Throughout the history of human sustenance and formation of human settlements water has been one of the most important factors. The first settlements and civilizations of history were established and existed alongside water courses. Istanbul, which served as the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, is also a settlement on the shores of bodies of water. Since its establishment procuring drinking water for the city has always been a source of concern for Istanbul; water facilities were built at numerous points across the city to solve this problem. These facilities reflected the characteristics of the periods in which they were built. We can group the water facilities built across the city during the Roman and Byzantine periods into categories of aqueducts, water levels, water distribution chambers, water channels, conduits, pools, wells, cisterns and nymphaea (fountains). All of these water facilities were part of a water system and were connected to one another through conduits. The oldest conduit in Istanbul is that built during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138); this structure extends towards the environs of Sultanahmet from the west of the city.

Following the conquest of the city by the Ottomans, Istanbul was decorated with monumental structures. Water facilities were an important part of these. It is still possible to encounter sebils and fountains at almost every street and at the corners of many mosque complexes located in the Historical Peninsula. We can group the Ottoman water facilities into conduits, aqueducts, dams, pools, water levels, water distribution chambers, fountains, sebils, ablution fountains, hammams and bridges.

Briefly, a fountain is a structure in which regulated water flows for the benefit of entire society; throughout the Ottoman period this particular facility decorated almost every street corner and walls of every mosque complex. Fountains played an important role in the Ottoman social and cultural life. The fact that, in particular, commissioning and endowing fountains and sebils were regarded as charitable work and that Islam considers cleanliness among the religious practices were important factors in the great attention paid to the water supply and the construction of water facilities. Fountains can be grouped in accordance with the location in which they were built and the aim of their construction, such as a wall fountain (such as Sokullu Mehmed Paşa Mosque Fountain, sixteenth century), corner fountain (Üsküdar Mehmed Ağa [el-Hâc] Fountain, 1586), square fountain (Üsküdar Ahmed III Square Fountain, 1728), fountain designed with sebils (Hamidiye Sebil, 1777), open-air prayer terrace fountain (Kadırga Esma Sultan Fountain with Open-air Prayer Terrace, 1779; Bostancı Sultan Mahmud II Han Open-air Prayer Terrace Fountain, 1831), chamber fountain (Topkapı Palace Sultan Murat III Chamber Fountain, sixteent-seventeenth century), or colonnaded fountain (Hacı Beşir Ağa Fountain in the courtyard of Koca Mustafa Paşa Mosque, 1737). They all have similar sections, such as the reservoir, tap or stone slab, inscription and waiting terrace.

1- One of the four fountains in and around the plane tree in the yard of Eyüp Sultan Mosque

These categories differ in accordance with the architectural styles and approaches which changed over the centuries. While a period witnessed the unique construction of fountains in form of columns, like the one at Kızılay Square in Kasımpaşa (Picture), fountains and sebils were sometimes constructed as the first messengers of architectural innovations: Ahmed III Square Fountain and the fountain at the corner of Mahmud II Sebil, for example. These fountains are recognized as significant icons of Westernization and the Tanzimat (reforms) in the Ottoman State and in Istanbul.

2- Gazanferağa Public Fountain

3- Kılıç Ali Paşa Public Fountain

It is impossible to cite the exact number of fountains in Istanbul. While the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality has marked the location of 1,308 fountains on its website, 542 names are listed in the Istanbul Cultural Inventory Study. On the other hand, information and photographs for 1,164 fountains and sebils located in Istanbul are included in Affan Egemen’s book. Thus, it can be stated that there are more than 1,000 fountains in the city.

Sultan Mehmed II, who commissioned a number of fountains in 1452 during the construction of Rumelihisarı, provided Istanbul with the first Ottoman fountains. On the other hand, the Ottoman fountain with the oldest inscription is that of Davud Paşa Fountain, dated 1495. Evliya Çelebi wrote that Sultan Mehmed II and Bayezid II, both sultans in the fifteenth century, commissioned 200 and 70 fountains, respectively.

4- Sultan Ahmet III Fountain (Topkapı)

The sakas, in other words, water carriers, were in charge of providing water to those in need at a time when there was not running water in residential neighborhoods. City sakas carried water either on horseback or on foot/back. There was a regulation which determined from which fountains the sakas could obtain water. Which saka would obtain water from which fountain was regulated; their number did not change, and only when a saka quit his job could a new saka take his place. If fountain patrons (i.e. those who donated the money for the fountain) did not want sakas to obtain and sell water from their fountains, they expressed their will in the vakfiye (foundation charter) or on the fountain’s inscription. The fountains which sakas could obtain water from were called saka fountains.

