Are silk and saffron the future of this Anatolian town?

The first female mayor of Safranbolu, a town dating to the 11th century, is eager to put her UNESCO-protected city on Turkey's tourism map.

al-monitor A view of Safranbolu, the UNESCO-inscribed town in Turkey’s Black Sea region, Sept. 26, 2019  Photo by Nazlan Ertan.

Nov 13, 2019

Tourists might feel like they've entered a time warp while walking down Cildirpinari Street on the outskirts of the Anatolian town of Safranbolu. Stone Ottoman-style houses line the narrow cobblestone pathway, the buildings' exteriors accented with dark, heavy wooden shutters and curved balconies. The street's namesake, the 19th-century Fountain of Cildir, has been carefully restored, its copper-colored taps emerging from a backsplash of creamy white marble. Safranbolu, midway between Ankara, Turkey's modern capital, and the Black Sea coast, owes its fame to the town's architecture and to saffron, the valuable spice from which the town takes its name.

Safranbolu is strategically located at the Kastamonu-Istanbul junction of the old caravan trade route between the Black and Mediterranean Seas, a stop along the storied Silk Road. Muslim and Greek Orthodox residents have lived on opposite sides of the town since the 11th century, coming together in the lower part of the city at the old bazaar to trade, play backgammon and drink coffee. By the 14th century, in sharp contrast to nearby settlements, the town had a large mosque and a medrese (Islamic school), an even larger Orthodox church, aqueducts to ensure a reliable flow of water to the vineyards, and caravanserais to host the caravans that passed through its gates. Safranbolu further thrived in the 18th century, thanks to its famous son, Safranbolulu Izzet Mehmet Pasha, the influential vizier of Sultan Selim III (r. 1789-1807) who also built a clock tower and a large mosque in his hometown. 

During the first half of the 20th century, Safranbolu declined in commercial importance, but in the third quarter of the century, it revived itself as a center of tourism, especially after its addition to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994. Today, the city of Safranbolu consists of three distinct historic districts: the marketplace, known as Cukur (literally, “the pits”), because of its low-lying location; the non-Muslim areas of Kirankoy; and Baglar, marked by vineyards and “konaks,” large houses with gardens of fig, walnut and pomegranate trees that the local bourgeoisie and officials from Istanbul used as summer residences in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The serene beauty of Kirankoy and Baglar contrasts sharply with the noisy “new town,” an assemblage of tall, ugly buildings and crooked sidewalks constructed in between the two districts. The biggest eyesore is the Town Hall, a late 20th-century affair that towers over the main square of the new town.

“It is hideous, inside and out,” remarked Elif Kose, Safranbolu’s new mayor, who is also an architect.

Elected in March, Kose is the city's first mayor from the opposition Republican People’s Party in 42 years. A single parent, she is also the first woman to take the reins in this Anatolian town, having weathered a series of misogynistic and personal attacks during the campaign.

“I would be crucified if I started off by improving my own workplace,” she told Al-Monitor with a chuckle. In 1976, a fire destroyed the old Town Hall, an impressive structure overlooking a valley, and after the building's restoration, it was turned into a museum, in 2006.

Kose’s current priority is to revamp the old marketplace, which for centuries has accommodated dozens of small shops, coffeehouses and workshops in its cramped arcades and passageways.

“These shops should be selling products that are specific to the region, not plastic toys and souvenirs that can be found anywhere,” Kose said. “We should be able to restore old crafts and come up with signature products.”

Kose might be right, but it will not be an easy task. Many of the traditional artisans have either retired or are on the verge of retiring. The once-famous ironsmith market is now limited to half a dozen shops that sell more or less the same pots, pans and beautifully crafted keys. Only one person, Erhan Baskaya, still makes Yemenis, the pointy-toed leather shoes so-called because according to local lore the first artisans who made them had come from Yemen. Baskaya has taught the trade to his son Taha, but having just graduated in electrical engineering, it is unlikely that the younger Baskaya will be following in his father’s footsteps.

The pointed-toed shoes, locally known as Yemenis, Sept. 26, 2019 (Nazlan Ertan)

“This town is known for having made 11,000 pairs of Yemenis a week for the soldiers in the War of Independence in the 1920s,” Aysegul Tabak, the foreign affairs coordinator of the municipality, told Al-Monitor. “Today, we have a single artisan who makes eleven pairs a week.”

In 2018, some 1.27 million people — or about ten times Safranbolu’s population — visited the city. Although appreciative of the steady flow of tourists, Kose and her team would nonetheless like to attract more diversified and culture-oriented groups to town and see them stay longer and spend more money. The city's two big annual events — the Golden Saffron Cultural Festival and the Saffron Harvest — could play a role in making that happen.

Earlier this year, Kose presided over the 20th Golden Saffron festival, which included the inauguration of two newly renovated houses — one of them belonging to the mayor of the nearby industrial province of Karabuk — and the announcement of the winners of an international documentary film competition. This year's top documentary prize went to Mahdi Zamanpore, an Iranian, for “Stone Master." Zamanpore said he was delighted to visit Safranbolu, and intrigued by its Ottoman heritage, pledged to return and make a documentary about the city.

It is the Saffron Harvest, however, that brings a smile to the faces of residents involved in the tourism sector. For three weeks during late October and early November, tourists and locals flock to fields in and around Safranbolu to witness the gathering of the purple-flowered saffron crocuses, the source of the delicate red and orange filaments. Some 150,000 of the flowers are needed to produce a kilo of saffron.

Although cheap saffron products like saffron-flavored Turkish delights and saffron-fragranced and colored soaps, can be found in any of the small shops at the downtown bazaar, the valuable spice is remarkably not an integral part of the local cuisine. Rather, the spice, if not sold domestically or internationally, is used as a colorant in local textiles, including rugs, caftans and delicate cotton and silks.

“We want to increase cultivation,” Kose said in reference to the 30 decares (7.41 acres) currently planted. “Saffron is important for the medical industry, gastronomy and dyes, and ours is good quality.” 

“The city has great potential for tourism,” Sebnem Urgancioglu, a member of the tourism association TURSAB, told Al-Monitor. Settling in Safranbolu after living for years in Ankara and Istanbul, Urgancioglu now runs a boutique hotel in a restored old konak with carved woodwork ceilings. “What we need is to put it on the culture-tourism map.” 

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