Research on the housing culture, which constitutes one of the most important areas of social history, can be divided into two parts: the research focusing on the structure itself, which seems like an area of expertise more for architects and architectural historians, and the research about the life inside the building. The research areas can be classified as studies exploring the two basic/different aspects of the housing culture of any society. When approaching the issue within the framework of civil architecture, while architectural features such as construction techniques, spatial qualities, number of floors, and service units are the subjects on which the researchers in the first group focus; the lives of the individuals inside the house, such as the items, objects, appliances and the likes used in the house constitute the content of the research topics of the second group. In this article, in the time period approximately from the second half of the 18th century to the late 19th century, the domestic living culture of the Ottoman capital will be discussed based on the items and objects used in the furnishing of Istanbul houses. The estate registers organized by various courts of the capital city constitute the basic source of the article. These records displaying all kinds of goods, objects and other personal sources of wealth bequeathed to the heirs by the estate owners, are the primary source on the interior of the Ottoman houses.

Braudel states that, “The houses viewed from the outside constitute the first view; what appears inside is the second view. Nobody can claim that the second is simpler than the first one.”1 This general opinion on all the world’s houses is also true for Istanbul houses. Based on the observations of Western travellers, it may be said that this statement is even more accurate for Istanbul houses. Many travellers find the interior of the living spaces in the Ottoman capital more beautiful and decorated than the building itself. “The exterior of the houses were both cumbersome and neglected. All the decoration was for the inside.”2 Besides Wittman, who visited Istanbul in 1799, Western travellers such as d’Ohsson and Moltke, expressed similar views. The poor looking state of the houses in this period, not striking to the eyes, was perceived as a type of safety precaution like it was in Europe in general. Furthermore, it is evident that the houses’ interior refurbishment was also an important and costly practice for Istanbulites. Indeed, Şemseddin Sami notes that half as much of the expense made for the exterior was made for the interior furnishing. Although we assume that the information on the word “mefrûşât” provided in Kâmûs-ı Türkî’ is exaggerated, it should be noted that this is the expression of a reality regarding the Ottoman housing culture towards the end of the nineteenth century.

The question how and with which items Istanbulites organized their living spaces is important. Firstly, it should be noted that the opportunities of the Ottoman capital inhabitants would put any other Ottoman city in the shade. Either the products manufactured by skilled craftsmen in the capital, or the goods arriving at the capital from the extensive Ottoman land, or rare goods imported from a number of foreign countries from the Far East to the Western Europe, would contribute to the refurbishment of the Istanbul houses. Therefore, Istanbul’s universe of objects went beyond the limits of the Empire; however, including the mansions of the elites in the capital city, largely manufacturing within Ottoman geography fuelled the interior refurbishment of Istanbul houses. For example, a mat from Egypt, felt from Thessaloniki, a felt cloak from Yanbolu, a mattress from İzladi, an ihram from Tunisia, and prayer mat from Banja Luka were among the most preferred items for Istanbulites furnishing their homes as of the second half of the eighteenth century. Istanbul houses were, therefore, furnished with items from a variety of different regions of the empire, especially the Balkan cities.

1- An Ottoman mansion

The change experienced in Ottoman material culture during this period and in the aftermath is so drastic that without paying attention to this change or before identifying the style and dimensions of the change it is difficult to find the answer to what kind of home environment the Istanbulites lived in. Describing an Ottoman house of the first quarter of the nineteenth century and prior to today’s context does not only mean travelling back two centuries ago from a point in history. Though its speed and scope have recently increased, the change experienced in the appliances of material culture for the last two centuries exposes the modern individual to a much more different universe of objects. This change in the material culture took place mainly in two areas? The first of these was directly related to the Westernization of Ottoman society and based on the new European items that occupied the Ottoman daily life. These kinds of goods, which were obtained by non-Muslims with high-level income from the second half of the eighteenth century, occupied Muslim houses from the second quarter of the nineteenth century. The change was not limited to the goods and objects that brought a European lifestyle to Ottoman society. Revealed in time by the internal dynamics of traditional culture and various factors, the innovations, which were experienced in the form of replacement of an item with a newer one, constituted the second element of the change. The desire for acquiring more possessions as a result of the change experienced in the consumption patterns of Istanbulites in the 1840s should be added to these two elements. Starting to own more goods both in the consumption and luxury category, the Istanbulites’ attitude to new goods changed considerably during the same period.