Many people often confuse sebils with fountains, and both fountains and sebils are referred to incorrectly by the same name. The word sebil, however, is defined differently in the historical sources. This word, which means “road”, is defined as “a charity or waqf facility established in the name of Allah”, “waqf structures established to provide cold and fine drinking water free of charge to passersby in busy neighborhoods”, “charity fountain” and “a place offering water to passersby”. In short, sebils are generally referred to as places where water is offered. However, it is known that honey sherbet could be provided and distributed through the sebils and fountains for days or weeks after they came into operation, and that sherbet and fruit juice could also be provided alongside water in the sebils. There is also some information on the working hours of sebils. For example, it is explained in a source that working hours of sebils differed from each other: some of them would be open all day long and also all day and night during Ramadan, others worked at particular hours such as during the zuhr and isha prayer times; some would only operate during the summer.

5- Ayasofya Three-faced Fountain

Sebils were designed in the form of single window or a monumental place covered with a dome, with fountains inside and outside the structure. They can be grouped as detached structures, a corner sebil, façade sebil or window sebil, in accordance with their location and forms. Sebils are the landmarks left by the Ottomans at each site they visited. The sebils in Jerusalem, Cairo and Istanbul compete with one another in terms of architecture and decoration. Numerous sebils were constructed in the Ottoman capital of Istanbul from the time of the conquest to the foundation of the Republic; however, only 67 managed to survive until the present time. The number of sebils in Istanbul increased to 68 with the reconstruction of the sebil of Yenikapı Mevlevîhanesi that had been in ruins for a long time This sebil lies within the Fatih Sultan Mehmet University campus today. Sebils generally possess certain features: a lower marble wall called the etek (skirt), columns that rest on the etek, bronze or marble railing cornices between the columns, an inscription, and eaves or overhang.

6- Emirgan (Hümaşah Sultan) Fountain

Sebil officers who worked at the sebils were responsible for cleaning the facility, the metal cups and jars. Occasionally there were also living chambers for the sebil officers next to the sebils (e.g. Mahmut II Sebil). It has already been mentioned that sherbet or fruit juice could be offered in the sebils on the first day they operated, as well as on ‘Eid days or holidays. Water and sherbet brought by the sakas would be poured into the marble reservoirs and the marble and earthen jars of the sebils. Fruit juice and honey sherbets, prepared offsite, would be brought to the sebil in buckets and offered to the passersby; from time to time these would be prepared within the sebil as well. Fruit would be then placed in the jars with taps that stood in rows, granulated sugar would be sprinkled on top, and a little water added. Then sherbet/fruit juice was poured from the taps. The juice was called “never-ending”, since it could be increased by adding water to it.1

7- Hamidiye Public Fountain

At the same time, sebils were water structures with decorative purposes; they were a type of fountain located in the gardens of mansions or seaside mansions. These types of sebils possessed small basins designed as bowls at various levels on a large marble stone, where the water would pour from the higher basin to the basin below, collecting in the pool or larger basin at the bottom. These structures did not aim to supply water, but were rather decorative.

The architectural plans, materials and decorative characteristics of the fountains and sebils changed in time. Notably, examples such as Azapkapı Saliha Sultan Square Fountain with sebil and Ahmed III Square Fountain with sebil, built together with square fountains, were the first models of a new understanding in urban planning and structural design, unprecedented in Ottoman architecture. This development was one of the first concrete indicators of the transition from the Ottoman classical architecture under the influence of Western architectural tastes, with their rounded shapes, heavily decorated corner sebils, and twisted fringes and location as part of a square. Their style reminds one of the squares in European cities, decorated with Renaissance and Baroque fountains, emphasizing the important areas within the city. Moreover, there were sebil structures which shared a building with a primary school on the floors above it, known as sebilküttab (sebil within a school). Two examples located in Istanbul are Recai Mehmet Efendi Sebil Küttab (1775) in Vefa (Picture) and Cevri Kalfa Sebil Küttab in Sultanahmet.

