Kucuk Ayasofya: Drawing With the Masters


Spot KucukAyasofya ©2012 Trici Venola
Spot KucukAyasofya ©2012 Trici Venola

In its Ottoman incarnation, our Byzantine basilica of Saints Sergius and Bacchus became Kucuk Ayasofya Camii, which means Small Hagia Sophia Mosque. Built in 527 and converted to a mosque in 1509, it remains a beloved local landmark. Renovation has rendered it all shipshape, but the charm of its Medrese is unchanged: a grassy garden studded with broken antique marble enclosed on three sides by stone workshops topped by leaded domes. Originally a religious school, its actual name is Huseyin Aga Medrese, after its builder, Chief Black Eunuch of Sultan Beyazit II, who also built the portico in front and converted the basilica to a mosque in 1503.

Huseyin Aga Medrese 2 ©2012 Trici Venola

The original old medrese masters wore turbans and cited the Koran. Now they are master artisans registered with the Turkish government. Huseyin Aga Medrese is a center for Turkish Master Craftsmen.

Miniatures at Huseyin Aga Medrese.©2012 Trici Venola

In My Name Is Red, novelist Orhan Pamuk describes Ottoman painters of miniatures running the artworks from workshop to workshop, where one artist would paint the woman, another the horse, another the trees. Each had attained such mastery that they could paint in the dark, and the reward for a lifetime of hard work was going blind. As can happen, exquisite results can come from ghastly suffering. Pamuk tells a story of a Sultan who commanded a great master to paint his cumulative work and then had him blinded, so he could never surpass it. The master then had his revenge. Sightless and sick of living, he created the greatest work of the age from memory for someone else, and then killed himself. Pamuk was likely writing in part about this actual location.

Miniatures 2 at Huseyin Aga Medrese 2.©2012 Trici Venola

Noah's Ark Miniature ©2012 by Trici VenolaIn happier echoes of the horrors of yore, these beautifully-rendered copies of antique miniatures are often painted on the backs of hand-lettered book pages. Here’s a Noah’s Ark, often seen, for after the Flood, it’s supposed to have fetched up on Mt. Ararat, in Eastern Turkey. Two painters occupy adjacent workshops in one corner of the Medrese. Under the leaded domes, masters of calligraphy, ebru 634TVatDoor(marbelized paper), block print, and shell inlay all occupy the small stone chambers with those low-slung doorways, which come to my forehead.  I can’t count the times I’ve whacked into a lintel in this garden. Is it because people used to be smaller? Nope, those old religious leaders built to encourage humility. If you didn’t bow to the Master when you came in the door, you were bashed in the head. And now, at least at Huseyin Aga Medrese, artists are getting their due respect.


Ahmet Sezen Framing His Cat

Ahmet Sezen and his wife Ebru were just kids back in 2004, newly engaged, with a jewelry workshop in the last building next to the mosque. Ahmet was already rising fast in the world as a master of shell and silver inlay. Later they moved into my building. We were bonded by our mutual love of cats. I used to feed ’em up on my roof. It started with a pair I called Peachy and Danny, after those rogues in The Man Who Would Be King. Then Peachy turned up pregnant, and soon I was feeding thirty cats, up on the corrugated plastic roof of the balcony. Here’s one dimly seen above the view of the snow and the scaffolding around the mosque.

Cat on Roof ©2012 Trici Venola
Cat on Roof ©2005 Trici Venola

In 2006 friends found a two-day-old kitten. Its tail was half as long as my little finger. Its paws were little rat claws, eyes squeezed shut over a flat little snout. I named it Pete and kept it alive all night, and in the morning took the little starving thing downstairs to Ahmet and Ebru’s, where their cat Arife had some kittens. And when she accepted the frantic newcomer, we could hear those ferocious feeding sounds clear out on the street.

Just Married! 72 ©2007 Trici Venola
Just Married! ©2007 Trici Venola

CloseUp of Mirror Frame by Ahmet SezenYears passed. Pete grew up and had to be re-named Esmeralda, and boy, is she fat and cranky now. Ahmet and Ebru got married and had a son. And Ahmet became a recognized, registered Turkish Master of shell inlay, and was able to move into the beautiful and prestigious Huseyin Aga Medrese. A few years back, he was exhibiting at a festival in Taksim Square when someone from the Greek Orthodox Church found him, and now he is building reliquaries for saints as well as jewelry, furniture and keepsakes.

Display of Work by Ahmet Sezen

You can visit Ahmet <www.sedefkar.com> in the Medrese and find all sorts of goodies, prices  basement to spire, depending on scarcity of material, amount of labor, and size of project. Here he is at work. It’s very cold now, and Arife will stealthily steal onto your lap and settle in, purring. If you look carefully, you can see that she has sneaked into this drawing.

Ahmet & Arife At Work 72 ©2012 Trici Venola
Ahmet & Arife At Work 72 ©2012 Trici Venola


Down in the corner of the garden where the ducks hang out, next door to Ahmet, is Block Print Master Tahsin Istengel <.tahsinmeister@yahoo.com>

Tahsin With Block by Gabrielle Reeves

Tahsin at WorkMost of his prints are from his own drawings, but here he is with a block cut from one by our Gabrielle just before she left. All day long he wields blocks of wood or styrofoam or rubber, armed with an exacto knife. Tahsin makes the most amazing patterns, singly or in combinations on bolts of cloth. In drawing him, trying to combine master, method and results, I found myself drawing the print. The temptation was too much, and I stamped with the actual block, inked in red:

Block Print King WIP 1 ©2012 Trici Venola

I noticed that his prints incorporate shapes from the environment. The drawing’s nice, but I had to go and render it. Which is better? Ask the ducks!

