From the Ottoman palaces to the Prince’s Islands, phaetons make a pleasant photograph from the past. Always popular, never out of fashion...

Securing his mother’s permission to visit his father, Phaeton, son of the sun-god Helios, set out one day for his father’s palace, for the mountain where the sun rises. Phaeton climbed thousands of stairs to reach the palace, which stands on the highest mountain in the world. Finally he reached his father’s palace, whose walls were incrusted with gold and ivory and precious jewels. When his father asked him why he had come, Phaeton replied, “Give me permission to show the mortals that I am your son.” And his father said, “Tell me what you want and it will be yours.” Phaeton asked his father to drive his chariot of the sun drawn by wild steeds. At first his father was not pleased with this request, for giving his chariot to a mortal was an invitation to certain death. “You are a mortal,” he said. “Even the gods cannot use my chariot. Not even Zeus. For one thing, consider the route. The sun rises so steeply from the sea to the mountains that you will fall. And the horses are as wild as can be. The descent too is very steep. Even I have trouble with it. And if you are wondering what there is up there, let me tell you. Frightful creatures—bulls, lions, scorpions, crabs—and they’ll all try to kill you. Give up this wish of yours and ask for something else. I’ll grant it right away.” But Phaeton insisted and his father had no choice but to bring out the horse-drawn chariot of the sun. As Phaeton leapt onto the chariot, which was made of gold and precious stones, his father said, “Son, sooner or later you are going to heed my advice. Take the whip and hold on tight to the reins. You will see wheel marks in the places where I’ve passed before and they will be your guide. If you go too fast, you will set the heavens on fire. If you go too slow, you’ll set your mother’s house and the whole world on fire.” But Phaeton commanded the horses to go and the chariot flew out the gate like a flash of lightning. Sensing immediately that the driver was a novice, the horses took the slope at such breakneck speed that the hearts even of the onlookers rose to their mouths. Phaeton was frightened, too, and, in his excitement, let go of the reins. And the horses, who were sailing then through the east wind, began descending rapidly to earth. The mountains of Helicon, Parnassus and Olympus all caught fire from the heat generated by the sun-chariot. The blaze spread into the valleys, and the rivers turned to vapor. Upon which Zeus, the god of gods, grabbed a bolt of lightning and hurled it at Phaeton. Struck, the young man fell from the chariot and was drowned in the waters of the Eridanus River. Phaeton was dead. Terrified by his fall, his sisters wept so hard that they turned into poplar trees on the river. Even today his sisters mourn for Phaeton and, startled by the slightest breeze, set to trembling and quaking.

Such is the phaeton myth. The ‘phaeton’, a word that means horse-drawn carriage in many languages today, is thought to have first been produced in the Bronze Age, between 2000 and 800 B.C., which also indicates that horses were domesticated prior to that date. Horses, which have an important place in Central Asian Turkish culture, were used to pull carts in almost all the Central Asian states. But since we encounter the masters of the chariot more in works of Turkish origin, we can say that it was spread to this region by the Turkish tribes. Horses are referred to as ‘the wings of the Turks’ in Mahmud of Kashgar’s work, the Divan-ı Lugat’it-Türk (Dictionary of the Turkish Language). And it is written that horses were used not only for pulling loads but even for drawing the carts used in battle and on migrations.

In the Ottoman period as well, large farm animals pulled the carts used for transportation both of people and of goods. But the use of horse-drawn phaetons as we know them today is first encountered during the Tulip Era (1718-1730). Starting from this period, phaetons, imported from France with seats for two or four people and driven by a driver, began to be used for transport of people and goods as well as for excursions. Mahmud II, for example, is known never to have gone anywhere except by phaeton, and the phaeton became the official palace vehicle under Sultan Abdülmecid, serving state officials as well under Sultan Abdülaziz. It was also in this period that rented phaetons came into use by the capital’s prominent families. In the Ottoman Empire, the horse-drawn carriages for two that were open on both sides with a folding roof on top and at the back were known as ‘phaetons’, the horse-drawn carriages for four with two facing benches and with two folding roofs at front and back and which could be covered, known as ‘landaus’, and the closed, two-seater horse-drawn carriages in the form of a rectangular box, made entirely of wood with glass windows on the sides, as ‘coupés’. Apart from these, other enclosed carriages known as ‘cabrioles’, which were imported from Europe and drawn by a single horse and in which two people could travel seated side by side, were also in frequent use. Meanwhile semi-covered carriages, drawn by four horses and known as ‘imperial carriages’, were reserved for use exclusively by sultans, grand viziers and leading palace officials.

The only place where phaetons are not used purely for nostalgic outings today is on Istanbul’s Princes’ Islands, where they are the sole form of transportation since all motorized vehicles are banned with the exception of fire trucks and ambulances. More than five hundred phaetons are in use on the islands today, mainly on the largest, Büyükada. Apart from these practical uses, phaetons also continue to be used for excursions and touristic purposes in several cities such as Kütahya, Denizli, Antalya and Izmir. Each one more aesthetically pleasing than the last, these phaetons are transformed into colorful pleasure carriages, elaborately decorated and lit with lanterns. More recently, phaetons capable of traveling at up to 60-70 km per hour and equipped with advanced stereo systems and ABS brakes are even encountered. The phaetons that are produced in only a few factories in Anatolia today, rather than being used in Turkey, are more often exported abroad. Among them are specially designed carriages produced for the palaces of England and France, as well as phaetons designed as garden decorations or in miniature.

At one time the phaeton and horse-drawn carriage factories of Anatolia numbered as many as the harness and saddle makers. The name ‘saraç’, or saddlemaker, was given to the master craftsmen of these workshops which produced tanned and leather goods such as saddles, harnesses and bridles. Such saddlemakers, whose numbers have declined significantly today, are now found only in touristic areas, usually making and selling tanned and leather goods to serve the needs of the day. Although the phaeton, once the chariot of the sun-god, is today only a pleasant reminder of the past seen in resort areas, at least it has not been consigned to a life merely in faded photographs as have so many other things. On a summer evening with a gentle breeze, a phaeton outing, to the accompaniment of cotton candy and ice cream, remains a pleasure that will never grow old.