8- Hekimoğlu Ali Paşa Fountain

We have mentioned that fountains and sebils were planned and used materials and decorative elements that were in keeping with the architectural styles applied during the period in which they were built. Fountains and sebils located in Istanbul which were built after the conquest can be classified as follows:

1. Classical period (fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) fountains and sebils

2. Tulip Period (approximately the first quarter of the eighteenth century; 1703-1730) fountains and sebils

3. Fountains and sebils in Baroque and Rococo styles (eighteenth century and approximately the first quarter of the nineteenth century until 1829)

4. Fountains and sebils in the Empire style (from the first quarter of the nineteenth century to the end of the century; 1829-1892)

5. Fountains and sebils in neoclassical and various styles (end of the nineteenth century until approximately the middle of the twentieth century; 1892-1930)

Fountains and sebils constructed in the fifteenth-seventeenth centuries, reflect all the characteristics of the Classical period of Ottoman architecture. Sebils of this period were generally designed with quadrilateral or polygonal plans; marble columns with bronze rings and headings with muqarnas or checkers are located between the windows. Although there were some changes in the arches as styles changed at the end of the seventeenth century, the spaces between the columns were generally joined by the classical Ottoman pointed arch. The etek section would generally be made of plain marble. Balustrade, cast iron railings or bronze grids were placed between the columns. There was also a section called the maşrapalık (tankard place), located under these railings or grids where the cups used to offer sherbet or water to the people were placed. This area was usually in the form of a pointed arch. There are also sebils with iron railings and marble windows in this period; they generally covered in some way. The following can be listed as examples of Istanbul sebils from this period: Hüsrev Kethüda Sebil/Ekmekçizade Sebil (1565), Takyeci Sebil (1578), Kılıç Ali Paşa Sebil (1580), Mimar Sinan Sebil (1587) (Picture), Koca Sinan Paşa Sebil (1594) (Picture), Gazanfer Ağa Sebil (end of the sixteenth century), Ahmed I Sebil/Sultanahmet Mosque Sebil (1617), Halil Paşa Sebil (1617), Bayrampaşa Sebil (1634), Valide Çinili Sebil (1640) and Amcazade Hüseyin Paşa Sebil (1697). The fountains of this period were generally built out of küfeki stone; they bear characteristics of the Ottoman classical architecture and are plain in style, bearing the renowned penci, or pointed arch, of the Ottoman style. Fountains with single façade walls were generally common in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and it is possible to encounter such examples from time to time built on the corners as part of mosque complexes.

9- The public fountain (on the left) and the tomb of Sultan Mahmud II

While the pointed arch of the classical period was heavily used within the fountains of the seventeenth century, rounded lines started to emerge within the arch forms, as can be seen in some examples which were influenced by styles developing towards the end of the century. Fountains were built again as single façades and corner fountains within this period. It is possible to list the following as examples of the fountains of this period: Rumelihisarı Fountain (fifteenth century), Davud Paşa Fountain (1485), Bostancı Çatal Fountain (1550) (Picture), Rüstem Paşa Fountain (1554), Mehmed Paşa Fountain (1570), Cerrah Mehmed Paşa Fountain (1593), Siyavuş Paşa Fountain (1602), Mısırlı Osman Ağa Fountain (1621), Bâbüssaâde Ağası Fountain (1622), and Mustafa Ağa Fountain (1681).

Fountains and Sebils of the Tulip Period

During the period from 1703 to 1730, structures were built that exemplified the progressive transition into the ensuing Baroque-Rococo period. This was the beginning of important examples for Istanbul. Fountains and sebils reflect the architectural transformation that was being experienced in every field across the Ottoman State by the beginning of the eighteenth century. They became the first architectural structures upon which Western architectural trends were tried and presented to the public opinion, serving as a pioneering models. Furthermore, square fountains with sebils attached to them were the earliest of such models, and they started to decorate some of the important locations in Istanbul. Pointed arches were applied less in this period. Instead, arch styles with a dominance of S- and C-shapes came into existence, and similar curls started to be observed within almost every section of newly built fountains, from plans to grids and from fringes to skirts. Renowned examples of this period are Ahmed III Square Fountain with sebil (1728), located in the square between Topkapı Palace and Hagia Sophia, and Ahmed III Square Fountain (1728), decorating Üsküdar Square. Moreover, ornamented stone slabs in the form of oyster shells were applied on the façades of some fountains exclusively during this stylistic period, such as on Üsküdar Ahmediye Fountain and sebil (1721) (Picture) and Sadrazam İbrahim Paşa Fountain (1723) in Ortaköy Square. Another common characteristic of the fountains and sebils of this period is that they were abundantly ornamented. Ahmed III Square Fountain with sebil (Picture) is located between Hagia Sophia and Topkapı Palace, making it one of the most important examples of the period. It is a square fountain that served as an attempt to introduce and explain Westernization to the public, having four sebils with rounded corner being applied for the first time within Ottoman architecture. It has been recounted that Ahmed III cited the final couplet of Seyyit Hüseyin Vehbi b. Ahmed’s, the qadi of Kayseri and Aleppo, eulogy, which is composed of fourteen lines and written in ta’liq calligraphy on the fountain; this inscription is located on four of the façades and on the sebil of the façade facing Hagia Sophia. This final couplet reads, “Turn it on with the basmala and drink water/Pray for Khan Ahmed”. Ahmed III’s signature is also found at the end of this eulogy. Moreover, this inscription, according to the abjad calculation, indicates that the fountain was built in 1141 (1728). Both the inscription and the poem belong to Sultan Ahmed III.2

