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Living the Ottoman Dream

For Ottoman interiors at their luminous best, the Balkans are the place to go. In 2004 Berrin Torolsan discovered old Filibe, today’s Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, recently a European Capital of Culture. In this sleepy backwater she stepped into an Ottoman time warp, the enchanting House of Hindliyan. Photographs by Tim Beddow

Evliya Çelebi was a genius of a travel writer. For more than 30 years in the 17th century this courtier to the Ottoman sultan Murad IV travelled tirelessly, from the Caspian Sea to the Baltic, from Damascus to the Hook of Holland, Moldavia to Ethiopia. His ten-volume diary is an invaluable record. He was both witty and observant, full of curiosity and adventure, and a daring horseman. While playing jereed, a game that involved hurling a baton at close range at a fellow rider, he twice had his teeth broken, later having them repaired in Vienna.

Evliya reported in 1652 that Filibe (modern Plovdiv, in Bulgaria) was one of the most beautiful and prosperous cities in all of Rumelia, as the European part of Ottoman Turkey was known. “Every day thousands of loads are packed and unpacked,” he wrote, describing the caravans that called at the city. He marvelled at the 14th-century clock tower on the top of Sahat Tepe (Clock Hill) – supposedly the first such Ottoman tower in Europe: “It chimes twice at noontime and is heard from afar.” He wrote of the bridges, fountains, mosques, hamams, soup kitchens and caravanserais, and of the numerous splendid residences – 8,060, to be precise – covering the hills…

The beautifully restored mansions of historic Plovdiv that we see today date to the tail end of a happy epoch. Sizeable quarters on the south bank of the Maritza have been sensitively restored. They climb over three hills (the Roman Trimontium) that still bear Turkish names, unchanged since Evliya’s day: Nebet Tepe (Watch Hill), Canbaz Tepe (Acrobat Hill, where funfairs were held) and Taksim Tepe (literally Dividing-Point Hill, where the water supply divides). While austere Soviet-style blocks mar the new town, the restoration of whole streets of houses, shops and churches in the old city has been remarkably careful, p39 p29 giving an idea of the former glory of the vernacular architecture…

Old Plovdiv manages to avoid the deadening feel of a museum town, although many of its finest houses are open to the public. I wander into the courtyard of one of the oldest of these, built between 1834 and 1840 by a wealthy Armenian merchant, Stephan Hindliyan. There are pots of hydrangeas and flower beds of carnations, roses and wallflowers bordered with box hedges. On the right is the classically Ottoman house itself. On the opposite wall are the kitchen, larder, laundry and loo, all independent of the main house, as are the servants’ rooms. Facing the house, on a raised terrace, a pergola crowned with vines creates a shady retreat. Next to it is the stone strongroom (maaza), which kept the family valuables safe from fire, a constant hazard…

The Hindliyan House has the classic features of what historians of Ottoman architecture call “a hayat house”. Hayat literally means “life” – and this is indeed a house for living – but the word has come to refer to the spacious first-floor gallery overlooking a courtyard or walled garden, where people gathered, lived, worked and ate. Once open to the elements on one side, it later turned into a well-lit reception room.

As in all hayat houses, the façade is symmetrical, the plan rectangular. The entrance is flanked by overhanging loggias cantilevered on timber brackets. The frame is of timber: pine was sometimes used, but oak, chestnut or cedar was preferred. The stone foundations rise above ground level, compensating for the lie of the land and protecting the woodwork from damp – in many houses the ground floor is also of stone…

The mansion’s principal room is the central hall or gallery upstairs, the old hayat, which is now a dining room. It opens into four corner rooms, mirroring the layout downstairs. The ceiling-height windows (seen in the façade’s recessed central section below) still effectively let the outside in, especially in summer, when they are all flung open. Bringing in yet more light are paned interior windows shared by an adjoining corner room…

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 62
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Issue 62, 2021 Travellers’ Tales
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