An Overview of the History

“Istanbul” has been attributed a wide range of meanings throughout history. In the recent periods, the borders of Istanbul have extended so vastly that this historical city has almost merged with Kocaeli in the east and with Tekirdag in the west. Today, there are 39 district governorships under the administration of the Governorship of Istanbul. With respect to the area they cover, they are each wide enough to be a province of their own. Within this perspective, it would not be wrong to express that Istanbul has almost become a state in its own right. It is quite difficult to understand the characteristics of a cultural structure with such a vast geography and dense population. Thus, it would be more appropriate to deal with the traditional features of the city rather than its current structure in the present day.

In the past, only people living within the Old city of Istanbul/historical peninsula, which corresponds to Fatih district in the present day, would say “I live in Istanbul”. The historical center of Istanbul was the area between Süleymaniye and Sultanahmet, it might also include Fatih Mosque to some extent. The places after Saraçhane would be called “taşra (periphery- suburbs)”. The places such as Yavuz Selim, Çarşamba, Karagümrük, Edirnekapı, and Kocamustafapaşa would be counted among the taşra districts. The center of Istanbul was the Palace. In relation to this, it was favorable to stay close to the Palace in the Old City of Istanbul/Historical Peninsula.

Living around Ayasofya, Alemdar Slope, around Yerebatan, at Divanyolu, Süleymaniye, Beyazıt, Soğanağa, and Kıztaşı, Horhor, Laleli, Sofular, Aksaray would mean one was staying close to the Palace.

Old Mansions (Konak) and the Life in Old Istanbul

In the places close to the center, there were big mansions rather than small houses. Mansions were big structures, where statesmen would stay, and they were mostly used in the winter. As a mansion with more than three stories would be regarded as an attempt to rise to sky and challenge the power of the God, and despise the neighboring dwellers, the mansions would generally not have more than three stories. The people of the Old City of Istanbul would prefer to stay in detached houses with a garden, surrounded by walls. It would be regarded as an unacceptable situation for these people to live in the blocks where people with no kinship would use the same entrance. Living in blocks with apartments one on top of another was peculiar to the non-Muslims, especially to the Jewish. Thus, these buildings were called “yahudhane” or “çıfıthane” (Jewish residence).

The mansions had big gates and housed crowded families. They might include sections such as selamlık (reception hall) and divanhane (office hall), The existence of a divanhane in a residence would refer to the fact that official dealings were conducted there. Statesmen, pashas (here, pasha means a rank both in military and civil bureaucracy), living in these mansions, would deal with the state affairs in these divanhanes, and thus these buildings were also called Paşa Konağı (Pasha Mansion).

These mansions were also called devlethane (house of the state) since they were big and the owner pashas conducted state affairs inside. The expression fakirhane (house of the poor) was the way to express humbleness for the mansion owner. As an example, a person inviting another one to his mansion would speak as such:

Would you honor my fakirhane one day?

While the person invited would reply as such:

It is humbleness of you. I would be honored to visit your devlethane.

1- The harem section in an Istanbul mansion

This manner was representative of the mutual discourse and moral code of the Istanbulite. Among the examples of these pasha mansions, which are still standing in Istanbul, are Talat Paşa Mansion in Sultanahmet, Suphi Paşa Mansion in Fatih, Bülbül Tevfik Paşa Mansion in Cağaloğlu, Rauf Paşa Mansion (today serves as the City Directorate of National Education), Mahmut Muhtar Paşa Mansion in Moda, Ahmet Ratip Paşa Mansion (today known as Kız Lisesi-Girls High School) in Çamlıca, Hacı Salih Efendi Mansion (today known as -Museum of Public Health) in Divanyolu. In addition to them, Süleymaniye Kayserili Ahmed Paşa Mansion, Sultanahmet Recep Peker Mansion, Necmeddin Molla Mansion and Reji Nazırı [the superintendent of the Tobacco Monopoly] Mansion (today known as Yeşil Ev-Green House) are among the beautiful examples of wooden mansions.