10- Çevri Kalfa Fountain

11- Sultan Ahmet III Fountain in the yard of Yıldız Palace

Fountains and Sebils in Baroque-Rococo Style

These works were produced under the influence of Westernization in the period that followed the nascent transformation of the Tulip Period; some sources refer to this period as the Westernization period. At this point European decorative elements were introduced into Ottoman architecture. While square fountains with or without sebils continued to be built during the Tulip Period, S- and C-shaped also began to be used; the application of gilding on the grids, eaves and curled ornaments in some other parts of the structure were among the characteristics of fountains and sebils of this period. It is also possible to encounter arch styles applied during the Ottoman classical period as well as muqarnas lines mixed in with Western decorative elements. The following can be listed among the examples of this period: Bereketzade Fountain (1732) (Picture), Hekimoğlu Ali Paşa Fountain (1732), Saliha Sultan Square Fountain with sebil (1732) (Picture), Mahmut I Han Fountain/Tophane Fountain (1732), Mehmed Emin Ağa Fountain and sebil (1741), Sadeddin Efendi Fountain and sebil (1741), Ayrılık Fountain (1741), Mahmut I Han Fountain (1751), Abdülhamit I Han Sebil and Fountain (1777), Beylerbeyi Mosque fountains (1778), Kadırga Esma Sultan Fountain with Open-Air Prayer Terrace (1779), Mihrişah Valide Sultan Fountain (1806), and Cevri Usta Fountain and sebil (1819) (Picture).

Saliha Sultan Fountain in Azapkapı, is notable for its interesting story, as well as ornamented façades; here characteristics of the Tulip Period architecture coexist with certain Baroque-Rococo features. Rumor has it that Gülnuş Valide Sultan, mother of Mustafa II, was going through Azapkapı neighborhood in her carriage when she saw a little girl crying next to a small square fountain; the girl was holding the handle of a broken jug in her hands. Upon summoning the girl and offering her money, the girl refused the offer, and uttered a sentence that would not be expected from someone her age: “I broke the jug. I am not crying because of what it costs but because now I won’t be able to get water for our house.” Valide Sultan was so impressed by this statement that news was sent to her family and the girl was invited to the court. This girl, who was received at the court, grew up and became the wife of Mustafa II (1695-1703), Saliha Sultan. When Saliha Sultan became pregnant with Mahmud I, she remembered the fountain where she had broken the jug and declared her wish for the construction of a larger and more magnificent fountain in place of that small fountain; her desire was fulfilled by her son Mahmud I (1730-1754), who ascended the throne in 1730.3

Fountains and Sebils in the Empire Style

Under this heading examples that reflect the introduction of some limited, superficial decorative elements from the Empire style, which emerged in France, are examined. However, architectural styles applied during the previous periods continued throughout this period as well. There are arches from this period whose style conforms to both the classical and Baroque-Rococo periods. On the other hand, novel forms of decoration can be observed, such as garlands, and curtain and draped cloth motifs. The following can be listed as examples of the fountains and sebils from this period: Mahmud II Tomb and sebil (1840) (Picture), Çinili Hamam Sebil (1846), Rıfat Paşa Sebil (1854), Arif Hikmet Bey Sebil (1858) (Picture), Ziya Bey Sebil (1866), Ali Paşa Sebil (1869), Muradiye Sebil (1890), Bala Mevlevihane Sebils and Fountain (1891) (Picture), Mahmud II Han Fountain (1831), Ali Bey Fountain (1836), Kavacık Fountain (1837), Bezmiâlem Valide Sultan Fountain (1839), Mahmud II Fountain (1840), Bezmiâlem Valide Sultan Fountain-Yıldız and Topkapı (1843), Baba Oğul Fountain (1844), Bezmiâlem Valide Sultan Fountain-Gureba (1845), Bâbıâli Fountains (1848) (Picture), Hırka-i Şerif Mosque Fountain (nineteenth century) and Pertevniyal Valide Sultan Fountain (1871).

