tree. The air was full of tiny flies. I wrapped a scarf around my head and shoulders against them. A slivery woman with bright blue eyes showed up and started unloading jams and jellies, chattering in German with the tourists at the next table. “I am Sabine,” she said– she pronounced that final e–“You must come to our new hotel and draw it. It’s an energy center.” I did feel energized. The place was full of natural vitality. “Yes,” she said seriously, “All Kapadokya is a center of energy.”


Urgup Rocks ©1999 Trici Venola.

I’ll say. A TV crew came and filmed me drawing the picture above, friends in Istanbul saw it! I even met the mayor. We were in Urgup, a wonderful little rock town punctuated with the dots of caves. Kapadokya is Turkey’s central steppes region. High and rocky, populated with small towns, famous for its pure air and water, history, surreal natural stone formations, and the ancient caves in them which dot every landscape. The Greek spelling, Cappadocia, means Land of Beautiful Horses. I love that  Kapadokya sounds like horses galloping.

Odd Couple in Urgup

The Odd Couple in Urgup ©1999 Trici Venola.

COMING FROM DISASTER It was my second trip to Turkey in 1999, and back in Istanbul I had lost a nearly-full sketchbook. Not only did it feel like a miscarriage, but my whole trip was contingent on producing drawings for my website to boost tourism, as a big earthquake near Istanbul earlier that year had scared people off. The travel company I was working with was sending me to some place called Kapadokya. Numb with shock, I’d pulled out a blank sketchbook and gotten on the plane. I’d had no idea what to expect. The resulting experience changed my life and took my work to a new level. I have always loved this first look at Kapadokya, a place immediately familiar despite the fact I’d never suspected its existence. ROAMING THE ROCK PALACES  Sabine invited me over for later and arranged for me to ride around with Mevlut, the manager of the hotel, to see the land. Still mourning the lost sketchbook, I closed the new one over the new drawings and got in the car.

Pancarlik Valley

Pancarlik Valley ©1999 Trici Venola.

I had never seen such country. All around us rose giant rocks in amazing shapes. Some looked like enormous erotica, others like trolls. Mevlut stopped the car. “Look! Men in hats!” 

Men in Hats

Men in Hats, Women in Shalvar ©1999 Trici Venola.

We drove further. “Camel Rock,” he said. There were many donkeys. All the women I saw were wearing shalvar: long loose trousers gathered at the waist, and loose vests, clothes that seemed to celebrate billowing hips and breasts. The commonest headscarf was a gauzy pale green number, scalloped on the edges and sparkled with green glass beads. When we got to Red Valley, Ali Baba the groundskeeper told me the local scarf code. It’s all pretty much optional, more fashion than fear.

Ali Baba & the Grape Church

Ali Baba and the Grape Church ©1999 Trici Venola.

“When the Christians went into the caves, the caves were here,” said Ali Baba, “See? Matthew, Mark, Luke an’ John…” pointing out frescoes of the Apostles in the Grape Church, a Medieval chapel in Red Valley. The path to the church was through gold and peach rock laced with the bright green of apricot trees. On it I had a happy epiphany: I had been here before. Over the years since, this feeling of personal familiarity has only intensified. A Happy Place These cave churches are small cheerful places full of light. This one was gated against vandals, but Ali Baba unlocked it and left me for two hours. It was my first sense of what Christianity had been, a refuge and a comfort from Old Testament and Roman atrocities. The Apostles looked homey, like favorite uncles. Only their eyes were damaged. I learned later that, before tourism and subsequent governmental protections, children playing in the abandoned caves had been frightened by those staring Byzantine eyes and had scratched them out. Me, I felt closer to the original teachings of Christ here in this golden cave than ever I had before. 


Bus Driver Teddybear

Bus Driver Teddybear ©1999 Trici Venola.

First Look Goreme

First Look Goreme ©1999 Trici Venola.

In The Name of the Rose, when those monks were on their way to a 13th-century confrontation between the worldly Dominican and more aescetic Franciscan ideologies, Goreme– pronounced Gore-eh-may– was where they were going. Its monastery, arguably the most powerful in the Middle Ages, is still there, preserved as the Open Air Museum, part of the legendary 1001 cave churches of Goreme Valley.

St George-Open Air Intro

St George and the Open Air Museum ©1999 by Trici Venola.

Every single structure here is hollowed out of a cave: dormitories, offices, refectories and chapels. All the architectural elements were carved out of a single piece of rock: pillars, benches, altars, arches, crosses and, after Hagia Sophia in the 6th-century, domes. So we have a sculpture of a church, which was then painted, and nothing is harder to render in pen and ink.

Apple Church

The Apple Church ©1999 Trici Venola.