Despite not being in the city center, the Şerif Paşa Mansion in Bağlarbaşı, Kavafyan Mansion in Bebek and Prinkipo Greek Orphanage in Büyükada might also be counted among the big wooden mansions belonging to the early periods.

There was also a harem part in addition to the divanhane. The Harem was where the women lived. Other people were not allowed to enter this part of the mansion. Generally, the entrances of the harem were separate from the main entrances. Apart from the divanhane and harem, there were outdoor quarters in the mansions, where the servants and attendants of the mansion would stay.

The kitchen would never be close to the main parts of the mansion. The aim was to prevent the smell of the meals from spreading into the rooms. Thus, the kitchens would be built in the gardens. That the kitchen was built in a separate place other than the mansion was an indicator of the fact that said mansion was above standard, and it belonged to people of high status. Also, the laundry, cellar, pekmezhane (grape molasses storehouse), and stables (tavla) of the mansions would be built outside the main building.

Furthermore, there was also halvethane (resting room), belonging privately to the master of the mansion, where no one could enter. This area was particularly used for prayers and book reading. Prayer room (şerbet odası), the pilgrim room (hacı odası), smoking room (çubuk odası) were also commonplace in the mansions. The room of MihrişahValide Sultan in the Topkapı Palace is a brilliant example of them. Other than these rooms there were also cihannüma (rooftop terrace) on the top floor, which was surrounded by glass walls with a glass dome. It was also a kind of halvethane.

2- Getting warm and having fun in a Turkish house (M. Fuad)

The number of the attendants in the mansion would increase in accordance with the number of the rooms. The attendant group would consist of cooks, hostlers, cabbies, boatmen, gardeners and female servants constituting the lowest group. In these periods, as the women living in the harem would not go out, the governess would come to the mansion to educate them. Also, there were black women called “dadı” (nanny), who were mostly from countries such as Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Egypt. These women typically had a mild and lovely nature, taking care of the children in the harem and treating them as their own children. These nannies were called “Arapbacı” by the master of the mansion. When the child grew up, if the nannies were still alive, the grown up boys would regard them in the same way as their mother and treat them with great respect. In addition, the mansion would have its own imam and muezzin. In some of the mansions, there were two imams. A large amount of people in the mansions was important in the formation of the prayer community. All of these people working in the mansion would constitute the kapıhalkı (household: people of the gate) of the mansion.

3- An Ottoman mansion

The expression “kapılanmak” (to find a gate) was used for the people who had no blood bond with the people of the mansion and got a place in the mansion as an attendant. In case of marriages among the people working in the mansion - the dowry expenses would be provided by the master. Mostly, female attendants of the mansion would marry the sons of the cook or the cabbies of the house. If the girl was very beautiful and any guest of the mansion with high status liked her, she might marry him and in this way she would leave the mansion, which is expressed as “çerağ etmek” in Turkish.

4- The harem section in an Istanbul mansion (Topkapı Palace Museum Library, no. 29/9)

When the pasha owning the mansion, was assigned to somewhere outside Istanbul, he would send letters from his new post to the mansion. The pasha, sent to somewhere other than his home, such as Aleppo, would address his mother in the letter if she was alive. In the content of letter, following his mother, he would list the names of his wife, children and others living in the mansion respectively, inquire after their health and greet all of them individually. The pasha would not address his wife by her name but instead as “the mother of my children.”

5- A wedding in an Istanbul mansion (Vanmour, Amsterdam, Rijks Museum)

The water required for the gardens was provided from the water wells. Among the horses of the mansion, the less beautiful ones would be spared and used as wheel horse to carry water from the wells to the gardens. The wells would also serve as a refrigerator. Watermelons would be hanged down the wells with nets and cooled there. The need for drinking water, on the other hand, was provided from the saka (drinking water carriers). Drinkable water from places such as Taşdelen and Karakulak would be carried by the saka to the mansions and would be put into the water reservoirs through the pipes outside the gate of the mansion. In this way, the saka would transfer the water into the reservoirs and he would mark the amount of water he brought on the boards next to the mansion gate.