12- Tophane / Kılıç Ali Paşa Fountain

Fountain and Sebil Examples in Neoclassical and Various Other Styles

Examples of art nouveau, which developed in the final decades of the Ottoman Empire, will be discussed here, including eclectic samples and those which bear classical Ottoman elements but were produced within the early years of the Republic. While examples of sebils are not frequently found within this period, a number of particularly interesting art nouveau fountains do come to the fore. One can observe significantly narrower and taller façades on fountains, as well as edges bordered by columns and examples where art nouveau adornments have been applied. The most prominent examples that indicate the influence of art nouveau in the Ottoman architecture in this period include Laleli Fountain (1904) (Picture) and Şeyh Zafir Complex Fountain (1904), designed by the court architect Raimondo d’Aranco. Moreover, Abdülhamid II Han Fountain in Maçka (1901), Hamidiye Fountain (1906), Hamidiye Fountain-Yahya Efendi Dervish Lodge (1906), Ayasofya Üç Yüzlü Fountain (1911) (Picture), and Erenköy İstasyon Fountain (1921). Although the German Fountain, which was commissioned for Istanbul by the German emperor Wilhelm II as a present to commemorate his visit to the Ottoman sultan Abdülhamid II, falls into this late period according to its construction date (1898), its style significantly differs from that of Ottoman fountains. The interior of the dome is adorned with golden mosaics including the seal of Abdülhamid II and the emblem of Wilhelm II. On the other hand, Sahrayıcedit Fountain, built in the middle of twentieth century and located on the Anatolian side, is an interesting example because it pursued the fountain tradition of the Ottomans.

13- Sultan Ahmet III Fountain in Üsküdar

Fountains and sebils always played a role in bringing people together. They were commissioned by almost every member of the Ottoman state—particularly wives mothers of the sultans—as a form of charity. Fountains and sebils also served as important structures that could be used to encourage the citizens to take up new fashions. For example, the nineteenth-century fountain on the corner of Mahmud II’s Sebil and Tomb (Picture) displays the continents of the world and meridian, parallel and equator lines on a round marble globe. This design demonstrates the immense role that France played in the Westernization of the Ottoman State and the depth of interest at that time in French culture; as a result this fountain should be mentioned among the group of structures recognized as Tanzimat monuments. Bezmialem Valide Sultan Fountains (Picture) also attract attention since they emphasize the Ottoman enlightenment and the Tanzimat ideology with their globe patterns. These fountains were commissioned by Bezmialem Valide Sultan, the mother of Sultan Abdülmecid (1839-1861); she was an innovative woman, who also commissioned the first civilian school (Cağaoğlu Anatolian High School – Mekteb-i Maarif) and first civilian hospital (Vakıf Gureba Hospital).

Fountains and sebils which had been neglected for many years have been reintroduced into the modern daily life of Istanbul within the last 10-15 years thanks to the support of primarily municipal and governmental institutions and some private and civil society organizations: some of them offer running water again after renovations, while other sebils have been assigned new functions as kiosks, bookstores and cafeterias following their renovations. The water needs of the people are being met by placing a modern water dispenser in the summer in front of Hatice Turhan Valide Sultan Sebil located in Eminönü. People are also allowed to obtain water once a week from the well of the sebil located in the tomb entrance of Aziz Mahmud Hüdayi Sebil in Üsküdar. While these two examples do not exactly comply with the original functions of sebils, at least they sustain their existence in a similar way.

14- Bezmialem Valide Sultan Fountain (in Vişnezade, Teşvikiye)

15- Mihrişah Sultan Public Fountain

In conclusion, it can clearly be observed that the fountains and sebils of Istanbul were important components that helped sustain traditions and cultures; the structures were used to introduce many innovations into Istanbul and the elements and facilities related to water were used for the planning of recreational areas and palaces, important innovations in terms of the urban development and Westernization of Ottoman culture. The numerous fountains, sebils and ablution fountains that one could encounter in all corners of the country underlines the importance attached to water, cleanliness and charity. Old engravings emphasize the value of the fountains and sebils, ensuring social communication and unity through the living human environment they created, such as country coffeehouses and the experiences of sakas, water pump workers at the fountains and sebils, as well as the women who went to get water from these facilities (Picture).

16- Küçüksu Fountain

17- The Fountain which was built by Sultan Abdülhamid II in front of Nusretiye Mosque but then moved to Maçka district during road constructions


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1 In an interview with the late Professor Behçet Ünsal on January 27, 1989 it is mentioned that Behçet Ünsal had drunk honey sherbet from Laleli Sebil during his childhood. Nur Urfalıoğlu, “İstanbul Sebilleri Özellikle Üsküdar Sebillerinin Sorunları ve Korunmaları” (MA thesis), Yıldız Teknik University, 1989, p. 163.

2 11.12.2013,

3 11.12.2013,;

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