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Watchers and Watches: Inspecting Antiques in Çukurcuma

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From the Bosporus shorefront neighborhood of Tophane, the sharply ascending Boğazkesen Avenue merges with Yeni Çarşı leading up to the famed commercial drag of İstiklal around the old Italian district.

At that juncture, one of the most spectacular antique districts in Istanbul begins along two main, eastward side avenues, Bostanbaşı and the namesake of the quarter, Çukurcuma, forming a rectangular, urban space that transports its frequent passersby through time portals of objects. Dizzying, manifold antique collections spill out onto the cobbled pavement with all of the enigmatic mystique of the abandoned past.

Age has a palpable smell. It lingers indoors, exuding the odors of stale paint and smoke-stained upholstery, hanging in the air like an invisible film, sheer as a spider's web and equally absorbing in its intricacies. That sense is thick and dense as ever while wandering deeply into the maze of antique dealers in Çukurcuma. Inside its sprawling, nebulous circumference between the gender-segregated 15th century Firuz Ağa Hamamı (Turkish bath,) all concepts of linear time and space dissolve under the spell of the untold secrets that emerge silently from the dusty traces of long-lost possessions, properties, stories, heritages. Many of the storefronts are plain and nameless, yet they all hold compelling mysteries buried under clues that, however fascinating at first glance, often lead to nothing more substantial than a passing curiosity toward an inevitable dead-end in history.

The antiques dealer is a peculiar sort of character, one immediately recognizable down the length of any street in Istanbul (which is never far). They belong to an altogether distinct set of public eccentrics who while away the day animating the early modern archaeology of the city. And as experts in the field of selling old things, they have enviable talents due to the uniqueness of the trade and its clients. For one, they can spot a buyer instantly and are able to sift profit clearly from the pervasive window-shopper who would vainly ponder over the overwhelming kaleidoscopes of artifacts. To sell antiques demands a thick-skinned indifference to the recurring, naive speculator who arrives predictably imagining that outdated means affordable without the slightest idea of the expensive nature of rare collectibles, many of which have been vigilantly preserved for over a century.

Watchers and watches: Inspecting antiques in Çukurcuma

Before the core district of Çukurcuma condenses into a stunning perplexity of door-to-door antique shops whose sidewalk displays blend into each other with an indiscernible chaos, an initial pair of storefronts open together under the condemned Zenovitch Apartment building on opposite sides of Bostanbaşı Avenue, forming an island of history entirely displaced from its original context in time, jumbled and crooked, heaped and cluttered. A man surfaces from the motionless waves of metal and frames that seem likely to crash at any moment. He promotes an outmoded tray shaped specifically to serve boiled eggs, and then points to the "menemen" skillet, a piece of cookware still common in even the trendiest of restaurants to prepare Turkish-style scrambled eggs.

While apparently mundane, domestic traditions and the media through which they are expressed and maintained speak volumes to the infiltration of history as an evolutionary phenomenon that directly influences personal and family life. As is obvious among the highly exotic antiques, many forms and aesthetics did not survive the dissolution of Ottoman society after the first generation of moderns lived and died in the Republic of Turkey. In the environs of heirloom collections visible throughout the streets of Çukurcuma, stylish contemporary shops stand next to thoroughly confusing disorders of the old-fashioned and the passé. The simplest and most practical commodity is suddenly transformed to lucidly depict the relationship between historic time and cultural movement. The material used to make a pre-modern pot, for example, once rustic and unfinished, reveals the classism of modernist perspectives when in the light of a contemporary antiques window. In the absence of technological sophistication, to contextualize something as old and vestigial is arguably to impose the cultural superiority complex of the predominantly modernist, Western global paradigm.

Stacked atop elegant chairs and draped over parked cars amid diverse spectrums of folds, decoratively woven, carpet tapestries called "kilims" are hawked in front of many antique shops. They are sold alongside rotary telephones and the anachronistic vests and shalwars that return Ottoman fashion to full color on the street of bygone mercantilist nostalgia. The saturated fabric dyes in bright violets and rich crimsons, embroidered with gold and silver silk threads for the conventionally loose-fit, are throwbacks to an age of dress now reserved for such pastimes as historical study and period theater. In one of the more prominent antique shops, named "Osmanlı Antik Palas" (Ottoman Antique Palace), kilims are only the beginning of a deep dive through the puzzling tangle of stuff around the entranceway and into what seems like an inner exploration into the Turkish subconscious. An unsmiling dealer answers only in numbers, as to the price of two sterling 19th century dresses. For an authentic long-sleeve "bindallı" worn to tradition ceremonially during Ottoman weddings and other formal occasions, a serious antiques patron will spend upwards of TL 5,000.

Watchers and watches: Inspecting antiques in Çukurcuma

It is a typical hodgepodge in the window of Osmanlı Antik Palas, which encompasses three storefronts on Bostanbaşı Avenue, as pocketknives are laid out next to tobacco pipes and opera binoculars. Yet, the treasures lay within. It's common for dealers to prohibit photography to those who enter, as the more valuable and most precious of antiques are usually kept further down the crammed and loaded hallway shelves, decked and stocked with disparate and counterintuitive strategy so as to trick the eye with the something like the riddle of significance that tested Indiana Jones as he saw the Holy Grail in a simple wooden cup. In other words, when placed beside worthless nonsense, pieces that are actually of value and significance remain protected from the constant perusal of disrespecting individuals who would treat them like any obsolescent, throwaway shopping mall commodity.

Appreciation for the past and its value for the present is something that philosophers throughout history have echoed, from Hegel and Nietzsche to Foucault. And even if they appear far from intellectually comparable, the careful, watching eye of the antiques dealer haphazardly follows suit. It's easy to get lost in the nostalgia shops of Çukurcuma, as they are disordered like broken mirrors of sharp corners with all things jutting upward and in every possible direction into whatever space is left for anyone curious enough to take a closer look. The dealer is always surveying with a hard eye, sometimes indirectly against a hidden reflection, sometimes glued to every move of the new visitor. Such is the case once inside Antikacı, the shop owned by Ms. Hikmet Mizanoğlu, the director of BLOK art space located around the corner, and it is expected among the virtually priceless decor of hardwood dressers, filigree trays, stone-framed mirrors, backgammon sets inlaid with mother-of-pearl, tusks displayed to form crescents, aristocrat busts, wooden angels, an Ottoman-starred horse saddle and a dervish headdress among an eclectic diversity of polished, courtly fineries.

The antiques dealer is liable to change the story as quickly as a price, as is the case with the piano centerpiece at Karadeniz Antik, an upright of questionable restorative potential classically fitted with candleholders and running some $2,500, unless, of course, a buyer is at hand. If the city of Istanbul were a man, he would be a shameless hoarder. The utter profusion of things once manufactured only to become lost to the abstract developments of time is beyond reckoning. Material waste and cultural amnesia are symptoms of modernity, which is essentially an ongoing episode of the prevailing capitalist ideologies that divide resource from laborer and consumer from everything (as perpetuated by the illusion that the consumer is connected to everything). Time itself becomes irrelevant when the head of a lion is sewn into a rug and sold beside a birdcage, a fencing helmet with a telescope, streetlamps with chain mail, gramophones and a mace club.


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