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Text: ÖMER ALP HATİPAĞAOĞLU Photos: PINAR GEDİKÖZER
Pure as the driven snow
According to legend, it was first discovered by a mole and later became known as meerschaum or 'sea-foam'. Extracted from the earth and expertly processed, it became a favorite stone for tobacco pipes.
With a history going back more than ten thousand years, Eskişehir lies on fertile soil watered by the Sakarya (Sangarius) and Porsuk (Tembris) rivers. A model of urban planning in today's Turkey, the city at the same time is engaged in an all-out effort to restore meerschaum, one of the world's most valuable minerals for pipes and decorative objects, to the place it deserves.
In the hills to the south of the city the district of Odunpazarı, which has been taken under protection as an historic urban site, attracts meerschaum enthusiasts with its winding roads and cul-de-sacs and its elaborately decorated wooden houses with their cantilevered balconies redolent of traditional Anatolian architecture.
As a result of the restoration and urban renewal projects being carried out in stages, historic Atlıhan, once abandoned and awaiting destruction, is witnessing a transformation of imagination and skill into sculpted white foam in its workshops overlooking a courtyard.
SEA-FOAM OR MEERSCHAUM?
Eskişehir has been steeped in dreams of meerschaum for five millennia. The term 'taloy köfigi ('deniz köpüğü' or sea-foam), as it comes down to us from Uighur Turkish, was translated literally into many languages becoming widespread in its German form, 'Meerschaum'. In the world of science meanwhile it is known as 'sepiolite', taking its inspiration again from the sea for its resemblance to the porous bones of the sepio or cuttlefish. The Turkish name 'lületaşı' is encountered starting from around 1600 when the Ottomans made the acquaintance of tobacco. Lightweight, highly absorptive and easily carved, it began to be used for early tobacco pipes, soon replacing the traditional clay pipes known as 'çubuk'. As this valuable stone, which seems to trap light inside it, won fame as the best material in the world for pipes, it became synonymous with the 'lüle' under the name 'lületaşı', literally 'pipe stone'.
A SOFT MINERAL
Meerschaum behaves in a natural way reminiscent of a living organism. Scientifically, it is an alkaline mineral, a magnesium hydrosilicate compound whose loosely bound crystals have a microscopic spongy texture. Found in nodules large and small in various strata of the earth, meerschaum is soft and moist when extracted due to the zeolithic waters and chemical reactions that permit its formation, and is therefore easily carved into delicate shapes. Dried either immediately or after processing, it becomes lighter to the extent that it loses moisture as well as resistant to physical impact, while simultaneously acquiring a high absorption capacity for gases and liquids. When immersed in water, dried meerschaum quickly recovers its natural softness.
PLEASURE OF THE JANISSARIES
The history of meerschaum processing in Turkey goes back hundreds of years and is similar to the touching stories of the processing of most of the underground minerals we have today. Although the Janissaries failed to achieve their aim at the siege of Vienna in 1683, thanks to the meerschaum pipes they smoked in their spare time they unwittingly gave rise to a large-scale meerschaum pipe sector. Within a short time, unworked meerschaum was being exported at full capacity to meet the rising demand. A number of workshops were set up to to clean, polish, classify and package the mineral for export. The scale of the European demand for the rough stone ensured the development of a 'Meerschaum Road' that would operate for three hundred years starting from Eskişehir and passing through Iznik, Sofia, Belgrade, and Budapest all the way to Vienna.
THE JOURNEY OF MEERSCHAUM
Every piece of meerschaum taken up by a meerschaum artist tells a different story. Although it surrenders readily to the master's hand, all the labor expended on this lump of 'white gold' can be in vain if the knife is not used with restraint. The secret of success lies in being trained by an expert. Apart from pipes, meerschaum also exhibits its refined beauty in chess sets, busts, reliefs, bracelets, necklaces, earrings and other accessories. Artists hone their decorating skills on meerschaum using close to fifty different knives and other tools, all fashioned originally for this purpose. To avoid wastage when carving the stone, a model is chosen that is most suitable for its natural shape and type. After being shaped, meerschaum is dried for a long time in indirect heat and then carefully sanded to perfection to reveal even the tiniest flaw. Dipped in heated, whitened candle wax and polished, meerschaum objects absorb the hot wax before being rubbed and buffed to a high sheen, until finally, with an alluring play of light and shadow on their surface like that of fine ivory, they are ready to find their place in life.
MEERSCHAUM PRODUCTION IN THE WORLD
Turkey exports a minimum of around a million to a million and a half dollars' worth of meerschaum annually to several countries, among them the U.S., Austria, Holland, Belgium and Germany. Apart from Turkey, meerschaum and similar minerals are also produced in Greece, Spain, Russia, France, Morocco, the U.S., Madagascar and Kenya. But the world's highest quality sepiolite in terms of whiteness, lightness and yield is that in Eskişehir, and it is therefore the ‘Eskişehir stone’ that is meant when the term meerschaum or sea-foam is mentioned. The geological fault lines that run through Eskişehir and the thermal springs to which they give rise are believed to enhance the quality of the stone in this region. Meerschaum is extracted from depths of up to 380 meters in various areas around the city including Nemli, Yakaboyu and Karatepe.
THE LEGEND OF MEERSCHAUM AND THE SHEPHERD
There is a legend surrounding meerschaum which is as famous as its pipes. It is said that a mole first discovered this rare stone in his burrows under the earth. One day a young shepherd went to a village in the Karatepe area. Feeling tired, he sat down and took out his provisions and began to eat. At that very moment he saw a mole digging up some white stones from a hole in the earth. Picking one of them up, the shepherd started to carve it with his pocketknife. At the first touch of the knife, the stone was transformed into a beautiful maiden as fair as the moon. She began to speak, saying, “Oh, son of man, how do you have the heart to cut me with a knife?”, before disappearing in anger back down the mole hole. Spellbound, the young shepherd plunged after her into the hole. Days passed but the shepherd was never heard from again. Eventually the villagers found him in a narrow well seven layers under the ground with the white stones clutched tightly in his hand. Ever since that day the villagers have seen in every piece of meerschaum gleams of the passion that led that young shepherd to his death. And processors of meerschaum acknowledge the mole that extracted the sea-foam from seven layers below the surface of the earth as their spiritual guide and the father of their art.