THE SADDLER A Craft in the Shadow of Time

 Halting the clacking sound of his century-old Singer sewing machine, he turned on the radio. A commentator was describing an exciting football match. While Kadir usta (usta means ‘Master’ and is used in Turkish as a title of respect after the names of craftsmen of all kinds, from plumbers to jewellers) listened, his assistant spread out his prayer mat and began to perform the afternoon prayers. Match and prayers had brought a halt to work, and on the long work table straps, beads and tools lay untouched. It was Saturday, and the lazy weekend mood had set in. Kadir Baldan was apprenticed to a master saddler in Konya at the age of 12, and after completing the long years of apprenticeship and journeymanship, had become a master saddler in his turn. He worked in Konya for many years before moving to Istanbul. Passersby cannot resist stopping to look at the harnesses and bridles hung up outside his workshop in Küçükpazar. You might think that his customers would all be the proud possessors of horses, donkeys and carts, but no, many of them buy his harnesses as decorations, and tourists buy them as unusual souvenirs. ‘Who can account for taste?’ he remarks. ‘Some people buy them because they need them, and some to decorate their homes and offices.’ The first thing that strikes you when you enter one of these saddler’s shops is the strong smell. 

This is the smell of the oiled cowhide and water buffalo hide left by the tanning process, but Kadir usta says that the saddlers do not find it unpleasant. ‘To us it is as sweet as a rose,’ he declares. Huge numbers of different articles are made by the saddlers in their old-fashioned workshops. Kadir usta could not put a number to it but listed a few to indicate the variety. There are belmeme, a kind of horse blanket to protect the horse from cold and rain, hamut, a collar for draft horses, curved lengths of wood for keeping the shafts straight, reins, nosebags, talismans and many more. ‘Your pen would run out of ink before you had written them all down,’ he told me. The tools are almost as diverse: tools for piercing, cutting, sewing and riveting, all passed down from father to son. ‘The tools we use are at least fifty years old, and some a century.

 Our Singer sewing machine is just one of the latter, and the teber (a knife for cutting leather) is at least fifty years old. All the tools have their own local names. The cutter used for trimming the edges of the straps is known as a yan alacağı, that used for sewing as a çengelli biz, and so on.’ How is business for the traditional saddlers in other parts of the country, I wondered, without tourists to buy their products as souvenirs? Some are still managing to earn a living in Kırklareli, Erdek, Muğla, Sivas, and Safranbolu; in short, wherever riding and working horses are still being used. Sadettin Günü is a saddler in Erdek, a charming seaside resort on the southern shores of the Marmara Sea. The shop window was attractively arranged almost like a museum exhibition with harnesses decorated with beads and talismans to stave off the evil eye. Upon entering his workshop I saw numerous other articles on display. I was astonished at the fine craftsmanship. 

Sadettin usta works together with his son Mehmet. In Sivas I visited Karagöz Saraç owned by Veysel Karagöz, one of the youngest saddlers in the city. On his workshop walls are several posters depicting horses, which not surprisingly are his favourite animal. ‘As well as my customers some people come into the shop just to look at these pictures. I love my work, but demand has dwindled considerably in recent years. Horses and carts have been replaced by motorcycles and vans, and many people have migrated to the cities. Our trade is dying out.’ With the wide variety of motor-driven vehicles for every purpose now available, traditional riding animals like horses, donkeys and mules and the carts they pulled are rapidly disappearing. 

Distances which used to take days and weeks along tracks in the rain and snow sixty or seventy years ago, today take just a few hours, and horses and carts have vanished along with the cobbled roads with the arrival of cars and asphalt. Saddlers all over Turkey are no longer training apprentices and journeymen, so as they retire their shops are closing down. The steadily decreasing numbers of those who still continue to pursue their traditional trade in defiance of technology will be the last. ‘Today motorcycles have taken over from horses and donkeys even in the villages. There is barely any demand for our products any longer, and we and our trade are destined for the museum. Just as you can’t learn to play the saz after the age of 40, how can we learn a new trade?’ I cannot forget these words spoken by a craftsman I met in Elazığ. And another told me that most of the people who visited his shop these days were either in search of unusual decorations or amateur photographers.