The Eyewitness travel guide’s blurb about Hagia Sophia notes that, along with the alterations required for its shifting religious uses over the centuries, the building has been ‘buttressed on numerous occasions, which has partly obscured its shape.’ Perhaps the same thought might be had of Istanbul as a city. The tours organised by our tutors for the first year Asianist and Early Modern students’ four day exploration of Istanbul unconventionally omitted mandatory visits to Hagia Sofia or the Blue Mosque. Instead, we were led on a series of tours that demonstrated the shifting landscape of the city. We saw traditional wooden houses being replaced by plastic facades of wood, the dominant style of ‘Ottoman Rococo’, which was overtaken by a nationalist Islamic revival style, and the sudden gentrification of what was once a desolate industrial district.
However, despite the shape-shifting styles of the city’s architecture and social composition, it is clear that the people of Istanbul are aware of their city’s aesthetic identity – the new Metro bridge over the golden horn seemed to be universally scorned for not fitting into the urban style. In our five days, despite one day taken down by delayed flights, and another defeated by a bout of food-poisoning, with the assistance of our (very efficient) tour guides, we were able to absorb the distinct character of Istanbul, a city once the capital of the East, which understood the definition of cosmopolitan a thousand years before London became a hub in the West.
Houses as firewood
A tour around the Zerek district allowed us to see some of the traditional wooden domestic architecture of Istanbul – ‘some’ being the key word, as our guide informed us that remaining structures from the Ottoman era become rarer sights with each passing decade. Although Constantinople was once known as the ‘wooden city’, since the twentieth century the buildings have been ravaged by neglect, lack of expenses, poor maintenance and, perhaps their greatest enemy, fire. Beginning in the 1970s a concern to document and where possible preserve some of the original dwellings has been actioned. But campaigns such as Kudeb (a governmental funding body for the preservation and repair of buildings) have equally been curtailed in the past decade for want of money and support, and it appeared our guide’s archaeological interests for their documentation and correct preservation was somewhat a losing battle.
However, as we traversed the downtrodden residential streets, it became apparent that the historian’s interest and concern for the wooden buildings was not on its own. Although our definition of conservation clearly differed from that of the Turkish workforce called in to repair and re-build many of the structures of this district, a desire to uphold the original identity of the district’s architectural history evidently exists. The chosen style of many re-built houses kept alive the character of the district by replicating the style and material of the original Ottoman buildings. Unfortunately some were more successful than others.
A Top Place
A few miles down the road, we found ourselves that afternoon in another world. From the Zerek district we moved to the extravagances of Topkapi Palace. A UNESCO world heritage site, containing some of the world’s most prized holy relics, Topkapi palace stands as the ultimate demonstration of the centuries-long Imperial Sultan’s rule of the extensive Ottoman Empire.
The palace’s construction began at the end of the fifteenth century under Mehmed II, conqueror of Byzantine Constantinople. It was adapted, extended and re-built after a couple of fires throughout the seventeenth century, and in each new construction a reprisal and reverence of the sixteenth century Ottoman style can be seen. Although by the end of the seventeenth century Topkapi was no longer serving as the principal residence for the Sultan, renovations and additions continued throughout the eighteenth century. In these, however, the character of European influences can be perceived. Some distinct examples of this include the neo-classical library added under Ahmed III (1703-30), the redecoration of the Harem under Mahmud I in the ‘Ottoman Baroque’ style, and the 1752 Kiosk of Mustafa Pasha’s ‘Rococo’ ceiling.
By the nineteenth century renovations and alterations being made to the palace had slowed. In 1924 it was opened to the public as a museum and the myriad designs and buildings that constitute the resplendent complex of palace were left as they are as an amalgamated demonstration of elite styles and Sultan’s whims across centuries.
Rococo in Turkey
Our second tour guide took us on a journey of changing mosque and church architecture between the fourteenth and eighteenth century, ambitiously attempting to show us every other architecturally noteworthy structure along the way. The rise of ‘Ottoman Rococo’ was visible in the curves and decoration of many private and governmental buildings, such as that of a mausoleum of 1780 and the original eighteenth century post office building. However, post-1839 saw a shift in mentality induced by the modernist movement, and the fashion for Europeanised designs was displaced.
New designers sought to establish an Ottoman revival nationalist style and reintroduced neo-Ottoman elements such as abundant use of Iznik ceramic tiles, cupolas, columns and domes. Interestingly, the changes can likewise be perceived in mosque architecture across the city, buildings of such distinct design, and yet equally accordant to the style in vogue.
A turkish coffee or a flat white
Our final day, led by a guide of our own breed as a design historian, brought us to the industrial district of Galata, an area in which our guide had perceived a rapid change over the past ten years. The coffee houses and trendy design shops that sit in the midst of specialised hardware stores would appear natural in some upcoming areas of East London. But in a city that only opened into a market economy in the last three decades, these are alien sights, and again a worry about the aesthetic and traditional identity of the city disappearing came across.
Although our tours focused on the changes that had been marked in the city’s landscape of the past 500 years, reminders that these designs had many origins and unavoidable influences from the Byzantine architecture and culture of a thousand years ago were all around. A final trip took us to Hagia Sophia, unquestionably the epitome of a building adapted, appropriated and renovated by countless rulers, cultures and religions, before finally being preserved and opened as a public museum to exhibit sand bear testimony to such history.
Clearly, many more days could be filled with trips into Istanbul’s abundant history, mapping the design progressions of the past few thousand years. Yet, we accomplished much in our four-day immersion into the city, and certainly learnt a lot of its decorative meanderings. The flight home was uncharacteristically quiet.
___________________________ Eyewitness Istanbul, (Dorling Kindersley, June 2011), p.51. This opinion was expressed by at least two of your tour guides, one of whom, born and raised in Istanbul, confirmed the view to be widespread.  http://www.dainst.org/en/project/wooden-houses-istanbul?ft=all  Marlise Simons, “Center of Ottoman Power,” New York Times, Travel,August 22, 1993.  Grove Encyclopaedia of Islamic Art & Architecture: Volume II (Oxford University Press, 2009) pp.237-239.
Annabel Sheen –
Annabel is a first year Renaissance student currently studying on the V&A/RCA History of Design MA course. Her undergraduate degree was in History of Art and English at the University of York. She is currently hoping to explore issues surrounding the early modern domestic space for her dissertation.
© Annabel Sheen, 2014. All Rights Reserved.