The magnificence of the Topkapi Palace, the majesty of the Suleymaniye mosque and the Sultan Ahmet complex in Istanbul all stand testament to the engineering and architectural skills of the Ottomans. Yet there is nothing particularly grand about the traditional Turkish houses. Aside from basic structures in poor, rural areas, the houses of the ordinary man and the aristocrat were not that much different, just that the latter enjoyed more and bigger rooms and more elaborate and better quality decoration, particularly wood carvings and inlays.
The well-to-do Ottoman considered a large house to be ostentatious and a waste of resources. Everything in the house was designed to be practical; this is a thread carried over from the tented dwelling when everything a family owned needed to be packed up and carried with them when they moved on. Traditional Turkish houses evolved out of the peripatetic lifestyle and incorporate a host of features reflecting this background.
The Ottomans ruled from the early 14th to early 20th century, and at the height of their influence they were sovereigns over an area stretching from the Balkans in the north and the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in the east, to North Africa and the Arabian Sea in the south. In the early days, sultans spent time living in tents – not surprising, given the size of the empire encouraged a peripatetic lifestyle, though in later centuries the outposts were delegated to viceroys and governors, and the rulers became more settled. Caravanserais are a legacy of this early period, and an important element of Ottoman vernacular architecture.
Simple construction was the order of the day. Architectural historians point out that the wooden joints in Ottoman houses are simple, just like those used in the American West where houses needed to be put up quickly to stake a claim, in contrast to the elaborate joints developed in China and Japan where houses were built on ancestral land. The Ottomans did need to rebuild frequently because fire was always a risk in a dry climate and where streets were narrow and dwellings packed closely together. This is one reason why houses older than the 18th century are rare today: contrast this with mosques built from stone or brick, built to last. Some wooden mosques do survive, such as those at Beysehir and Afyon. Fire risk aside, wood works well as a building material in earthquake-prone Turkey because of its flexibility.
Nomenclature of traditional houses
Think of all the names for various rooms in the house one comes across in English: parlour, drawing room, sitting room, lounge, family room, drawing room: all these for, basically, a room where people sit! These distinctions are not found in Turkey. The central room is the “selamlik”, where men gathered to lounge on sofas and discuss the business of the day over a waterpipe. The women’s quarters were located in a less accessible part of the house called the “harem”. A fireplace, or “ocak”, with a hooded cover, was usually sited in the middle of one wall. Plenty of windows and high ceilings in the rooms make them light and airy, though in the harem the windows were fitted with carved wooden screens, which allowed the inhabitants to see out and enjoy a birds-eye-view of the street below, helped by the overhang of the upper storey, but without being seen from the outside. Sometimes the windows occupied three sides of an alcove, projecting out from the wall.
Furniture was simple and functional. The sofa – which derives from the Arabic word suffah – is important, and is more of a concept than a piece of furniture. Indeed, historians classify Ottoman domestic architecture by its sofas. Early houses had no glazing in the windows, so were open to the air, hence “outer” or “open” sofas, but, later, as people became more urbanised, they had a “central” or “closed” sofas. In a nice etymological twist, another English word for a couch is a “divan” – this is the Turkish word for sofa, which was later also used as the equivalent of a political cabinet.
Banish ideas of plush, upholstered English sofas here: the Ottoman versions are no more than mattresses on low wooden platforms set against the walls, with hard, rolled cushions called “yastik” for back and arms. Food and drink was laid out on large copper trays that rested on folding wooden frames. Everything could then be stowed away when it wasn’t needed. Similarly, at night the bedding would be retrieved from a cupboard built into the walls, and the room converted into a bedroom. The only other furnishing objects in the room would be lamps and kilims.
(On the etymology of furniture, worth noting that an “ottoman” is a low upholstered seat that has no back or arms; the top is often hinged, providing storage – so practical!)
There is a parallel here to the sparsely furnished rooms of Japan, though there’s a world of difference between the bamboo and paper screens of Japan and the wood, copper and thick, woven textiles of the Ottomans, but the principle is the same. Anthropologists put this down to the fact that both groups originated from nomadic tribes of Central Asia, but for some reason the Japanese, when they put down roots, did not develop the chairs, tables, cabinets, chests and other furniture items that the Chinese did.
Upper floors for family living
The family rooms are on the upper floors: the ground floor is used for storage, servants quarters, and washing and cooking – the latter functions often carried out in the courtyard at the back. Ground-floor windows facing the street are smaller and more sparse than in the rest of the house.
New developments for a growing population means the pool of Ottoman houses in Turkey is diminishing, with older areas being cleared away. I originally wrote this story in the early 2000s but never published it, and I’m glad to see through Google street view that renovation of old houses is being carried out in a couple of places I visited, including Afyon in western Turkey. Other cities where old houses are prominent included Amasya, Tokat and Safranbolu in Central Anatolia, Kutahya near Afyon, and Bursa on the Sea of Marmara. Kutahya and Afyon are about siz hours’ inland from Izmir, which suffered a disastrous fire in 1922 that destroyed many of its old houses, those that remain are mainly late 19th century-early 20th century.
The photos on this post (except the two labelled Shutterstock) are all from Kutahya, taken in 2011. Back then, I took slide film on my trips; I had these images printed off some years ago, but currently have no way of transferring transparencies to digital.