Pelin Esmer in Honolulu

Although Hawai‘i, as a crossroads between the United States, Asia, and the Pacific, is a very cosmopolitan place, it is rare to find connections to Turkish culture—and visitors from Turkey are even rarer. Shangri La was pleased to host Turkish filmmaker Pelin Esmer for a five-day residency January 10–14, 2014.

Esmer arrived on January 10 from snow-bound Idaho, the previous stop on her lecture tour. She seemed shocked as she emerged from Honolulu International Airport into the blazing sunshine and warmth. She was delighted to learn that her hotel sat on the beach in Waikīkī, and was able to add a daily swim to her busy schedule.

Pelin Esmer gives a talk at Shangri La about her experiences as a filmmaker.
Pelin Esmer gives a talk at Shangri La about her experiences as a filmmaker.
Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i.

Esmer’s first public presentation was on January 11—an afternoon talk at Shangri La about her experiences as a filmmaker. The talk was moderated by Dr. Vilsoni Hereniko, an award-winning Fijian filmmaker and professor of film at the University of Hawai‘i. That evening, Esmer introduced a screening of her award-winning film Watchtower at the Honolulu Museum of Art and answered questions from the audience following the film.

Esmer also gave a presentation and screened film clips to students enrolled in Global Studies classes at James Campbell High School in ‘Ewa Beach, which gave her a chance to experience O‘ahu’s more rural settings. The students enjoyed her clips and comments, and had many questions for her about how she writes the stories for her films, about how she gets her films made, and about everyday life for people in Turkey. Her presentation at Campbell High School was co-sponsored by the Pacific and Asian Affairs Council, a Honolulu-based organization with a mission to promote greater awareness and understanding of international affairs and to strengthen Hawai‘i’s role in the Asia/Pacific Region.

Pelin Esmer with students from James Campbell High School. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i.
Pelin Esmer with students from James Campbell High School.
Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i.

In every presentation, Pelin Esmer clearly demonstrated that her stories about life, everyday problems, and the complexities of human emotions resonate with people worldwide. Those who were lucky enough to attend her events are already asking when she will return to Honolulu. Shangri La staff are grateful to Caravanserai for helping us bring such a wonderful and talented filmmaker to Hawai‘i. We hope that the transition from Honolulu to Anchorage, Esmer’s next stop, won’t be too much of a shock for her!

This Summer at Aphrodisias: A Roman City


The partial reconstruction of a ceremonial street decorated with high relief sculpture in an architectural setting. The unfinished project will be completed in 2013. (Photo: Kent Severson.)

A little after four in the morning, the silence is broken by the sound of drummers passing nearby, waking the faithful early to eat before beginning the day’s fast. It is Ramadan in south west Turkey. I arrived at the New York University archaeological excavations at Aphrodisias on the ninth of July and the wake-up sequence has started with drummers since the twentieth. The drummers wake the dogs, who howl to each other until the call to prayer echoes across the landscape a little after five, as Homer’s ‘rosy fingered dawn’ begins to light the sky. Going back to sleep is hopeless, and so begins another day on an active archaeological site.

Aphrodisias is a well preserved, medium-sized Roman city, known for its wealth of sculpture and extravagantly decorated buildings. To learn more about the site, visit the New York University website. This season marks my twentieth year of participation in the project. Future participation will depend on the work load at Shangri La, but it is likely that this will be my last full season—making for a wistful, nostalgic six weeks.

Quinn Ferris and Volkan Sevinç cleaning an inscription on the shattered marble floor of the Civil Basilica for photography. (Photo: Kent Severson.)

I am the senior field conservator at Aphrodisias, and my primary responsibility is for the care of artifacts from the moment of discovery—through the process of cleaning and stabilization—to a new life in the on-site museum or in a long-term storage depot. I have two student interns this season, Quinn Ferris from the New York University Institute of Fine Arts conservation training program and Volkan Sevinç from Ankara University’s Vocational Training School conservation program. While waiting for newly excavated finds to appear, they patiently nibble away at our backlog of over a thousand coins from previous seasons, which were waiting to be cleaned, and boxes of Late Roman glass tessera wall mosaics.

The season begins somewhat slowly. Archaeologists have opened two big excavations, one in a long decorative pool that was the centerpiece of a colonnaded stoa in the center of the city, known as the South Agora, and another series of trenches along what might be called Aphrodisias’s “Broadway,” a central street connecting the theater with the sacred area near the Temple of Aphrodite. The superimposed layers of soil in both excavations begin with a thick layer of Medieval mud that yields few artifacts of note.

The Hadrianic Bath in 2010 at the end of the season. This year’s work is taking place in the center rooms of the complex, under the limestone arches. (Photo: Ian Cartwright for N.Y.U Aphrodisias Excavations.)

Meanwhile, in addition to looking after recently excavated material, I work with my colleague Trevor Proudfoot, of Cliveden Conservation Workshop, Maidenhead, England, to stabilize and preserve larger structures and their decorative features in situ. Since 2008 we have been working in a large bath building, built during the time of Hadrian (AD 117–138). This season, in addition to relaying shattered floors and revetments, we clear debris from a collapsed hypocaust, an under-floor heating system. Although previously excavated, tons of soil, broken mortar and stones, and other debris remain; with our shade nets up and a long ramp in place, the work resembles a mining operation.

Kent Severson at the start of clearing operations in the hypocaust of the Hadrianic Bath. (Photo: Trevor Proudfoot.)
Excavator Austen Di Pinto (New York University Institute of Fine Arts) measuring the location of one of the Roman portrait statues just before lifting from the trench. (Photo: Ian Cartwright.)

Things don’t heat up in the excavations until August 13, with the discovery of two life-size Roman portrait sculptures that had been used as footing for a Medieval wall. It takes an entire day for me and a team of workmen to extricate them, but by the 16th they are lifted by crane and transported to our workshop for cleaning. The sculptures are deposited, one face up and one face down, at an elevation where rising and falling groundwater leaves behind a hard grey crust. The Late Antique portrait of a very stout man that was face up cannot easily be cleaned in the short time left to us on site, but the High Imperial portrait that was face down cleans up beautifully, revealing exquisite carving and traces of a high polish.

With the end of Ramadan on the 19th of August, the 2012 excavations at Aphrodisias come to an exciting end. Upon hearing that it might be my last full season for some time, my friends and colleagues conspire to throw a surprise dinner and dance party in my honor before we all leave to return to the real world. Saying “so long” to the local workmen with whom I have labored for so many years breaks my heart, but the warmth expressed by my teammates provides necessary closure. Although I will miss archaeological field work dearly, I look forward to the days ahead at Shangri La.