Houses and Gardens

The sixteenth-century deeds of trust contain a number of important clues on houses, land use, and general patterns of settlement in the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle. The houses and other real estate property donated to a local vakıf are often described in some detail.26

Houses as Dwellings
The usual nomenklatura of houses and dwellings in Ottoman Istanbul comprises four different status markers. These markers are, in ascending order of prestige: süflî (shabby, run-down), tahtanî (level with the ground), fevkânî (elevated), and mükellef (luxurious). These adjectives are the expression of a hierarchy in both size, quality, and social status of the house. The last qualifier was usually reserved for palatial houses and for the larger dwellings of the high-ranking military and bureaucrats.27 The tahtânî houses were on average, single-story houses, and the fevkânî usually had two stories.
Out of the sixteen houses set up as a foundation in Kasap ƒlyas in the first half of the sixteenth century and whose descriptions are given in the deeds of trust, no less than thirteen are qualified as hane-i tahtânî. That is, they all had only a ground floor.28 Two others were qualified as süflî, that is,
they also had one single floor but they were smaller and/or shoddier than the others. Only one of the houses in Kasap ƒlyas was qualified as a fevkanî house and therefore had more than one floor, most probably two. In the sixteenth century, just as in later centuries, and notwithstanding the presence of a few large mansions, the houses in the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle were mostly of an average size and of a quite modest appearance.
From the little that remains of the old mahalles of Istanbul today, one gets the distinct impression that the wooden two-story type of residence was definitely the most common one. But this contemporary impression concerns mostly the surviving nineteenth-century wooden buildings. Back in the sixteenth century, the most common type of Istanbul dwellings seem to have had only one floor. Many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European travelers also report that one-story buildings were pervasive in most of Istanbul.29
Moreover, it is probable, as Barkan and Ayverdi also point out,30 that most of these one-story süflî or tahtani houses in the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle only contained a single “room,” the main living quarters. The word hane, or “house,” most probably designated the whole construction, while the individual dwelling-units included therein were designated by the word bab, which means “door,” “gate,” or “entrance.” When and if the two did not coincide, it was openly specified in the deed of trust, for instance, a house with two gates (iki bâb hane) was being donated to a vakıf. A patent example of the distinction between house and residential unit is given by a deed of trust established in the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle and dated December 1526. According to this deed, “a house with two gates” was being set up as a pious foundation, but the donor had clearly specified that the incomes accruing from the large room (beyt-i kebir) were to be put to a different use than the moneys that were to accrue from the renting of the small room (beyt-i sagir).31
The assumption that most of these houses must have contained a single living space is also supported by the abundance of outhouses and annexes attached to each of them. The roofed single space was functioning both as a living room and as a bedroom, because most of the other domestic chores and functions were banished to these outhouses and extensions. The houses in the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle all possessed one or more of these extensions. The kitchen (matbah) and the kiln or oven (furun), for instance, were invariably separated from the house itself, and so, for obvious reasons, were the toilets
(kenif). Some houses had a well, others an open veranda (zulle), and still others a cellar or a granary (serdab or anbar). The extensions attached to the same hane were obviously being used in common by all of the households living within the same dwelling-unit. Indeed, a water-well that is donated to a Kasap ƒlyas vakıf is mentioned in the deed of trust as being an extension of a house and is described as a common water-well (bi’r-i ma-yı müœterek).
The Kasap ƒlyas houses, as were most dwellings in sixteenth-century Istanbul, were wooden constructions that had a basic timber structure, and brick, mud or stone filling in between. The outside walls might have been covered with boards or planks. More probably, they were simply plastered.32
Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European travelers to Istanbul are unanimous in observing that all of the large public buildings (mosques, public baths, hans, medreses, etc.) were solidly built of stone, whereas most private housing was basically built of wood. Wood was a cheaper and more readily available building material than stone, and this was important for the more modest neighborhoods of Istanbul.

The sixteenth-century Istanbulites had been eyewitnesses to the terrible havoc of the 1509 earthquake. This violent earthquake (later nicknamed “the minor doomsday”) had destroyed more than a hundred mosques in intramural Istanbul, as well as the larger part of the ramparts of the city. No stone minaret was left standing.33 After this devastating earthquake, wooden constructions acquired in Istanbul the reputation of being both more resistant to shocks and the cause of less casualties in case of destruction. However, time and time again the public authorities in Istanbul tried to discourage and even to forbid the widespread use of timber as a basic building material. Time and
time again official edicts were issued by the kadı of Istanbul to regulate the height of wooden houses, to limit the width of their eaves, to set standards concerning their roofing, to set the minimum distance between these types of houses, and so forth,34 all in order to keep the risk of fires under control.
These efforts were to no avail, though, and the regulations could not be obeyed or upheld, for a very simple reason. First, the population at large could afford but the cheapest of building materials and, second, the number of available craftsmen such as stonemasons, carpenters, and brickmakers was
limited. And a large number of these craftsmen were often commandeered for the building of a sultanic mosque, the repair of a fortress, and so forth, and wars often created shortages of masons and builders. Fires, large and small, continued to ravage the city. The havoc wrought in the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle by the two large fires that cut through Istanbul in 1660 and again in 1782 is proof that, as far as housing is concerned, wood continued to be the main building material throughout the centuries, at least in our neighborhood.
Only ten years after the fire that ravaged half of Istanbul in 1782, G. A. Olivier, a representative of the French government who traveled through the Ottoman Empire is surprised by the difference in the quality of the public and private buildings in Istanbul. His testimony confirms that nothing had really changed between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries as far as building techniques were concerned. Olivier writes:
The houses have a skeleton made of oak and this skeleton sits on foundations which are not very deep. The beams are either nailed or fitted with tenons. The empty spaces within the wooden structure are then filled with a sort of mortar made of a mixture of mud, hay and bits of hemp. The walls are covered on the outside with rather irregular painted planks. The roof is covered with long and halfcylindrical tiles similar to those we use in the south of France. In the houses the floors are always wooden. Only public and official buildings such as hans, hamams, bedestens etc. are ever built of solid blocks of stone.”35
We shall return to the subject and to the destructions caused by fires.

As to the sixteenth-century wooden houses of Kasap ƒlyas, they were certainly not in a contiguous row, nor were they attached to each other.
Almost all of the houses, even those qualified as süflî, seem to have had a garden, or at least a flower bed (sofa), or a plot of land of some sort. Out of the sixteen houses set up as a foundation in Kasap ƒlyas in the first half of the sixteenth century and whose descriptions are given in the deeds of trust,
five had a small garden (cüneyne) and four of them a small vegetable garden (bahçe). Two of these houses were flanked by stables (ahır) and one of them had even a vineyard (kerm). For another house, the deed of trust specifies that it was surrounded by just an empty plot of land (arz-ı hâliye).

Istanbul is preparing to host the two-day 13th Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Summit next Thursday and Friday. According to a statement from the president's...


Istanbul is preparing to host the two-day 13th Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Summit next Thursday and Friday. According to a statement from the president's...