ST BARBARA’S CHAPEL  This drawing took about five hours, spread out over two days, freezing sessions with grit blowing in the open door and roughening the page. The geometric paintings were done in the 8t-century during the time of the pictorial art-destroying Iconoclasts who took the Second Commandment quite literally: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image of anything…   See the dome at the top? Look just below it to the left and see a little stick figure on the top of something like an oil-derrick. This has got to be an Ascension. Up in the dome, some of the figures fade into dots, presumably because they have already Ascended. In St Barbara's Chapel All of this geometric work was painted in cochineal blood, still red twelve centuries later. A cochineal is like a big cockroach, and this little figure at the bottom is either a cochineal with blood coming out its behind or the devil on a broomstick, depending on which guide you hear. Two centuries after the Iconoclasts, the area behind the carved stone altar was overlaid with paintings of Jesus and a few saints, in a Naive Byzantine style I love. Think of those artists: natural light or torches, local paints, the occasional master coming through from the great cities. And over the centuries the glory growing in the caves. 070YusufKoc Int TEA IN A CAVE The first day I drew St. Barbara’s was cold but the second day it rained. The guards took pity on me and invited me into their cave for chai. They had a wood stove in there, a fine view of the caves opposite which look like black windows in sorcerers’ hats, and a samovar.

Tea in a Cave

Tea in a Cave ©1999 Trici Venola.

 The chai was hot and substantial. Osman, at far left, had peculiar writing all over his hands. He told me that they itched horribly, and that a healer had written all over them in purple ink, and that it cured the itching. Another guard told me he was crazy, but two days later, when I came back to draw more, the hands that had been purple were clean and the itching was gone. 


Ancient Apartments

Ancient Apartments in Urgup ©1999 Trici Venola.

At the tip of a tower of rock was an ancient cave door, two hundred feet above the floor of a canyon. “The land is sunken,” said Sabine, “Was once much higher.” We climbed up into a cave apartment house, where the rock had sheared off, leaving the long-abandoned cave houses exposed. Above several of the doors were many little declivities in rows. “Pigeonholes,” said Sabine. Actual pigeonholes!” I said, delighted. “Yes,” she said, “everything here is still fertilized with pigeon dung.”

Peacock Pigeon Roost

Peacock Pigeon Roost ©2011 Trici Venola.

So it turns out that most of these caves either are or were eventual pigeon caves. The people go in the bottom and rake out the precious pigeon poop, spreading it over the fields as they have done since ancient days. Arabs in the caves, monks in the monasteries, pagans in the rocks, all scraped and spread and planted and prayed, and flocks of pigeons still fill the skies.  Monolith

Walking With Sabine

Walking With Sabine ©1999 Trici Venola.

Away along the rocky trail, through a valley of breast-shaped stone formations, we came upon a tablecloth-sized patch of dark red earth combed to the consistency of velvet. In the middle stood an apricot tree, and near it a grapevine. This was part of someone’s farm. It was here that we left money– under the bark!– for grapes we had eaten off the vine. In those palmy days this was customary. I was amazed. “Do not worry,” said Sabine, “we have left far more than the whole grapevine would bring.

Old Lady Urgup

Old Lady in Urgup ©1999 Trici Venola.

That afternoon I was hunched over my sketchbook on a scrap of carpet  for two hours in the cold October light drawing old Greek buildings. My hand was stiff and even my bones were cold. A plump lady in traditional Kapadokyan dress appeared carrying a laden tea-tray. She smiled and jerked her head in invitation. She had sapphire eyes. I followed her into a house I had just drawn. Although the walls were stained and the floor uneven, she had lace curtains and nice china. I forgot I had been cold. I tried to draw the food before I ate it but lost out, it smelled so good. She called out the window, and up came a little girl I had just drawn, Fatma, who told me that my hostess’s name was Zeliha. Such elegance. The things that matter– like children, food, and curtains– were all immaculate, and the things that don’t matter– like the walls– just didn’t matter.

Zeliha Blue Eyes

Zeliha Blue Eyes ©1999 Trici Venola.

THE CITY IN THE HILL Honeycombed below a hill behind a dusty little town is the huge underground Hittite city of Kaymakli. 

Dusty Little Town

Dusty Little Town ©1999 Trici Venola.

It’s like a giant dark honeycomb, dry and dessicated, bleak with piped-in halogen lights.  Many Kapadokyans say that the whole land is connected with tunnels between the many underground cities. There are no earthquakes here. When persecuted Christians went underground, this is where they went. Attributed to Hittite construction in 1640 BCE, Kaymakli has been co-opted by everyone since who has needed a place to hide. This has got to be the genesis of the term underground to mean covert.

Don't Drop In

Don’t Drop In ©1999 Trici Venola.

