The Capital of the World

Thomas Bolger visits Istanbul’s Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet

“…you are asleep now in the white washed byzantine room, you are very alone.
One of the ancients is saying, “Don’t cry.”
“Tomorrow is your birthday. Tomorrow a new name will be given to you.””

– Lale Müldür 

The evening’s call to prayer hangs in the dying sunlight, coalescing with the sea salt breeze. Five times a day this wavering adhān crackles out of loudspeakers, guiding the city’s Muslims to one of the three thousand mosques in Turkey’s former capital. Despite my stony secularity, it’s difficult not to feel immediate reverence and calm as the deep, sombre Arabic ripples out from the surrounding minarets. For over three thousand years Istanbul has heard a litany of different hymns, having acted as both the main arm of the Romans to advance Christianity, and later, as the seat of the Ottoman Sunni Islamic Caliphate. Sat strategically between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, it is a palimpsest of faith, trade and architecture, the “constant beating of the wave of the East against the rock of the West”. Formerly known as Byzantium and Constantinople, its antiquity is palpable.

I am here on the invitation of Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet, a grand building situated in the Old City. Boasting five stars, sixty-one rooms and an authentic mix of Seljuk and Ottoman design, the hotel is named after a type of date that grows in al-Madinah and which some scholars trace back to a palm tree planted by the Prophet Muhammad. Great care is taken in every single finishing detail – thick Turkish coffee is served upon arrival, the ceilings are intricately hand-painted, and silk Tabriz carpets and contemporary Azerbaijani art line the walls. It finely strikes that often elusive balance for luxury hospitality, offering grandeur and comfort with minimal fuss. On a tour of the different rooms I am shown the most opulent – the appropriately named Sultan Suite – where from the seventh floor the Marmara Sea can be spied through arched windows. A nearby archipelago supplies the many marbles that adorn the room and mother of pearl appears to be the rule and not the exception for furniture. Electric teal İznik tiles make the bathroom glow and an intricately carved antique make-up desk is revealed to have secret compartments to hide money, I am told, from overbearing patriarchs.

A short, sloped stroll from the hotel lies its newly opened Verni Art Salon, a three-story gallery which displays a huge breadth of Turkic and Azerbaijani art and craft. Originally a shipping warehouse for galleys dating back to 1571, local firm Gülab Architecture have carefully restored and renovated the marine workshop, contrasting exposed brick with glass flooring. ‘Verni’ is the most widely spread and iconic type of flat weave carpet from Azerbaijan, recognisable for its repeated S or 5 pattern, symbolising both dragons and water. The Salon’s lower floor is completely dedicated to mountains of heaped, lustrous silk, tapestry and wool rugs, the latter being the largest collection in the whole of Istanbul. Since the 2nd millennium BC, weaving has been a staple of Azerbaijani craft, and previously, every young girl would learn from her mother or grandmother, the painstakingly executed piece forming a part of her marital dowry. Finished rugs would be laid out in front of the house so that passers-by could make the knots tighter from their repeated steps, weight flattening the labour of love.

The Salon houses everything from copper samovars, antique Damascene tables, camel blankets dyed with saffron, thrones inlaid with iridescent shells, contemporary abstract and landscape paintings, to work from Nahide Küçük (who gave her name to an entire period of traditional Turkish embroidery) – all purchasable for a pretty price, bar a centuries-old silk-sown symbol of the Ottoman empire, discovered by chance and deemed too valuable to sell. Before I leave, the gallery director hands me a framed marbling painting by her own hand, a rich swirl of blood orange and daffodil yellow that resembles plant cells and frothing waves. 

Part of the allure of the Old City is that much of it can be navigated quickly on foot. With a day to spare I visit the epitome of Byzantine architecture, the Hagia Sophia (microcosm of Istanbul’s religious and aesthetic conversion by conquest), the adjoining tombs for sultans (stray cats mewling for strokes next to coffins), the Blue Mosque (Qur’an calligraphy verses scrawled over the interior), Archaeological Museums (crammed with Anatolian, Sumerian and Greek statues and sarcophagi), the Topkapı Palace (former imperial headquarters of the Ottomans, decked with complex courtyards), the Grand Bazaar (clamouring labyrinth market selling everything and anything – I buy a sea sponge and saffron) and devour multiple street-trader-charcoal-charred-corn-on-the-cobs (along with Kunefe, a gout-inducing sweet baked cheese pastry). Back at the hotel, I am lucky enough to enjoy a revitalising hammam, a traditional Turkish bath. After a cycle of sauna and steam rooms, I lie down on a warm block of stone and am scrubbed so hard my skin sings.

