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The Sleeping Beauty

The Kavafyan Konak, Bebek

Time has stood still at the Kavafyan Konak, the oldest surviving mansion on the Bosphorus. Abandoned for 20 years in the village of Bebek, it is a rare example of the refinement and restraint of 18th-century Ottoman design. From a fresco of a formal garden – recalling the fashionable obsession with horticulture – to a trompel’oeil parasol rosette, original decorative details survive, decayed and faded but intact

  • The frescoed dome of the bride's room added to the house around 1800. Much of the rest of the house dates to the mid-18th century making it the oldest untarnished konak on the Bosphorus
  • The bride’s room in a sorry state today, though good news is around the corner. Since this article was published one of Turkey's best historic house restorers has been appointed to oversee its rescue

The colonisation of the Bosphorus shoreline by the Ottoman elite began in the early 1700s, at the urging of Nevşelirli Damat İbrahim Pasha, Ahmed III’s enlightened grand vizier. The centuries-old small fishing village of Bebek, on the European shore, suddenly found itself the height of fashion, as the great and the good built wooden mansions on the hillsides and summer residences along the waterfront.

All but one of these delicate, birdcage-like houses have disappeared. The sole survivor is the Kavafyan Konak, built, presumably, by 1751 (the date chiselled into a fountain in the garden). The name of the first owner is lost to history. However, in the early 1800s, it came into the possession of an Armenian shipping magnate named Kavafyan, remaining in the same family until the death of his last descendants in 1998. Climbing the hill from the waterside, you will find the house and its terraced garden hidden away on a side street (Yoğurtçu Zülfü Sokak), from which it faces out over the Bosphorus, its back to Bebek hill.

The three-storey timber structure, with its austere façade, is set on massive stone footings. The entrance is at the back of the house through double doors in a high stone wall that open onto a courtyard. From the marble-floored entrance hall, a timber staircase leads to the first floor, laid out to a classical Turkish plan of central reception hall, or sofa, looking down to the blue waters of the Bosphorus on one side and up to the wooded hillside on the other. Off this light and spacious hall are four corner rooms.

For the architectural historian Doğan Kuban, it was such “clear geometry” and “luminous interior spaces” that made Turkish houses “closer to modern taste than anything created in Europe in the pre-modern period”. On the upper storey, the sofa floor plan is repeated, with the addition of a domed chamber, “the bride’s room” (gelin odası), which is embellished with gilded floral brushwork. A mural in an alafranga niche depicts a garden with fountains, balustrades, terraces, flower urns and orange trees at once fruiting and in bloom – fashionable French motifs scattered among traditional elements.

In an Ottoman household no expense was spared in preparing the bride’s room, to make a young girl feel happy in her new family. Apart from this delicately beautiful 19th-century room, the house is more or less in its original 18th-century state. Raised platforms (seki) under the windows are waiting to be turned into inviting seating areas with drifts of cushions. An upper tier of windows is another characteristic element of Ottoman architecture, and, though some have been blocked in, those that remain still have their stucco frames, with baroque detailing and possibly a few handmade panes. Ceilings are decorated with classical lozenge-patterned latticework.

The panelled built-in cupboards (yüklük) in the wall facing the windows are also part of the original floor plan: the perfect storage area in which to keep beds during the day and to stow clothes and other possessions. Their doors are painted a lovely blue-green sage. In the bride’s room the original doors are missing. One imagines that they were irresistible and found a new home. One of the upstairs corner rooms has a lantern window in the exterior wall, which must have let sunlight into the room by day and candlelight into the street at night.

Brick and stone remains of the old kitchen and hamam are still found in the garden, but there is no apparent evidence of the stables and grooms’ quarters that must have been located there. In his Lettres sur la Grèce, l’Hellespont et Constantinople (1811), the French artist Antoine-Laurent Castellan writes of a visit to the admiral Hüseyin Pasha’s residence at Kasımpaşa: “We entered a beautiful salon whose walls were covered with painted and gilded woodcarving.”

Above the panelling was “a stucco frieze” with “scenes of the Bosphorus with its palaces, kiosks, mosques and gardens”. He could have been describing the Kavafyan Konak in its glory days. One of the last few surviving wooden houses in Istanbul and a fine example of 18th-century Ottoman vernacular architecture, it has been crying out for care and protection.

To read the full article, purchase Issue 57

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Issue 57, May 2018 Black Sea Miracle
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Buy the issue
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