I sat in a four-thousand-year-old winery, a stone chamber twenty meters down, drawing in the cold stillness and the faint buzzing of the lights, and thought about burning rags soaked in oil. I wondered how their vision was, what they looked like and what they wore. The air must have been thick with odors.  I thought about looms in the dimness, cooking fires, smoke, talk, laughter in the hive of kitchens, prisons, infirmaries, chapels, wells, toilets, forges, baths, food storage, wine presses, birthing and embalming chambers, all in the constant dark.

In the Underground City

In the Underground City ©1999 Trici Venola.

I was allowed two hours to draw, and very grateful I was for the light. They slept ten to a room and hung the sling for the baby in the center:  you can see the hook there in the ceiling. The rock is so soft that any little household item had its own little declivity. Hammocks were popular, and alcoves held clothes. Food was stored in this vast common chamber on the third level. There were jars of water and oil and wine, animals, small people hurrying through the stepped corridors between levels. My guide Mustafa capered through the cramped labyrinthine passages, laughing over his flashlight, he said, to encourage me, “in case you are claustrophobe.”

Hittite Mustafa

Hittite Mustafa ©1999 Trici Venola.

 Once it was so crowded here, and the passageways so tiny, that the stocky little people went one-way only. Small as they were they still had to bend double to get around, so that to prevent miscarriage pregnant women stayed near the surface, where you could stand up.

Like Birth, Eh

Like Birth Eh? ©1999 Trici Venola

 These guys below told me there is still a tiny band of Hittites in Kapadokya, worshiping their ancient gods and small enough to navigate comfortably through the tunnels of their Iron Age cities. I’d love to believe them.

Group Shot

Group Shot in Kaymakli ©1999 Trici Venola.

THE PALACE AT ORTAHISAR I’d heard of an American woman who bought part of a village to renovate into a home here. Sabine took me to meet her. We walked through the fields and came out onto a plateau on the edge of a steep gorge. Across from us was a mountain, all by itself on the steppe. It was honeycombed with arches, caves, walls, square Greek buildings, stone ruins and tunnels all the way to the top, where a flag waved above a brick wall. This was the Castle of Ortahisar.

Castle Ortahisar

The Castle of Ortahisar ©1999 Trici Venola.

 “There she is,” said Sabine, pointing to a tiny waving figure halfway up the Castle. Laura, the woman we had come to meet, was sitting out on the terrace of her Palace, a sprawl of terraces, buildings and fifty-two caves she was renovating with her partner Nurettin. We walked a narrow path along the face of the gorge, all the way down to the river below and back up again.  Cave ColonyOn the terrace I looked across to see where we had been. A hundred abandoned caves looked back at me, some with painting outside their doors, some with elaborate staircases carved in front, some with walls and trees and pigeonholes. Laura was sitting next to a giant Hittite stone lion.

Laura Prusoff & The Palace

Laura Prusoff and the Palace at Ortahisar ©1999 Trici Venola.

Still in renovation, the Palace terrace looked like this. I got drunk on both views and had to draw them. Laura and Nurettin invited me to stay awhile. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The Palace in Renovation

The Palace in Renovation ©1999 Trici Venola.

The top of a Roman arch stuck up through the asphalt of a courtyard nearby. Years before, I’d spent many hours drawing things out of my art history books.  I’d put myself to sleep at night picturing ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece– cultures I could only imagine in countries I had never seen. Now after a half a year around Turkey I still almost wept at the proximity of so much old stone and I had to sit right down and draw it. 

Roman Arch Courtyard

Roman Arch Courtyard ©1999 Trici Venola.

One day I wandered around in the ruins down from the Palace, sat down on a pile of rock and started drawing the tumbled piles of masonry and weeds. I had taken to wearing a brown leather jacket over a thick silk sweater, and a huge scarf. I had discovered why local women wore them. I wrapped it around my head and shoulders against the cold and other times against sun and flies. The wind fluttered the fringe as I hunched over the sketchbook, holding it flat to keep the pages from blowing. 

Lonely Mountain Ruins

Lonely Mountain Ruins ©1999 Trici Venola.

As I drew it grew colder and the wind howled lonely around the mountain. It felt like the end of the world. Under that bleak feeling was joy that at last I could render stone. I continued to draw under the gray sky until I had finished. I stood up and shook out my drawing hand. Stiff and chilled, I walked around the mountain and stopped in shock. There was a street, cars and minarets and telephone booths, people selling potato chips. A voice behind me said in brisk British, “Excuse me, but would you like a cup of coffee?”

Una & Crazy Ali

Una and Crazy Ali ©1999 Trici Venola.

