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Volume 47, Number 2March/April 1996

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Mansions on the Water

The Yalis of Istanbul

"[A] glimpse of a perfect ceiling is to be caught by any one who rows up the Asiatic shore [of the Bosporus] from Anadolu Hisar.... This ceiling, and the whole room to which it belongs, is the most precious thing of its kind in all Constantinople, if not in all the world."

Written and photographed by Chris Hellier

That was how American writer H.G. Dwight in 1907 described what is today the oldest surviving yalı (yah -lih), the home of Köprülü Amcazâde Hüseyin Pasha, who served as grand vizier under the Ottoman sultan Mustafa II in the last decade of the 17th century. Though its terracotta-rose paint has long since faded and its timbers have grown weary, the grand house still stands on the Bosporus shore, one of the several dozen remaining yalıs of the former Ottoman elite.

It was in the latter half of the 17th century, when the Empire stretched from Makkah to Budapest and from Tunis to Tabriz, that it became fashionable for Ottoman viziers, admirals and civil and military pashas to build prestigious summer homes along the Bosporus, the strait that separates Europe and Asia. These homes were called yalıs, a word deriving from the Greek yialos, or seashore.

Like the Newport "cottages" of the American elite in the late 19th century, yalıs in their time functioned as extravagant retreats where the owners and their families escaped the sweltering bustle of the city. Today, however, Istanbul's remaining yalıs are glimpses into Ottoman high culture across more than two centuries, and the social standing of their owners gave these homes important roles in society, politics and architecture.

Only a handful of the earliest yalıs still stand. These were invariably built of timber and roofed with red tile. The exterior walls were stained a deep earthtoned red, known as "Ottoman rose," which made the facades stand out against the forested slopes with their pink cherry blossoms, green-leafed chestnuts and slim, dark cypresses. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the increasing popularity of European tastes led to the supplanting of the traditional red facade by pastel shades.

The arrangement of rooms within each yalı harks back to the earliest Turkish houses that, like the Turks themselves, can be traced to Central Asia. From the sofa, or central salon, where a free-standing fountain cooled the summer heat, internal doors typically led into four corner rooms.

The cruciform central hall often included one or more recessed sitting areas that overhung the Bosporus waters, thus affording unobstructed views. Here, members of the household received their guests.

Like all larger Ottoman houses, yalıs were divided into a selamlik for the men and a haremlik for the women—though the women's side was sometimes a separate building. Each yalı also had its hamam, or bath, often made of marble, which was divided into steam and cool rooms. Men and women used the hamam at different, designated times of the week.

Upper-class ladies often spent summer days on excursions in the gardens and the extensive grounds that surrounded nearly all yalıs on the landward side. Enclosed footbridges, known as "privacy bridges," often spanned the narrow access road behind each house and connected the enclosed gardens with the forested grounds, allowing the women of the household private passage to the grounds. Over the last century, road-widening projects have torn down all but one of these.

Toward the end of the 19th century, when the number of yalıs had reached its peak, a highlight of the summer social season was the mehtâb, one of the most extraordinary spectacles of an affluent and esthetically refined era. On summer evenings when the moon was bright and the Bosporus calm, rich and poor alike would throng the shore to watch and listen as a flotilla of private boats—sometimes numbering in the hundreds—would weave its way north in a snake-like procession, often calling at prominent yalıs on both shores along the way. In the lead was a special concert boat fitted with a raised platform on which an orchestra performed, or vocalists accompanied by the flute-like ney, the stringed dulcimer and the saz.

With such prominent owners, yalıs invariably also played host to history. In the central sofas, viziers received visiting ministers and heads of state, treating them first to banquets and later to negotiations that, in several instances, altered the shape of the Empire. The far-reaching Karlowitz Treaty—which ceded to Austria territories in the Balkans, including Hungary and Transylvania—was ratified in the Köprülü Yalı in 1699. The Küçük Kaynarca Treaty recognizing Crimean independence was also signed there in 1774. Early in this century, negotiations with German officials in the Sait Halim Pasha Yalı led to Turkish involvement in World War I.

Architecturally, yalıs were bellwethers of style. From the earliest, entirely Ottoman yalı, they gradually adopted features that reflected Istanbul's rising fascination with European designs. From the 1730's to the early 1800's, a style now called "Turkish baroque" brought elaborate decorative schemes to the Bosporus and encouraged the replacement of traditional built-in cupboards and divans with European-style, free-standing furniture (See Aramco World, July-August 1994).

In the latter half of the 19th century, this gave way to a neo-Western classicism, the "empire" style—a term the Ottomans borrowed from the French—that produced several of the largest yalıs. Toward the close of the 19th century, this was overshadowed by an eclectic "cosmopolitan" style wherein several yalıs became ensembles of European towers and Ottoman onion domes, each ornamented with Islamic motifs. Finally, during the decade prior to World War I, a Turkish expression of art nouveau influenced some of the last of the Ottoman yalıs to be built.

Yalıs were rarely built for longevity. In Ottoman Turkey there was no hereditary aristocracy that bequeathed property from one generation to another, as was the custom in Europe. A pasha's position depended on his relations with the sultan: Should the pasha fall from grace or the sultan fall from power, the family's fortunes fell as well, and the yalı often became impossible to maintain.

Indeed, temporality is intrinsic to timber buildings. Winter rains and the moist sea air both encouraged rot. On an unseasonably chilly July day in 1910, the romantic French novelist Pierre Loti, staying at the yalı of his friend Count Ostrorog (above), noted that "a balmy dampness fills my bedroom overlooking the sea, like an old ship whose hull is no longer watertight."

Simple forms of heating, such as the common open brazier, or mangal, caused several devastating fires. Later, in the 1940's and 1950's, rising land prices took a further toll. Thus only a handful of 18th-century yalıs have survived, and a number more from the 19th century. During the 1980's, some of these received new leases on life as a new class of monied Turkish entrepreneurs revived the prestige of a historic Bosporus summer home.

Today, the remaining yalıs are protected buildings, divided into several categories according to their architectural importance. One, the 18th-century Bostancibaşi Abdullah Ağa Yalı at Çengelköy, has been acquired by the Ministry of Tourism, and it is being remodeled to accommodate a restaurant and a souvenir shop.

The future of the best 18th-century yalıs—many of them illustrated here—now seems brighter than at any time this century. Several have actually remained in the same family for generations, and the current owners are committed to their upkeep. The (Çürüksulu Yalı at Salacak, for instance, is maintained largely as it was originally conceived by one of Turkey's leading industrialists.

Istanbul socialite Ayşegül Nadir is restoring the Sa'dullah Pasha Yalı. Further up the Asian coast, plans are again afoot to restore the dilapidated 1698 Köprülü Pasha Yalı. Restoration of this oldest of the yalıs was first planned in 1915, but was derailed when, following World War I, the Ottoman era ended with the establishment of the modern Republic of Turkey. If today's conservationists succeed, the Köprülü Pasha Yalı may have its facelift in time to celebrate its 300th anniversary in 1998.

Provence-based writer and photographer Chris Hellier began his career as an urban conservationist. He is the author and co-photographer ofSplendors of Istanbul: Houses and Palaces Along the Bosporus, published by Abbeville Press in the US and Tauris Parke Books in Britain.

This article appeared on pages 34-39 of the March/April 1996 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1996 images.