In Central Anatolia, Keeping an Ancient Art Alive

Cappadocia, known for its strange landscapes, has long been a hub of ceramic arts

By / April 2014

Guray sat down, took a lump of wet, red clay, and cradled it in his hands. He kicked the 200-pound potter’s wheel until it spun dizzily. Satisfied with its rotation, he positioned the clay at the dead center of the wheel. His hands, looking as if they moved of their own accord after more than 30 years of experience, caressed the clay as it turned. The red mass took shape under the strong guidance of his fingers. Over his right shoulder was a photograph of his grandfather, taken years ago in nearly the exact same pose. It was from him that Guray learned ceramics as a young boy, from him that he received his artistic inheritance, that heavy legacy. Guray made wielding it look easy. The stress of running this 150-year-old family business seemed to spin away with each turn of the wheel.

Situated in a number of caves dug into and under a limestone hill, Guray’s Ceramic Shop is but one of many operating in the small town of Avanos in Turkey’s central region of Cappadocia. Most of the shops are located in the cramped downtown. Guray, feeling the squeeze and the need for creative space, moved just across the Red River about 25 years ago. Towering mounds of alluvial deposits along the riverbank have made this area a center for pottery for over a millennium.

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Visitors to the shop are made privy to an up-close look at the evolution of a lump of clay into a work of art. The tour begins with a short descent into the cave complex, a cool, dry space ideal for working with clay. The first stop is a room where bubbles and impurities are removed. Racks around the room hold stacks of plates and bowls and other pieces in the drying process, waiting to be painted and fired.

Next, I stepped through double wooden doors into a room where artists, directed by Guray’s sister, decorate the sculpted clay with finely-tipped paintbrushes. There are no stencils here. The designs and color combinations date back ages. There are ancient Hittite designs with blacks and whites, muted browns, yellows and reds. Recreations of biblical scenes from frescoes in one of the regions many cave churches pay homage to the area’s Christian heritage while vines, carnations, and tulips pay homage to Turkey’s Ottoman history. After learning these traditional designs, the artists are encouraged to develop their own signature style. In fact, they are not acknowledged as masters until they have done so.

After painting, which in some cases can take weeks, comes the nerve-racking firing process in ovens with temperatures ranging from 1650 to 2100 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the type of clay used. Will the piece crack? Will the glaze hold up? Alper, Guray’s nephew, shared the story of one young woman who worked meticulously on her masterpiece for three months. The nearly yard-wide platter came out of the oven with a huge crack. She cried for two weeks before starting over.

Photograph by Michael Cervantez

I took a short flight of steps into another section of the cave complex to observe a potter plying his trade. In the old days, my guide explains, before a young man could ask for a girl’s hand in marriage, he had to demonstrate his proficiency as a potter and, thereby, his ability to provide for his family. Young, aspiring potters, then and now, spend the first two to three years just acquiring knowledge about the soil types needed for making good clay and learning how to prepare it for use. After that it takes another month to learn how to place a slab of wet clay on the center of the spinning potter’s wheel. Apprentices are forbidden to use modern, electric wheels. Finally students begin to learn the basic shapes. From there it’s a matter of putting in the time and commitment to perfect the craft. Overall there are more than 200 different forms to master

The next room over was flush with finished chalices, plates, bowls, and vases, all arranged on tables, set atop shelves, or hung on the walls – all for sale. Decoration isn’t the only purpose of these ceramics. Many pieces can be used in daily life. But, Alper says, it is important to use the pieces in accord with their intended purposes. Alper tells of a wealthy rancher from Texas who selected a large, ornately painted bowl. On his way to the cash register the rancher declared that this would make a beautiful ashtray. He was shocked when Alper refused to sell it to him. If he wanted an ashtray, they had those for sale, but it couldn’t be this piece. For Alper, this was intentionally disrespectful to the artwork in discussion. In this contest between art and business, there was no competition. The lost sale was a small price to pay to save the piece from such an ignominious end.

Photograph by Michael Cervantez

Guray’s passion is not just selling the products of his artisans. His dream is for people from around the world to appreciate and enjoy their beauty as well. In an attempt to protect and showcase the region’s ceramic heritage–both its decorative and utilitarian side–he is digging a new wing of caves into the hillside to house an extensive collection of pottery fragments and samples from the constant stream of civilizations that have inhabited this land over the centuries. There will be space to host cultural events. The newer generation’s waning interest in continuing the town’s tradition is a source of concern that urgently compels Guray to complete this project.

Young people, Guray says, are losing the patience it takes to develop and master the skills of an accomplished potter. They don’t remember the days before the tourists started coming. They don’t remember how plastics threatened to destroy the town’s pottery industry. The advent of this cheap, light-weight material meant a severe drop in the demand for everyday pottery wares. In the 1970s, though, Cappadocia started to show up on the maps of sightseers worldwide. Aside from seeing the uniquely bizarre, stunning landscape, visitors were intrigued with the local clay creations. Demand started to rise again and the local pottery scene experienced a renaissance. With his new wing, Guray hopes to shine a spotlight on what he believes is not just Avanos’ birthright but a treasury of many of the world’s great civilizations that have inhabited this land.

Guray let the wheel slowly spin to a stop. He inspected the item in front of him. Satisfied, he rolled another piece of clay in his hands until it was long and snakelike then attached both ends to his new creation, giving it a smooth arch in the process. He formed a hollow tube out of another, shorter piece and attached it to the other side. After one more quick inspection, with a deftness that belied the craft’s requisite skill, he removed the piece from the wheel with a long piece of thread. It was a teapot now, the piece of wet clay. In so short a time, with the spin of the wheel, with the touch of his fingers, he had created something gorgeous, something ready for the brushes and the ovens and the shelves.


Michael Cervantez is an EthnoTraveler contributor.