Eskisehir Meerschaum Pipe Story
I came to Eskisehir with one intent: to write a story about Meerschaum pipe production. I am pleased to report that through a course of fortunate happenstance, I have completed the research phase of this objective.
Meerschaum, called luletasi, aktas, or patal in Turkish, is a white sedimentary stone that has commonly been used for carving ornate sculptures. The stone gained its highest level of functionality when a Hungarian man ordered a block of meerschaum to be carved into a tobacco pipe. Before this happened, nobody really knew what to do with the stuff besides make little figurines out of it. Now these ornately carved, white stone tobacco pipes are famous throughout the world, and nearly every pipe collection has at least one meerschaum to accompany the briars.
There is pretty much only one place in the world where high quality, carveable meerschaum is available to be mined, and that is in the area surrounding Eskisehir, Turkey. The Turkish government knows of this monopoly, and, to ensure work for its domestic carvers, has prohibited the exportation of raw, block meerschaum. So every meerschaum tobacco pipe on planet earth was mined, carved, and assembled right here in Eskisehir.
Half finished meerschaum pipes in Eskisehir, Turkey.
I wanted to meet the men who carved these pipes, sold these pipes, and mined the raw meerschaum from the depths of the earth.
Around a month ago, I began sending out press inquiries to various companies who export these pipes from Turkey for sale in the USA. Every single one of my emails went unanswered. I was thus placed in a situation that I have not been before in my fledgling career as a journalist: in the field without a contact, without an informant, without a life raft. I was going at this story cold turkey.
For an entire day I walked around Eskisehir just gauging my surroundings, and I could hardly even find any shops even selling anything made from meerschaum. I did not have a guidebook and I found most of the online resources about Eskisehir to be rather vague. So I went into a bookstore and found a Turkish language guidebook to Turkey. I dug through the pages until I came upon the Eskisehir chapter, and then scanned the words for any sign of the Turkish words for meerschaum. My searched revealed the word, “Luletasi,” and I quickly scrawled down the address that was written next to it, which was for the Meerschaum Museum.
The following morning I put on my new Turkish suit and went out to play journalist. Chaya joined me as a photographer and general sense consultant. I figured that the best place to start this mission was at the Meerschaum Museum, and we went hunting for it with the address in hand. After asking directions around two dozen times, we came upon a part of town that was all meerschaum. Carving workshops and showrooms with huge, white, decorative tobacco pipes proudly displayed in the windows were popping up along our walk through the old wooden houses in the historic district of Eskisehir.
I caught sight of an old Turkish man carving a pipe through the window of an old house, and quickly hastened towards the source. There was no sign on the building indicating that the public was welcomed inside, but the front door was left ajar. With a quick knock Chaya and I entered. We were on a hunt for a story, and had to find it ourselves – somehow. We were met on the other side of the door by a smiling meerschaum pipe carver, and found his workshop littered with half formed shapes of tobacco pipes, electric table drills, and white dust evenly distributed over everything.
Vagabond Journey with pipe carver in Eskisehir, Turkey.
I shook hands with the artisan, and tried to introduce myself as a journalist from the USA who was writing a story on meerschaum pipes. My English did not go too far, and his Turkish traveled even less. So we just smiled as each other as I pantomimed that I wanted to watch him carve a pipe. He took up my charade, and began showing me his tools as Chaya photographed everything. I looked over his drills, chisels, and half finished pipes, communicating in hand motions, smiles, and a few laughs. He showed me a cardboard box full of beautifully carved pipes, and I dug through the box in amazement.
Meerschaum luletasi pipe at its source in Eskisehir, Turkey.
It was at this moment that I became aware of the access that can be gained through simply wearing a fancy business suit.
I smoke a tobacco pipe. I like looking at pipes, talking about pipes, holding pipes, and everything else about pipes and pipe smoking. Placing a cardboard box full of beautiful meerschaum pipes in front of me is like throwing a strung out drug addict in a crack house. I was excited to look through a box of pipes with the man who carved them standing directly in front of me. I knew then that it was a good possibility that I may have previously gazed upon this man’s handicrafts in another far flung place on planet earth.
