By Heidi Trautmann
Many years ago, there was a young man in Ağirdag, and from his childhood days on he would roam the mountains like a goat. Soon, the mountains behind his parents’ house were not enough, so he went on to explore the slopes along the mountain range. There were caves to discover; what could be more interesting and adventurous? One day, around Ozanköy, he found old artefacts in one of the caves, artefacts from the Bronze Age as he soon found out. And as he was a clever young man, he knew what they were worth. With time he became an expert and – since he was a builder by profession – he built a restaurant which he named Bronze Age Restaurant.
Unfortunately, the police did not approve of or share his passion. They caught him at the airport with 55 pieces in his suitcase and he was sentenced in court to pay a fine for what he had done: smuggling and selling his own country’s cultural heritage.
“Once I had paid the fine, I thought that it wasn’t worth continuing in this way, so I decided to change my life.” But he had become so used to the beauty of the old Bronze Age artefacts, to the touch of the clay pieces, flasks, figurines, all sorts of containers for both the household and worship, beautifully decorated with linear patterns, that he started to make them himself. Working with clay from nature was not uncommon to him, and at a lake near Ağirdag – Sirinevler – he took fresh clay and worked it into what he had come to love.
“I taught my son how to do the work, knead the clay, form it with his hands just like our ancestors had done, not with the wheel, and by not making negative forms and pouring the liquid clay into them. No, every piece is absolutely hand made.”
A friend, Hikmet Uluçam, who loves working with clay himself, introduced me to Ali and Mehmet Piro who now have their studio in the old restaurant in Dikmen on the road from the Near East University to the Lefkoşa-Girne highway. People used to come here for kebabs and Cypriot Turkish cuisine. He had to close it down last year as the new regulations for restaurants have become very strict and too expensive. There, in the big hall under arches, the artist keeps his finished ‘Bronze Age’ works and, if Hikmet hadn’t told me, I would never have believed that the pieces I saw there were copies made by Mehmet Piro.
“Yes,” father Ali says, “my son applied to the Antiquity Department in Nicosia for the right to copy the Bronze Age pieces and he got it, here it is on the wall.” And he shows me the certificate which gives Mehmet Piro permission to copy and sell the pieces.
We are invited to sit around his work table near the window. All the family is about to decorate the pieces they had done two days before – or until the clay had become leather hard – with fine line patterns. Then he attaches a second part to the structure using rather liquid clay to make a proper connection. After that the piece goes back on the shelf to dry out. All the decorations and colouring are done before firing. “We use our big kebab firin to fire them, it is the way the Bronze Age people did it. We place the pieces into the firin and build a really good fire around them. When the flames become almost whitish, we should have a temperature of about 600 - 750°C. We have to keep the fire going for almost 6 hours. When we cover the pieces with ash or leaves we get a black finish. After that we let the fire die and the pieces cool down.”
They must have done intensive research, I think, and Mehmet confirms this: “We bought books and learnt about the Bronze Ages, the manufacture of clay goods, what they were used for and also about the designs that were applied.” He gives me some literature to demonstrate the designs and technique and I take some photos.
It is another proof that present and past are forever connected, that it takes the determination of people like Ali and Mehmet Piro to make their passion come alive again, to show us and our people in the future the fascinating culture of yesterday.
Address: Mehmet Piro: 0533 877 0463; 0392 237 2136 (home) and 0392 237 2135 (studio)