Renowned photographer Miguel Flores-Vianna travels to the foothills of the Taurus Mountains in search of the distinctive floral patterns that adorn the mosques surrounding Denizli.
The sky above Denizli was golden as our plane made its final approach toward the airport. The view of the beautiful sun, as it began the day’s dip toward the west, was at times partially obscured by immense gray nimbus clouds, tall and softly rounded like airy replicas of the teeming domes of the mosques below. To leave a rainy and dark London, oppressed under a huge grey slab of a sky, and arrive 12 hours later among those exploding stratospheric hues in Eastern Anatolia felt a bit like soaring through fireworks - an exhilarating feeling, which was not to let up.
A few years ago I had read in Cornucopia, the revered magazine of all things Turkish, an excerpt from a book about a type of mosque decoration that was distinctive to the villages around the city of Denizli, a vibrant textile center at the foot of the Taurus Mountains. These mosques, which I was now traveling to photograph, are covered in naive floral decorations painted in vivid, myriad colors and dating from the 18th and 19th centuries.
The morning after our arrival, my friend and I set out to see these marvels, criss crossing the area’s beautiful countryside on small roads. The buildings were a couple of hours’ drive from each other, in their respective small villages. For three days we drove, listening to Erik Satie, Miles Davis and ’70s Turkish pop, as though the wind propelled us among oak forests and fragrant cluster pines covering the mountain slopes.
On the many plateaus we encountered, hidden between the peaks, orchards were laden with fruits for every taste. We ate freshly caught fish by a lake’s edge, and at every mosque we stopped to photograph, newly made friends would offer us freshly brewed tea, dried mulberries and nuts.
Our expedition to see these beautiful buildings turned into an ABC of all the beautiful things Turkey can be. Inside the mosques, we noticed shared characteristics besides their floral decorations. All of them had Koranic inscriptions in the original Arabic script, and their ceilings were often decorated with geometric designs.
We visited these places of worship at times when they were empty, making them appear holier and more mysterious, but still their walls seemed to hold the echoes of the prayers and chants that filled them daily. The effect was impressive, but not of the lofty sort one expects from, say, the Hagia Sophia or Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul. These mosques were impressive and enchanting because they were so human in scale, so humble and full warmth.
On each occasion we left with not only a visual memory, but a human story as well. At the Akköy Mosque, a group of little girls joined us to practice their English. Their giggles and colorful garments soon filled the empty space and made as much an impression as the thousands of flowers painted on the interior surfaces.
At Belenardiç, the voice of the old mullah who welcomed us was as dazzling as the light turquoise paint covering all the wall space not decorated with flowers. His crisp and elegant intonation, as he described the building, often made me close my eyes: I wanted to keep those sounds in my head forever.
At Boğaziçi, where the floral designs were punctuated by medallions with abstract geometric decorations, I left my camera aside and stopped to hear the most beautiful call to prayer I have ever listened to - a few minutes when nothing but music mattered.
The masjidat Hirka was the most delightful confection, painted in beautiful pink, pistachio and blue, airy and light. A wedding lunch was being held in its garden, and the joyous spirit of the feast perfectly complemented the interior of the building. At the Hanönö Mosque, geometrical patterns dominated the interior, whereas at Savransah, our final destination, the floral patterns were especially dense around the mih.rāb, surrounded by garlands of pine as willowy as the profile of the old man who took us around.
A longer version of this article, Blessed by Gods, was first published in Cabana Magazine Issue 13.