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Once an Istanbul Soup Kitchen, Now One of the World’s Most Beautiful Libraries

The Daily Beast logo The Daily Beast 7/12/2020 Jennifer Hattam
a large building with a clock in the middle of a room © Provided by The Daily Beast

“Look, what beautiful stables!” library director Salih Şahin says with a laugh, the sweep of his hand taking in a scene with nary a trace of hay or manure. Instead of stamping, whinnying steeds, the airy, light-filled chamber is lined with long, gleaming-white study desks. The smooth stone walls and pillars of this grand reading room support a series of graceful arches and ceiling domes that almost float overhead, delicately painted with intricate floral and geometric designs.

It’s hard to find any building in Istanbul that doesn’t have a past life or three, and the early 16th-century structures of the Beyazıt State Library and Manuscript Library—the latest selection for The Daily Beast’s monthly series, The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries—are no exception. Initially serving as the soup kitchen, caravanserai, and stables of the Beyazıt Mosque in the city’s historic center, they were converted into Turkey’s first state library in 1884, later fell into disrepair, and were revived in 2016 with a much-lauded architectural restoration that uncovered additional layers along the way.

When members of the Istanbul-based firm Tabanlıoğlu Architects first visited the library site in 2006 after being commissioned to do the restoration, however, the most visible layers in the old section were of dust, decay, and disarray.

“After 1934, a copy of every printed material published in Turkey—every magazine, every pamphlet—started being sent to the library, so there were just stacks and stacks of stuff,” says Hande Pusat, design director for Tabanlıoğlu. “Then an earthquake in 1999 left cracks in some of the domes, but the work to repair them was never finished so there were all these scaffoldings inside too. It was quite sad to see the building like this.”

After this initial assessment, Pusat explains, the team saw its challenge as twofold: to create a safe, modern storage environment for the library’s rarest and most fragile books—some dating back more than a millennium—while also preserving and highlighting the building’s original architecture and its broader historic connections.

The area around the library and its namesake mosque, now known as Beyazıt Square, “has been one of the focal points of the city for more than fifteen centuries,” Hilary Sumner-Boyd and John Freely wrote in their classic 1972 guide Strolling Through Istanbul. It was the largest public square in the Byzantine-era city, known as the Forum of Theodosius—after the fourth-century Roman emperor whose triumphal arch now lies in pieces across a busy road, marked only by a small sign. The Sahaflar Çarşışı (Secondhand Booksellers’ Bazaar) next to the library entrance is noted by Sumner-Boyd and Freely as being “one of the most ancient markets in the city, occupying the site of the Chartoprateia, the book and paper market” for the Byzantine residents of what was then called Constantinople.

After Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, their eighth sultan, Bayezid II, constructed the Beyazıt Mosque complex, among the grandest of its era when completed in 1506. The “Beyazidiye,” as it was known, included a madrassa, a primary school, a hamam (Turkish bath), and several tombs in addition to the imaret (soup kitchen), caravanserai, and stables. Architecturally, Sumner-Boyd and Freely wrote, it “marks the beginning of the great [Ottoman] classical period which continued for more than two hundred years… [remaining] the first extant example of what the great imperial mosques of the sixteenth and seventeenth century were to be like.”

Parts of the complex were allocated for the establishment of Turkey’s first state library in 1884 under Sultan Abdülhamid II, who is said to have opened up his personal coffers to ensure that work moved along speedily. A skilled carpenter, the sultan even built some of the furniture for the library with his own hands, including a towering dark-wood book cabinet that still stands at one end of the library’s exhibition room.

“Books were brought here from 500 different libraries—including small personal libraries belonging to state bureaucrats, palace officials, madrassa teachers, and mosques,” says Şahin, who has been the director of the Beyazıt Manuscript Library since 2013. (Administration of the state library, which is now housed in a newer building next door, and the rare books collection were split into two separate institutions that year. The grand reading room, mostly used by students, belongs to the state library but access is shared by visitors to both institutions.) 

“Some of these collections only had 50 books, but that was a rich library in the era before the printing press, because it took so much work to create a handwritten book,” Şahin says. Though the printing press was not widely adopted in the Ottoman Empire until the 19th century, its artisans were wildly talented in calligraphy, leather binding, and other paper arts. The handwritten volumes that have found their way into the Manuscript Library over the years include an Arabic language and grammar book called the Kitabü'l-Me'sur that dates to 893, making it the oldest book in the collection, along with a Quran decorated with gold leaf, and another one written on gazelle hide.

a glass with a blue light in a room: EmreDorter © Provided by The Daily Beast EmreDorter

Asked to talk about a few particularly unique or valuable manuscripts in the library, Şahin demurs: “All of our books are special to us.” But he pulls up digitized images of one he suggests his American guest might find interesting: a geography and cosmology volume called History of the West Indies. Written around 1580, the Kitab-ı İklim-i Cedid (Tarih-i Hind-i Garbi) covered what was then known (or imagined) about the Americas, including a recognizable world map. Its pages are lavishly decorated with tezhip sanatı (illumination, or gilding), each with a different design around its borders.

The Manuscript Library’s collection continues to grow through donation and purchase of rare books, thanks in part to an “alphabet revolution” that transformed Turkey’s language and literature shortly after the country was declared a republic in 1923. While Ottoman Turkish had been written in a Perso-Arabic script, the modern alphabet introduced in 1928 was Latin-based. Subsequent reforms stripped the language of Arabic- and Persian-origin loanwords, replacing them with “true” Turkish words, and eventually creating a generational gap in understanding.

