Finding Ali Baba’s Treasure in Turkey

A 4,000-year-old craft in Cappadocia preserves the legacy of an ancient empire.  
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The display room at Kapadokya Seramik is crammed with souvenirs like blue-glazed pottery, goblet sets and water jugs. Photo by: Malavika Bhattacharya

In Avanos’ town centre stands a clay sculpture of a craftsman at a potter’s wheel—a hat tip to the earthenware crafts that define the region’s past and present. Avanos is a tiny town of around 12,000 people in the Turkish region of Cappadocia. A majority of its inhabitants are engaged in the art of pottery. The abundance of ceramic stores I see—facades adorned with lush glazed plates—are testament to this fact.

Today, ceramics are a major industry in these parts, but clay pottery dates back thousands of years and is part of Cappadocia’s ancient heritage. What began as an age-old household enterprise to create essential earthenware has produced generations of craftsmen, skilled in the art of traditional pottery.

“Every family used to have a pottery workshop attached to their home,” says Ali Gençtürk, a third-generation master potter at his family-owned Kapadokya Seramik. I visited the pottery workshop and store, one among a clutch of family-run ceramic establishments, in June 2018.

“All the sons would learn how to make pots using the kick-wheel. If a man did not know pottery, he could not find a wife,” Ali continues.

Just a few kilometres away from the store flows the Red River, or Kızılırmak—Avanos’ lifeline and the prime source of the unique red clay used in the region’s pottery.

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Avanos is a town of craftspeople, and its market is flooded with locally made ceramics and handwoven carpets. Photo by: Nejdet Duzen/shutterstock

Inside Kapadokya Seramik’s demonstration room, I’m seated in a dome-roofed chamber with pale stone walls mounted with exquisitely painted jars and plates in hues of turquoise, earthy reds and browns. Several of the bell-shaped jars and ornamental plates wear the familiar blue glaze of the ceramics that flood Turkey’s markets. Occupying pride of place, however, is a slim doughnut-shaped jug, a curious design I’ve never seen before. Ali traces my gaze and says, “That is a Hittite wine jug. The design is from this region and almost 3,500-4,000 years old.”

Before the Ottomans, Romans, Persians, and Greeks inhabited Turkey, the ancient region of Anatolia—what we know as present day Turkey—was home to the Hittite dynasty. From 2,000 B.C., their civilization grew around the Red River. As the Hittites adopted Cappadocia’s barren, moonlike landscape as home, their love for wine and tradition of clay pottery were slowly but permanently etched into land’s cultural fabric.

The Hittite wine jug I’ve got my eye on is a remnant from that era, a design native to Cappadocia. Ali slides his arm through the ring of the intricately patterned ochre, red, and black piece that he himself has crafted. When it sits comfortably on his shoulder, he bends low in a deep bow, demonstrating how wine was poured from the jug.

“This type of jug was used in the palace of the Hittite kings to serve wine”, he says. The jug’s design ensured that the bearers had to stoop in a deferential bow while serving kings.

As we watch a young apprentice potter demonstrate the making of the Hittite wine jug on a traditional kick-wheel, Ali explains the intriguing design. It is made up of four separate parts—the spout, base, handle and central ring—which each take a day to make, and then assembled. Once each piece is crafted on the wheel, it is baked for nine hours at 950°C.

“Traditionally, the men used to make the pots on the wheel, and women would paint them,” I’m told. Hand painting is a painstaking process that was tasked to women because of their delicate fingers, while operating the kick-wheel was considered hard physical labour, reserved for the men.

Today, as family traditions slowly fade, learning the art of pottery is no longer a necessity, but a choice. Gender-defined boundaries are also not applicable anymore.

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Ali Gençtürk, who specialises in crafting Hittite wine jugs, uses one of his favourite designs to demonstrate how wine was served to the Hittite kings. Photo by: Malavika Bhattacharya

In the basement workshop, I watch, fascinated, as men and women both adorn freshly baked pottery with fine handiwork. Vibrant reds from the clay, blue from cobalt, and green from nickel oxide feature prominently.

Both of Ali’s daughters, one aged just 6, know how to mould pots from red clay. He proudly pulls up a photo of them on his phone, along with several other pictures of intricate designs he’s crafted.

His patterns bear a distinctive style with fine lines and circles. When I ask him about it, he tells me that each family of potters has their own design, and it is an unwritten code that no master will imitate another family’s style. Similarly, each master specialises in a particular art form, like Ali concentrates on the Hittite wine jug, and will not infringe on another man’s craft. While newer generations can break away from pre-defined barriers, certain rules in the pottery world remain set in stone.

From the demonstration room, I wander through a series of arch-roofed display chambers, each packed to the rafters with fine handcrafted ceramics bearing motifs of fish, flowers, animals, and warriors. It’s like discovering Ali Baba’s cave of exotic treasures. The last room is reserved exclusively for the Hittite wine jug collection, where the shelves are piled with the exquisite ring jars and matching goblets. It truly is a treasure chest, where 4,000 years of art, craft, and history collide.

Essentials

There are direct flights from Delhi or Mumbai to Istanbul. Nevşehir, a province in Cappadocia, is a short flight away. From there, it’s a 30 minute-drive to reach Avanos town. The author took a Cappadocia tour provided by Argeus Travel; however there are several ceramic stores which offer demonstrations.

  • Malavika Bhattacharya is a freelance journalist who writes about travel, culture, and food. She travels for the outdoors: to dive deep in the Indian Ocean, crawl through caves in Meghalaya, and hike through the Norwegian fjords.

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