BASTION OF CHARM
Kybele Hotel, one block from Hagia Sophia in Sultanahmet at 35 Yerebatan Caddesi, next door to the Yoruk Collection. Far below in the shadowy Basilica Cistern is the giant upside-down stone Medusa. Moss greens her face like uplighting. Up here in the street, all is brilliant color: Kybele is painted turquoise and gold, pink and purple. It’s designed to make your eyes happy.
Why write about a hotel? And why have I drawn it so much? Because it matters to me. But then it matters to a lot of people. It’s their porthole on Istanbul. From Japan to San Francisco, from Moscow to Paris to New York, diverse, eclectic and interesting people all find a home in Kybele. From this spot, in the center of the oldest part of one of the oldest cities on earth, you can see the whole world.
Charm isn’t something you can manufacture. It has to evolve. It comes about when every single thing in a place matters to someone. Kybele is probably the most photographed hotel in Istanbul, with a wall of rave reviews culled from hundreds. In a district fraught with amusing taste, theirs is impeccable. People work here for years. The maids are important. The waiters are important. The managers and the chauffeur and the chefs are important. And they all treat you like you’re important.
Kybele’s sixteen rooms are always full. People come back year after year. Architects, archeologists, artists all congregate among the antiques in the lobby. Its creators, brothers Mike, Alpaslan and Hasan Akbayrak, form a perfect blend of art, logic and mysticism that carries over into the decor and general feeling of the place. When they sold it last July 1, shock waves went through the international community. Like many others, my first reaction was to think I would die of sadness. Yet everyone was still sitting out front playing backgammon like always. A cloudy summer day, with a hot breath of storm.
So I sat there in shock and drew Mike and his sons, kids I watched grow up. These faces cheered me right up.
I was there so long that I got to meet the new owners. We should have known that, like everything else in its history, Kybele would attract the best.
Far from an ending, the sale is a continuation and expansion. The brothers Akbayrak and their legendary carpet and jewelry business are still next door, at Yoruk Collection. The staff is unchanged. And there are these interesting new faces at the hotel helm. We all love this place, and so I’m celebrating its people and spirit here. In these perilous times, we need every little island of peace and beauty we can get.
THE POWER OF THE GODDESS
Kybele. A name that conjures up a dancing procession with cymbals and bells. She’s the ancient powerful Anatolian Mother Goddess of Asia Minor, inspiring temples, sacrifices, orgiastic worship. Aspects of her later incarnated into Artemis and then into the Virgin Mary. Images of the goddess abound on the Internet, but in all her many forms, Kybele is female power. Ruler of hearth and home, she arrives in a chariot pulled by lions, accompanied by wild music, by wine, by smiles.
There have always been powerful women around Kybele. For starters there are Susie, Gamza and Kazumi, who married Mike, Alp and Hasan.
Their mothers and friends come in and out from Germany and Turkey and Japan. Their kids grew up independent and interesting, and there have always been fabulous guests. So naturally two of the three new owners are power women as well. Here’s Nur Katre. I haven’t heard her music yet, I haven’t read her writing. I’m betting it’s good.
Nur’s parents, Gözde and Ismail Birer, seemed nice enough, except I couldn’t talk to them. That damned language thing. A pal, Elizabeth, was at Kybele, she spends her summers resurrecting and reconstructing wooden furniture from the Court of King Midas, circa 740 BCE, found in tumuli near Ankara, and stays on her way in and out each year. Kybele sold, I said. Nobody had told her. I was sitting with Gözde and we were trying to converse without much luck. But Elizabeth is fluent in Turkish, and she began to translate. Half an hour later we were gasping for air, laughing up in the garden. A newspaperwoman, politically awake, very funny. Ismail as it turns out is an expert in antique textiles, very dry, aesthetically adept. All thoughts of our precious place going to boring strangers had fled. What a relief!
It’s mostly women who make the textiles sold at Yoruk Collection and for that matter everywhere: women weave the carpets and embroider the suzanis, women tie the tassels and bead the hats. Tribal art represents years of the lives of women. They love women at Kybele, and we know it.
The Akbayrak brothers were selling carpets and textiles in Sultanahmet when there were only four stores. Back then, the Sultanahmet was shabby and dusty, but the trees, innocent of municipal pruning, were huge and healthy, and the antiquities were appropriately blackened with age. You had to beg someone to help you find a carpet salesman. Mike, Hasan and Alpaslan Akbayrak opened the Yoruk Collection on Yerebatan Caddesi, just down the street from the Basilica Cistern. They were wildly successful. Japanese collectors found them. American diplomats found them. They bought two splintering Victorian wooden houses next door, gutted and rebuilt them, painted them vivid colors and filled them with antiques, in order to give their carpet customers a nice place to stay. Kybele Hotel opened in 1992. It has seldom had an empty room or a dull day since.
