Kula houses

The windows of a Greek mansion, are so close as to almost touch the cantilevered balcony of an old Turkish house. Although in ruins now, the church stands side by side with the mosque. Indeed, Kula for these reasons is a virtual distillation of Anatolian culture down the centuries.

I had heard of the Kula houses. But their location on the map was so out-of-the-way that they had managed to languish on my list of 'places to go' for a long time. And why not? Almost precisely at the midpoint of the Istanbul-Izmir and Istanbul-Antalya highways, they are located in a remote spot in the Central Aegean region. Finally I found an excuse to make a reconnaissance tour that included Kula. Photographing the ancient city of Sardis at the first light of dawn, I set out for Kula just half an hour away. As I passed through Salihli and left the valley of the Gediz behind, the landscape began to change. Greens gradually faded to yellow, and the brown of the hills began to give way to a dense black. From a distance, the Kula skyline is not promising to the traveler, and when I saw it I hoped I was not in for a big disappointment. Almost instinctively, without asking anybody, I suddenly found myself in the old quarter with the Kula houses.

Houses hidden in labyrinthine streets
When I entered the first street which opens onto a square and encountered the friendly greetings of people trying to shake off their morning grogginess, I felt I was about to discover an authentic cultural environment not to be taken lightly. Advancing a few meters, I was suddenly transported back fifty years. At the end of a narrow street where cars cannot enter, I was awed by a house that was still standing despite giving the impression of having been abandoned. If it weren't for the electricity poles and the asphalt pavement, one could easily imagine one had gone back a hundred years. Were these streets, I wondered, entirely deserted? As I was having such thoughts, a garden gate suddenly creaked open a few houses further on, and a middle-aged woman with a straw broom in one hand and a dustpan in the other slowly began sweeping the street in front of her house. Children on bikes soon descended on the scene.  The next thing I knew a gang of motorcycles had engulfed the street in blue fumes. This was indeed the picturesque flow of life in a typical Anatolian town. All that was left to me was to lose myself in those streets. It's no joke either. I did get lost in the labyrinthine streets, crisscrossed by cul-de-sacs, that suddenly narrow and widen at will and that greeted me with fresh new surprises at every turn.

But every time I got lost, it ended with new acquaintances. Grinning broadly, the kids on bikes fell in front of me and became my guides. Together we explored the streets, the houses, the history, and we remembered the past.

Kula has a history going back to ancient times. Referring to it as 'Katakekaumene', the famous historian Strabo vividly describes the volcanic transformations I had seen all along the road as “Lydia's fire-roasted earth”. Hardly mentioned in the Roman era, Kula became an important military garrison in the Byzantine period. During its uninterrupted seven-hundred-year Turkish history, it made a name for itself briefly as the capital of the Germiyan principality. As is immediately apparent from the cosmopolitan texture of the old quarter that has survived to our day, Kula was a true imperial city in the 19th century. The windows of a Greek mansion, for example, are so close as to almost touch the cantilevered balcony of an old Turkish house. Although in ruins now, the church stands side by side with the mosque whose attached cemetery harbors gravestones in the shape of turbans. Indeed, Kula for these reasons is a little different. A virtual distillation of Anatolian culture down the centuries.

Examples of Greek and Turkish architecture
Kula houses can be divided roughly into two groups by their architectural features. The Greek houses characteristically have a five or six-step staircase at the entrance. Rising usually between two columns, this  staircase is crowned by a delicately carved door, while the rear of the house boasts a courtyard. In Turkish architecture on the other hand, the front entrance is through the courtyard, and the main door is even more ostentatious than in the Greek style since it is in the wall of the courtyard that separates the house from the street. The upper floor meanwhile has several rooms and a 'sofa' or large central hall. Even when small, the courtyard is the common feature of all houses. Some houses also have a bath. Again, in certain cases, cellars have also been built to serve as coolers where food is stored. In the larger mansion-type houses with open sofas, the upper story usually has one facade overlooking the street, the other overlooking the courtyard. The windows on the street side are covered with wooden grilles for privacy. Every room in the Turkish houses is designed to be multi-functional, suitable for activities such as eating, sleeping or just sitting, and the largest or main room is usually reserved as for guests. Meticulous workmanship is immediately evident in the details. Slate is widely used for paving courtyards and the local volcanic stone for the walls. Rich wood and plaster decorations and stenciling are used on the interiors. The tile-covered roofs that  protrude over the street end in eaves that make the upper stories seem almost to touch at places where the street narrows. There are decorations below the eaves as well, the windows have wooden shutters, and there are usually an oven and a toilet in one corner of the courtyard. Although the houses still in use today may appear to be a far cry from their former splendor, the vividly colored paints used on their facades immediately strike the eye.

Kula is virtually a monument city that has survived unspoiled to our day. An original member of the ancient league of cities, it is a protected site today. But the architectural preservation of the ancient city is of course not the only reason to visit Kula. The town is also famous for its carpets that employ colors as rich as the walls of the houses, and for the last practitioners of its now almost-forgotten handicrafts such as pottery, ironworking and copperworking.

A union of art and craft
Kula houses are under strict protection today. Even driving a nail into the wall is prohibited. But regulations are not enough to protect the living witnesses of a culture. Could today's master stonemasons lay these stones with the same finesse? What modern journeyman could carve wood of such beauty? Are there any skilled hands left to transform familiar old sheet iron into works of art? Kula is slowly dying. The upper stories are vacated first, then the ground floor. Every storm means a few more broken windows and doors as the rot makes further inroads. Every winter a few houses lose their roofs. Struggling to defy time's depredations by leaning against each other, a few more houses every year cannot be saved and become history. How many towns like Kula are left in Anatolia? Cumalıkızık, Safranbolu, Beypazarı... Perhaps a few more could be enumerated, but it would be difficult to point to another place where Turkish and Greek houses still stand side by side in a common cultural heritage. And it is for this reason that Kula must be saved from ruin. Go and see the houses, too, of course. Lose yourself in the streets where cars can't enter, and get to know the houses and their people who are standing up to time. That's what has to be done.