Living spaces have gained almost completely a different look in the last two centuries because of Western goods on the one hand and transformations in traditional culture on the other. In this process, the use, name, forms and functions of the items that decorated the Ottoman houses for centuries changed, which resulted in the alienation of the modern individual from the traditional material culture. Even a researcher of material culture cannot save himself from misunderstandings and misinterpretations. The difficulty of distinguishing between a tabouret, which has been known since the sixteenth century, became popular in the eighteenth century and had areas of use convenient for traditional lifestyle, and the chair, which was completely Western and a new item for the Ottomans, is the first example that comes to our minds regarding the subject.3

2- A street in Istanbul (Brindesi)

After addressing to the scope of the article, Istanbul’s special location and conceptual problems regarding Ottoman material culture, we can set foot in the houses in the capital city. Furnishing and upholstery were the two most common references used to express household goods by the Ottomans. These expressions, which include a large portion of household items, especially the ones that can be defined as “suite,” do not contain the utensils of the kitchen, an important service area of the house, and the items used in lighting and heating etc. To start with the essentials, the basic needs of every Istanbul house, floorings and suites should be addressed in the first place. Residents of the Ottoman capital belonging to diverse social groups such as Muslim, Non-Muslim, poor-rich, military-rayah preferred a variety of flooring mats for covering their living spaces, which were suitable to their taste and budgets. Estate registries reveal how Istanbul houses were furnished, what kind of flooring mats were used, and how much they were used in the period between the second half of the 18th century and the second half of the 19th century. Based on this information, the metropolitans used approximately fifteen kinds of furnishings for this purpose. Other than prayer rugs, which are seen the most in the estate registers of either military members or the raaya (ordi, respectively rugs, ihram, felt, orta keçesi (a kind of felt), rush mat, kebe (shepberd’s felt cloak), Yanbolu kebe, small rug, carpet (from the mid-nineteenth century), cover, skin, floor cloth and others were among the goods that were used on the flooring of Istanbul houses.

3- Inside of a Turkish House (Brindesi)

4- The harem section of Topkapı Palace (Melling)

Various goods, especially cushions, mats, mattresses, beds and curtains, which constitute the longest list of items seen in the estate registers, can be grouped under the title “Suites.” According to the estate registers of the period under examination, the goods in this group are the most striking in Istanbul houses both in number and variety. For example, goods such as cushions, mats, mattresses, bundles, and floor beds exist in the estate registers with a high rate of 90%, which make it clearly a necessity of every house.4 Provided we sorted the household items in descending order according to the possibility of their appearance in the estate registers without classifying them, a major part of the suites group would be at the top of the list. Because the “living room” as a definition is a valid description in every culture, the numerical quality of these kinds of goods, which constitute the suite of the Ottoman houses, is understandable. It is understood that the Ottoman not only owned the appliances of material culture suitable for the living form and space but also they enriched these in time. We can give the excessive number of pillow types as well as the number of pillows recorded in the qadı registries and archive documents as an example of this.5

Beddings were among the essential goods of each and every Istanbul house. Quilts, futon beds, mattresses (especially futon mattress), blankets with futon bed duvets and pillow types as head and face pillows used in the bed were bed items of Istanbulites. The futon bed, which continued in Turkish houses for centuries, was one of the primary characteristic elements of Istanbul dwellings in the 18th and 19th centuries. According to the estate registers, Istanbulites owned the goods of this group at the high rate of 75%-90%. Visiting Istanbul in December of 1835, Miss Pardoe describes the spectacular beds prepared for them, in their host Turkish house, in detail:

