A Meerschaum Adventure in Turkey

This week’s post is something a bit different – a guest blog by Bohdan Shulakewych. I have worked on many of Bohdan’s pipes, including some of his much-loved meerschaums. I hope you enjoy the read! – Charles


I’ve been reading Charles’ blog almost religiously. I have provided him a number of pipes from my extensive collection for upgrades and fix ups over the last year. You’ve seen many of them in these pages. I’ve requested Charles to allow me to contribute as a guest on his blog.

Each blog contains an almost archeological dig-like quality as to the provenance and history of a pipe and the chatter marks which I liken to hieroglyphics left as an imprimatur of an owner’s intent and determination. One of the most striking features of the pipes is the love that their owners bestow on them either as a working tool and or as an adjunct to their life as they meander from one day to the next.

To me, a good pipe always was about quiet contemplation and meditation either in reading or enjoying life. It is not so much the smoke, but the rituals of it that enhance and invite the experience and encourages you to continue. It is a type of concerto: the first movement the adagio, selection of the pipe, the pre cleaning, the filling at 1/3 levels and gently packing, the slight tamping down; followed by the second movement the Larghetto by lighting the wooden match and gently rolling it over the tobacco field to start the embers and taking the first exhilarating puff as you gaze outwards; then the third movement the Largo where you gently and slowly puff at regular intervals all the while exhaling the aroma of the leaf as the cloud surrounds you and you contemplate your good fortune; but, like any concerto there is a coda the leaf withers into dying embers now ashen and all you have left is the aromatic smell of tobacco that will trigger and rekindle long lost memories.

And so, to the Meer.

This is my favourite pipe. The smoke is cool. The pipe changes in colour and in nature; the pipes themselves are a work of art. This picture shows my Meer collection. These are unsmoked as they were purchased for their artistic value and handled at all times with gloves so as not to allow bodily oils to block the porous nature of the Meer allowing it to turn a mahogany colour over time if smoked. If you handle the unsmoked Meer over time the bodily oils will stain the pipe.

There are two types of Meer. The Turkish and the African. The African is far more “liquified” than its Turkish counterpart. The Turkish Meer is known for its availability in big blocks. Unfortunately, time is fast running out for these big blocks and fewer and fewer of them are available.

In 1999 my wife and I went to Turkey to visit and hook up with our friends Bora and Bahadir. A fundamental part of my trip was to visit Eskicehir and the pipemaker Girghiz. Eskicehir is a small town like many in Turkey that still very much clings to the old roman ways e.g. on hot days they cool down the town by spraying water down the streets so that when the hot winds blow through the streets the wind is cooled by the cold water as it makes its way through town.

We arrived at his farm/ workplace and were greeted by Girghiz himself. As is the custom amongst the Turks we were invited to join for tea. My wife although western was invited to sit separately with the women.

After tea we were invited to see on how they mine the Meer. Again, old roman technology still works. Essentially a worker was lowered on a seat rope with an axe about 10 – 20 feet down a mine shaft and would carve the Meer blocks from the mine and have them lifted to the surface.

I was then taken to the workshop where a worker brought out 2 large hockey dufflebags filled with Meers. My jaw dropped. I began examining the Meers. They were grand bazaar quality. Trinkets. Crap. I was disappointed and I let it be known to them when I asked: ” Is this the best you have?” They replied: “oh you want the good quality pipes” I looked at them incredulously and replied “of course!”

They then returned with two suitcases of Meers. You’ll notice that we have now been elevated from dufflebag to suitcase. Before I began the process of examining the pipes they showed me how they start to carve the Meer from a big block.

After it has been carved, roughly, they take out their dental drills and tools and begin the carving process of the Meer, it is slow and very painstaking. Once finished, it is polished on a wheel and the bit added.

The way I selected my Meers (that is me in the foreground, below, with the magnifying glass) is to ensure that they are consistently carved and all around. Make sure that the defects are not hidden by obtuse carving or being unsymmetrical. Ensure that the bowl is even through out. Bring the magnifying glass to ensure that there are no hairline cracks. Finally, understand the artistry and thought that went into the pipe and what it attempts to express.

If you are like me, you will have a series of pipes that have artistic value and should only be viewed. Other Meers, should be used as utility everyday smoking pipes for the sheer joy. For me the Meer is both a visual feast and a soothing balm at the end of a trying day.

Hope this has added to your appreciation of the Meer.

Bohdan