That was how I met Una and Crazy Ali. While he made coffee I admired his store full of curiosities, stamping my feet to get the circulation going, before the three of us sat down at the stove for Turkish coffee. I love it now, but drinking it used to be like gargling sand. This was thick hot elixir. Ali gave me a poem which he composed on the spot, and Una told me that she had come out from Ireland years before, put on a scarf, and could not take it off.

Cave House Store

A cave store, not Crazy Ali’s,. Out of focus, but look at those colors!

While I was there came the Call to Prayer. Una and Ali started telling muezzin stories. The muezzin is the singer of the Call, and in Turkey he is electronically amplified. One muezzin’s rendition, they said, was so awful that every animal for miles would join in: honking donkeys, howling dogs and screeching roosters, the people walking around with their faces scrunched up and fingers in their ears, and by the time the prayer call was finished the entire village was a raucous cacophonic hymn. Sabine & Kitty Helper

A BALANCE OF ENERGY Sabine invited me to stay at Gamirasu, which was the name she had given to her hotel, renovated from Hittite and Byzantine ruins in the little town of Ayvali. Still dispirited from losing the sketchbook I gratefully accepted her offer of energy-balancing therapy. Not only that, but I was able to work on the drawings for three straight days, sitting out on the terrace in the good light, facing the caves and looking down on the rose garden and the lawn, letting go of the lost sketchbook with the development of this new one. The energy session came last. Sabine worked with a cat, who she said helped direct the forces. There was certainly some kind of force at work. I was to rip up my nice life in LA and move to Turkey, and to become increasingly close to my new friends and to Kapadokya. I will always be grateful to Sabine for her introduction to this magical, weirdly familiar spiritual home. We lost her in 2011. I expect she is now one with the energy she so understood. Blossom


LOVE VALLEY  On the last day Laura dropped me off in Goreme to draw this house right out of Tolkein. I drew for two hours from the site of the Roman tomb opposite, the property of a German expat who enthusiastically told me all about renovating the tomb, which had been occupied by goats, shepherds and wayfarers long after its original occupant had turned to dust.

The Tolkein House

The Tolkein House ©1999 Trici Venola.

That night we all rode out happy under the huge October moon. We racketed through the bright night, the shapes of the rocks in dramatic relief, silver on one side and black on the other. We pulled up under a tree. I got out of the car and stared in amazement, for above the tree, all around and as far as I could see loomed the fabled clusters of stone phalli massive under the full moon. All across the hilly landscape they rose, in groups and pairs and awesome sentinels, as tall as buildings, every variation but all big and all graphically phallic.

Love Valley

Love Valley ©1999 Trici Venola.

“Makes you humble, eh Nurettin?” said the German. We hiked along a narrow gorge full of bushes and rocks. The ground began to change as we walked, until we were walking among great rounded humps of rock as wide as houses. “I think we’re past the really big ones,” said the German. “Hey, maybe these are the really big ones,” said Laura. “Maybe just the tops of the big ones.”  The moon burned silver and the stars pounded overhead, millions in the huge dark sky glimpsed between the moonlit towers of stone. I thought of the Romans marching through here, the Persian armies, Alexander the Great, Mithridates, Hittites, Christians and Muslims and Genghis Khan; pictured the great slumbering masses of history billeted among the knobby shadows and gullies, all through the silent grasses, under the sentinel stones.

Wagon in Mustafapasa

Wagon in Mustafapasa ©1999 Trici Venola

—– All drawings Plein Air. All art © Trici Venola, from The Drawing On Istanbul Project. All the drawings here are from one sketchbook, Kapadokya 1999, save for Peacock Pigeon Roost which was done in 2011. All art done with drafting pens on rag paper in the sketchbook which measures 18 cm X 52 cm when open. We love your comments! We love your Likes! Follow us and find a blog post in your inbox just when you most need it. Thanks for your participation in this project.  


The Face of HasankeyfPRECEDENT

Around 1830, beloved literary giant Victor Hugo learned that the old Gothic pile in the middle of Paris was to be pulled down. A crooked filthy church like a brokeback dragon, built piecemeal over centuries, it had been badly damaged in the French Revolution and blackened in great fires. The government planned a big new development there on the Seine once the eyesore was gone. The eyesore was Notre Dame. Horrified, Hugo set about creating something that would make everyone love the place as much as he did, enough to let it live. He wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and saved the cathedral. He told it as a story, and afterwards there was no question of its being destroyed, for all the world had come to love it.  Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, is one of the most visited places in the most visited country on earth. Oh would to the gods that I could be as Victor Hugo, as influential in his time as Steven Spielberg is in ours. There are so many things I would save. I would start with Hasankeyf.