6- The harem section in a mansion (d’Ohsson)

In the mansions, cats and singing birds were preferred as pets. The dogs would never be allowed into the houses. Some of the gentlemen of Istanbul were fond of wrestling, goat and cock fights, and bird singings. In the earlier periods, there was also interest in archery, horse breeding, and hunting. There were coffee houses, where people with each area of interest would gather.

Going to picnic areas and festivals with the whole family were also pleasurable activities for the early period Istanbulite. The expression “sulara gitmek” (going to the watersides) was used to go to Kağıthane, Göksu, Küçüksu and Çamlıca fountains and river heads. It was also favorable to go to Çamlıca Hill, Joshua’s Hill, Kuşdili Meadow, Çırpıcı Meadow, Beykoz Meadow and stroll around Fenerbahçe. The gardens of Gülhane of Topkapı Palace, the gardens of Yıldız Palace and Emirgan, which were only open to the visits of the dynasty members in the Ottoman period, were opened to the public, and some “public gardens”, referring to the parks of the present day, were built in other parts of the city.

People owning boats could also enjoy the moonlight at the Bosphorus as well as taking short trips on Göksu.

Wealthy Istanbulites would go to picnic areas using expressions such as “Bahar oldu beyim evde durulmaz, bu mevsimde çemenzâre doyulmaz” (the spring set in my master, no staying indoors; in this season, one can’t have enough of meadows) referring to the fact that it was time to go to the meadows to enjoy the summer. They would also enjoy themselves with songs including lyrics like “Küçüksu’da gördüm seni gözlerinden bildim seni, Muntazır teşrifine hâzır kayık, ince yaşmakla bu Cuma seyre çık” (In Küçüksu I saw you, from your eyes I recognized you; the boat is ready, longing for your honoring, go for an excursion [on the boat] this Friday with a thin veil). These lyrics expressed that these meadows and resort areas were for lovers. Sometimes the songs would turn into sad love stories with lyrics like “Çeşm-i celladın ne kanlar döktü Kağıthane’de” (your eyes – the executioner, how much blood they spilled at Kağıthane!) .

7- Arif Paşa Mansion (Fatih)

Old Istanbulites, who could read hundreds of stanzas from Divan literature, were also fond of music, and would enjoy it their spare times. Fondness of theatre, show companies, and canto were signs of interest in the European lifestyle, which began to grow in time. On the other hand, older people would still come together, at mosque yards, dervish lodges and Turkish cafes. Mansions were where all of these people with a variety of interests came together, and this variety could be best seen in the conversations around the brazier or the halva gatherings at winter evenings.

8- Kayserili Ahmet Paşa Mansion

Pavilions (Köşk) Making it to the Present Day

Leaving aside the Old City of Istanbul, consisting of the Sultanahmet-Fatih area, we would see the following when we look at the remaining parts of Istanbul:

A western and aristocrat discomfort against the traditional features of Istanbul, regional and local culture, showed up in Kadıköy, Moda, Fenerbahçe, Caddebostan, Çiftehavuzlar and Şaşkınbakkal. In these pavilions, mostly made of wood and with a nice view, sounds of lute and tambour would merge with violin and piano. Similarly, a high-level society began to emerge in Teşvikiye, Nişantaşı and nearby Yıldız Palace. Sultanahmet-Fatih was very popular during the period when Topkapı Palace was the center of administration, whereas with the construction of the Palaces of Dolmabahçe, Çırağan, Yıldız, Nişantaşı and Teşvikiye, these areas became new centers.

Among the classical pavilions surviving till today are Cemil Topuzlu Pavilion, Ragıp Paşa Pavilion, Tahsin Paşa Pavilion (Filizî Köşk) in Çiftehavuzlar, Reşat Paşa and Kazım Karabekir Paşa Pavilions in Erenköy, and Fahrettin Kerim Gökay Pavilion in Göztepe.

