Islamic art and the mosques of Istanbul

Istanbul was my first introduction to Islam and the world of Islamic art. The most obvious sign of being in an Islamic culture was the call to pray five times a day. Initially this was quite a culture shock, particularly at 5.30am. But it soon became a familiar punctuation point in the day and, when in an area where we were surrounded by mosques, a thrilling and beautiful sound.

The main mosques in Istanbul are of course popular with tourists, but we were struck by how calm and peaceful even the Blue Mosque was inside and how reverently the mosques are treated. They are living buildings, with people constantly coming and going, dropping in to pray as part of their day, as naturally as they might go and do their shopping. Removing shoes at the door and walking on beautifully patterned carpets certainly contributes to the creation of this calm atmosphere.

But perhaps the most overwhelming aspect of the mosques is the extraordinary beauty of the decoration. Islam forbids the depiction of the human form and so Islamic art focuses on geometric designs, designs based on natural forms such as plants and flowers and quotations from the Quran in elaborate Arabic calligraphy. The combination of the peacefulness of the mosques and the richness of the decor is unique.

Here are some examples of Islamic art from the mosque interiors:

Mosque doors are often very old and made of wood with beautiful carved panels on them. This is usually not evident when you go in because they are frequently obscured by a leather cover to protect them from the elements. The mosque attendants are usually happy to let you look underneath to admire the decoration.

Probably one of the most distinctive features of Islamic religious art are the tiles used to decorate the interiors of the mosques. These often use floral patterns, particularly in arabesquse (repeating designs of interlacing or scrolling floral and foliage patterns) in distinctive colours, particularly deep blues and rich reds. Many of the finest tiles in the mosques of Istanbul were made at Iznik (Nicaea) – a major centre of porcelain and tile manufacture from the seventeenth century onwards.

Looking at these tiles close up I was reminded of the floral patterns on William Morris wallpaper and wonder whether he was actually influenced by Ottoman designs. Clearly Ottoman design in turn is influenced by Chinese vegetal and floral design that came into this part of Europe from the sixteenth century onwards.

Here is the cemetery to the side of the Little Aya Sofia. The original church on this site was built as a smallscale model of the main Haghia Sofia in Byzantine times, but converted into a mosque at the fall of Byzantium.

Cemetery at Little Aya Sofia

One essential element of worship in Islam is the preparatory ritual ablutions required

Worshippers gathered inside the New Mosque for Friday prayers:

In preparation for Friday prayer a mosque official puts out carpets in the courtyard for the faithful:

Domes of the Blue Mosque

The interior of the domes though are among my favourite decorated items in the mosques. Added to the peaceful atmosphere and the soft light filtering through stained glass windows, the richness of the colours and variety of the repeating patterns on the domes and walls have an almost hypnotic and calming effect.

Interior view of the Blue Mosque

Dome in the Blue Mosque

Arches in the Blue Mosque

Dome in the Blue Mosque

Domes in the Blue Mosque

Domes in the Blue Mosque

Dome in the Blue Mosque

I was impressed in one mosque how even the underside of a balcony was richly decorated;

Arch, balcony and dome

Domes of the Blue Mosque

Du côté de chez Proust – a literary pilgrimage

Today is the ninetieth anniversary of Proust’s death and I would like to mark the occasion with this post on a visit I made to Illiers-Combray back in 1971 (coincidentally the centenary of Proust’s birth).

Chartres sits on the great flat plain of la Beauce and the cathedral with its two towers can be seen from miles away, crouching like a solitary cat with huge ears. I spent some time exploring this wonderful, Gothic cathedral and at that time there was a great English guide there called Malcolm Miller who had spent several years studying the building. He led a really mind-opening tour of the cathedral for a small group of English speakers. Though I recall no details of that tour now, I do recall its impact: the realisation that architecture can convey ideas and an overall purpose and that buildings can  be ‘read’ to discover their meaning, in a similar way to literary texts. Malcolm Miller was superb on the stained glass windows of Chartres and how all the parts of the cathedral worked together to deliver a consistent visual message, essential in a society where literacy was the preserve of the wealthy or learned.

Not long before that visit to France I had read the Combray section of Du côté de chez Swann, the first volume of Proust’s vast novel A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (ALRTP) and was aware that there was a connection between Proust and this part of la France profonde. For some fifteen miles south-west of Chartres lies the small town of Illiers, where Proust spent childhood holidays with his family and which was one of the main models for Combray in the novel.

[I was living in northern France at the time, working as a surveillant in a private Catholic college in a small town in Picardy, and stayed for a while with a doctor and his family called Perdu. One day out in the street, the doctor’s wife stopped me and asked if I had seen her youngest son Antoine. To which I replied: ‘Ah, Madame, vous êtes à la recherche d’Antoine Perdu!’ She didn’t seem to get the joke. In hindsight she was probably more concerned to find her young son than laugh politely at a foreigner’s lame humour.]

