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A HANDFUL OF SEA FOAM:MEERSCHAUM
2001 /MARCH
Meerschaum is a word meaning sea foam, deriving from the vernacular Turkish term for this distinctive mineral, which is a form of magnesium hydrosilicate. The term sea foam reflects the fact that this creamy white porous stone floats for a while on water until it becomes saturated. The meerschaum carvers of Eskisehir, a province southeast of Istanbul, lend marvellous shapes to this seemingly insubstantial stone, which is also described as white gold.
The story of meerschaum begins in the ground, where it is reached by means of mine shafts and laboriously dug out. At this st age the nuggets of meerschaum are shapeless muddy lumps, bearing no resemblance to the beautiful white substance with which most of us are familiar. Deposits of meerschaum are found elsewhere in Turkey and in other countries around the world, but that mined in Eskisehir, at the villages of Sepetci, Margy, Celikli, Sosutcuk, Kozlubel, Ymsehir, Gunduzler, Gokceoglu, Turkmentokat and Ba?oren, is the finest quality of all.
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A HANDFUL OF SEA FOAM:MEERSCHAUM
2001 /MARCH
The meerschaum may occur close to the surface or at depths of up to 300 metres or more. Vertical shafts between one and a half and two metres in diameter are dug, and horizontal galleries are excavated leading off the shaft. The fact that the meerschaum is found in scattered lumps, means that a great deal of earth must be moved in order to extract the mineral. The miners work by the light of carbide lamps in narrow galleries with barely room to swing their pickaxes.
Historical evidence for the mining of meerschaum goes back three centuries, but legend far further. It is related that one summer's day a shepherd was seated beneath a tree carving a piece of wood, when he noticed a mole pushing a white stone out of its tunnel. The shepherd reached out to pick up the spherical stone, and the mole fled back underground. After studying the stone for a while the shepherd began to chip it with his knife, but as the blade made the first incision, he heard a voice cry out in anguish, 'O, son of man, how could you do that to me!'
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A HANDFUL OF SEA FOAM:MEERSCHAUM
2001 /MARCH
The astonished shepherd threw the stone down, and as it hit the ground, it turned for an instant into a beautiful girl. Then it crumbled and formed once more into a sphere and rolled back into the mole's tunnel. The shepherd began to dig down, seeking the nymph of the stone. Days passed and eventually the villagers sent out a search party, which found him dead at the bottom of a narrow shaft leading deep into the ground. He was clasping a piece of meerschaum in his hand. From that day on the villagers associated meershcaum with the ill-fated love of the shepherd.
For the meerschaum carvers this legend is more than a quaint tale. They regard the mole who brought the first piece of the mineral out of the depths of the earth as the patron saint of their craft. When the creamy coloured meerschaum is damp it is as soft as soap, and it is this quality which makes it so suited to the manufacture of pipes and cigarette holders, because it absorbs nicotine with the same facility as it does water.
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A HANDFUL OF SEA FOAM:MEERSCHAUM
2001 /MARCH

Similarly, the soft texture in this state allows it to be intricately carved into belt buckles, prayer beads, necklaces, earrings and many other decorative objects. Among the most popular pipe figures carved by the meerschaum craftsmen are the heads of sultans with imposing turbans and curly beards.

Until the 1970s large quantities of Turkish meerschaum were exported in the raw state, particularly to Austria, where it was made into pipes by Viennese craftsmen and sold all over Europe. In 1978 the export of raw meerschaum was prohibited so as to expand the craft of meerschaum carving in Eski?ehir. Bahaeddin Guney, governor of Eski?ehir between 1989 and 1993, made a major contribution to the meerschaum sector by initiating the International Meerschaum White Gold Festival, which includes a conference attended by experts in the field.

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A HANDFUL OF SEA FOAM:MEERSCHAUM
2001 /MARCH

When dry, meerschaum becomes extremely hard and durable. As the craftsmen give shape to the stone in their skilled hands, using tools which they make themselves, they perhaps aspire to create the visionary beauty of the meerschaum nymph for whom the shepherd lost his life. And their exquisite works of art inspire us to dream.

 

Ahmet Korkmaz is a photographer.

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