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Coppersmiths In Turkey Embrace Their Dying Art

Nov 22, 2015
Originally published on November 28, 2015 6:40 am

Like many of the stops on one of the world's great trade routes, the Silk Road, Trabzon used to be a lot more important than it is today. But the old market streets of this Turkish Black Sea port city still ring with sounds that could have been heard when ancient Greeks and Romans walked these streets.

The patient, rhythmic tapping of hammer on metal permeates this alley of coppersmiths. Shelves are filled with gleaming pots, bowls and pitchers. In a corner of each shop, a single worker, usually an older man, patiently toils away on his latest creation — never quite identical to the ones that preceded it.

Mahmut Efeoglu, 70, says the copper cooking pots are gorgeous and conduct heat superbly. He says he enjoys working with the soft metal.

"You can tap it into a variety of shapes — it's the best for cooking," he says. "I started learning from my father when I was 7. Right now I'm going to open this piece up a bit so it fits on top of that other one," he adds, reaching for a pair of long-handled tin snips.

Gorgeous though they may be, old-style copper pots are relatively hard to maintain. With sales down, Efeoglu has turned to crafting decorative copper minarets, suitable for mosques or observant Muslim homes.

As he assembles a minaret, he says he'd like to believe this generation of smiths won't be one of the last. "Coppersmithing has been around a long time," he says, adding that he's taught his own sons the trade.

"I have two sons. They're not here, they have their own business, a transport company," he says. "But they know how to smith, and I hope they'll be here when I'm gone."

'Fading Away Into Memory'

Cowbells can be made from copper as well, to keep track of herds in the morning fog. But coppersmiths in a number of countries face a common threat — an influx of cheap, mass-produced, nonstick cookware that doesn't have to be looked after as carefully as copper.

In a closet-size shop, Muzaffer Gole heats the inside of a copper pan over a propane burner. He grabs a pinch of white powder — ammonium chloride — and rubs it around the pan.

He's repairing the thin coating of tin that lines the cooking surface of the pot. This keeps the copper from reacting with acidic foods like tomatoes. It takes only two minutes, he says, but it is extra work you don't need with modern cookware. There used to be seven "tinners" on this street, Gole says — but no longer.

"We're fading away into memory, like the stone mills for hand-grinding flour and the other old ways," he says, reaching for another pot.

Fading, perhaps. But not gone yet.

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