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Orhan Pamuk and the Museum of Innocence

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Orhan Pamuk, recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature, is easily Turkey’s most famous contemporary author. And one of his books, The Museum of Innocence, is more than just a novel. It’s a real museum, designed to exactly replicate the imaginary museum described in his story. A fascinating project which begs the question: does a thing cease to be fictional when it actually exists?

Nobel Prize Winner Orhan Pamuk (Source:, Murat Türemiş)

Orhan Pamuk may be loved around the world, but he’s a contentious figure back home. Born into a middle-class family in the wealthy neighborhood of Nişantaşı, Pamuk belongs squarely to the European, secularist side of Istanbul. His books can be overtly political, and he’s been accused of insulting core Turkish values. In fact, this was exactly the charge leveled against him in 2005 under Turkey’s controversial Article 301, after he had acknowledged the Armenian holocaust in an interview with a Swiss newspaper.

Although his books are wildly popular in Turkey, he’s had a rough time in his homeland. In 2011, he was ordered to pay 6000 liras to five men allegedly insulted by his words. There have been Pamuk book burnings throughout Turkey and several attempts have been made on his life. He’s spent years in self-imposed exile, and is currently in New York working as a professor at Columbia University.

I read three of his novels while in Istanbul, and enjoyed them so much that I’ll probably continue working through his canon. The first, Istanbul: Memories and the City, is a haunting memoir in which Pamuk recalls his youth and shares melancholy impressions of his hometown. It’s probably best appreciated after having spent a few wintry months in the city.

Next, I tackled 2004’s Snow (Kar). A thrilling investigation into modern Turkish culture, Snow tells the story of a poet named Ka who finds himself trapped in the eastern city of Kars. It mixes suspense, humor, politics and romance and offers a boldly honest examination of both Islamic and secular values. It’s the kind of book you’ll be unable to dislodge from your mind, and which you’ll immediately want to discuss with others who’ve read it.

But so far, my favorite Pamuk novel is 2008’s The Museum of Innocence, which tells the agonizing story of a love so intense that it turns into obsession. Kemal falls in love with neighborhood shopgirl Füsun, and allows his entire world to collapse as a result. Over the course of a wasted lifetime, Kemal gathers Füsun-related mementos and, by the end of the book, eventually opens his collection to the public as The Museum of Innocence.

Here’s the thing, though. The Museum of Innocence actually exists. It’s in a red house in Çukurcuma — the same red house which the novel depicts as Füsun’s family’s home. And you can visit it. Inside, exactly as described in the book, are the treasures and keepsakes which Kemal has so assiduously collected. Each of the book’s 83 chapters merits its own display (except, oddly, for the novel’s longest and most important chapter).

Chapter 32: The Shadows and Ghosts I Mistook for Füsun

Visiting the museum after having just read the book is a surreal experience. We were able to immediately identify almost everything on display, and the fact of these items’ physical existence blurs the line between fiction and reality in a disconcerting way. For example, in Chapter 68 (4213 Cigarette Stubs), Kemal describes his insane collection of Füsun’s stubbed-out cigarettes, surreptitiously gathered over the course of seven years. But I never expected to see 4213 cigarette butts, pinned onto a wall, separated by year, some smeared with lipstick and others extinguished too early… and many with handwritten notes next to them. So deeply did Kemal worship Füsun, that anything she handled became a treasure. To him, even a discarded cigarette, one among thousands, was laden with meaning.

And then, just as you catch yourself almost admiring the manic obsession represented by this wall of cigarette stubs… just as you’re starting to get emotional and melancholic about Kemal’s ill-fated love… you remember. It’s a work of fiction!

I would encourage anyone to read Pamuk’s books, and if you’re planning a trip to Istanbul, definitely pick up The Museum of Innocence. In the final chapter, there’s a ticket which will get you in for free. Reading the book and then visiting the museum is a one-of-a-kind literary experience.