All meerschaum pipes come from Eskisehir.
Pipe in the Meerschaum museum in Eskisehir, Turkey. Chaya really liked this one because it is of a mother with a child.
I am pretty familiar with meerschaum pipes and their designs. From an initial survey of the pipes in the cardboard box, it became apparent that I was jumping into a world of meerschaum carving that was far beyond what I had previously been exposed to in other parts of the world. I was at the well spring of the world supply of meerschaum pipes. I was at the creative source of this industry, and the pipe designs in the shoebox were far beyond the standard floral, golf ball, and sultan head designs that are common in the West. I was immediately taken aback by the creative diversity of meerschaum pipes at their source.
After digging through this carver’s finished pipes for a while with overly exaggerate facial expressions, he then began naming his prices. It was time to be carrying on. I shook hands with the carver and bided him farewell. It was my intention to purchase a meerschaum pipe on this day, but I did not want to get one at my first stop. I had an entire industry of supplies and designs to search through. The carver smiled and waved goodbye. Chaya then photographed another room of his workshop, and we went off to continue our search for the Meerschaum Museum.
We eventually found it sitting on top of a hill, and quickly went inside. There was nobody guarding the door, and entrance was apparently free. I quickly found myself looking at displays of beautifully carved pipes, but also found myself alone. I had wanted to come to the Meerschaum museum to find a contact who could facilitate my meeting with a master carver, and had not anticipated that I would be standing with only Chaya in the museum. I just shrugged and continued looking at the amazing supply of pipes.
Wade with the master pipe carver, Burhan Yucel, in Eskisehir.
Sometimes in journalism you find what you need easily, and sometimes you just need to meet your dead ends with a shrug of your shoulders and find another way around the barrier.
Soon enough a couple Turkish men entered the museum and greeted me. I introduced myself as a journalist writing a story on meerschaum pipes, and when one of the men said “Washington Post?” with a laugh, I knew that he understood what I was talking about. I tried to find out where I could meet with some of the carvers who produced the museum pieces, and I was told where I could find them:
“200 meters that way,” I was told, as the men walked away.
Around this time I noticed another person in the museum. He was a young Turk with long hair who was taking photos of the museum pieces. After the men walked away he approached me.
“I heard what you said to the man, I can go with you to meet the carvers.”
We shook hands instantly, and I smiled at this stream of good fortune. An English speaking Turkish student was willing to act as my translator free of charge. I found my way in to this story.
We then went Atlihan, where many pipe carvers have showrooms, and met a master carver named Burhan Yucel. Speaking through the translator, I introduced myself. He was willing to be interviewed him, and showed me a copy of a Russian magazine that had previously run a story about him and his meerschaum pipe making opperation. I asked my questions for around two hours, and, at my request, a master carver by the name of Mehmet Ucak was brought in to provide a demonstration. Chaya took photos and videos, I collected information and stories, as he carved away at a few blocks of meerschaum.
For around an hour, Mehmet Ucak showed us how making a meerschaum pipe was done. This journalism mission was taking shape in a big way.
At the conclusion of this meeting, I thanked my impromptu translator profusely, and we parted ways. I then returned to the showroom where we conducted the interviews, and Chaya bought me a beautiful meerschaum pipe for my birthday.
Pipe carver from the Beyaz Inci meerschaum pipe shop in Eskisehir, Turkey.
The next day Chaya and I visited a workshop where the meerschaum pipes are actually carved, met with Burhan Yucel’s son, took some more photos and got a deeper impression of the art and industry of meerschaum pipe production.
I have my notes, sound recordings, photos, and videos; now I need to tie the sack up on this story and land it in print.
This mission is only halfway complete.
Meerschaum pipes from Ismail Ayan and Ramazan Baglan in Eskisehir, Turkey.
Eskisehir Meerschaum Pipe Story