In Van, a fight to preserve Armenian silversmithing tradition
Locals protect a centuries-old artistic legacy rooted in the city's Armenian population.
By Firat Baran for SES Türkiye in Van -- 25/01/13
Artisans in Van are working to sustain the tradition of Niello, a style of silver jewlery-making that is facing extinction.
Silversmith Sadullah Ozmen runs the only Niello style workshop in Van. [Firat Baran/SES Türkiye]
Many types of jewelery are made in Niello style, including bracelets, earrings, hair bands, and belts. [Firat Baran/SES Türkiye]
The craft was once highly popular in Van. Jewelry made there was sold across Turkey and in Europe, despite being considerably more expensive due to the city's reputation for quality. Most of the artisans were Armenian.
But by the time Sadullah Ozmen opened his El-Van Niello Silver Workshop in 2006, all of the 150 Niello studios that once operated in the city had shuttered. Now, Ozmen sees himself as struggling to rescue the craft from oblivion.
"Everyone should support this art form, which is indigenous to Van. It's a richness of Mesopotamia and Anatolia, and we must restore it to its former strength," he told SES Türkiye.
"We're still the only Niello workshop in Van. I opened it with a partner. After the October 2011 earthquake, our workshop was stuck under rubble. My partner gave it up, but I pressed on, so I'm the only one left."
Each artist has his own approach to Niello, which is considered a demanding craft. The designs are drawn on paper or directly chiseled into silver. Later, metal pens are used to scratch hair-thin cracks into the silver.
A mixture of copper, silver, lead and sulphur is then brought together in powder form or watered with borax and turned into a muddy substance. This material is then spread over the holes and designs in the silver before being held over fire. The end result is the art.
Many types of jewelery are made in Niello style, including bracelets, earrings, hair bands, and belts. In past eras, palaces, caravanserais, and rich peoples' houses were decorated with the products.
Today's Niello products still bear motifs developed by the Armenian artisans who traditionally dominated the sector. Indeed, Ozmen learned the trade from Armenian Niello silversmith Satilmis Goze.
"If there wasn't an Armeian-origin master, the art would have died by now," Ozmen said.
Ozmen lamented that neither the public nor political leaders have done enough to preserve Van's cultural heritage.
"During election campaigns, some parliamentary candidates have told us they'll establish a market where we can sell silver products, but they don't keep their word," he told SES Türkiye. "We were going to export to Germany, and we even received orders from there. But we were unable to in the end, thanks to political interests and a failure to keep promises."
Tamar Citak, an Armenian resident of Van, told SES Türkiye the decline of Niello is an affront to his culture.
"We can't freely practice our cultures or beliefs in Van or anywhere else in Turkey. Niello silversmithing is faced with destruction today because it's an Armenian art," Citak said. "Like other peoples, Armenians left behind many artistic artifacts, but none of them are discussed nowadays. These sorts of cultures must be a source of richness for a country."
Selahattin Aktas, press director of the Van Governorate's public relations department, told SES Türkiye that supporting Niello is outside the purview of public administration.
"There's nothing the Van Governorate can do for the silversmithing sector in the province because it belongs to the private sector," he said.
Ozmen said it's up to the public to preserve the tradition in the face of neglect.
"We don't want to discriminate between people here. We just want to preserve an historic art form. We shouldn't be blocked," he told SES Türkiye. "Art and politics shouldn't be mixed up. People complain that there's no art in Van. Well, let's embrace this one together."
A number of young people have heeded Ozmen's call. Fatma Keles, one of the eight young apprentices working in his studio, said she's learning the craft out of respect for Armenian and Kurdish culture.
"We need to work to save this art. Young people should learn it and keep it alive. Let's pass it on to future generations," she told SES Türkiye.
Zehra Ozturk, a university student working with Ozmen, expressed similar ideas.
"If this has survived from the Urartu period until now, we must also preserve it for future generations. It's really sad that there's only one workshop left in Van when there used to be [more]," she told SES Türkiye. "People of the region and Armenians living in the area and Europe must defend this."
But it's not clear how far the apprentices can take their careers, given the lack of job opportunities available.
Hulya Acar, who studied Niello silversmithing at Van Girls High School, told SES Türkiye she's had trouble finding employment.
"Hundreds of students graduate from the department, but they have no chance to work. Opportunities must be created for us, the state should support the sector again," she said. "Why is it on the verge of extinction when there were hundreds of workshops in the past? Women especially must embrace this profession more."
Aktas said the provincial governorate isn't involved in any efforts to create employment opportunities for the young artisans.
"We don't have any special programs for the students who graduate from trade schools. We have no project to give them employment," he told SES Türkiye.