Of course, you could visit The Museum of Innocence without having read the book, but you’d just be confused. And we saw a few bewildered tourists inside the museum who had apparently done exactly that. There’s no way they could have appreciated any of it! They couldn’t possibly have understood the significance of Füsun’s butterfly earring, for example, nor why the sight of it was nearly enough to reduce me to tears.

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July 5, 2013 at 8:10 pm Comments (4)

The Imperial Harem of Topkapı Palace

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The Imperial Harem, the private pleasure palace of the Sultans, is the most well-known aspect of Ottoman royal life. But why has the Harem proven so persistent in the mind of popular culture? What is the secret behind its fame? Is it the fabulous tile-work which decorates its walls? Or is it the concept of hundreds of beautiful concubines with the sole mission of providing pleasure to a single man? Hmm… it’s a toss-up.

Topkapi Harem
The tiles are beautiful! And that’s why we need a harem at home, honey!

The Imperial Harem of Topkapı Palace is amazing. Even the very fact of its existence is audacious. Here, in a sumptuously decorated labyrinth of 400 rooms, lived the Sultan’s slaves, concubines and wives, guarded over by a cadre of eunuchs. Only these passionless, de-manned men were considered “safe” enough to protect the Sultan’s bevy of beauties.

It may have been an extravagant place to live, but the majority of women who lived inside were little more than slaves, kidnapped from far-off lands. There’s a reason the Harem was known as the “Golden Cage”. Thanks to their good looks and femininity, Circassian girls were especially prized, but the ladies came from all across Europe and the Middle East. Toward the end of the Ottoman Empire, as the ruling class descended ever more into debauchery, there were up to 800 women imprisoned in the Harem.

800… and the Sultan had his pick of the lot! When he got bored with one, he’d just move on to the next. Should one find herself pregnant, she would immediately gain in status. The “favorites” were allowed into exclusive quarters and enjoyed special privileges. An especially lovely girl could even aspire to become one of the Sultan’s kadıns, or wives, in which case she’d find herself nearly at the top of the Harem hierarchy, with access to slaves of her own.

Windows Wood Design Harem Topkapi

The top dog of the Harem, though, was traditionally the Valide Sultan: the mother of the Sultan. She not only reigned over the Harem, but was often the most powerful person in the entire empire, depending upon how much interest her son showed in his job. The ladies of the harem wielded particular influence during a period known as the “Sultanate of Women“.

Today, you can visit the Harem after you’ve entered Topkapı Palace. It costs extra, which is off-putting since the palace is already quite expensive, and you have to wait in yet another ticket line. But the additional time and expense are worth it. The women of the Harem may have been slaves, but they lived in true luxury. The rooms are resplendent, with colorful Iznik tiles decorating many of the walls, and gorgeous furniture on which to while away the days.

You can’t get into nearly all the rooms, but you can see some of the most impressive, including the Sultan’s bedroom, the Courtyard of the Eunuchs and the apartments of the Queen Mother. Leading straight through the Harem is a path called the Golden Road, so named because the Sultan would walk along it on festive days, throwing golden coins on the ground for his concubines to gather up. Sigh… it was good to be Sultan!

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June 28, 2013 at 11:17 am Comments (11)

Topkapı Palace

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The seat of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years, Topkapı Palace is today one of Istanbul’s most popular sights. The massive complex consists of four courtyards and hundreds of rooms, and the treasures on display are among the world’s most valuable. A visit to Topkapı Palace is almost compulsory during a trip to Istanbul… just expect to be exhausted afterward.

Everything about the Topkapı is excessive, and visiting is an exercise in patience and endurance. You’re going to be waiting in a lot of long lines, and there’s just no way around it. Although the courtyards and outdoor areas are spacious, the rooms and pavilions which hold the various treasures aren’t. You spend much of your time in ı waiting to enter them, then shuffling briskly through in single-file queues.