5- The hall for hosting guests in the palace of Hatice Sultan (Sultan Selim III’s sister) (Melling)

Our beds were composed of mattresses laid one above the other upon the floor, and these seemed costly; mine being yellow satin brocaded with gold and that of my companion violet-coloured velvet, richly fringed. A Turkish bed is arranged in an instant; the mattresses are covered with a sheet of silk gauze or striped muslin (my own was silk gauze); half a dozen pillows of various forms and sizes are heaped up at the head, all in richly embroidered muslin cases through which the satin containing the down is distinctly seen, and a couple of wadded coverlets are laid at the feet, carefully folded; no second sheet is considered necessary, as the coverlets are lined with fine linen. Those, which were provided for us, were of pale blue silk, worked with rose coloured flowers.6

The bedstead represents the change in the bedding of Istanbul houses. Non-Muslim residents of the capital began to show interest in the bedstead, an important item of a Western lifestyle, towards the mid-19th century. The Muslim elite followed the non-Muslims; Muslim population largely held to the traditional culture during this period.

Another indispensable group of goods in a house consists of devices related to heating and lighting. Heating and lighting of eighteenth and nineteenth century Istanbul houses, where limited opportunities cannot even be compared to today and technical devices similar to the devices of the previous centuries were in question, was an important issue for capital residents. Although they were relative concepts, there is no doubt that well-lit and heated houses deserve the adjectives “comfort” and “luxury” better according to the circumstances of the period.

6- The hall in the palace of a lady sultan

For centuries, the main lighting tool of Istanbul houses was the candelabra. The word candelabra (şamdan) is a combination of the Arabic word “mum” (şem’) and Persian suffix -dân (-lık). As some held one or two candles, there were also those bearing a multitude of candles, providing stronger light. The lantern, described as a protector that prevented the extinguishing of candelabras due to wind and other external factors, was another lighting appliance used by Istanbulites. When light was needed outdoors, lanterns met this need and became the second most used lighting tool owned by Istanbulites after the candelabra. The nineteenth century, especially from the mid-century, was a period during which changes in Ottoman daily life and new items were often seen. Lighting practices had its share in these changes as well. Kerosene lamps, which were introduced to Istanbulites in the mid-century, represented a change in this area. Quite popular with Istanbulites, the use of kerosene lamps increased fivefold in a decade and became so popular that it is difficult to show a second device that experienced this much of an increase. In the 1870s when kerosene lamps with a more efficient lighting feature compared to the candelabras became widespread, it appears that the number of candelabras decreased a little.

Used in the heating of Istanbul houses, braziers appear as the most important and only heating appliance for centuries. One of the primary needs of every house, braziers appeared in the estate registers of ordinary Istanbulites with a rate of 40% from the second half of the 18th century to the 1820, while this rate is close to 70% in the estate registers of the military class. As seen in many other examples, an increase in the consumption of brazier use was witnessed in the subsequent years to the second quarter of the 19th centuries. The appearance of braziers, which would reach a high rate of 80%-90% in the consumption of the dignitary class would appear with a rate of 70% in the estate registers of the raaya. The increase both in the brazier appearance in the estate registers and in the average number of braziers owned by individuals, suggests that Istanbul homes turned into warmer environments from the 1840s onward. Although the working principle is basically the same as the brazier, the tandır (tennûr), which seems to pertain more to the mansions of dignitaries, was another heating appliance of Istanbul houses. The introduction of stoves into Istanbul households was a radical change in the culture of domestic life. It is learned from the estate registers that ordinary people did not own this new appliance until the 1870s. According to the records of the 1860 and 1870s, first 10% followed by 15% of the military class used stoves in their homes.7 When the history of stoves, which is treated like an old item in today’s world, substantially waning from the daily lives of city dwellers, is considered, the dimensions of material culture change experienced in the last ten-fifteen decades are highlighted once again.

