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After years of neglect, the Savfet Pasha Yalı became a much loved, if leaky home, filled with the sound of classical music. Arlette Mellaart, who went to live there at 15, recalls three happy decades spent in this fragile bohemian setting, her stepfather’s haughty mother, the cats and the rats, the bustling Bosphorus, the parties, the wartime intrigues, and married life – all to the accompaniment of her mother’s piano playing
One morning in early June 1939, I was awoken by my grandfather violently knocking on the door of the room where my mother and stepfather were still asleep. At that time we were living in a villa in Monte Carlo. My mother had just remarried and they were leaving for Turkey that morning. Convinced that war was imminent, my grandfather said I might not be able to join them later in Istanbul if I remained with him in Monaco. So my few belongings were hastily packed and we rushed off to catch the train to Milan, then the Orient Express to Istanbul.
This is how, at the age of 15, I came to live in a very large, beautiful, ramshackle 18th-century wooden house on the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus, not far from Istanbul.
My stepfather was descended on his father’s side from a scholar in Samarkand who, in the fourteenth century, quarrelled with Tamerlane and left for Gaziantep, in southeast Turkey. On his mother’s side, his ancestors were scholars also, as well as diplomats who served the Ottoman Empire in various capacities, from Morea to Syria and Egypt, spending most of their lives as envoys and viziers of the Sublime Porte.
When my mother and I arrived in the yalı, it was just emerging from a long period of decay. After being occupied by soldiers during the First World War, about a third of it had to be pulled down. When the Allies occupied Istanbul in 1918, a friend of the family, a kind and flamboyant Scot who proudly wore a kilt, had managed to get himself billeted there so as to prevent more destruction, this time by the victorious foreign troops. Much later, another Scotsman in a kilt was to become part of our family.
In 1918, the family fortunes were at an all-time low and the yalı of Savfet Pasha suffered for many years. In 1939, however, my mother undertook to repair and maintain it, which she did almost to the end of her life.
When we arrived, my stepfather’s mother was in residence, surrounded by about twenty cats and dogs who ate out of precious Chinese bowls scattered on the floor of her room. A haughty lady of seventy, she had the figure of a young girl and a temper to be reckoned with. Thoroughly independent at the age of thirteen, she would ride on the estate of her grandfather, the Grand Vizier Savfet Pasha, in European riding costume and without a veil. The Sultan called his minister and asked him to tell his granddaughter that she must dress in a manner appropriate to a Turkish lady, including the veil. “But she is only 13, a mere child,” was the reply.
A year later to the day, the Sultan called Savfet Pasha. “Is your granddaughter still only thirteen years old?” he asked gently. All her life Seniye Hanımefendi did exactly as she pleased, and we were made to feel that she was less than enchanted by our arrival.
The house improved day by day. It had sagged badly on one side and the local builder devised a hilarious but efficient method to shore it up: long planks were inserted under the sagging side and all the heavyweights of the village were asked to come and sit on the protruding ends, which slowly lifted the sinking side. It was then shored up with thick wooden blocks.
As we could not afford to paint the exterior, the old wood was allowed to keep its silvery-brown patina. Inside, the vast halls and well-proportioned rooms were painted cream, pale green and pale blue, with the doors and carved ceilings in contrasting colours. The waters of the Bosphorus caused luminous shadows to dapple the walls and ceilings, as the shutters were warped and the curtains too few.
The floors creaked and were not entirely flat. But there was an atmosphere of elegance and charm, enhanced by the yal›’s numerous windows overlooking the Bosphorus and the opposite shore. True to my grandfather’s prediction, war broke out in September 1939, but he had had time to send from Monaco some beautiful furniture which put the finishing touches to the new – and last – period in the life of Savfet Pasha’s Yalı.
My mother was a musician and had three grand pianos. They arrived from Istanbul on horse-drawn carts and were carried to the first floor by tall, mustachioed men who put them on their backs and lifted them with the utmost ease, for this was their speciality. They also carried up large Renaissance chests filled with delicate crockery, without breaking a single thing…
James Mellaart died 29 July 2012 aged 86
The Times obituary
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The Crimean Church in Istanbul: a monument to Victorian Gothic. By Geofrey Tyack. Photographs by Kerem Uzel
In 1960 Maureen Freely’s family packed up all they possessed, waved goodbye to Princeton, New Jersey, and stepped out into the unknown. She had no idea why. Their destination was to her merely a name on a map: Istanbul. It was to become the place she still thinks of as home. Her father, John Freely, would write the classic guidebook ‘Strolling Through Istanbul’. More than forty years later, Maureen looks back on a golden childhood of parties, laughter and, above all, adventure
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