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Magnate's 'eye music': He's ready to share

June 16, 2003|Michael J. Ybarra | Special to The Times

ISTANBUL — Sakip Sabanci does not take his accomplishments lightly. A section in one of the 13 books he has written about himself and his views is called "The Importance of My Having Met Three American Presidents." So it was perhaps not surprising that when Sabanci -- one of Turkey's richest men -- decided to build a world-class museum to show off his fabulous collection of Ottoman calligraphy, he did so by remodeling his family villa in suburban Istanbul and calling it the Sakip Sabanci Museum.

"I am ready to share," says Sabanci (pronounced "sa-ban-gee").

Sabanci has a lot to share. He is chairman of the Sabanci Group, a holding company with 13 subsidiaries listed on the Turkish stock exchange that together account for about 6% of the taxes paid in the country.

Sabanci businesses range from banking to cement making, from auto manufacturing to yogurt. And Sabanci loves to put his logo -- SA -- on everything he touches. His joint venture with DuPont, for example, is called DUSA. In the museum, a cartoon shows the multibillionaire running a sidewalk meatball stand with the usual Turkish name changed from kofte to kofsa. Streets in four cities are named after Sabanci. His oversized "business card" is 10 pages long.

Sabanci is equally proud when it comes to celebrating the accomplishments of his country.

"Everybody knows about Picasso and Van Gogh," he says. "But 500 years ago, we had something equally wonderful in Turkey. Calligraphy. Music for the eyes."

An elfin man of 70, Sabanci dresses like a banker -- a blue pinstripe suit, yellow tie and a red silk handkerchief neatly folded into his breast pocket. A pin of Ataturk, the revered founder of modern Turkey, adorns his lapel.

Sabanci starts an interview by recounting his family's peasant beginnings.

"My family were poor, humble workers," he says.

In 1921, Haci Omer Sabanci traveled by foot and donkey for two weeks from his village to the city of Adana, where he found work in the cotton industry. Before long, he owned a cotton mill and then a bank -- the core of the family fortune.

The elder Sabanci purchased a villa on a leafy hill in the Emirgan neighborhood up the Bosporus from Istanbul in 1951. The patriarch filled the house with porcelain from China, Sevres vases and huge chandeliers. Two of these rooms have been kept intact at the museum. A rearing bronze horse was planted on the grand lawn in front, giving the house the name Equestrian Villa.

After his father's death, Sakip Sabanci took over the company and the house. In the 1970s he became a passionate collector of Ottoman calligraphy, amassing a superb trove of almost 500 works, half of which are on display.

"The experts tell us it is the best collection of its kind in the world," says Sema Sagat, the museum's acting director.

It's certainly a great treasure. The Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453 and turned the capital of Christianity into the center of the Islamic world. Since Islam forbids making images of people or animals -- which only God can create -- artistic energy was poured into making the word of Allah as revealed in the Koran beautiful to the eye.

In the Hagia Sofia, the Ottomans effaced Byzantine mosaics and decorated the church-cum-mosque with intricate Arabic script from the Koran. Five centuries later, it's still difficult to say which is more beautiful.

The most lavish expression of Ottoman calligraphy was the illustration of Korans, which before the introduction of printing was a laborious task that occupied whole workshops. The great master Seyh Hamdullah spent most of his life copying Korans, and by the time he died in his 90s he had produced only 47. So admired was Hamdullah's work that Sultan Bayezid II would hold the inkwell for the calligrapher while he wrote.

Some Ottoman Korans have only a few lines of text on a page -- the rest of the space filled with fantastic floral designs and magnificent geometric patterns with vivid blues and reds and high-karat gold leaf that 500 years later still shines like the sun.

"I was attracted by the beauty and majesty of this art form," Sabanci writes in a museum catalog. "Later on I came to understand the importance of protecting and preserving Ottoman calligraphy so that it might be appreciated by a new generation."

In 1998, Sabanci decided to turn his villa into a museum -- inspired by a visit to the DuPont Museum in Wilmington, Del. "The DuPont family home was converted into a museum," he recalls. "I thought it was a wonderful idea. I will copy it.

"My friends thought I was crazy, that I should wait until I was dead," he says. "It was not easy. I remembered trees and flowers and rugs and chandeliers. But I was determined. I must see the museum. It's easy to promise. Action is different."

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