7- A Turkish house in the district of Fener (Pardoe)

There are wooden items in the inventory lists of the Ottoman houses as well. In this group, the chest is the main item, which the Ottomans manufactured according to their lifestyle, and different from Western style furniture. According to the military and rayah estate registers, an Istanbulite without a chest was almost non-existent. During the period analysed, a high rate approaching 90% applies to both the rayah and the military class. Having a special place in the Ottoman culture, chests appear in the dowry of the daughter-to-be married, protection of money and precious goods, which were entrusted to bedestan (covered market), in the solidarity of janissary or guild groups, and preservation of some items at home. In Istanbul houses, the second wooden furniture after chest is the tabouret. Understood to have been widespread the latest in the second half of the 18th century, the tabouret was produced in various types and the names of these were shaped by their usage patterns. Various forms in the records such as taam tabouret, candelabra tabouret, candle tabouret, flower tabouret, cigarette tabouret, (second half of the 19th century), which were mentioned in the estate registers, show that the use of tabourets similar to today’s coffee tables, other than their use as a chair, was quite widespread. Mehmed Salahî’s description of a tabouret is outstanding: “three or four-legged thing, which is sat on it, put under trays, candelabras and kerosene lamps.” Tabourets are multifarious and there is no need for description and for counting as it is familiar to everyone.8 In addition to chest and tabourets, drawers, boxes, containers and wardrobes were forms of wooden furniture that contributed to the decoration of Istanbul houses.

8- The plan of the house number 5 (two floors and the ground floor) in Güngörmez district around Sultanahmet (Istanbul University, Rare Books and Special Collections Library, Maps Section)

Western travellers visiting the Ottoman land often compared the dwellings with their own country and noted the absence of furniture in the Ottoman houses as the most striking difference. For example, visiting Istanbul in 1763, Lord Baltimore mentions that the Turkish ate, wrote, slept and sat at a lower level in comparison to the English. When Braudel classified the civilizations in terms of the use of space, he rested on a distinction according to the living practices of the European at a height, whom he placed at the master position, and the living practices of others at a low level. The introduction of Western style furniture to the houses of the capital city began a radical change in Ottoman material culture. On the one hand, symbolically strong items of European civilization like the chair, couch, table, armchair, dresser and bedstead brought a newer look to the interior of Istanbul houses; on the other hand, they represented the Western style use of living spaces. The non-Muslim population’s interest in these kinds of goods developed in earlier years compared to the Muslims (approximately in the last quarter of the 18th century). The Istanbul estate registers of the 1840s offer a milestone in terms of both showing the change in the preference by the Muslim and in terms of including a variety of furniture types. It can be claimed that there was not an Istanbulite who did not own at least a few European goods in their houses at the turn of the century. As reported by Abdulaziz Bey, gifting a sofa set to someone who bought a house became a fashion among the Muslim elite in the 1880s. However, Muslim residents of the capital maintained their distanced attitude towards Western style goods and objects until four or five decades ago. Despite this change surrounding Muslim dwellings, it should be noted that traditional material culture appliances continued, to a large extent, to exist.

To conclude, it should be said that the interior decoration of Istanbul houses was quite rich and the special condition of the capital and its opportunities contributed to the increase in the multiplication of the goods. However, Istanbul houses, which preserved their traditional character in terms of domestic life culture, gained a Western appearance along with the social changes, which took place throughout the nineteenth century. Finally, it should be remembered that these changes were commonly present in certain high-level income groups and the common people owned an equivalent furnishing as part of the old customs until recent years.


Baltimore, Lord Frederick Calvert, A Tour to the East in the Years 1763 and 1764 with Remarks on the City of Constantinople and the Turks, London: Printed by W. Richardson and S. Clark, 1767.

D’Ohsson, J. Mouradgea, XVIII. Yüzyıl Türkiye’sinde Örf ve Adetler, tr. Zerhan Yüksel, Istanbul: Tercüman Gazetesi, nd.