“Many of our donations come from families in which there are no longer any members who can read the books that belonged to their older relatives,” Şahin says.

The Manuscript Library’s collection currently totals around 50,000 volumes. Each of its approximately 13,000 handwritten books, and many of its 37,000 printed ones, have been digitized, and the researchers who utilize the facility primarily encounter them in that form. But when Tabanlıoğlu Architects began planning the library’s restoration, they knew they didn’t want to have the originals locked up and out of sight.

“These books aren’t important just for what they document, they’re pieces of art too,” says Pusat. At the same time, she adds, having books all around the walls obscured the architecture and history of the building. “You couldn’t see or feel the space.”

The solution they hit upon is a striking one: imposing black glass cubes dropped into the faithfully restored Ottoman chambers like visitors from the future, each with high-tech climate and temperature controls to protect the rare volumes stored within.

a large brick building with a book shelf: Emre Dorter © Provided by The Daily Beast Emre Dorter

“The project’s approach to conservation, how it integrated new elements in deep contrast with the existing ones, was a bold move that works very well,” says Farrokh Derakhshani, director of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, which shortlisted the Beyazıt Library project in its 2017-2019 award cycle. “They used a very old concept, that of the hazine, or treasury, and translated that into these cubes to keep treasures, that you can easily walk around. Without this innovation, these valuable books would have been stored away in one room and inaccessible.”

Two of the cubes sit inside a domed room that once served as the imaret’s bakery. In one wall, the blackened stones inside an arched alcove reveal its former life as a bread oven—in use up until the early 1880s. A small stairway set into the wall next to the oven leads to an upstairs “hamurhane” where dough was made by hand. 

“The transparent cubes create a dialogue, a visual interaction with the space,” says Gonca Arık Çalışkan, a research associate at Tabanlıoğlu Architects. “First you see this new architectural intervention; then behind the glass, things even older than the building itself—the manuscripts, some of which go back to the ninth century—and then the original structure reflected in the glass.”

A still older layer can be found just outside the former bakery room, whose back door leads onto a small courtyard. Below visitors’ feet and visible through protective glass lie en situ remains of a Byzantine basilica, thought to date back to the late fifth or early sixth century, and rediscovered during the restoration work.

The visual dialogue between past and present, the lovingly restored historic texture and the clearly delineated contemporary additions, is evident throughout the library, an equilibrium achieved as much through subtraction as addition. 

a large stone statue in front of a building: Emre Dorter © Provided by The Daily Beast Emre Dorter

Visitors enter the library through a serene, minimalist courtyard, used as a place to sit and relax both by the poor Ottoman subjects who came to the imaret to be fed, and by today’s researchers. On one wall hangs a yangın çanı, or fire bell, used to raise the alarm to a nearby fire-watch tower in the event of a blaze. In the center, a small pool topped by an intricate maquette of a mosque fills the room with the soft burbling of water. An earlier renovation had seen the courtyard covered with a harsh concrete umbrella, its mushroom-like stem dominating the space. Tabanlıoğlu removed this structural imposition and replaced it with a transparent inflatable membrane that echoes the domes of adjacent rooms while capturing the feel of the old imaret courtyard, which was open to the air.

“The restoration shows that old structures have the capacity to be adapted to very new uses, that they are capable of being reimagined and don’t have to be demolished and rebuilt,” says Derakhshani. That kind of reimagining is true both to the overall history of Istanbul, a city built layer by layer, and to the library’s immediate surroundings.

When the imaret was active, ashes from its wood-fired ovens would be dumped outside the courtyard, in an open area alongside the mosque and the entrance to the Sahaflar Çarşışı, which had by the late 19th century become a hub for booksellers once again. (It remains so today, though the volumes on sale are mostly new textbooks and other reference materials.) After the imaret closed to make way for the library in 1884, this “küllük” – literally, “place for ashes” or “ashtray” – area was cleaned up. An open-air coffeehouse called the Küllük Kahvesi established there sometime in the early 20th century drew professors and students from the next-door university as well as other members of the city’s literary and intellectual set. Now-famous Turkish writers including Yahya Kemal, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, Sait Faik Abasıyanık, and Orhan Veli were among those who frequented the coffeehouse; one regular, Abidin Dino, even published a literary magazine (Küllük) named after it in 1940.

“The library is just one part of a historic island of culture. In those years, there was no social media, no cell phones, so people talked to each other, and for that they needed a gathering point,” says Şahin. “The Küllük Kahvesi was like a second university, one with more freedom, where there were no limits on what could be discussed.”

The coffeehouse was torn down as part of a remodeling of Beyazıt Square in the 1950s. A plan by Tabanlıoğlu to create a new public café there as part of the restoration project was nixed by city officials, though the architects hope the idea may yet be revived, adding another chapter to the area’s long and ongoing story.

“With the restoration project, a part of history has come to life again,” says Şahin. “This building has been serving the public of Istanbul for 515 years—sometimes filling people’s stomachs, sometimes their minds.”

Jennifer Hattam is an Istanbul-based journalist writing about environmental, social, and urban issues, as well as arts and culture, for publications including CityLab, Deutsche Welle, Discover, Hyperallergic, Metropolis, Runner’s World, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @TheTurkishLife or Instagram @jenniferhattam.

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