Luckily, the rewards for patience are spectacular. Once you’re through the Gate of Salutations, which separates the publicly-accessible first courtyard from the second, there’s an overwhelming amount to see, and much of it is unforgettable. The sword and mantle of Muhammed. The Spoonmaker’s Diamond, one of the world’s largest. The Topkapi Dagger (which features in a popular 1964 heist movie). The marvelous pavilions where the royal family would rest, such as the Baghdad Kösk, the Terrace Kösk and the Grand Kösk. The arm of John the Baptist. The libraries. The throne room. The Gate of Felicity. The circumcision room. The garden views across the Golden Horn and to Asia. The keys to the Kaaba. The Harem.

Let’s just put it this way… Topkapı Palace has the Staff of Moses. And I knew this, but was so dazzled by the other treasures, I forgot to search it out. Topkapı: awesome enough to reduce the Staff of Moses to an afterthought.

One of the best things about Topkapı is that chances for rest are plentiful. The palace is so large that you can always find a place to sit down and relax in the sun… and after a few hours of filing through rooms, you’ll need to sit. These were the moments I most enjoyed Topkapı. Relaxing on a bench under a tree, reading from a history book about the murderous, amorous or deceitful practices of the sultan and his court. And then looking up! These buildings provided the scene for so much amazing history. Just being inside this palace is an incredible experience.

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June 27, 2013 at 5:26 pm Comments (7)

The Sakıp Sabancı Museum

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Housed in a 19th century mansion in the neighborhood of Emirgan, the Sakıp Sabancı Museum features a permanent collection dedicated to calligraphic art, along with outstanding temporary exhibits. This was one of the surprise cultural highlights of our time in Istanbul.

Sakip Sabanci Museum

Sakıp Sabancı was one of Turkey’s most successful businessmen, and among the wealthiest people in the world. The son of a cotton merchant, Sakıp never completed high school, but nothing could stop him from clambering to the top of Turkey’s largest business conglomerate. He was a famous figure throughout the country, a colorful and extroverted staple of Istanbul society, and a grand patron of the arts. The museum which carries his name opened in 2002, just two years before his death.

We only decided to visit the museum after finding ourselves with extra time in Emirgan. “Just a quick stop”, we figured. “In and out in a half-hour!” Yeah right. The Sakıp Sabancı Museum deftly conceals its true size; from the coastal road, we saw only the lovely mansion set atop a hill, and completely overlooked the massive modern annex attached to it. We ended up spending about two hours there.

A path leads from the coast up to the house, through a courtyard studded with sculptures and a variety of trees. The mansion itself contains the museum’s permanent collection. The first floor has rooms dedicated to Mr. Sabancı’s legacy, and others which preserve the mansion’s original furniture and decorations. The second floor is dedicated to the art of calligraphy, with old manuscripts and Korans.

The Korans and calligraphy were nice, but the Sakıp Sabancı Museum has become known for the world-class temporary exhibits displayed in the annex. During our visit, we saw one called “1001 Faces of Orientalism”. The fascinating collection spanned three floors, bringing together painting, film, photography, posters, books, clothing and more, in an effort to understand the West’s 19th-century obsession with the Ottoman Empire and Orient.

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June 24, 2013 at 5:45 pm Comment (1)

The Karagöz Puppets of Bursa

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More from Our Trip to Bursa
Introduction | The Green Mosque and Tomb | Gazi Plaza and the Market | Muradiye and Around

Karagöz shadow puppetry, one of Turkey’s most distinctive art forms, was born in Bursa. And the city is still the best place in the world to catch a regular performance. It might be the only such place. Every day, the Karagöz Museum puts on shows starring the puppets which have kept Turkey in stitches for hundreds of years.

Karagöz Puppet Museum Bursa

Karagöz puppetry dates back to the 14th century, when Bursa was still the capital of the young Ottoman Empire. The art form’s popularly accepted origin story tells of Karagöz and Hacivat: two men working on the construction of the Orhan Gazi Mosque in the city center. Rather than work, these two spent most of their time bickering and teasing each other in such an entertaining fashion, that they became a major distraction to the other men. And so the sultan, impatient for the completion of his mosque, had them executed. The shenanigans of Karagöz and Hacivat were so missed by the people, that a new form of puppetry was invented to commemorate them and their already-legendary quarreling.

