Turkish island with a rocky treasure

Turkish island with a rocky treasure

Wilco Van Herpen
Turkish island with a rocky treasure

For 2,000 years, the island of Marmara has played a very important role in the history of marble.

How can a “small” island be of world importance for the ancient world?

I am talking about the island of Marmara, which has been famous throughout history. It was more than 2,000 years ago that people already understood the importance of this little island in the Sea of Marmara. The Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans; all of them valued the quality and beauty of the marble that was quarried from the island.

While approaching Marmara Island by ship, the island does not give you any clue whatsoever of the hidden richness of the piece of land. Actually, while approaching the island all you see is a dry, bare and mountainous place. The island is not as dry as you might think; it actually has more water than you can think of in contrast to all the Greek islands that have no natural source of water supply.

But it is the marble of this island that I want to write about; every foreigner in Turkey must have seen it somewhere but might not have been aware of it. Being or living in Turkey, you cannot ignore the amount of marble that is being used in houses, shopping malls, hotels and many other places. There is a kind of tradition or maybe love for using this fantastic stone and, in addition, there are many advantages to using this stone. It does not absorb water or oil (that’s why it is being used in kitchens a lot), is a very hard stone, is resistant against microbes and lasts forever.  

It all started 2,000 (maybe even longer) years ago when the Romans discovered the little island with its God(s)-given material. Soon the first stone craftsmen moved to the island and started cutting the top-quality marble out of the mountains. The rock is beautiful, pure and plentiful. The craftsmen cut the marble in the same fashion as craftsmen in Italy, Greece or any other place do, preparing the columns or statues in a rough way and leaving the rest for the real stone master. If a statue was damaged or if they made a mistake, then they just threw that part away and made a new one.

The advantage of this prefab way of working was that the weight of the cargo would be less. Another advantage was that finished statues, columns or other pieces might get damaged during transport. That would be a waste of time and materials so the ancients chose to create the finished product in the place where it would ultimately be stationed.

For 2,000 years, the island has played a very important role in the history of marble and still, even today, this is one of the best places to get your marble. Naturally, they use the latest technology, so if you want a nice pattern in your house, just ask them because they do not know the word “no” at the workshops and factories in Marmara. Whatever you want they can find. The quality of the marble is excellent; 95 percent of the stone is marble, an amount you hardly find in any other country that produces the stone. The name and history of the marble coming from this island is so prominent that even the BBC made a documentary about it while working on a documentary about the Byzantine period.

Marmara’s marble has even become an exclusive brand; in the Vatican you can find marble coming from the island, as well as in Syria. Experts are 100 percent sure that the origin of the marble is from Marmara because the island’s rock is so specific one cannot find any other marble like it in the entire world.

If you have ever visited Ephesus, the chance that you have stumbled upon marble coming from the island is quite high, as the Temple of Artemis was made from marble that came from Marmara.
During the course of the three big civilizations in this region (the Roman, the Byzantine and the Ottoman), all countries bordering the Mediterranean wanted to use the marble for their palaces, churches, mosques and statues. During the early 18th century, the marble industry was so significant that the English established a factory on the island. It was from that time on that the extraction of marble became an even bigger and more booming business. A new, state-of-the-art factory was built together with a harbor and the expectation was that this would be one of the biggest industrial masterpieces of English industry abroad.

Unfortunately two world wars thwarted this project and in the end, it was the Turks who continued with the marble business. Still you can find the remains of the factory together with some old cars and many machines that are waiting for a new life. A museum about the marble industry would be a nice idea but unfortunately, as with many ideas in Turkey, this has yet to be realized. It would be a unique museum since it was here that people for the first time in world history industrialized the extraction of marble from the mountains. Still all the equipment and machines are there; all it needs is a slight touch to make it more representable. Unfortunately the owner of the land and buildings could not come to an agreement with former Marmara Mayor Güner Yavuz, and the factory remains in its former state. This is one of the things I do not understand about Turkey; they have a treasure in their hands but do not use it at all.

When I visited the island for the first time in 2008 Yavuz, who unfortunately passed away, was talking about the project but until today nobody has been able to realize such an endeavor. It is time to wake up for Turkey, it is so easy to earn “easy” money in places like Antalya, Bodrum or Kuşadası but I think the priority of the Culture and Tourism Ministry, and in this case the owner of the marble factory, should be in longer-lasting projects. This museum would attract visitors who are interested in marble and its history. Not acknowledging this opportunity would mean missing another chance for Turkey and especially Marmara Island.