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Article - Photo: Ö. FARUK ÜRÜNDÜL
Izmir’s festive square
A square where roads converge and people meet, it’s spring all year round on the Kordon where an Aegean atmosphere and human joy and exuberance set the tone.
A bove me a humongous sky. Dazzling white sails ply the blue with wings of gulls. Beneath my feet the creak of the flooring on the deck. Not far ahead the mainsail mast, standing erect, face to the wind, eyes on the horizon. In my hair and on my face the sea-drunk west wind with the Aegean in its breast. My skin, my breath the sea. The blue taste of the salt water on my lips. But there is no captain here. Everyone is charting his own course, manning his own helm. I’m on Konak Square. In the heart of Izmir.
This deck on which I tread, the sails plying the sky, the barge mimicking the waves, are all part of a study of Konak Square done by painter and sculptor Bihrat Mavitan, an artist who has become one with this space, taking you into another dimension. This installation erected on landfill has its origin in a seaman’s past.
WHEN EARTH AND WATER MEET
In fact, this is the third time the area along the Kordon between Konak and Alsancak has been widened with landfill. First the bay began to fill up naturally with alluvion carried by the rivers that empty into it. When you consider that the peninsula, today’s ‘Tepekule’, where Izmir was originally founded, was at Bayraklı about two and a half kilometers from the shore, you get a better appreciation of the might of rivers, and of time. Captain Piri Reis drew in his 16th century Kitab-ı Bahriyye, or Book of the Sea, a map of today’s Alsancak as a peninsula and described the harbors on either side of it: “The inner harbor is one mile around. We entered with large ships and heavy barges. But when we went back later it had filled up. The large, heavy barges touched bottom on both sides. So they could not enter. If they went not in front of Izmir Castle but entered the sandy narrows they would approach carefully probing the depths and then anchor.” And sure enough both of these harbors have filled up today. Present-day Alsancak Harbor is at the tip of the peninsula on Piri Reis’s map, and is kept open to sea traffic by frequent dredging of the sea bottom.
The nautical features of Bihrat Mavitan’s ‘Konak Square’ installation occupy a space that was previously part of the sea and later a caulking house. Exactly like the commemorative stones erected over the caulking house and its labors, and over the boats, masts and sailboats that must be lost in endless sleep below the landfill. More than sadness however this installation stirs up feelings of the sea’s and the city’s exuberance. It is the exuberance of the Aegean in any case that becomes this city. Imagine a city that manages to surprise you every time you go there. A city that you see anew at every glance.
ALEXANDER THE GREAT’S DREAM
Izmir’s place in the imagination began with Alexander the Great. Founded first at Tepekule, for its second founding Izmir had to await the sleep into which Alexander the Great fell at Pagos (Kadifekale) in 334 B.C. when the city was founded for a second time on the slopes below Kadifekale at the suggestion of the two Nemesis figures that Alexander saw in a dream. Urban development gave shape to Konak Square in the 19th century, a development that is summed up by the public architecture on and around the square today. With a history dating back to the 4th century B.C., the Agora on the outskirts of Kadifekale is from the city’s first period. The present-day ruins belong more to the Roman era and especially to the period following Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who enabled the refounding of the city after the earthquake of 178 A.D. The monuments along the 15-minute walk from the Agora to Konak Square also bear witness to the city’s history.
MEETING POINT OF THREE RELIGIONS
Havra Street, once densely populated with Jews who were driven out of Europe and took refuge in the Ottoman Empire in 1492, offers a shortcut from the Agora to the Square. Located in this street are not only the Shalom and Algazi synagogues but also La Sinyora, which is an integral part of Kemeraltı market today. Further along the street are the city’s oldest mosque, the Hisar Mosque, which dates to 1597, as well as the Kestane Pazarı Mosque, Başdurak Mosque, Şadırvan Mosque, Kemeraltı Mosque, and the Salepçioğlu Mosque, dated 1906. At the end of these historic streets is Konak Square, exact location of the 18th century Yalı Mosque. Izmir’s oldest church, Saint Polycarp, built in 1625, and the 1667 Church of Saint Mary stand further to the east. On the road that runs from the area with the churches to Konak Square you can see the Ottoman Bank, the Bank of Agriculture, and the Stock Market building as well as Çatalkaya Khan, now Vakıflar Bank. On the seashore is the Konak Pier shopping mall, housed in the newly restored Old Port buildings. In the end all roads lead to the square with the Government House and the clock tower, which has become the quintessential symbol of Izmir. This tower, built by architect Raymond Pere to commemorate Sultan Abdülhamid II’s succession to the throne in 1901, is a popular meeting place for Izmir residents today.
PLEASURE ON THE KORDON
While vehicle traffic would normally be unwelcome at such a meeting place where all roads converge, you won’t encounter any major traffic congestion in Izmir, which differs in this respect from other cities in which modern life overlays the historic fabric. This stems in part from timely measures, in part from delayed industrialization, and in part from the fact that Izmir’s residents take things slowly. You might even think that Bertrand Russell penned his book, In Praise of Idleness, here. The city quells its longing for the sea through Konak Square and the seaside esplanade and installations. A festive air reigns eternal along the Kordon, a popular rendezvous for those who want to commune with the Aegean. And when you add in the hum of students on Saturdays and after school on weekdays, the heady springtime atmosphere is complete. The youthful voice of joy and exuberance is audible in the cafes, along garden walls and at every street corner. The bounteous blessings of the Aegean invite you to dine at tables laden with squid, samphire (Salicornia europaea), gilt-head bream grilled golden brown, and a myriad of Turkish ‘meze’ or starters. Pleasure on the Kordon is a passion with all Izmir residents, and with the sun, residents imbibing the pleasure of the Aegean at sunset as the sun bids them farewell before sinking below the horizon.