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ARTICLE: SANEM EYİGÜN & A. BURAK METİN PHOTO: EGE ZİLCİ
A manual skill with deep meaning
The patience of the masters who can make wood listen is reflected today in the examples of kündekâri that adorn the most beatiful buildings.
With super-human patience and geometric genius, the artist creates a masterpiece in wood using a technique known as ‘kündekâri’ or tongue-and-groove joining. Easily moved around until the right fit is found, the thousands of tiny geometric pieces of wood eventually come together to stand the test of time. And for this reason the making of a piece of kündekâri does not tolerate even the slightest mistake.
The art of woodworking was highly developed in regions such as Northern Europe, and the Near and Far East where wood production was intensive. Implemented uniquely by each culture, it attempted to enhance visual richness by adorning buildings with wooden decorations.
Islamic art, too, frequently employed wood both in architecture and in decoration. Although Sasanian and Hellenistic influences are evident in the earliest examples of Islamic woodworking, Islamic art in time invented its own unique style. Wooden decorations were widely employed alongside other materials such as stone, tiles, bricks and plaster using different techniques. In both religious and secular architecture, structural elements such as doors, window shutters and grilles, cabinet doors, columns and capitals, eaves, ceilings, beams, brackets, railings and banisters were used as surfaces for decorative woodcarving. And inside these buildings, both portable and fixed items such as mosque niches, pulpits, podiums, Kuran racks, drawers, chests, private enclosures for the sultan, pendentives, lecterns, stools, and turban stands were made of wood and their surfaces decorated with carving. A wide variety of woodworking techniques was employed in Islamic art, including carving, lattice work, inlay, painting on wood, turning on a lathe, and, last but not least, tongue-and-groove joining or ‘kündekâri'.
A THREE-DIMENSIONAL ART
Şehmus Okur, the kündekâri artist who continues to employ kündekâri in several mosques today, describes the technique and its origins as follows: “The word kündekâri came into Turkish from Persian; its original form is ‘kendekâri'. The first examples of this art began to appear in the Mamluk and early Seljuk periods. Kündekâri is a three-dimensional art. While there was only the art of wood carving in the beginning, in time geometric designs began to be incised on the surface of stone or wood to add depth. The designs were traced on blocks of wood from one species of tree and then placed side by side. Broad surfaces such as mosque pulpits, a stone wall, or panels made of wood were covered in designs created by this method. First traced and then incised on blocks of wood, the blocks tended to separate over time and deep cracks to develop between them. As a solution to the problem, the artists began to join wood of either the same or different trees by dovetailing without using either nails or glue, thereby creating very large surfaces. Kündekâri began to be employed throughout the Islamic lands in the periods of the Mamluks, Seljuks and Ottomans in the doors, pulpits, and podiums of its monumental works of architecture. For wood carving is an art that offers possibilities of the highest order.”
HOW IT’S DONE
Requiring great expertise, kündekâri is made by joining together tiny interlocking pieces of wood cut in the form of polygons or stars and decorated with ‘Rumi’ designs or palmettoes in relief. These pieces are then fitted together in an ornate geometric composition. Several different geometric shapes are used at once, including stars - to symbolize eternity - octagons, decagons and ‘baklava’ or lozenge shapes. In some examples, small plaques of various types of wood of different colors are placed among them to produce a composition that combines woodcarving with mother-of-pearl, tortoise shell and ivory inlay. Since the pieces are not joined using any adhesive substance, they do not separate with time. In some instances a ‘structural frame’, again made of wood, is added behind the joined pieces to enhance durability. The wood employed is that of trees that are not affected by heat and humidity under varying weather conditions, and the cracks and swelling that normally occur in wood over time are thereby prevented thanks to the air spaces left between the joined pieces. Keeping this in mind, woods such as walnut, boxwood, pear, cherry and mahogany are used for interiors, and ivory, teak, snakewood, wenge (African rosewood), balsam, mahogany, gold leaf, tortoise shell, silver, ivory, mother-of-pearl, rubies and emeralds for decoration. On the exterior, durable woods such as oak, mahogany, teak and ash, which are able to withstand harsh weather conditions, are used.
THE CHOICEST EXAMPLES
Appearing in the 12th century in Egypt, Aleppo and Anatolia, the kündekâri technique developed further in the time of the Turkish and Circassian Mamluks of Egypt. Highly refined workmanship employing inlays of fine strips of ivory and mother-of-pearl is striking particularly in these periods. And the kündekâri in the niches of the tombs of Seyyide Nefise and of Seyyide Rukiyye of Fatimid Cairo, on a chest in the tomb of İmam-ı Şafii, on the door of the tomb of Melik Salih Necmeddin Eyyub, and on the pulpit of the Ibn Tolun Mosque, all of Ayyubid Cairo, and on the pulpit of the Kayıtbay Mosque of Mamluk Cairo stand out as the choicest examples of the technique outside Anatolia. In Anatolia itself, the earliest example of kündekâri is the niche of the Alaaddin Mosque at Konya from the Seljuk period. Other matchless examples of kündekâri are found in the prayer niches of the Eşrefoğlu Mosque at Beyşehir, the Sungurbey Mosque at Niğde, the Taşkın Pasha Mosque at Ürgüp, the Great Mosque at Birgi, the Great Mosque of Manisa, the Great Mosque of Bursa, and the Zağanos Pasha Mosque at Balıkesir. Not only were tiny geometric pieces of interlocking wood joined together in the kündekâri techique, as if this were not enough, they were often minutely inscribed with chronograms as well.
Created with patience and a supreme degree of manual skill, kündekâri is thus an art with deep meaning.