We visited the Karagöz Museum in Bursa which, although presented completely in Turkish, provided a nice overview. The puppets are made from camel skin, dried and dyed in bright colors. An oil lamp is lit behind the semi-transparent skin of the puppets, whose colorful shadows are thrown against a screen.

Most of the plays recount one of Karagöz’s “get rich quick” schemes, which Hacivat, the wiser and more down-to-earth of the duo, predictably rails against and attempts to foil. Each performance includes multiple puppets, and requires up to four puppeteers behind the screen. Karagöz plays feature a wide cast of characters taken from Ottoman life, including Tuzsuz the drunk, Kanbur the opium addict, Denyo the idiot, and Altı Kariş the angry dwarf. Political correctness was not a concern in the early Ottoman Empire.

The Karagöz Museum puts on two puppet shows every day, and we sat down with a group of schoolkids to watch one. Of course, it’d have helped to understand exactly what Karagöz and Hacivat were arguing about, but even in Turkish the meaning came across well enough, and the hysterical laughter of the kids was contagious. I loved it… here was a group of children raised in the Smartphone Generation, completely engrossed and delighted by 700-year-old shadow puppets. Great entertainment, I suppose, never gets old.

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June 17, 2013 at 9:20 am Comments (4)

SALT and the Ottoman Bank Museum

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Established in 1856, the Ottoman Bank was a part of a comprehensive effort to modernize the flagging Ottoman Empire. Today, its former headquarters in Galata is home to SALT: a non-profit organization dedicated to art, architecture and urbanism.

Ottoman Bank Istanbul

The ambitious period of reform known as the Tanzimat Era introduced a number of new concepts to the struggling Ottoman Empire, which was trying to reorganize itself along the lines of more successful Western countries. Post offices, a national anthem, civil rights, the abolition of slavery, a census, modern universities, the decriminalization of homosexuality, and many other novelties were force-fed to a bewildered Turkish public between the tumultuous years of 1839 and 1876.

The former headquarters of the Ottoman Bank can be found on Bankalar Sokak, near the entrance to the Karaköy Tünel station. The northern facade, facing the foreigner-dominated neighborhood of Galata, was designed in a European, neoclassical style, while the south-facing side, visible from the old town across the Golden Horn, is neo-orientalist. The bank itself was seen as a bridge between east and west, and its headquarters symbolized this brilliantly in its architecture.

Today, in the basement, you can find the Ottoman Bank Museum. “Bank History” is not a topic I usually get excited for, but the exhibits on display are surprisingly engaging. You can visit the old vaults where gold was kept, and browse folders full of portraits of the bank’s 19th-centuries employees (most of whom, of course, sport fabulous mustaches).

On the first floor of the old bank building, SALT has installed an amazing public library focused on art and architecture. There’s also a cafe, a bookstore and, on the upper floors, spaces for temporary exhibitions and conferences.

SALT has another seat on nearby İstiklal Caddesi, which is one of the coolest galleries we visited in Istanbul. Temporary exhibits rotate through constantly, along with performances and films. We saw a retrospective on the work of subREAL: a Romanian art duo that “undertakes political, social and cultural criticism with a sharp sense of humor while creating a vigorous visual language”. Modern and eclectic, i’s exactly the type of thing you can expect to find at SALT. Considering its cost (free), SALT Beyoğlu is worth visiting regardless of what’s on, but you can check the current exhibitions at their website.

Locations on our Istanbul Map: SALT Galata | Beyoğlu

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June 15, 2013 at 7:17 pm Comment (1)

Dolmabahçe Palace on Labor Day

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The irony wasn’t completely lost on us. Visiting Dolmabahçe Palace, a symbol of preposterous wealth and privilege, while just outside workers were marching in Istanbul’s infamous Labor Day protests. “What’s that smell?” I whispered to Jürgen, while admiring a carpet with more square footage than any apartment I’ve ever lived in. “Tear gas”, he said, his eyes starting to well up. “Amazing carpet, though.”