So, on a Sunday, just out of curiosity to see what the place looked like and without doing any research on whether there was anything worth seeing and if there were whether it would even be open, I caught the train from Chartres out to Illiers. I was surprised to discover on arrival that the town name, as displayed on the station platform, had changed to ‘Illiers-Combray’. It turned out that this change only came about in 1971 in commemoration of the centenary of Proust’s birth.

Illiers-Combray was a rather characterless small town on the banks of the river Loir, consisting of undistinguished houses in grey stone around a small central square on which stands the church of St. Jacques. The church name is a reminder that the town stands on the old pilgrim route of St James of Compostella.

Illiers is where Proust’s father was born and where his uncle and aunt, Jules and Elisabeth Amiot, lived. From an early age Proust’s parents brought him and his brother Robert out to Illiers at Easter and during the summer holidays to stay. The Combray of the novel is a composite of Illiers and Auteuil (just outside Paris) where his maternal grandparents lived, just as the characters are composites of lots of different people that Proust actually knew.

However it is from Illiers and the surrounding area that Proust drew many names that appear in the novel. For example: Tansonville (the name of Swann’s estate); Méséglise (estate of the Duc de Guermantes, adapted from Méréglise); La Raspelière (house of the Verdurins near Balbec from La Rachepelière); Saint Loup (name of one of the narrator’s aristocratic friends); Montjouvain (home of the composer Vinteuil and his daughter, adapted from Montjouvin); Saint Hilaire (the name of the church in Combray, taken from the Rue Saint-Hilaire in Illiers); Mirougrain (farm owned by the narrator’s Tante Léonie); and Combray itself (adapted from the village of Combres).

Everything was closed up in the town that Sunday afternoon; the streets were empty and completely silent. Wondering off the main square to explore the side streets I came across what was described as La Maison de Tante Léonie (the house where Proust’s Amiot uncle and aunt lived) in the Rue du Saint Esprit and amazingly it was open. When a small group of people had gathered (there couldn’t have been more than 6 or 8 of us) we were given a guided tour of the house: the dining room; the kitchen ruled over by the family servant, Ernestine (one of the originals of Françoise in the novel); aunt Elisabeth’s bedroom; the room where Proust slept; the small garden itself.

We were then led out of the garden, through the town and across the river Loir by a footbridge to a small park or pleasure-garden built by uncle Jules that he called the Pré Catalan (after a famous enclosure in the Bois de Boulogne).  Uncle Jules laid it out with lawns, dwarf palms, gravel paths, geranium beds, a small lake (more accurately a pond) with swans and carp, and an octagonal, red brick summer-house that he called La Maison des Archers. A small brook, still too wide to jump across, ran from the pond into the nearby Loir. Here Marcel and his brother Robert came to play and fish in the pond, and Marcel read on the divan in the summer-house. When I visited it, the pond was silted up and the pleasure-garden overgrown, so it was difficult to see how it would have looked in Proust’s childhood.

Back at the house, we were shown into a garage (built after Proust’s time), fitted out with old red plush cinema seat, where we were addressed by our guide about the town and its connection with Proust and his novel. The guide’s name was M. Pierre Larcher, an old man, in his eighties at least, with rheumy eyes. From his clothes he looked as if he had stepped straight out of the late nineteenth century. He was wearing a white shirt with a tie of the sort called in French a bande lavallière (a large, floppy, stringy bow tie fashionable amongst artists and intellectuals of the fin de siècle) a black velvet jacket with piping round the lapel edges and a black fedora. M Larcher had been born in Illiers-Combray and was president of the Société des amis de Marcel Proust.

As we filed out of the garage into the garden again for one last inhalation of Proustian atmosphere, I went up to M Larcher and asked him whether he had ever met Proust. “No”, he said, “but I used to see him in the street when he came to stay.”

I still can’t work out how old M Larcher was. Proust was born in 1871 and stopped coming on holiday to Illiers when he was about 13, as his father thought the river and the countryside were bad for his son’s asthma. He came back on a few rare occasions in later life, but not for any length of time. To be conscious of who he was looking at, when he saw Proust in the street, M Larcher must have had to be born by the late 1870s at the latest. That would have made him somewhere in his mid-nineties at the time I met him.

The temptation to identify places and people in real life with their fictional counterparts is often overwhelming. This is particularly the case with Proust whose novel frequently tends to be read as a thinly disguised autobiography. However, I am sure this something he would have strongly resisted. In a critical essay entitled Contre Sainte-Beuve, Proust attacked the biographical approach to understanding a writer’s work.

Nevertheless that visit to Illiers-Combray has always stayed with me and gave me an understanding of the background to the novel that I could not have got any other way when, 2-3 years later, I came to read ALRTP itself.

Baking sourdough in the Pyrenees

It’s 7.30am and I’m pouring with sweat as I knead 6 kilos of dough. Alongside, my diminutive tutor, Martine, is working a huge 20 kilo batch without breaking sweat. Her kneading technique is interesting and extremely hard to imitate: it consists of pushing her thumbs deep into the dough and then rolling it back towards her in a continuous movement. We are in a stone outhouse with its old wood burning oven in the tiny hamlet of Fréchendets, hidden away in the green, fertile area of Les Baronnies near the Pyrenees.