Hasankeyf 3

THE CRADLE Imagine a place in the land of beginning. A place shaped like a cradle, in the Cradle of Civilization. All civilization, not just Middle Eastern. This is the Fertile Crescent; Sumeria, Mesopotamia: the birthplace of writing, cultivation of food, domestication of animals and other cornerstones of life as we know it. Earliest examples of writing are from the third millennium BCE, in nearby Ur, just across the border in Iraq. Cities then looked like this.

CGI of Ur

But people were much the same. Writing was invented to keep track of temple contributions, and there was undoubtedly some poor schmo accountant working overtime in some ziggurat, as shown here in Mac clip-art as comparatively ancient in computerdom as the scene it shows.

Overtime in Sumeria

Overtime: A Palace in Sumeria c2600 BCE ©1989 Trici Venola. Mouse-built Mac clip-art.

Thinking in these terms, it’s only yesterday: In a vast golden valley the road winds through gentle hillocks, many pierced with ancient caves.

Houses on Way

Sumerian Village

Sumerian Village ©2007 by Trici Venola.

Soft swells blend upward into one horizon. The other horizon is a fantasy landscape of canyons and cliffs carved by the Tigris over hundreds of thousands of years. At its most spectacular point sits Hasankeyf.

Hasankeyf 1Ur was a great trade center of the plain, buried for centuries. Hasankeyf is  a small lively hill town of caves and artifacts that have accumulated over time through many civilizations. Nothing prepared me for the jaw-dropping sight of the massive monolithic ruins rising out of the green water, caves and arches and one enormous rounded tower next to sheer cliffs soaring up from the edge of the river, everything ruddy gold in the  late afternoon sun.

Hasankeyf 2

I first saw Hasankeyf in 2007. I was the only foreigner on the Hasankeyf Train, a four-day excursion to protest the drowning of this cherished spot by the Ilisu Dam Project.

Hasankeyf 4

Do you know who took this photo? Tell me so I can credit them!

Hasankeyf’s execution has been stayed many times, yet the dam has begun and progresses. People must have their electricity, and dams are the mode of the day in Turkey. This dam will last about forty years. Hasankeyf has likely been around for about 9,500 years, according to testing of artifacts found last summer in a Neolithic mound at the end of the ancient bridge.

Houses on Way 2This means that Hasankeyf, an ancient town on the Tigris River in the southeastern corner of Turkey, has been around, and likely occupied, through the various reigns of Sumerians, Assyrians, Hittites,  Mesopotamians, Arabs, Byzantines, Romans, and everyone before and after and in-between. At present, it’s of particular significance to the Kurds, and most of the present inhabitants are Kurdish.


That jaw-dropping initial sight of the town has been mitigated in recent years. New highway and bridge constructions mar the pristine setting, with a huge dirt pile dumped in front of an ancient tomb. This zigzag staircase I so loved has, I am told, fallen off the cliff.

Zigzag Stairs Across the valley they’ve begun the new town. Everyone in Hasankeyf is to move into it. I’m told it looks like a college campus or new projects; in short: generic group housing. It’s probably okay. It just doesn’t look like this:

Doors on a Street

ArtifactDusk on the Town

Pier from the Castle

Pier from the Castle ©2007 Trici Venola.

A Street in Town Rocks in TownYes, despite all the upheaval the old town remains a place of immense charm. Three elements: green trees, carved golden stone, and the reflections in tranquil water.

Ancient Bridge PierPeople have left part of a  castle, piers of a bridge, a giant cave, a zigzag staircase, a huge Muslim minaret, carved writing, tombs and many, many caves. Most important, the place is still alive. This isn’t Aphrodisias or Ephesus, resurrected from the sands of time. Human beings live and work here.

In Town Kids CUIt’s a functioning town, which ebbs and flows around visitors in a jocular manner. Children cavort at the waters’ edge, near the two great piers of the ancient bridge. There’s archeology going on at that 9,500-year-old site. Young pine trees shoot up to the sky. Below a rock face like a giant griffin, topped with a ruined Byzantine castle, shops are full of business, and excavations prove they always have been.

TV Drawing Platform

Excavated Street

The Tigris, snaking along the edge of the valley as it has from time immemorial, has carved the rocks into fantastic sculpture. Streams run down through it from the mountains to the river. So Hasankeyf is naturally protected and watered.

River Photo Op

A  place of topographical geological magic, inherently attractive and inviting to human beings, to quote my friend John Crofoot. A longtime fellow-advocate of saving Hasankeyf via Cultural Tourism, he came over today to update me on Hasankeyf. He was there all last week. We are hoping, all of us, that the Powers That Be can find a way to have their dam and preserve Hasankeyf. I believe they can do this. I have faith in their ability.


Getting Ready Yes ©2007 Trici Venola.