Napoleon Bonaparte declared that “If the earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.” Few cities have such interesting and divergent historical eras layered atop one another like tempered steel, that are able to illustrate the sheer time scale of human endeavour through monument and artefact. It is impossible not to view my trip through rose-tinted glasses, holed up as I am at home, like the rest of the world. But when this has passed, I would recommend you pay Ajwa a visit, fill your lungs with purified Bosporus air and patiently watch the fishermen that line the Golden Horn. Eventually, the mu’azzin’s murmurings will return like clockwork and signal that life has returned.

AJWA Hotel Sultanahmet (www.ajwa.com.tr / +90 212 638 22 00) offers rooms from £197/219 EUR per night based on two people sharing a double room on a B&B basis

Molten Art: Nude Glassware

Port takes a tour around the factory of Turkish glassware brand Nude, which has set its sights beyond ordinary tableware, delving into architecture, interior design and accessories

“Blow and twist … That’s it … Blow and twist”. These are the instructions being proffered by a master glass blower at the manufacturing facility of Turkish glass specialist, Nude, who is showing me how the craftsmen here produce the brand’s contemporary glass products. My first effort at blowing my own glass quickly makes its way into the recycling bucket and, while I’m pleased that a second attempt is met with a slight nod of approval, let’s just say I’ll not be giving up the day job.

It takes Nude’s top craftsmen between six and eight years to master the skills required for some of the more complicated pieces produced at this factory in the city of Denizli, which employs around 400 people. For Nude, meeting the challenges posed by unusual designs such as the Jour pitcher by French designer Inga Sempé – which features solid-glass spheres that attach the curved handles to the vessel – is part of its objective to push the boundaries of what can be achieved with glass.

Nude was launched in 2014 as a sub-brand of Sisecam Group – one of the world’s largest manufacturers of flat glass, glassware and glass packaging, which also supplies glass products to premium brands around the world. The idea was to apply Sisecam’s knowledge and experience to a new company that would regain ownership of production and explore new directions for glass in addition to traditional stemware. “We felt we had the know-how within the company to achieve every possible way of working with glass, from blown glass to pressed glass, to scissor cuts and sand blasting,” explains Nude’s brand director, Yair Haidu, speaking in a meeting room next to the factory. “We had the expertise, so it was time to do something with it that belongs to us.”

During the first couple of years, Nude’s in-house design team focused on creating products that encapsulated its progressive approach and desire to move away from traditional tableware into lifestyle products such as vases, candleholders, ornaments and lighting. “We realised that people are spending less and less time at the table,” adds Haidu. “Rather than just making more products for the kitchen or the table, which is quite a saturated market, we wanted to delve into the worlds of architecture, interior design and accessories.” To achieve this bold objective, the brand initiated collaborations with some of the world’s leading designers, who were tasked with translating their personal vision into products that feel like they belong in the Nude family. Ron Arad, Nigel Coates and Joe Doucet were among the first to accept the challenge, while upcoming collaborations with Studio Formafantasma, Sebastian Herkner and Brad Ascalon demonstrate that the brand is keen to work with emerging talents as well as established names.

The ‘Chill’ tumblers and ‘Chill’ carafe

Following our tour of the factory, we are introduced to some of the key items from the company’s collections. Erdem Akan’s characterful Mr&Mrs night set is one of Nude’s top sellers thus far, and is representative of the brand’s playful approach. The curvaceous decanter is topped with a cup that functions as a stopper and features a sleeping face. At the opposite end of the scale in terms of sales potential, Arad’s Decantering is an elegant ring of glass forming a handle and vessel, interrupted only by a single opening that allows wine to be decanted smoothly. Each Decantering takes a full day to produce.

The ‘Jour’ water jug and ‘Jour’ short water glass

Some of the pieces created by the Nude Design Team are among my favourites, due to the intelligent use of glass to solve everyday problems. The Roots herb pot, for example, is a holder for orchids or other plants, which sit in a transparent glass pot and gradually absorb water from a lower chamber through a rope wick. The Chill collection, meanwhile, comprises a decanter with matching tumbler and bowl that rest on cooled marble bases to keep liquids cold without diluting them with ice. In addition to the groundbreaking homeware items, Nude also continues to produce high-quality stemware, such as the incredibly delicate Stem Zero range and the sophisticated Finesse range, with its intricate gridded decoration.

Visiting Nude’s headquarters and seeing the molten material being manipulated using techniques that have existed for centuries feels like stepping back in time to an era of industry and handcraft. One look at Nude’s products, however, leaves one in no doubt this is a brand with its sights set firmly on the future, and on making a meaningful impression on the homewares market. “We are at the beginning of our journey,” Haidu concludes. “It’s been three years of hard work but the feedback so far has been excellent, so we will continue to grow and evolve, both in terms of volume and maturity. There is much more to come.”

You can find the full range of Nude glassware here.