During the reign of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566), with the spread of coffeehouses, music also found its place in this shared public space of society.

Over time, in line with different professions and areas of interest the coffehouses in the city started to diversify; among these, after 1826, the auditory coffeehouses (semai kahvehaneler) began to emerge in Istanbul. These auditory coffeehouses became prominent particularly with the programs they held during the month of Ramadan and they had special designs of the sites. Also named “çalgılı kahvehaneler” (musical coffeehouses), these places following the proclamation of the Tanzimat attained a programmed approach, and while the music played was previously in the minstrel style (semai, ballad, divan, folk poetry), during the reign of Abdülhamid II (1876-1909) European style music started to be performed as well. The majority of these coffeehouses were centered round Laleli and Şehzadebaşı which was considered the entertainment center of the city.

1- Performing music in a coffee house

With the declaration of the Meşrutiyet (Constitutional Rule) in 1908, a great number of publications began to be issued. In order to have these publications reach to the public, kıraathanes (reading rooms) emerged in Istanbul’s public life, and in distinction to the coffeehouses these reading room cafes contained periodical publications such as newspapers and journals in their venues. In addition, although kıraathanes were similar to auditory coffeehouses, they were larger and better programmed as well as had more varied theatrical and musical act performances.

The kıraathanes were concentrated along the main road leading from Sultanahmet to Aksaray, and similar to coffeehouses in general they were formed according to the sociocultural identities of their customers. For instance, the Sarafim Kıraathane, which was opened in Beyazıt in 1857, was the favored haunt of litterateurs and bureaucrats. Certain kıraathanes that were located between Beyazıt and Şehzadebaşı were famous particularly for their musical acts during the months of Ramadan. Şems in Vezneciler, Arif’in Kıraathanesi in Divanyolu, and Merkez Kıraathane in Bayezid served as if they were Istanbul’s concert halls. The musical groups directed at these coffee houses by musicians, such as Kemani Tatyos (d. 1913) or Kemençeci Vasilaki (d. 1907) were known as incesaz takımları,1 and the renowned and esteemed artists of the period, such as Kanuni Şemsi (d. 1921?), Lavtacı Ovrik (d. 1936), Tanburi Ovakim and Hanende Karakaş played and sang in these musical performances.

2- Performing music in a coffee house with three different instruments

Fevziye Kıraathane was located across the Şehzadebaşı Fountain at the intersection of Fevziye and Şehzadebaşı streets. It was at its prime between 1885 and 1900. There would be Karagöz (shadow-puppet plays), meddah (story teller and mimic), puppet and other theatrical performances, as well as musical acts every night during Ramadan, and on Fridays and Sundays in other months. During Ramadan, the musical acts would continue for four hours, and the program would be organized around two makam. The only sound made or heard during these events was the performed music; in fact, the waiters would wear shoes with felt soles so as not to make any noise. Highly-esteemed musicians of the era, such as Zekai Dede (d. 1897), Tanburi Cemîl Bey (d. 1916), Lemi Atlı (d. 1945), Şekerci Cemil Bey (d. 1928) and Udi Nevres Bey (d. 1937) would be among the audience, too. Fevziye Kıraathane continued to operate until World War I.

In Vezneciler after the Letafet apartment building, which was the first apartment complex in Istanbul, was constructed Darüttalim Kıraathanesi was opened on its ground floor. In 1916 this kıraathane became the venue of the most popular musical performances, with Fahri Kopuz heading up the Dârüttalim Musical Committee. This committee included musicians such as Hanende Arap Cemal (d. 1938), Neyzen İhsan Aziz (d. 1935) and Kemani Cevdet (Çağla) (d. 1988). The Dârüttalim Musical Committee would put on thirty different shows during the thirty days of Ramadan; a list of the shows would be hung in advance on the door of the kıraathane. Among its audience were Ahmed Rasim (d. 1932) and Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (d. 1962) as well as Muhlis Sabahattin (d. 1947) who was in particular the most frequent attendee.

The incesaz takımları that performed at these venues during the winter would also appear in various recreational areas in Istanbul in the summer months. Among the most prominent of such areas were Çırpıcı Meadow, Kuşdili Meadow, Göksu and Küçüksu.

Following the proclamation of the Tanzimat (1839) and particularly after the 1870 Beyoğlu fire, theatres, cinemas, restaurants, bars and music halls that were known as “European bars” were opened. These became sites where a variety of and new types of music could be listened. As in the Şehzadebaşı neighborhood, in Beyoğlu, too, numerous theaters and cinemas functioned as concert halls too; a particularly outstanding example is the French Theatre (currently known as Ortaoyuncular). These theater halls were used to put on concerts, operettas and musicals.

As the coffeehouses, reading room cafes, and pubs, were no longer able to meet the social needs of Turkey, which changed with modernization that was onset since the Constitutional period, they gradually changed their forms and lost their old functions.


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1 A small group of musicians who played only stringed instruments and tambourines.

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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