Civilization In A Bottle

Planning to open Izmir’s first private Archaeological Museum in four old buildings currently undergoing restoration in the city’s Alsancak district, collector Yavuz Tatış is current caught up in a flurry of activity. Tatış shared his rare bottle collection for the first time with SkyLife. Let us take a closer look at these lovely artifacts.

The story of glass goes back 1500 years when this gift of nature associated with purity and aesthetic beauty first entered history by a serendipitous coincidence. Rumor has it that among the trading nations of the eastern Mediterranean, the Phoenicians once set their cooking pots on blocks of sodium carbonate (soda ash) when they were preparing food over a fire.  By morning when the fire had gone out, the natron in the blocks had fused with the sand, metamorphosing into glass. And the fragile, transparent substance that resulted has been part and parcel of human life ever since. Such is the story anyway. But archaeological finds actually date the discovery of glass to the civilizations of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia where examples of glass produced some 5,500 years ago have been uncovered in excavations. Making its appearance thousands of years ago, glass over the millennia has taken the form now of a perfume bottle, now of an oil lamp to illumine the darkness. Both as a container of envy-laced poison and a repository for disease-curing potions, the bottle soon became an object that signified its owner’s position in society.

The earliest examples of glass in recorded history are encountered in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin. Setting up trading colonies that managed to rule the seas and bring the Mediterranean to its knees, the Phoenicians also created extraordinary examples of the art of glass. The most classic examples of this Eastern Mediterranean glass, generally known as alabastron, is inspired by the myriad tones ranging from the blues of the Mediterranean’s waves to the greens, yellows and browns of nature. The itinerant merchants of the Eastern Mediterranean supplied the elite of the time with a dizzying array of essences, aromatic oils, sometimes even precious medicaments, in these bottles.

Among ancient societies, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods especially, glass was a vehicle for expressing love and grief. The loved ones left behind sent their dead on their eternal journey accompanied by tiny bottles in which they had saved their tears. Even if they did not necessarily exhibit the highest degree of workmanship, because of the spiritual significance with which they were imbued and the meaning of their contents, these tiny containers, known as lachrymatories or ‘tear bottles’, were an expression of the most heartfelt emotion glass could possibly take. Made in every shape and color imaginable, they are encountered frequently in museums today as the earliest surviving examples of the art of glass.

In the Greek and Roman art of the archaic, classical and Hellenistic periods, an approach is observed that is a far cry from the large-scale assembly line production of our day, reflecting instead the importance accorded to art and aesthetics in objects made for personal use. The most magnificent examples of the ancient art of glass are encountered in these periods. Objects produced in appealing colors by techniques such as blowing and casting in molds are an indication of the value and importance of glass in ancient societies. From vessels in the shape of a bird to oil and essence bottles shaped like dates to plates, bowls and mugs with handles, glass was an inseparable part of life in antiquity as it is today. The mastery exhibited in many of the examples of glass produced in ancient times is so advanced as to astonish experts even today. It is possible to see a rainbow of colors ranging from black to azure, and from white to green and various shades of blue in the choice examples that have managed to survive to our day. Glass masters in this period also arrived at techniques for applying yellow gold gilt to a glass surface and then glazing it again with transparent glass. The casting and blowing techniques were sometimes used in concert. Meanwhile bottles exhibiting portraits or wrapped with a trail of delicate glass threading are further details that enhance the value of glass objects from this period.

Again in the same period, glass also became a substance used in the field of medicine. The wise physicians of antiquity used specially made glass vessels for curing muscle aches and pains in particular. This practice is still known today among the people of Anatolian as ‘bardak çekme’ or ‘cupping’.

The expansion of Islam into Anatolia, Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean Basin where it underwent a synthesis with the local cultures brought in its wake an Islamic concept of art. The progress that took place in such fundamental fields of knowledge as architecture, medicine, astronomy, mathematics and chemistry gave rise to an Islamic art of glass that would make its impact felt within a very short time. Starting with the Syria-based Umayyads and continuing with the Baghdad-based Abbasids, the Islamic glass tradition reached its zenith in the periods of the Fatimids, the Ayyubids, the Mamluks and the Seljuks. In the period of the Fatimids and Ayyubids in particular, the use of glass became so widespread that a coin made of glass, know as the ‘sence’, was even minted. Failing to catch on among the populace however the practice was soon abandoned. Meanwhile glass drachmas were used in place of coins as weights on sensitive scales.

The evolution of glass is almost contemporaneous with the development of civilization itself. This pure gift of nature, which is not destroyed even if it is broken and shattered, is also part and parcel of life today. Melted down and reproduced, an environmentally friendly non-pollutant of nature that preserves the substance stored inside it for years without spoilage, this unique substance continues to exist side by side with us in the form of everything from canning jars and tea glasses to crystal chandeliers and medicine bottles. The water glass from which we drink and the crystal pendants that dangle from our chandelier perhaps bear traces of glass from thousands of years ago.