Dolmabahçe Palace

Labor Day is a big deal in Istanbul, with a history marred by violence. The march in 1977, for example, became known as the Taksim Square Massacre, when 40 people killed by overzealous policing and a panicked stampede. This year, the government refused to let protesters even reach Taksim Square. They were taking no chances — traffic in Beyoğlu was prohibited, public transportation was shut down, and even the Galata Bridge was closed.

And at the exact same moment Turkish protesters were being denied their right to congregate, Jürgen and I were ogling the outrageous luxury of Dolmabahçe Palace: perhaps Istanbul’s most perfect symbol of class inequality.

Despite being completely contrary to Labor Day’s socialist spirit, it was the perfect time to visit the palace. Dolmabahçe is normally one of the most popular tourist sights in Istanbul… but not when people can’t reach it! And with public transportation down, only those lucky enough to live within walking distance (like us) could make it.

Built in 1856 by Sultan Abdülmecid I, for whom the long-serving Topkapı Palace was no longer modern enough, the new palace on the Bosphorus was a testament to growing European influence on the Ottoman court. Neoclassic, baroque and massive to the point of stupidity, the palace is over 11 acres in size, with 285 rooms, 68 toilets, and 6 hamams. Oh, and a harem. Because no home is complete without an enclosure for your female sex slaves.

Despite its grandeur, visiting the palace is unfortunately a bit of a let-down. You’re forced to join a tour, with a guide whose main purpose is corralling you through as swiftly as possible, and you’re not allowed to linger in any of the rooms. A real shame, since there’s so much to linger over. The decorations, the artwork, the gold, the chandeliers, the carpets, the stairs… let alone the views of the Bosphorus from the magnificent windows.

The wealth of an empire was poured into this royal home for the benefit of a very few people, and the palace provided a stark reminder of how unfair life can be. So it was easy to find sympathy for the Labor Day protests going on right outside. Dolmabahçe, although beautiful, is sickening! The palace interesting to visit, but I’m mostly just glad that the days of sultans, lords and kings, and their massive homes, are behind us.

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June 11, 2013 at 2:05 pm Comments (0)

Whirling Dervishes at the Galata Mevlevihanesi

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With their heads slightly tilted, arms raised in exaltation and spinning in graceful circles, the whirling sufi dervishes are among the most enduring images of Turkey. Istanbul boasts a number of places in which to catch a ceremony, but we chose to attend the twice-monthly performance in the Galata Mevlevihanesi; the city’s oldest tekke.

Dervish Dance

Before the sema ceremony, I wasn’t sure what to expect apart from men in tall hats spinning slowly. And as it turns out… these expectations were spot-on. The performance is uplifting. Very spiritual and strange, and very moving. But it really is just dudes spinning around to strange music, for almost an hour. And I’ll confess that I started getting bored, after spin #235. (Everybody’s got a dervish spin limit. At 235, mine is acceptable. Those who are more mystically inclined might have a higher tolerance. 5000, say. But everyone has a limit.)

Dervishes are adherents to sufism: a mystical interpretation of Islam, which aspires to a perfectly pure state of worship. Each dervish order is based around an exalted teacher or saint, and each has different practices. In general, dervishes ascribe to an ascetic lifestyle of extreme poverty, and are fairly similar to Catholic monks. The Mevlevi Order was based around the teachings of the Persian mystic Rumi, and was among the most prominent dervish sects in the Ottoman Empire. Even sultans would come to watch their ceremonies in Galata.

Established in 1451, the Galata Mevlevihanesi is the oldest surviving tekke (dervish monastery) in Istanbul. It’s now been converted into a museum dedicated to the Mevlevi Order, with exhibits that illuminate their way of life, rituals, music, and beliefs. The brothers of the order didn’t spend all day whirling; they were skilled in calligraphy and art, and masters of specialized professions like watchmaking. The museum does a good job of introducing the dervishes, and their beautiful old tekke.