Block Print King 72 ©2012 Trici Venola
Block Print King ©2012 Trici Venola

I haven’t yet drawn anything for Tahsin,  but I guarantee it will involve a duck. Here’s a grand slam display: a photo of one of Ahmet’s reliquaries and bolts of Tahsin’s hand-stamped cloth.

Display of Ahmet and Tahsin's Work


In Byzantine times, there was a street leading from the Great Palace down to the Church of Sergio & Bacchus. In Ottoman times the street ran from Sultanahmet Mosque down to Kucuk Ayasofya. Here’s a drawing of it from 1850. See the street?

Constantinople 1850 CU

Today Kucuk Ayasofya Caddesi runs from the Marmara side of the Arasta Bazaar, behind the Blue Mosque, down to Kucuk Ayasofya. I started this drawing up at the top of the street in 2004. You can see the fabulous old mosque down at the bottom, against the silver sea.

Kucuk Ayasofya 2004 72
Kucuk Ayasofya 2004 ©2004 Trici Venola


Guys in the Neighborhood 72 ©2008 Trici Venola
Guys in the Neighborhood ©2008 Trici Venola

With renovation came a swell park where once there was a row of factory buildings. The neighborhood artisans got a big shot in the arm, a shot called Tourism. Textile repair shops became cafes, my house became a hotel. I moved down the street, and now relentless hotelization has moved me across the Golden Horn.  But I still feel that Kucuk Ayasofya’s my ‘hood. I go there all the time. I love it.

Sultanahmet West.Corner 72 ©2008 Trici Venola
Sultanahmet West.Corner ©2008 Trici Venola

One of the girls next door told me that Kadirga, the name of this neighborhood, means a man swaggering along with big dignitas. She told me this as a bunch of big-bellied bureaucrats were parading toward Kucuk Ayasofya. The tot above, lugging the big water bottle, is a happier version of this. I called him Little Big Man, and he is indeed growing big and strong. The huge old ruined hamam below is near the entrance to the mosque. Early on, too poor to eat out, I sat in a doorway and drew this scene as though I had my face pressed to the window of Turkey.

Chesme at Night 72 ©2004 Trici Venola
Chesme at Night ©2004 Trici Venola

A short time later I did the drawing below from the same spot, and by then we were friends.

All Down the Day at Chesme 72 ©2004 Trici Venola
All Down the Day at Chesme ©2004 Trici Venola

I started this drawing in September 2004, in bright noon, left it, and didn’t finish it until the dark of a day in November, so the light and season changes as you move down the page, hence the title: All Down the Day At Chesme. Things like these keep me working Plein Air. Chesme means Fountain, and there’s a fountain put up by a sultan who wanted everyone to have fresh water. It still works.

Ali's Fruit Stand 72 ©2008 Trici Venola
Ali's Fruit Stand ©2008 Trici Venola

Ali was the greengrocer next to Chesme Restaurant at the Fountain. He was a landmark. I lived on soups made from Ali’s produce, which was, like all Turkish food back then, totally organic and very cheap. Ali’s retired now, but Chesme restaurant remains the best value in the neighborhood. Oh the happy times there.

Lovely Little Girls 72 ©2008 Trici Venola
Lovely Little Girls ©2008 Trici Venola

These little girls are growing up now, but on Saturdays they used to come to play at my house, where I would tie many ribbons in their hair. My framer, Baki, is around the corner, in a cavernous building between a teahouse and a calligrapher. Five personable brothers still run Pekar Market, open early until late. And across the street is Ayhan Kesap Butcher Shop, with Ayhan, the most cheerful butcher in the world, and his equally cheerful wife Ayla.

The Butcher and His Wife 72 ©2011 Trici Venola
The Butcher and His Wife ©2011 Trici Venola

The cats still congregate at his kindly front door. Ayhan inspired this sticker. I’m putting it out at 300 DPI. Feel free to print your own!

CCCool Cat Award ©2011Trici Venola

CCEn Baba Kedi ©2012 Trici Venola

My life in Kadirga, in those early days of little money and no language, was fraught with inconvenience bordering on catastrophe. But I was doing the right thing and I knew it. This from a letter in spring of 2005: There’s a blood moon tonight, red as a tomato. Saw the beginning, shrouded in thick cobweb cloud, and the end. Saw one in Spain, from a train crossing the plain (I am not kidding) and one in from a hospital window in Southern Turkey. Both times were also during excruciating changes in my life. The blood moon: mystic, impossible, inarguable, reminding me that the world is rolling on in its mysteries despite my little human calamities; remote, alien and comforting.


All drawings Plein Air. All art ©2012 Trici Venola.


  1. Emine Turay

    Dear Trici, I still proudly keep the drawing of Cesme on my wall. Reminds me the days we used to chat for hours.

    Love you,

  2. Roxanne Rogers

    Trici! Your Blog is gorgeous! More! When do I see you??

    1. tricivenola

      High praise Rox! Soon I hope, see Facebook!

  3. Gina Shropshire

    Trici – Istanbul comes alive for me in your amazing drawings and stories. Thank you!!

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