Getting Ready Yes ©2007 Trici Venola.

Last week there was a court order to save Hasankeyf. There have been many stays of execution, followed by more development, so people are wary. Atlas Magazine and Doga Dernegi organized a protest train in 2007, the one pictured here. Hasankeyf continues to quiver on the edge of destruction, absolutely unique, a monument to the past, a hope of the future. But Turkey is about right now, and dams are the order of the day. Dams are sexy. Lots of water, lots of electricity, lots of jobs, and fast. Detractors say solar power is sexier, that dams dry out the country. There’s a lot of pro-dam noise right now. Articles sing the praises of the many dams and say they’re creating all kinds of great sites. I dunno. I sure saw a lot of dead rivers.

Another Dead River ©2007 Trici Venola.

Another Dead River ©2007-2013 Trici Venola.

A Real Trouper ©2007 Trici Venola.

A Real Trouper ©2007 Trici Venola.

Dam detractors argue that river valleys would, if cultivated, provide more money than the dams, prevent more overcrowding in the cities,  and the most fertile and beautiful country in the Middle East would continue to provide plentifully for its people. In Mesopotamia, the origins of civilization would endure as they always have. This dam will cost over a billion dollars. It was the approval of the loan of this sum by European banks that inspired the 2007 train trip, one of several. Three hundred and seventy-four Turks and one American traveled with little sleep and no showers to celebrate this diehard ancient town.

The people on the train were educated hip Turks who love antiquities and nature enough to give up a four-day beach weekend for a rackety train with smelly bathrooms, intermittent air-conditioning  and only a brief overnight in antiquity before the return. But did we care?

On the Hasankeyf Train ©2007 Trici Venola.

On the Hasankeyf Train ©2007 Trici Venola.

Not a harsh word, and on the next-to-last night, a raucous party stretching through both dining  cars with loud singing  and people dancing  in the aisle and everyone screaming with laughter.

Party On the Train

Party On the Train ©2007 Trici Venola.

I never met nicer people.

Three On the Train ©2007 Trici Venola.

Three On the Train ©2007 Trici Venola.

Sun Face

Sun Face ©2007 Trici Venola.


Spoon-Dancing ©2007 Trici Venola.

You might think that being the only person who couldn’t speak Turkish, I’d feel left out, but no. Drawing On Istanbul had just come out, and people made me feel swell. Several had seen articles in the papers, They stood around and watched me draw, and I only wish I had taken fifty copies with me because I sold every one that I had.

Dark and Light: Ahmet and Cihan with Tower ©2007 Trici Venola.

Dark and Light: Ahmet and Cihan with Tower ©2007 Trici Venola.

Kalamar Tall

Kalamar in Kumkapi ©2004 Trici Venola.

I was there thanks to Celal Ogmen at Kalamar Restaurant in Kumkapi. My first year in Turkey, I designed Kalamar’s logo and drew pictures of the place while eating fish dinners. Never did I pay for one. The art has variously decorated the tablecloths, napkins, walls, brochures, ads, menus, business cards, waiters’ T-Shirts and the packet holding the refreshing towelette.

Celal  ©2004 Trici Venola

Celal ©2004 Trici Venola

Celal and his horde of relative-employees are from Van, to the north of Hasankeyf. He originally wanted me to go and draw his birthplace, but found the trip to Hasankeyf instead and coughed up my fare. It can be easier to get a pubic hair off of a gorilla in a wetsuit than to get cash out of a Sultanahmet entrepreneur. I told the organizers of the trip that if this guy was on the bandwagon to save Hasankeyf from the dam there was a lot of hope. Right, they said, Hasankeyf is one of the most beloved places in Turkey. Covering it with water is considered sacrilege.

Distant Brown Mountains

So I drew and I drew. First out the window, dozens of tiny thumbnails.

Old Woman Pulling A SheepHillock DoorA woman tugging at a sheep, a door in a hillock, a long mud-brick barn, olive trees and grassy knolls and forlorn dusty riverbeds, sad bridges unused, in the distance the bright hard blue of the huge dams. Toward Malatya, known as Turkey’s breadbasket, the land began to look like the Garden of Eden.
Only Bushes Goddess in the RockHillside OrchardI drew sheaves of poplar trees, tiny houses, orchards everywhere. The very air was full of essence of apricots. Here, the rivers have water.

Before MalatyaCinderblock Power LinesRiver Drying UpSunflower HarvestThere was a conference on the train with the two prime movers of this demonstration: Guven Eken of Doga Dernegi and Ozcan Yüksek, the editor of Atlas Magazine. I couldn’t follow the conference but I drew the passion on the faces as the train roared into the gathering dark. In the middle of Apple Tree Offeringthe night, indigestion kept me up to see a full moon on the loneliest train station in the world. Was it called Sapak?

