Merging Anaxagoras with Yunus Emre

Merging Anaxagoras with Yunus Emre

At a time when political tension is absorbing so much of our energy, it is fascinating that we still have the power to be affected or shocked by a piece of art.

I am referring to the recent controversy sparked by a statue of the ancient Greek philosopher Anaxagoras, which was erected in Urla, near İzmir, by local sculptors Ismail İsmail Taşoku and Ferit Furuncu, who were apparently given the initial idea by the academic Mahmut Tolon.

Anaxagoras is perhaps the most famous ancient figure related to Urla (or Vurla for the Greek inhabitants of the place before 1922). It is the site of the old city of Klazomenai, famous for its olive oil and terracotta works, where Anaxagoras was born in 500 B.C. The massive terracotta sarcophagus thought initially to house the remains of Alexander the Great and exhibited today in the Istanbul’s Archaeological Museum, dates from the time of Anaxagoras’s birth. So, what could be more natural for these two local sculptors to want to be inspired by their Klazomenian ancestor and wanting to revive him through their art?

This is where the problem starts. How do you artistically restore an ancient philosopher who lived in your town two and a half thousand years ago? And who was Greek? Do you portray him as a polytheist or atheist Greek philosopher who challenged traditional beliefs and who claimed that “The moon is not a god but a great rock and the sun is a hot rock.” Or would you tend to depict him as a Turkish Sufi mystic who is closer to your culture?

It seems that the two artists from Urla chose the middle way and decided to literally combine “two in one.” As they stated themselves, their life-size sculpture of Anaxagoras sitting now in a slightly reclining position on its permanent seat in Urla, has the body and feet of the ancient sage but the head of the Sufi mystic who wears a characteristic “sarik” as head gear.

Not surprisingly, the sculpture also sparked controversy among the inhabitants of Urla; they could not get the idea of merging two personalities with about one thousand years between them and with diametrically opposing world views. “He either has to be Anaxagoras or Yunus Emre,” they said.

But what did Anaxagoras really look like? The most known sculpture of Anaxagoras, which is a Roman copy of the classical original, shows a handsome middle-aged man with mid-length hair and short beard and moustache looking slightly down in a pensive way. The problem is that in classical and Hellenistic times the sculptors used to depict famous people in an unrealistic manner. They were adding idealistic characteristics according to their public and intellectual status. So, philosophers were shown as modest in appearance, deep in thinking and with high moral prestige. Later in Hellenistic times, their statues were given specific characteristics of their philosophical ideas, like a calm expression for an Epicurean or a more intense expression for Stoics.

During the Byzantine period, some like Aristotle or Plato appeared like Apostles and were dressed accordingly.

We also find him depicted as a medieval philosopher in one of the first published books in 1493 from the Nuremberg Chronicle where he wears a red soft head cover and a red coat with white collar pointing with his two fingers. But we also see him in neo-classical wall frescoes dressed in his classical clothing holding his favorite globe.

So, back to our main story: The question is not whether the new statue has Anaxagoras’s head covered or not. The question is whether the ancient Anaxagoras - who believed that “nothing is born or dies, but is rather transformed and put into order by the most powerful thing, which is the human mind” - can become the part of the piece of art together with a great Muslim mystic? 

Personally, I don’t think so. But maybe I’m just ignorant of the deeper message of Yunus Emre’s transcendental world.