Among the earliest tribal textile dealers, Kybele and Yoruk Collection set the tone for Sultanahmet, championing handwoven textiles like ikat, hand-embroidered suzanis, gorgeous stuff now collected all over the world. The textiles at Yoruk Collection are mind-boggling. And some of the jewelry is that stuff you’ve seen in the movies: The Other Boleyn Girl and others.
FINDING MY WAY HOME I stumbled into Kybele ahead of my luggage one morning in September of 1999, angry, discouraged and sad. I was in Turkey to draw, but of course I had fallen in love, and it was not going well.
A big earthquake in August had scared tourists, and Sultanahmet was empty. A contact at the Turkish Tourist Office in Washington had put me in touch with a travel agency, after I explained my plan to draw in Turkey for three months and put the stuff up on my website. There wasn’t any money for projects like mine, but the agency contacted hotel owners. I paid for my own trip, but they asked hotels to contribute housing. Kybele was the first one.
An all-night fight with my boyfriend had left me numb. Still I noticed lamps hanging from the ceiling like fantastic fruit. The bearded hippie on the desk wore an embroidered cap and invited me to breakfast. I followed the glowing lamps through the lobby. My mood lightened with every step. The place looked like the love child of Oscar Wilde and Isadora Duncan.
A small girl with a huge white hair-bow burst into the breakfast room yelling GunAYdin! Good MORNing! The hippie was Mike, the little girl was Hasan’s daughter Selin, and I was home. My troubles skittered away like spiders in the sun. I should worry, I had friends.
I have been drawing Kybele Hotel ever since. Through besotted love and manic joy, catastrophic illness and recovery, career change and homesickness, through TV interviews and groups of those fascinated as I am, by the layers here of culture and time, through the long, slow, joyous attempt to understand this place, Turkey, at the center of the world, the hotel has always been there and I have kept drawing it. I should worry, I have friends.
Apo, Kybele’s excellent chef. We all learned his name in a hurry.
Once I complimented Kybele’s Driver, Adnan, here on his cheery demeanor, which takes some doing when you’re driving all the time in Istanbul traffic. This is a town where taxi drivers can be psycho. “It’s just my face,” he told me, “I am 24 hours smiling.”
Dursun is unobtrusive, but wherever he goes, it’s clean, and you have whatever you need. I missed drawing Emir, but he made up for it with this smile.
Kybele’s thousands of lamps used to be kept in order by an old man who crawled around in the ceilings, wiring everything so that they could be turned on in batches. He eventually went to the Big Light In The Sky, to be replaced by Huseyin, shown in the Kybele garden.
The night man is and always has been Elvis.
His real name is Taner, and he works very long shifts. Many jet-lagged conversations have I had with Elvis down in the lobby at 4AM. Once I got all the way to the airport without my passport and called, frantic. Elvis located the passport and sent it by taxi to the airport, telling the driver enough so that he could find the total stranger with zero Turkish, the one bouncing up and down with anxiety, and I made my plane. Here’s Baby Elvis in 1999.
Vefa’s brother, Hasan, started at Kybele when he got out of the Army in 2001. Now he’s all grown up and married and a Daddy and everything. He grew up here: poignant memories of Hasan heroically carrying all of the suitcases, backpacks, shoulder bags and purses of an entire party of pretty girls up Kybele’s steep stairs all by himself in ONE trip, earning many oohs and aahs.
I drew him with the tiny abandoned kitten he and Serdar found in Kybele and kept alive until they could foist her off on me. I still have her, fat and demanding, but cute.
Serdar started at Kybele when he was seventeen. A tall rangy kid, always with the latest wild hairstyle. He learned English a lot better and faster than I’ve learned Turkish, and he applies it daily now at his swell job in Canada. Here’s Serdar in 2004.
And here he is at his wedding in 2011.
Storm would talk your ear off. He was a good worker. His problem was that he had too big a brain. It was full of thoughts that slopped over continuously in floods of talk. Storm picked up English overnight. He sharpened his thoughts talking to the Kybele customers as he worked. He was entertaining as all hell.
There wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity for him, but a visiting philanthropist from Arizona noticed the brain (with a nudge from Alp) and sent him to school in America. Such things don’t happen very often. Storm worked his butt off at school and aced the courses and got scholarships. He works in Silicon Valley now. He came for a visit awhile back. He said the weirdest thing about being where he is is that everybody is very very smart.
Şükrü, shown here with Apo, a man of many affectionate nicknames: “Jay Leno,” and “Sugar” being a few. Şükrü’s son Serkan started at the hotel very young. When still a teenager he could deal with anything. He could talk down a fight, eject a drunk without a scene and still bring you your cappuccino before it got cold. Today, after the Army and some odd jobs, he’s back at Yoruk Collection. Here he is with his new wife, looking positively merged. She’s a talented graphic designer, so fast on a Mac that her nickname is “Speedy Gonzales.”