The Loneliest Station

The Loneliest Station ©2007 Trici Venola.

Potato PickersNext day: a row of people standing next to sacks full of potatoes in a field, a flock of turkeys, a flat-topped mound Goat Trainwith a rectangular cut in it and trucks drawn up: an archeological site. A long line of goats walking along the bottom of a cliff, and in the dawn, the full moon showing a different face.



Near Mt. Aegeis, the highest point in Turkey, we racketed past  mesas and ramparts of stone jutting out of the dry grassy hills. A giant, many-pointed black rock loomed near a green hilltop community. Its citizens in antiquity must have believed that the gods lived there.

Mt Aegeis

Goat BarnRed Rock Ramparts

Rock of the Gods

Spike HillsThe mountains grew higher and sharper as we started into tunnels. Spectacular vistas shot past: jagged peaks soaring into the clouds and dizzying glimpses down bottomless canyons covered with cedar trees.

Ahmet Gets a Shot

Stunned, I stopped drawing and just gaped along with everyone else on the train. None of this can be seen from the road, only the rails. A sudden thatched roof on a terraced hodgepodge of brick and wood near some olive trees, and the whole family out taking the sunset air, a little boy and girl up on a cistern, waving.

Family Waving on Roof

Mountain VillageNear Diyarbakir, the copper in the hills shadows blue into the rust of the mountain towns. We had been warned that malcontents might attack our train in this area, and they did: several windows were hit with rocks, the shatterproof glass spiderwebbed behind the posters that said THE HASANKEYF TRAIN.

Malcontents Hurling Rocks

My new friend Buket (pronounced Boo-Cat) saw the malcontents: three little kids. In the dining cars everyone drank coffee and tea and ate kebap and grinned at the waiters and charged their telephones at the outlets. By now many of us women had bright scarves over our flat sweaty hair. By the end of the trip these had bloomed into fantastical headdresses.

Boo-Cat (Buket)

Boo-Cat ©2007 Trici Venola.

Flock of Sheep


Little Girl Drum

Little Girl Drum ©2007 – 2013 Trici Venola.

Although the very Minister of Transportation had been involved with this journey, the train was all-day late. The railroad town of Batman, adjacent to Hasankeyf, waited seven hours in the thick heat to welcome us with brass bands, banners, crowds of shouting children, and the mayor himself passing out red carnations to every woman on the train.

Bright Face in BatmanIn the fierce heat I wore a small black shirt, a huge black hat and shades. Where are you from? The little boys screamed in Turkish. I was never so glad to be from Los Angeles, because it is so far away. And because of the movies everyone knows what it is. So I screamed back, Merhaba from Los Angeles, Hollywood, California, USA!! The head of the brass band put down his trumpet, stuck out his hand and said ON BEHALF OF THE CITY OF BATMAN WELCOME, and gave me two red carnations.

Arrival in Batman

The kids made us cry, singing and wringing our hands. Little boys pressed sweaty wads of salted watermelon seeds into our hands and kissed them.  Little girls in tribal dress banged huge tambourines. I thought of them out there in the searing sun all day, dressed up and waiting. We were hustled into buses and half an hour later we were winding through Mesopotamia when the bus slammed to a stop and there it was, Hasankeyf, the fantasy in the late afternoon sun.

Buket at Hasankeyf

Buket Sahin, sleeping in the next seat on the train, translated everything and has been a friend ever since.

Buket and I wandered as much as possible in the time before sunset.


Hope and Hasankeyf

Hope and Hasankeyf ©2007 Trici Venola.

Three young men, students from Izmir, held still on the edge of the castle for portraits, staring down into the vista of caves and lantern light. “We read Atlas,” they said, “and so we travel Turkey this summer and learn our history.” Buket and I climbed down the slippery stones from the top of the Byzantine clifftop castle to dinner on the beach below.

Protest Tower Composite

Dinner was river trout barbecued and served at tables set up in the shallows. A jolly crowd sat at a tilting table with our feet in the Tigris, eating the fish caught in the river and throwing the bones back in to repay the river. Girls in trailing headresses waded out into the rushing water, legs glowing in the gloom.

Dinner in the Tigris

Dinner in the Tigris ©2007 Trici Venola.

We were going to sleep on railed platforms set up in the river. I hiked across the rocky beach toward the vast sheer cliff with the zigzag staircase and the castle on top, to use the pay restroom set up in a cave and manned all night by two hardy kids.

