Sunday, 20 August 2017

Ishak Pasha Lived by a Road. The Silk Road

Text by Albena Shkodrova | Photographs by Anthony Georgieff   
In 1784, the Kurdish warlord Ishak Pasha picked out a high plateau near the mythical Ararat Mountain, located in present-day eastern Turkey.

The place had a great strategic significance for him, as the Silk Road passed in the valley below, and Ishak Pasha was in the business of collecting the tolls.

Without parsimony, he invested the toll money in a magnificent palace of a kind never seen before. When this architectural masterpiece was completed, as was the tradition, he had the architect's head chopped off. This was the only way to ensure there would never be another such palace in the world.

The exclusive rights over the palace’s architecture, thus acquired, lasted until 1917. Then, rather unceremoniously, they were violated by Russian solders who wrenched the enormous palace gates off the stone portal’s hinges and took them to Saint Petersburg. Now the gilded, richly ornate gates close the official entrance of one of the greatest museums in the world – the Hermitage.


The palace, which rests on a flat area scooped into the rocky slope, contains 336 rooms. They are all equipped with then-unseen luxuries, such as central heating, running water and a sewage system. An exquisite mosque, a mausoleum, a library and two reception halls with richly ornate façades, portals and interiors – everything was designed in an almost incredible mixture of styles. If we apply Schelling's view of architecture as frozen music, Ishak Pasha’s palace would have been an inconceivable and yet beautiful polyphonic melody, in which Georgian and Armenian vocals are accompanied by a Turkish tambourine and a Persian zither.

The interior structure of the mosque is a combination of the elongated vertical spaces, typical of Armenian churches, with the elaborate but subtle, almost transparent, Seljuk motifs. The Persian influence is apparent in the bas-reliefs on the mausoleum in the internal courtyard. A peculiar mixture of Georgian, Armenian, and Seljuk aesthetics oozes from the splendid dining hall in the harem. Because of the rooms’ position around courtyards and some of its decoration, the palace is considered as the last monumental building of the Ottoman Empire’s Lale Devri, or ‘Tulip Period’.

Even today, Ishak Pasha’s palace astonishes with its pragmatic assets. A small but important detail is that it hosts the toilet with probably the most fantastic view in the world.

From the window of the small antique room, you can see the whole valley of Dogubayazit, the last Turkish town before the border with Iran.

Secondly, the palace offers every amenity necessary for human daily life, including some aspects of which modern architecture has deprived us. Among the excellent ideas are the dungeon and the stables, which can be reached from the first courtyard; the Turkish bath and the spacious kitchen, which apparently saw quite some cooking, judging from its smoke-tinged walls.

The three most beautiful spots in the palace, probably the hub of its social life, are the harem’s dining hall, the mosque and the library - all indisputable architectural masterpieces.

The women in Ishak Pasha's harem dined in a large, elegant hall, encircled by a colonnade with Georgian style ornaments. A black and white strip of stone slabs in the lower part of the room reveals a Seljuk signature. Three real and eleven “blind” windows take up the upper part of the hall, embedded in dramatically carved arches. Despite being bare and ravaged by time, the hall creates an extremely festive mood. One can imagine the pleasure with which the Kurdish lord's concubines devoured the food on their lavishly laid tables, probably often in his presence. The luxury they were provided with by Ishak Pasha indicates that they had sufficient influence in society, or at least over his heart.

A closer read of historical sources reveals that the popular modern view of women in Ottoman harems as luxurious slaves is quite false. Not only did they have great power, but they also lived fairly emancipated lives. This was also true of Ishak Pasha's wives, although their castle today is in the middle of nowhere. Two centuries ago, however, it was the centre of an ancient, bustling city.

Unfortunately, the rest of the buildings have been destroyed by earthquakes, and the town of Dogubayazit at the foot of the plateau was built in the early twentieth century, in order to service a large military base.

The few remnants of the ancient city around the palace are the mausoleum of Kurdish writer Ahmed Hani (eighteenth century), a mosque from the time of Selim I (early sixteenth century) and the ruins of a fort which supposedly dates from between the eighth and the second centuries BC. This accumulation of fragments belonging to different worlds is one of the charming features of present-day Turkey. It is frequent reminder of the strong ties between Europe and Asia.

Today, only a few of the visitors of Saint Petersburg’s Hermitage know about the origin of the splendid gilded gates. One of the reasons is that they look like part of the museum’s Baroque architecture. Transported 1,500 kilometres to the northwest, they do not appear as “oriental”, but rather pass off as a sample of the European influence on Russia. They remind us that, despite its present emancipation,
Europe originated from Asia to a large extent.




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