Documenting an almost lost trade in the coppersmith quarter of Denizli

Denizli isn’t on most people’s list when they’re planning they’re Turkey travel itinerary. Still, due to its proximity to Pamukkale, you may end up it the city anyway, or you may at least pass through it. It is an industrial city with an old coppersmith quarter that is home to a few of the last remaining alemci’s in Turkey. You may ask yourself what an alemci is, but you’re without a doubt familiar with the look of an alem, even if you didn’t know the term. In short, an alemci makes alems. And an alem is the metal decoration you will find on top of a minaret or a roof, usually decorated with a crescent moon. Anyone in Turkey must have seen hundreds of alems, but did you know that there are almost no people left that still make them? We felt it was time to document the nearly lost trade of the alemci.

Admiring Their Finished Product

Admiring Their Finished Product

Alemci, Fascinating To Watch!

Alemci, Fascinating To Watch!

 

Visiting one of Denizli’s (and Turkey’s) last alemci’s

The coppersmith quarter in Denizli is a world on its own. In a maze of narrow streets, you’ll find one coppersmith workshop next to the other. Their goods are displayed in the various shops and are real works of art. Even the simplest daily objects such as knives and scissors seem special in a place like this. But we came to this quarter with a mission: documenting the work of an alemci, of which there are only three left in Denizli and about 20 more in the rest of Turkey. In a country with over 80 million people, this qualifies as an almost lost trade. The making of alems is a centuries-old craft we hope won’t disappear, but the testimonies of still active alemci’s aren’t optimistic; it seems hard to find new apprentices or qualified workers willing to take on the job. For many alemci’s, this means their workshop will be closed once they’re unable to continue to work. For now, the future looks bright in Denizli, where young people have learned the trade and are keeping this age-old tradition alive.

Typical Shop In The Coppersmith Quarter

Typical Shop In The Coppersmith Quarter

 

How to make an alem

Each alem is a unique, handmade composition that constitutes of several pieces of metal assembled to one. Alems can be made out of different materials, but usually, copper or even silver is used. Every alem, regardless of its height, is generally composed out of eight different pieces, so the alemci said. The process is almost entirely handwork, and skilled hands are needed to make an alem. After the copper components are cut to the right size, the sides are split into a serrated edge, and the copper sheet is shaped into a curve.

A Basic But Efficient Toolset

A Basic But Efficient Toolset

Alem Components Waiting To Be Put Together

Alem Components Waiting To Be Put Together

Then, both ends meet under the hammer on an anvil, where the teeth of the serrated edges are first straightened, and then hammered together to close the element. The alemci is so skilled that the whole process only takes a few minutes.

The Skilled Alemci Hands

The Skilled Alemci Hands

Closing Up The Copper Element Of The Alem

Closing Up The Copper Element Of The Alem

Once all the teeth are closed, the alemci fist cuts and then folds the outer ends of the assembly to make it stronger and to prevent it from collapsing. Then a last tour on the anvil to assure the piece keeps a beautiful and circular form.

Bending The Ends For More Firmness

Bending The Ends For More Firmness

At this point, the pieces leave the workshop to be molded into the perfect shape to compose the alem. This is the only part of the process where machines are involved. The alemci’s keep examples of the molds at their workplace, but they don’t use them on site.

Molds Used To Create The Typical Alem Shapes

Molds Used To Create The Typical Alem Shapes

More Work Awaits

More Work Awaits

After that, the parts are assembled to create one gorgeous and unique piece: the alem. Before the alem is shipped to its buyer, a protective coating is applied to prevent oxidation.

Finished Alems And Some Of Their Unfinished Components

Finished Alems And Some Of Their Unfinished Components

 

Alems & alemci’s facts & figures

Many of today’s remaining alemci’s have learned the skill from their father. It is estimated that around Turkey less than 25 alemci are still active. Most of them do not have someone that will take over their business when they retire. Apart from the three alemci’s in Denizli, we were told that five are still active in Izmir and about fifteen more around Ankara. The alemci we’ve visited sells between 750 to 800 alems per year for up to 1.000 Lira per piece, depending on the size.

Allah Written Inside The Crescent Moon

Allah Written Inside The Crescent Moon

 

More things to see & do around Denizli

If you are in Denizli, you may want to check out a few of the beautifully painted mosques that can be found in the area. Or why not stop at Kaklık Cave, and of course visit Hierapolis and Pamukkale. Denizli is easy to reach by public transport from all major cities in Turkey, and it also has an airport.

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ALL PICTURES © @AEGEAN.IMAGES – special thanks to Serkan Ezgin and Bilal Caran for welcoming us into their workshop and serving us delicious and steaming hot tea

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