As a keen amateur baker who has been making sourdough at home for 12 years or so and done practical courses on it in England,  I wanted to learn how it should be done from an artisan baker in France. Many French boulangeries, even those that describe themselves as artisanal, now buy in frozen dough to cook on the premises. So it’s getting harder to find the real deal.

In the small, slightly rundown spa town of Capvern-les-Bains where we are staying, I had come across a leaflet in the Office du Tourisme on local food producers  which referred to her course: “Toccacieli, Martine – fabrication stage du pain de levain”.

I was intrigued, so we sought her out. The area is lush and wooded, crossed with streams and dotted with little hamlets hidden away along narrow, twisty roads by the folds in the hills and valleys. Unsurprisingly dairy farming is very big in this corner of France.

Fréchendets, we discover is in two parts: a single track road that comes to a dead end at the start of a dirt track, and which we then have to reverse back up; and a loose collection of houses scattered on the surrounding wooded hills. The Toccacieli smalholding is really difficult to find, but eventually we manage to stumble upon it. It consists of two stone buildings: one is their own house which includes two guest rooms for visitors (they run a small B&B); and an old stone outhouse. To the front of the house they have a large patch of land where they grow vegetables, and behind it fields.

Martine runs through what her day course covers: making sourdough from scratch, maintaining the leaven starter, the process of long fermentation and kneading, bulk proving, shaping and the final proof, then baking in a wood fired oven which they have restored. I’m hooked and sign up for the following day, her main weekly baking day.

So, even though we’re on holiday, the next day we’re up at 6.00am to get to Martine’s house in plenty of time for our start.

Martine doesn’t speak English and there’s no one else on the course so my knowledge of French baking vocabulary develops quickly as I am able to ask her lots of questions about her techniques and methods of baking. Here’s her refreshed leaven:

Geting stuck into mixing the 20kg:

Leaving the bread to bulk prove, we move across the courtyard into their renovated traditional kitchen. Over a wonderful breakfast of orange juice, coffee, their own bread (of course) and a selection of home-made jams, Martine and her husband, Franco, tell us how they came to this remote part of France.

“I was a textile salesman”, said Franco, “and my patch was the whole of the south of France. We had a house in the Lot region with 10 hectares of land, horses and a swimming pool. But all the travelling was too much. So we decided to downsize, move to this area and run our own smallholding.” Martine, born in Cherbourg, had been a primary school teacher.

The farm they bought was in a very bad state of repair and was owned by an old man who was no longer able to farm the land. There was electricity and water, but they had to do everything else themselves to restore it. The buildings date from the late eighteenth century and they first they had to dig out the straw and dung that had accumulated inside before they could even start any restoration work. In one of the old outhouses they discovered an old bread oven. Franco restored it for Martine when she showed an interest in breadbaking after some friends had shown her how to make ‘pain au levain’ (sourdough bread).

This is the old style of bread made in France (and of course elsewhere) before the ubiquitous baguette took over. We tend to forget that the baguette (along with the croissant) was only introduced into France in the 1890s by an Austrian baker. Baguettes made with yeast have faster proving times and can therefore be churned out in industrial quantities, in shorter timescales and at greater profit. For a country that has such a wonderful cuisine and a refined appreciation of food, the continued dominance of the baguette, not to mention the tasteless Granny Smith apple, is a great puzzle.

On the smallholding they keep goats, chickens, pigs, rabbits, bees, and a couple of donkeys (Vanille & Caramel). Though they have a long working day, 7.00am – 9.00pm every day, they enjoy the hard work.

Back to work after breakfast, we weigh out the dough, shape it into boules and place in proving baskets (normally described as bannetons, but which she calls paniers) to retain its shape on the final proof.

For the second proof she put the shaped boules into a homemade proofing cabinet regulated by a thermostat that keeps the temperature at a steady 25 degrees.

To make it easier to sell her bread she has set up a subscription club: the members pay a set amount each week and order the loaf of their choice from a fixed list – white, white with rye or seeded (sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, linseed and poppy). Today she has to make and deliver 26 loaves for her members.

Martine uses all organic ingredients. She buys her flour (mainly white and rye) from an organic grower/miller who lives about 100kms away. The salt is granulated sea salt.

We fire the oven at midday (with wood from oaks and chestnuts Martine has gathered from local forests). Later in the afternoon when the oven has reached about 210o we rake out the hot cinders into a metal box and scrape the floor of the oven with a wet rage to clean it down before putting the loaves in. She sprinkles her peel with wheat germ before tipping the boules on it from their baskets and slashing them with a razor blade (held between her teeth when not in use!).

We bake the loaves for about an hour and the smell of bread baking in a wood-fired oven is irresistible. The finished loaves are put on racked shelves to cool off (ours retained its heat for a good two hours after we left) before she deliver them that evening.

Martine checking her own homemade goat’s cheese:

It has been a really enjoyable day in good company that has given me an insight into how  traditional artisan sourdough bread is made in France and a rare opportunity to bake in a wood-fired oven.