Griffin Rock

The cliff shone pale in the moonlight, impossibly high and huge, like something from another planet, like something glimpsed near sleep. Near the bottom of the zigzag staircase was a huge natural arched entrance all lit up and hung with tapestries. I peeked in: a vast multistoried cavern fitted out for lounging. Reaching all up inside the cliff, natural stone passageways and staircases and wooden platforms covered with cushions and little tables, halogen lamps hanging here and there showing the top of the cave high above and the water sluicing down the far wall from the natural cistern. They called it Transpassers’ Cave. Hmph. It’s Ali Baba’s cave from Arabian Nights– Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

Ali Baba's Cave

In Ali Baba’s Cave ©2007 Trici Venola.

TV Tower I don’t know if the cave is still accessible, so I’m very glad that I ran and got Buket and that we slept there, along with a litter of flea-free month-old kittens, up on the second platform high above a slumbering company from the train. I expected to dream of Ali Baba or to channel the ancients, but all I heard was Celine Dion on the sound system until they shut it off around dawn. No matter! Stiff from sleeping doubled up on the train, I sprawled in bliss on the cushions. A night to cherish, and in the morning they only let us pay for our breakfast.

Iz TV and Demonstrators

Iz TV and Demonstrators ©2007 Trici Venola.

These kids interviewed Buket and me for a show on Hasankeyf to run on Iz TV. In the background, three young guys and their grandmother held a sit-in.

From the Castle

Most of the people  of Hasankeyf aren’t happy about losing the cave homes they’ve occupied for generations.

Houses in TownThere’s a fatalism about most of the town. Still, there were townsfolk protesting with us. Ozcan Yuksek, editor of Atlas, climbed up a radio tower and got a photo of all 374 of us cohorts standing around a huge sign: HANDS OFF HASANKEYF.

Hands Off HasankeyfTwo guys sitting under a protest sign said in Turkish We will live under water if we have to. There are now scuba tours of the fabulous mosaics at Zeugma, the ancient trading port now covered by Turkey’s damming of the Euphrates years ago.

Faces Like the Rocks

Faces Like the Rocks ©2007 Trici Venola. Ozcan Yuksek, Guven Eken and the Mayor of Batman.


Turkey wants to be one of the most visited places on earth. Right now it’s Number 7. The most visited place is France. Hm, I wonder why. Perhaps it’s the presence of exquisitely preserved cultural treasures–  Notre Dame!– and the absence of billboards, trash and Walmarts. People don’t cross oceans and continents to see what they can see at home. Sure, people shop. But cultural tourism combined with shopping is huge money, and it doesn’t destroy your cultural heritage, it preserves it. Turkey has absolutely unique places, important to the whole world, for Turkey is geographically and historically in the center.

Tree-Shaded House

Imagine six years later. Buket and I are still great friends.  Iz TV interviewed us both back in Hasankeyf,  and the show has been aired about a hundred times on public TV in Turkey. I know because delighted strangers stop me in the street and tell me. Hasankeyf seems to bring out the best in people.

Lon Chaney Sr 10

Lon Chaney as Quasimodo, 1923.

Trying not to think about Hasankeyf being flooded or ruined with bad promotion, I imagine Victor Hugo’s vexation about Notre Dame. It created Quasidmodo, gibbering in hideous rage on the tower as he pours molten lead on the mob hammering at Notre Dame’s doors, trying to get in and destroy the unique and exquisite Esmeralda. Snatching her from the moronic maw of the ravening mob, bearing her into the church, screaming Sanctuary! Sanctuary! That’s just how I feel: Lon Chaney as the fearsome Hunchback, and how I wish I was strong enough to ring his bell. Rage can make Quasimodos of us all, but he did save the church.

A Street in Town
Hay Piled Behind BarnsNow imagine Hasankeyf as the center of a cultural tourism Renaissance in the troubled Southeast of Turkey. Chronic upheaval makes for fascinating history, which can mean great tourism. Imagine a fine life for the poverty-flattened people of Hasankeyf, with government sanctioning of their town as a regular tourist destination, with UNESCO backing and with the kind of money that educated tourists are willing to spend to see something unique and irreplaceable.

Hasankeyf BlueThere’s that great big highway they’re building, there’s that great big bridge. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it led to a  better life for all. In situ. Just imagine! As they say in Hasankeyf, the rose is most beautiful on the branch.

Waving Kids


All road drawings, spot illustrations and portraits Plein Air. All other drawings Plein Air with some augmentation from photos in places due to time constraints. All art, including most photos © Trici Venola. These drawings are part of the Drawing On Istanbul™ Series by Trici Venola, produced  with drafting pens on rag paper in sketchbook format. Large drawings are 18 cm X 52 cm.  Special thanks to John Crofoot, Buket Sahin. and to Celal Ogmen and the staff at Kalamar Restaurant in Kumkapi. We love their fish, and we love your comments. Thanks for reading.