Sultanahmet is full of little boys who work: carrying tea trays, shining shoes, selling roses. Most of them are Eastern Turks, working to help the family. Alpaslan told me one day that they had hired dozens of these boys, but that they’d all flaked out after awhile. All except one. Erkan started with Kybele when he was 13. He learned English and Japanese and exquisite social skills, grew up and got married and has a lovely family and is the manager over at Yoruk Collection. Here he is in 2009:
GUESTS AND FRIENDS
There are no elevators, and there are no televisions in the jewel-box rooms. Nobody seems to miss them.
Upstairs in the Garden is the Turkish House, a highly ornamental structure of carved painted wood that houses the multi-lingual Kybele library. The Turkish House is built like traditional old country houses: a row of cabineted rooms. Once there were some Peace Corps volunteers staying there, en route from Romania. Over breakfast in the elegant garden, one of the girls described going in and out of her flooded apartment building in the dark with two flashlights tied to her hips, wading through floating things she didn’t want to identify.
Between dangerous assignments in Iraq in the early 2000s, a photographer caught his breath at Kybele. He was fascinated with the pair of doves nesting in the Garden amid Mike’s collection of empty bird cages, and I did this drawing for him. I wish I had some of the photographs he took of them. He described taking pictures of Saddam Hussein’s palace after that bird had flown.
Raymond and Ajata were madly in love and expecting their first child. She was eating everything in sight. They went back to Paris and I never saw them again. Here they are on the verge, forever happy.
Lynn from Kentucky took up textile dealing at seventy.
Marta from Moscow is a frequent and welcome visitor, along with her growing family.
Mr Pete drives a Harley and always brings T-shirts for the staff. Below, Mother Mary was so called because she and Mike figured she was old enough to be his mother. When we lost Mother Mary, there was a large wake at Kybele. This picture was passed out with the mourners. Mother Mary’s husband Father Bob remarried, and the entire family comes year after year.
Jeannie and her partner Rhonda had the most beautiful hair anyone had ever seen. Big blonde, sleek black. They brought belly-dance tours over from Canada, stayed at Kybele, dancing like a couple of goddesses. Everybody fell in love with them and stayed that way.
Japanese architects have for decades been stabilizing the Byzantine architecture of Hagia Sophia. Legendary Turkish architect Mimar Sinan buttressed it in the Renaissance, and now it’s the Japanese helping it stay vertical. They send all their architectural students there to study. That’s them out walking on the roof, and that’s a clutch of them over there in the Kybele lobby under the lamps. One day I’ll have to draw them.
Half the staff speaks Japanese, not to mention Hasan and Kazumi and Selin.
The Akbayrak kids are all multilingual, and a League of Nations they are. Selin, the little girl with the big white bow, grew up so smart it is scary. I sat next to her at the computer one night a few years ago. She was chatting online in Japanese, watching a video of a teenaged girl band in Tokyo singing in English, conversing in Turkish on one side and commenting in English to me on the other. It’ll be fun to see what she does with her life.
Alp and Gamza’s daughter is studying fashion design in New York. I used to call her Brown Sugar because of her hair. Zeynep drove everybody crazy, she had so much energy. Whatever she does in life will probably involve numbers.
Mike and Susie’s daughter Yonca married Mlado from Serbia.
New Year’s Eve a few years ago, they expected their first child. Over in the corner were Susie’s mother from Germany, Kazumi’s mother from Japan, and Mike’s mother, Turkish. Waiting for Mlado’s mother to arrive from Serbia, all gabbled away in their three languages in perfect communication. Maya, shown here at one month, is the proud owner of Maya’s Corner, that purple and pink kebab place between Kybele Hotel and Yoruk Collection. Now four, she bustles in importantly. Yes, this is my shop, she says.
Long ago I made a couple of books of pictures I’d drawn of the place. These sat on the piano for years, gradually falling to pieces as scores of jet-lagged people leafed through them. People still find the books near the piano and since I jammed a new card in the back, I get emails. I send them here, to the blog.
It’s only two months since Gözde and Ismail and Nur bought the place but it seems they have always been there. I shared Iftar with them there, they like it so much. Vefa and Chetin are still on desk. Everyone else is where they ought to be. The family is still next door, at the Yoruk Collection. They left my books on the piano. The Eternal Backgammon Tournament continues. That seems to be the way it will be. So I upgraded the copy on my commemorative Kybele drawing in the new book in the nick of time before it went to press. Here it is, and it looks to stay this happy.
Weeks ago, I went over to Kybele to draw the lobby for this blog.
I worked for hours. As waves of nostalgia surged up and threatened to drown me I couldn’t help noticing that the framed picture at left is hung exactly in the center of the wallpaper design. Not a trick missed!! Then Gözde came over and we had a cappuccino. My Turkish is improving, and so is her English. As always, I found it difficult to leave. I have always enjoyed the company of the Goddess.
All drawings Plein Air by Trici Venola. Drawing On Istanbul 2 is now at the printer’s: stay tuned. Original art is for sale from the Drawing On Istanbul Series: send me a message via this blog if you are interested. Prints are available at the DrawingOnIstanbul Store at ETSY.com. We love your comments.