The Spice of Faith: Georgian Life in Istanbul

Published 25.09.2017 20:08
Updated 27.09.2017 14:27
The Spice of Faith: Georgian Life in Istanbul

Georgians in Istanbul have a history that predates Turkish Constantinople. They continue to establish and appreciate a truly millennial presence going back to the 9th century. The most important cultural preservation site for Georgian Istanbul is the Catholic Monastery in Feriköy, housing an archival library open by appointment in an adjacent building near the verdant spiritual refuge. Despite being an ethnic, linguistic and religious minority, Georgians are at home in Istanbul, contributing to its contemporary life from the Istanbul Biennale to the best downtown eateries

There are four basic cornerstones to every human community: To pray, cook, create and play. Georgians have maintained each with a fine and jubilant vitality in the core districts of Istanbul. As a bordering nation with common Central Asian affinities, cultural movements from Georgia have been influenced by life in Istanbul, exemplifying the perennial eastern perspective on the intercontinental metropolis as a gateway to Europe.

The greater modern narrative of the Georgian experience of Istanbul and its influence begins with the Russo-Turkish War, especially the early 19th century conflicts. There was then a wave of emigration from the rule of the Tzar in Georgian Transcaucasia to the Ottoman territory. Most went to the Black Sea region near Trabzon, as the endangered Laz language is related to Georgian. Those multigenerational exiles came to be known in Turkey as Chveneburi.

By the last decade of the 19th century, efforts were made to account for the Chveneburi, as nearly a million people had fled from their village homes in Georgia to resettle in the reign of the Ottoman capital of Constantinople during its twilight era. During that time of epochal migration, a Catholic priest, Petre Kharischirashvili, had foresight enough to bank on the social capital that would continue to fill the streets of Istanbul into the 21st century.

In 1861, Kharischirashvili founded Notre Dame de Lourdes, better known in Istanbul as the Georgian Catholic Church. It still opens its doors most mornings on a quiet, dedicated city block in the neighborhood of Ferikoy, surrounded by a peaceful flurry of primary schools and sheltered by a magnificent grove of 500 recently planted pines that cast lofty shadows over the iconic cave-shrines to Mother Mary. Its entranceway is frequented by Catholic Turks and traveling scholars who have much to appreciate about the contemplative environs for secular purposes.

Kharischirashvili was a cultural visionary. He drew inspiration from the scientific and medical scholarship of his antecedents by organizing the monastery not only as a place of worship, but for education and leisure, attracting non-Catholic Georgians as well as broad representation from across old Istanbul society. The library archives at Notre Dame de Lourdes initially doubled as a Georgian-language printing press, where more than a hundred books have been published on everything from literature to geography and politics to philosophy. While the monastery collections are not open to the public, they are cataloged online courtesy of the Georgian Catholic Foundation, where curious bibliophiles may scan to obscurity before scheduling a research visit.

One of the most impressive literary works among the Notre Dame de Lourdes' thousands of books, newspapers and magazines in Georgian, French, Italian, Russian and Latin is a travelogue, "Georgians in Istanbul," written in French in 1920 by the Italian Evgeni Dalecio, who then served as the secretary to the Georgian diplomatic mission in Istanbul. He often traveled to Georgia to learn its language and document its cultural upheavals as its people resettled in the Ottoman capital. Dalecio and his intellectual labors were preceded by a compelling compatriot, Don Cristoforo de Castelli, a 17th century missionary from Genoa whose extant drawings brilliantly capture Georgian culture following the Ottoman occupation.

More recently, Simon Zazadze, who succeeded his father Paul Zazadze as trustee of Notre Dame de Lourdes in 1989, published the bilingual Turkish-Georgian magazine, Pirosmani, named after the famous Georgian primitivist painter, Niko Pirosmani, and distributed a new issue throughout Istanbul every three months from 2007-2010. The Zazadze family is chiefly responsible for upholding the cultural foundation of Notre Dame de Lourdes with relevance to contemporary life in Istanbul. In 1977, the most important bilingual Turkish-Georgian magazine, Çveneburi, was founded in Sweden and remains widely read and published in Turkey.

Like every truly global city, local life in Istanbul is rich with minority expression, an advantage that constantly attracts renewed awe and fascination from even the most worldly and intrepid travelers. Most often, the first glimpse of a community leads to nourishment, and that is a field where Georgians shine with tantalizing culinary skills. Eight months ago, the Georgian kitchen Galaktion opened on Kumbaracı Slope, the steep lane that winds up from the trendy streets around Karaköy Port to the historic commercial drag of Istiklal Avenue. Its tasteful location sits immersed in the defining qualities of Istanbul, as traditional Turkish aunts lower roped baskets down from upper floor apartments between the windows of sleek art galleries and simple family markets.

The young chef at Galaktion has been a resident of Istanbul for three years now, a bespectacled lover of literature who is quick to talk up a storm about novelist Otar Chiladze and the 12th century epic poem, "The Knight in the Panther's Skin" by Shota Rustaveli. He often stands smilingly aproned beside a Niko Pirosmani painting and collages of a newspaper from his native Tblisi while cutting dough into savory, meat-filled dumplings, known as "khinkali," as his accomplice and server brews up a rustic, grainy Georgian coffee from Batumi. Despite the carnivorous penchant of Central Asian cuisine, Georgians prepare delightful salads, heavy on walnuts and eggplant. The "khachapuri" cheese bread, a Georgian favorite, is delectable at Galaktion, as is the sumptuously garnished eggplant stew, especially sweet when paired with the from-scratch special, cinnamon peach compote.

The inner sanctum of Notre Dame  de Lourdes Georgian Catholic Church is frequented by locals, Catholic Turks  among them and a host of visiting scholars.

An elder to Galaktion is nearby, Galata House Restaurant, a hot spot for Russian-Tatar-Georgian fusion cuisine since 1999, housed in a former British civil prison. Besides the literally jaw-dropping unique dishes of exotic meats and homemade raviolis, Galata Evi as it is called in Turkish, is perhaps best reserved for late evening. The dry red wine from Georgia or a small glass of vodka flavored with walnut leaves goes down easily with the Georgian chocolate cake while listening to the multilingual co-owner Nadire Goktuğ sing out her Tatar heritage over an old German piano festooned with metal candleholders in classic Constantinople fashion.

And for the ultra-contemporary, the Istanbul Biennale is currently hosting Tbilisi-born artist Vajiko Chachkhiani at the Pera Museum until Nov. 12. For one of his recent international appearances at the Venice Biennale, he reassembled a pavilion from the Georgian countryside and exhibited the abandoned wood hut in the Venetian Arsenale on the dreamy shores of the Rio della Tana. In Istanbul, he shows stylish audiences a three and a half minute video of a nondescript man staring into the eye of the camera, beckoning viewers to look at each other and wonder how long they might stare back. It's a forceful piece from 2015 named "Life Track" that reverses objective attitudes to art with a startling intensity.

Georgian Istanbul is founded in the mutual influence of neighboring people. It is a success story of integration from the Baghdad Kiosk at Topkapi Palace, built as a dedication to the Georgian military leader Giorgi Saakadze, honored as a pasha for returning Baghdad to the Ottoman Sultanate, to the sheltering of Noe Jordania and his colleagues from the first Independent Georgian Republic in the Georgian Catholic monastery in Istanbul. Its traditions of faith are as diverse as its spices, as expected from a people who have leapt through history and landed square on both feet in contemporary global culture to pray, cook, create and play, though not always in that order.

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