In addition to these pavilions, mostly used in the summer, made primarily with wooden equipment, with gardens in the style of early period Istanbul houses, we might also include pavilions built in the palaces such as Mustafa Paşa Pavilion at Topkapı Palace, Şehzade pavilions at Yıldız Palace and Şehzadegân pavilions at the Dolmabahçe Palace. Furthermore, there were also pavilions constructed for the crown prince outside the palace as well, and the ones making it to the present day are Abdülmecid Efendi Pavilion in Bağlarbaşı, Yusuf Ziyaeddin Efendi Pavilion in Çamlıca, Vahdeddin Efendi Pavilion in Çengelköyü, Abdulhamid Pavilion in Tarabya, Abdülaziz Hunting Pavilion in Validebağı.

Cemil Molla Pavilion in Bosphorus Kuzguncuk is one of the most beautiful examples of these pavilions with its pinnacled architectural design.

9- An abandoned mansion in Istanbul

Istanbul mansions and pavilions provided views of the Bosphorus shores and they were often envied. Many Istanbulites took advantage of any chance to have a picnic or watch the moonlight on the shores.

Old Seaside Mansions (Yalı)

Traditional Ottoman culture appreciated watching the water, making use of the advantages of water but would not think of getting into the water and swimming. This derived from its Central Asian genes and traditions. They had seen and tried it after quite a long time, when they saw the Russian refugees doing it. The Bosphorus was where life was defined as crème de la crème. Life on the Bosphorus was divided into two parts reflecting Ottoman and European life styles. Life styles of the non-Muslim living in Kuzguncuk, Tarabya, Yeniköy, Büyükdere, and Arnavutköyü would differ greatly from the lives of the Turkish Muslim people residing in Beylerbeyi and Çengelköyü. Even today, people living in or wandering around Bebek are quite different than people living at the shores of Fethipaşa, and Üsküdar.

10- Guests being hosted in the mansion of a vizier (d’Ohsson)

Development of a beach culture and the habit of swimming in Istanbul is the reality of a later period. The use of beaches, called “sea bathes” in Istanbul, beginning with the beaches of Florya, was introduced by the Russians escaping the Bolhsevik Revolution. Following this, public beaches began to emerge at locations such as Menekşe, Princes Islands, Caddebostan, Salacak, Küçüksu and Bosphorus. In addition, it became quite ordinary for the Istanbulite to swim along the shores below the seaside mansions.

The mansions, built by the Turks such as Kuzguncuk Fethi Paşa Seaside Mansion, Beylerbeyi Hasip Paşa Seaside Mansion, Anadolu Hisari Zarif Mustafa Paşa Seaside Mansion, Amcazâde, Nuri Paşa Seaside Mansion, Marki Necip Bey Seaside Mansion, Hekimbaşı Salih Efendi Seaside Mansion, Kanlıca Körfez Seaside Mansions, Çubuklu Halil Ethem Bey Seaside Mansion, Ethem Pertev Bey Seaside Mansion, Yedi Sekiz Hasan Paşa Seaside Mansion, Ahmet Rasim Paşa Seaside Mansion, Çengelköyü Sadullah Paşa Seaside Mansion, Kandilli Edip Efendi Seaside Mansion, Kıbrıslı Kont Ostrorog Seaside Mansion, Abud Efendi Seaside Mansions; Arnavutköy Halit Çambel, Salacak Çürükksulu Seaside Mansion, Ortaköy Hatice and Fehime Sultan, Yeniköy Muhayyes Seaside Mansion, Said Halim Paşa, Rumelihisarı Muşsir Zeki Paşa, Emirgan Şerifler, İstinye Muşir Fuat Paşa Seaside Mansions, Yeniköy Cezayirliyan Seaside Mansion, Azaryan Seaside Mansion, and Hideva Seaside Mansion still represent the traditional seaside mansion architecture of the Bosporus civilization.