The sema ceremony is held in the Galata Mevlevihanesi on the second and last Sunday of each month. It’s probably the most authentic possible setting in Istanbul to watch the Dervishes do their thing.

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June 11, 2013 at 11:05 am Comments (2)

The Jewish Museum and Kamondo Steps

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Under the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul was one of the world’s great ethnic smorgasbords. Greek, Armenian, Albanian and Turk all got along relatively well and lived peaceably, if not equally, under Ottoman law. So it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that Jews fleeing persecution in Europe found a permanent home here, and have long been part of the city’s cultural fabric.

Kamondo Steps

The Ottoman Empire wasn’t just one of the world’s greatest powers, but also among its most tolerant. Ethnic and religious minorities were treated with much more respect by the Ottomans than by the countries of Europe. When Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand issued their execrable 1492 decree expelling Jews from Spain and Portugal, Sultan Beyazit II formally invited them to resettle in Ottoman lands.

Still, it’s silly to pretend that the entirety of Jewish history in Istanbul has been one of roses and sunshine. Antisemitism flared up throughout the centuries, depending on the views of the reigning sultan and the tolerance of other minority communities… Istanbul’s Christians were particularly hard on their Jewish counterparts. But the Jews of the Ottoman Empire had it relatively good, and eventually reached half a million in number. They settled mainly in the neighborhood of Balat, but the city’s most important Jewish Museum is found in Karaköy, inside a converted synagogue.

The museum is small but interesting, concentrating on artifacts like traditional clothing and religious relics. There are detailed accounts of the Jewish migration to Istanbul, and the experience of living in the Ottoman Empire. And the synagogue itself is so beautiful that it’s almost worth the cost of entry, alone.

Near the museum, you can find the curvy Kamondo Steps, built in 1860 by Istanbul’s foremost Jewish family. The gorgeous staircase has become one of the most photographed landmarks in Beyoğlu.

Locations on our Istanbul Map: Jewish Museum | Kamondo Steps

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June 7, 2013 at 5:01 pm Comments (0)

Miniaturk – Touring Turkey the Lazy Way

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Spread across some of the most beautiful land in Europe and the Middle East, Turkey lays claim to a jaw-dropping number of incredible sights. Visiting everything the country offers would take a lot longer than 91 days, so it’s lucky that there’s an alternative. Welcome to Miniaturk.

Miniaturk Istanbul

Opened in 2003, Miniaturk is a strange little theme park that reproduces the wonders of Turkey in miniature. It’s exactly as kitschy and fun as you might expect. Found at the end of the Golden Horn, across from Eyüp, the park is worth visiting when you’re in the mood for something different.

Miniaturk is split evenly between the sights of Istanbul and those spread across rest of Turkey. It was fun looking at detailed recreations of the mosques and monuments we’d spent the last couple months exploring. Even in miniature, the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque are impressive. You can walk across a shrunken version of the Bosphorus Bridge, listen to football chants at Atatürk Stadium, and even pay a lira to steer a model ferry across a mini-Golden Horn. Inside a darkened room, there’s a “Crystal Collection”, with holographic carvings of Istanbul’s monuments in big glass bricks. Weird, cheesy and awesome in equal measure.

As an advertisement for touring the rest of the country, Miniaturk could hardly do a better job. I knew about some of Turkey’s more popular sights, such as the chimneys at Cappadocia and the stone heads of Mount Nemrut, but the great majority of things displayed in Miniaturk were new to me. The ruins of Ephesus! The castle at Bodrum! The white terraced waterfalls of Pamukkale! And much more. Turkey is amazing, and Miniaturk has helped convince us to make a return visit as soon as possible.

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Weird Istanbul
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May 31, 2013 at 11:17 am Comment (1)

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Orhan Pamuk and the Museum of Innocence Orhan Pamuk, recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature, is easily Turkey's most famous contemporary author. And one of his books, The Museum of Innocence, is more than just a novel. It's a real museum, designed to exactly replicate the imaginary museum described in his story. A fascinating project which begs the question: does a thing cease to be fictional when it actually exists?
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