Sitting between Asia and Europe Istanbul is one of the longest habited cities on earth. Founded in 600 BC by Greek colonists from Athens, it has absorbed influences from Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Venetians, and the Turks. Some of the most striking architecture in the world is found here to be sure—everyone has heard of sites like Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, the Wall of Theodosius, Topkapi Palace, the Suleymaniye and many more. But I'm always surprised by the wooden houses of Istanbul.
We first visited Istanbul in 1990 and it was a bit heart breaking to see the old houses, once owned by the cities pashas and elites turned into piles of decaying wood through neglect. Now in 2011 many of them have disappeared but Turkey has prospered in those intervening years and the Turks have taken steps to preserve many of the old wooden homes. Istanbul is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site but one in danger. The great monuments aren't so much the concern, they are in good repair and under constant restoration. UNESCO is more worried about the fate of lesser known bits of history like the wooden homes.
This picture says it all. I was walking through back streets after a visit to the great architect Sinan's Suleymaniye Mosque. Not really lost but not following any particular path either. The neighborhood had seen better days, still you can see hopeful signs here.
Sometimes it's just too late to restore a building. In my walk I saw buildings with the top floor fallen in but scaffolding erected to restore the other floors. Here is one they are rebuilding using the old methods.
The reasons for the neglect are complex. Changing tastes and economic conditions contributed but Istanbul has a long history of disastrous fires too. When concrete frame construction came along it replaced wood because it was more fire resistant. Later after some nasty earthquakes the Turks found that the wooden houses survived them better than concrete.
Today there is an urgency to save what can be saved and a new respect for the old homes. You can see the effect along the Bosporus which is a showcase for the 'Yali' style wooden home—a country home usually on the water. Here are a few we saw one day.
I'm writing this post from the Yesil Ev Hotel or "Green House". It's tucked away behind the Ayasofia and the Blue Mosque and is itself a great example of restoration.
Notice the woven wood screens that can be move up or down to give the best protection from the sun.
Another traditional element is the intricate ceiling details. The walls are plaster but the ceilings are wooden planks and the molding designs help hide the seams.
The hallway to the courtyard. Now you can see why there are so many carpet sellers in Istanbul.
The best rooms are on the top floor with incredible views but don't expect elevators. A few trips up these stairs is a small price to pay.