One of the most significant characteristics of the early period life style in Istanbul was the correctness of the language spoken and its eloquence. An Istanbulite was someone who would address people very kindly, using expressions to show humbleness while talking about himself and he would also define the person he was speaking with words of dignity, giving priority to the person addressed, defining his home as a poorhouse while defining the house of the addressed as a house of wealth, always greeting the old and women with great respect, kissing their hands as a sign of respect, wishing them good luck and fortune from God. He would never eat in open places, and always carry food to his home in a way so others could not see what he bought, who would tell what he ate in a very humble way, and talk about his illness by wishing good health to others. An Istanbulite, regardless of whether he was poor or rich, would also pay attention to his appearance, always wearing clean, plain clothes with colors in harmony with one another.

Istanbulites of the early period would also value religious life greatly, constituting an example of devotion and commitment. They would pay special attention to the Cuma prayers, religious festival days and holy (kandil) days, and on these days religious life would visibly be promoted in the city. They would visit the elders, kiss their hands, and receive their good wishes/prayers. People would offer halva, kandil bagels, and candy to one another. On holy days and nights, people would go to listen to the Qur’ân and mevlid (stanzas written to praise Prophet Mohammad), and the reciter with a nice voice would be followed. People being disciples of certain sects would spend their times in the relevant dervish lodges. In the early period radio days of Istanbul, people would come together to listen to the Qur’ân and mevlid on the radio. Among the mosques of different districts, it was preferable to have an imam with a correct and impressive recitation, reading the call to prayer in a harmonious way.

11- Waterside mansions in Büyükdere (Melling)

The Istanbulite, also fond of non-religious music, would not miss the music hours broadcasted on the radio, or would go to the places with live music. Both men and women of early Istanbul had tastes of gardening as well.

The Istanbulite would also attach great importance to their gusto. They would feel their absence if they could not find and eat certain food in the right season such as yoghurt made of sheep’s milk. They also enjoyed kebab of baby lambs, shelled broad beans and artichoke with olive oil, grilled blue fish, fried turbot, salted tunny, grilled meatballs, suböreği (kind of pastry), boza from Vefa on winter nights, sahlep on cold days, freshly baked crispy Turkish bagel with Trakya cheese, sugar candy, almond paste, starch pudding with rose water, vanilla ice-cream, baklava filled with walnut, Ottoman strawberry, and sweet white grape.

The early period Istanbulite would pay attention to the hardness of the water he would drink, and prefer a softer one. He would drink water not from the taps or with plastic items but with glass cups, have coffee to wake up in the mornings, get freshened up by cold lemonade with mint in the summer, and love the smell of lavender. He would also prefer the call to prayer with a harmonious tone, and would opt for the Üsküdar dialect in the Qur’an recitation. He would never boast about his prayers, and never draw the attention of others to his religious life either. When he could not listen to certain tones of Turkish classical music such as şedd-I araban from Tanburî Cemil Bey, uşşak from Şevki Bey, or lyrics of a gazel from divan literature by Hafız Burhan and Münir Nurettin in the evenings, he would feel as if something was missing in his life.

The sons of an Istanbulite would grow up beside his pasha grandfathers, and they would eventually become pashas one day. It was also preferable to be a clerk wearing starched shirts at Bâbıali, or a member of the ulema wearing a turban in Süleymaniye, but being a pasha with a brocaded uniform was the most desired fate.

Early period Istanbulite gentlemen, who would shop at the Grand Bazar, would pay attention to his clockwork chain watch with a silver cap, fountain pen, and ivory walking canes with a silver tip. He would care about his appearance with clothes going well with one another, and was someone who should be taken under protection by UNESCO as a moral heritage.

It is understood that to learn about the characteristics of the times, places and people of old Istanbul, we are to read writings of Ahmet Rasim, Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar, Reşat Ekrem Koçu, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, Sermet Muhtar Alus, Refî Cevat Ulunay, Abdülhak Şinasi Hisar, Samiha Ayverdi, Münevver Ayaşlı, as well as comparatively more recent time writings of Ahmet Yüksel Özemre, Müfit Ekdal, Beşir Ayvazoğlu, Orhan Okay and Selim İleri.

This article was translated from Turkish version of History of Istanbul with some editions to be published in a digitalized form in 2019.

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