The houses of Anatolia

Anatolia presents a rich diversity in its domestic architecture, which reconciles the conditions of nature with vestiges of all the civilizations that have dominated the region over the millennia.

Existing first as hunters and gatherers, human beings chose to live in caves and mountain crevices for shelter and self-defense. Eventually realizing the limitations of these blessings of nature, they began to till the soil. Determined to live by farming, they sought permanence and sustainability rather than temporary solutions. But the object of their quest was neither palace nor castle nor bridge but rather a cosy dwelling - warm, sheltered and in harmony with conditions of climate and geography. So were the first steps taken towards domestic architecture.
And in this process Anatolia witnessed the development of a domestic architecture that has been changing and evolving ever since the Neolithic. As in the example of Çatalhöyük, these early dwellings were small, rectangular and attached and in numbers large enough to constitute a small town. Many years would pass from the days of these houses made of sun-dried bricks, without doors and entered by an opening in the roof, up to our time. But the purpose would remain the same, namely, a plain and simple dwelling integrated with nature, indeed that would ‘listen’ to nature, yet would answer all human needs.

Even though every architectural movement, motivated perhaps solely by instinct in those days, took years to develop, its vestiges would nevertheless survive up to the present. First more rooms, then a second storey was added to these earliest houses. With the growing importance of livestock raising, courtyards, even cantilevered entrances, emerged. Sometimes dwellings were carved in the rocks, or wooden poles were roofed over with straw. Luxury dwellings were built in the Hellenistic period, and with the introduction of mortar in the Roman era even multi-story tenements for the poor. In the Byzantine period more simple examples were observed in Anatolia. The cave dwellings of Cappadocia and the one-room houses of Central Anatolia date to this time. The last conquerors of these lands meanwhile introduced in their dwellings the tradition of the tent, which they had brought with them from Central Asia, and while the pronunciation may vary depending on the dialect, they called their most private space ‘ev’ (house), meaning ‘tent’ or ‘family’.

The tent arrangement, called ‘yurt’ by the Turks, who years earlier had adopted the nomadic lifestyle, formed the basis of domestic architecture in Anatolia. In it the location and importance of the hearth preserved its place even in houses built many centuries later. Combining new elements in time with elements from the past, the phenomenon now known as the ‘Turkish house’ emerged in a rich diversity that exhibits variations in every locale.

The ‘sofa’ or hall, which affords passage from one room to another and denotes the room onto which all other rooms open, is the determining feature of the development of Turkish domestic architecture and a phenomenon to which even palaces and pavilions owe their design. Plan types featuring either no sofa at all or an inner, outer or central sofa exhibited a wide diversity in every region of Anatolia based on differences of geography, climate, culture, economics and accessibility. While a unique form of domestic architecture is observed in the Eastern Black Sea region, for example, with its steep slopes and abundant rainfall, the more temperate conditions of the western Black Sea gave rise to the typical Marmara dwelling.

On the inner sofa plan more frequently used in the cities and in northern Anatolia, the sofa is flanked by rows of rooms on either side; in other regions the central sofa plan observed especially in Istanbul houses was more often used.

Since no examples of houses built in the 15th and 16th centuries have survived to our day we find a gaping void when we look at the history of domestic architecture in Turkey. Many of the houses we see today can be dated to the 18th century at the earliest, but even their numbers are quite small. Functionality, flexibility and privacy are the common determining features of the typical Anatolian dwelling, which is in harmony with natural conditions and the environment. While the rooms, whose number varies depending on the family’s economic status, are the most important architectural elements of the house, the bay window (cumba) that projects over the street, the storage spaces embedded in the walls, and the seats that run along the wall under the windows are the other indispensable features. Simple and sparsely furnished, the Turkish house, whose rooms were designed to be conducive to use for different purposes at different hours of the day, exhibits a close resemblance to the Japanese dwelling in this respect.

Almost every house has a garden, and the courtyard in all examples emerges as the other important place for spending time and affording residents a relationship with nature. As the most widely used material, wood is a characteristic feature of houses particularly in the Black Sea region, while sun-dried brick is used as a building material in Central Anatolia and stone in the Aegean and Mediterranean and in Southeastern Anatolia. Examples that combine all these materials add even further richness to this diversity.

While characterized in general by the same features, settlement in the narrow streets that lead to a central mosque or square exhibit differences of detail from city to city.

The upper storey bay windows of Bursa houses, for example, with their small latticed panes, were an integral part of the life of the street. And Kula, whose wide-eaved houses have courtyards behind high walls, is noteworthy as one of the leading settlements exhibiting the features of the traditional Turkish dwelling. In the valley town of Safranbolu no house obstructs the view of any other. Bodrum houses with their trailing bougainvillea and whitewashed walls reflect the influence of Mediterranean architecture today. In a Black Sea town such as Trabzon the kitchen or ‘aşhane’ is the most important room in the house to which all the other rooms are directly connected. Sometimes the concept of domestic happiness takes precedence over considerations of climate and geography. Despite the cold, for example, the Black Sea people build their houses with a northern exposure for the view.

The row houses of Amasya are noteworthy for their bay windows with panes on three sides. And standing next to the palatial dwellings of Diyarbakır are houses whose interiors display the finest examples of wood workmanship despite their rather plain and ordinary exteriors. The influence of Iran and Khorasan meanwhile can be observed in Eastern Anatolia, and of island architecture in some parts of the Aegean. The houses of Mardin with their fortress-like walls and archways delicately carved like lace, the mud-plastered houses of Harran, the rock-carved dwellings of Cappadocia and the spacious traditional family dwellings of Erzurum —all are products of the Anatolian geography despite rather marked differences in appearance. But as examples of the most valuable works created by man in his quest for peace and happiness, they continue to stand up to time and modern life...