Faroqhi, Suraiya and Chirstoph K. Neumann (ed.), Soframız Nur Hanemiz Mamur: Osmanlı Maddi Kültüründe Yemek ve Barınak, tr. Zeynep Yelçe, Istanbul: Kitap Yayınevi, 2006.

Hornby, Lady Emelia Bthyna, Kırım Savaşı Sırasında İstanbul, tr. Kerem Işık, Istanbul: Kitap Yayınevi, 2007.

Moltke, Helmuth von, Türkiye Mektupları, tr. Hayrullah Örs, Istanbul: Remzi Kitabevi, 1969.

Şemseddin Sami, Kāmûs-ı Türkî, Istanbul: İkdam Matbaası, 1317.


1 Fernand Braudel, Maddi Uygarlık Ekonomi ve Kapitalizm XV-XVIII. Yüzyıllar: Gündelik Hayatın Yapıları, tr. Mehmet Ali Kılıçbay, Ankara: Gece Yayınları, 1993, vol. 1, p. 245.

2 William Witman, Osmanlı’ya Yolculuk 1799-1800-1801: Türk Ordusu ve İngiliz Askeri Heyeti ile Birlikte Küçük Asya, Suriye ve Çöl Yoluyla Mısır’a Yolculuk, tr. Belkıs Dişbudak, Ankara: ODTÜ Yayıncılık, 2011, p. 20.

3 Fatma Müge Göçek, Rise of the Bourgeosisie, Demise of Empire: Ottoman Westernization and Social Change, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 106-107; Fatma Müge Göçek and Marc David Baer, “18. Yüzyıl Galata Kadı Sicillerinde Osmanlı Kadınlarının Toplumsal Sınırları,” Modernleşmenin Eşiğinde Osmanlı Kadınları, edIted by Madeline C. Zilfi, tr. Necmiye Alpay, Istanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 2000, p. 52. Examples can be multiplied; for example the prayer rug, which is simply mentioned as “namazlık” after largely narrowing in meaning today, was the name referred to in Anatolia for centuries for ancient ground cloth (carpet) woven by the Turks beginning in Central Asia. Likewise, various examples like the mattress (at least for the capital city) was not a furnishing element of a diwan or the furniture sat on but an element of upholstery that had dropping valances woven from the çit or çuka (çuha), reveal how Ottoman material culture appliances changed in time and extent. For more information also see Fatih Bozkurt, “Tereke Defterleri ve Osmanlı Maddî Kültüründe Değişim (1785-1875 İstanbul Örneği)” (Ph D. Dissertation), Sakarya University, 2011.

4 It should be stated that estate registers were only an individual bill of materials, did not certainly represent the whole of the atmosphere of the deceased’s house, and did not include information regarding the items and objects that belonged to the other members of the same household. Thus, the term “a commonly used item” can be used for an object that has the likelihood, over 50%, of appearing in the estate registers.

5 Types of cushions and pillows referred to as pillow, head pillow, face pillow, cushion, seat cushion, wall cushion, and diwan cushion etc indicate the richness of traditional material culture. Furthermore, there are cushions named according to various fabric types such as velvet cushion, beledi cushion, çatma cushion.

6 Miss Julia Pardoe, Şehirlerin Ecesi İstanbul: Bir Leydinin Gözüyle 19. Yüzyılda Osmanlı Yaşamı, tr. Banu Büyükkal, Istanbul: Kitap Yayınevi, 2004, p. 31.

7 Military and raaya terms are widely used defining the Ottoman social structure. Military is a term describing the non-civil (rayah) people which had private rights like tax exemption along with the duties they undertook. In general, seyfiye is used for the entire sector of administrators who were referred to as ilmiye and kalemiye.

8 Mehmed Salâhî, Kāmûs-ı Osmanî, IV vol., Istanbul 1313, vol. 1, p. 352.

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