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Article: MELİH USLU Photos: EGE ZİLCİ
Museum of memories
With its stately old mansions, bazaars, baths, coffeehouses and crafts, Birgi, the city of Islamic scholarship, is like a giant museum with many sections...
Situated on verdant slopes watered by a river that bursts forth from the foothills of Mt Bozdağ where the town nestles, Birgi seems to have been conjured up by a painter's brush. The Sarıyar River along which it lies divides the town in two, Upper and Lower Birgi. Attached to the Izmir township of Ödemiş, Birgi is a small town of some one thousand households. Under protection here are not only the old Ottoman houses but also a whole history that preserves traditional everyday life among century-old trees.
A lost capital
During a history that started with the Lydians in the 7th century B.C. and continued with the Romans, the Byzantines and the Ottomans, Birgi was the capital of the notorious pirate Principality of the Aydınoğulları and later, in the Middle Ages, the seat of the Islamic learned class. Known as Pyrgion in the Roman era, its name changed to Birki or Bilge as a principality, morphing finally to Birgi. The famous 17th century Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi said of the town: “Birki has no match in the world.” In the books he wrote two centuries later, the French traveler Charles Texier spoke of the Ottoman houses built of rubble, slate and brick that created the town's spellbinding atmosphere and how they had no counterpart in any other Muslim settlement. The town's narrow streets greet visitors with an old madrasa, a fountain, bath, tomb, mansion, bridge or aqueduct on every corner. On some of the houses, cypress and sun motifs have been added at the top of the wall near the roof using tiles and flintstone. Built in 1761, the Çakıroğlu Mansion with its ground floor of stone and three wooden upper stories with cantilevered balconies is a local treasure. Adorned inside and out with hand-carved wood, the walls of this mansion are virtually embroidered with richly worked fruit and vegetal motifs. Built by a wealthy leather merchant by the name of Çakıroğlu Şerif Ali Ağa, the mansion, which is one of the finest examples of Ottoman domestic architectural style, is used as a museum today. The architectural style of the Ulu Cami or Great Mosque on Aydınoğulları Square at the city center is also remarkable. The door of the minber, or pulpit, of this mosque dating to 1312, whose external facade is graced by a Byzantine lion, was brought back from England in 1996. Another architectural wonder of the region, the Birgivi Mehmet Efendi Madrasa, was not so fortunate. This madrasa of seven dnme-capped rooms whose doors open onto a vaulted vestibule stands as forlorn as an orphan today. Not only the madrasas but the street fountains and many other historic monuments at Birgi are waiting to be taken in hand. For Birgi is a town with its own unique culture of water. Throughout its history, the river here has been adorned with aqueducts, and those aqueducts interlocked with stone.
Houses made to live in
The uniquely Ottoman texture of Birgi's narrow, winding traditional streets gave way to a modern grid plan following the great fire of 1922. In terms of both size and floor plan, it is possible here to follow the development of the traditional Turkish house from the two-room examples with an open 'sofa' or central hall right up through the later period models in which the hall is closed off from the other rooms. Built of stone with wooden roofs and ceilings, Birgi houses are generally hidden behind high-walled courtyards. With their cantilevered balconies, wooden window grilles and hand-carved wood, Birgi houses reflect the meticulousness of having been built with an artist's care down to the smallest detail. Remarkably consistent in design and execution, each of these houses has a different story to tell on the inside. Some of stone, others of brick, their variously shaped chimneys grace the rooftops like antique statues, while those that protrude from the walls like high reliefs create interesting shadows on the ground below. With cellars, storage areas, and stables on the ground floor, most of the houses have their kitchen, oven, fountain and toilet in a part of the garden. The gaily painted houses of Birgi, which has charmed visitors throughout history, are perhaps slightly faded today, but the town preserves its importance thanks to its natural beauty and the world cultural heritage in its buildings, such as the Great Mosque, the Çakırağa Konak, the Türbe of Aydınoğlu Mehmet Bey, the Şah Sultan Türbe, and the Güdük Minare Mosque. As a major cultural stop along the Selçuk - Tire - Birgi route, Birgi is recognized as a 'museum with no frontiers' by the European Union's Commission on Culture.
Home of Evliya Çelebi
Lying to the north of the Küçük Menderes River, Birgi appeals for its old houses and mansions. In recent years especially it has attracted an unusually high number of tourists. Even though a portion have now been restored, the houses of Birgi, most dating from the 19th century, among them some that are still standing on 500-600-year-old foundations, are a focus of interest not only for architecture students and restoration experts but also for curious travelers. The Environment and Culture Foundation (ÇEKÜL) and Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University have long worked together to bring to light and preserve the region's cultural heritage. During the restoration activity the local people are also briefed about the importance of Birgi architecture and given free training. Restoration of the house where Evliya Çelebi is known to have stayed and, judging by the dates when the famous traveler lived, to have a history going back more than four centuries, was also begun in the same period. Of the Dervişağa Madrasa, described by Evliya Çelebi as having 70 rooms, only a ruin remains today. Nor is the situation any different for the bath built next to it for the students studying there. The women of Birgi are striking in their colorful shalvar and lace-edged red and white headscarves.
Small town innocence
The main pastime of the men of Birgi, most of whom are farmers, is chewing the fat at the local coffeehouse. Situated on the town square, the Şafak (Dawn) Coffeehouse, its walls decorated with murals of the swashbuckling Aegean outlaws and soldiers known as 'efe' painted by Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University students, is also the main hangout of the local musicians. The town's streets, whose daytime tranquility is broken only by the crowing of roosters, comes to life at dusk. For this the time of day when the great burlap sacks of potatoes picked in the neighboring highlands are brought into town by tractor and truck. But the Birgi farmers, who raise the highest quality figs in the Aegean, are not happy today. For, they say with resentment, the figs they raise to cure ills fetch barely enough to pay for the gas to transport them. And just like the days of earth's abundance, the famous swashbucklers of old are long forgotten now, encountered in their traditional costumes only at ceremonies in certain seasons of the year in Birgi, once known as the land of outlaws. Another of the area's rapidly disappearing crafts is the weaving of the thick cloth known as 'çaput'. A type of flatweave similar to a kilim, these textiles are woven on primitive looms using threads of every color. While not as widely used as they once were, they are still produced and used today. But of course it is not only for nostalgic reasons that Birgi still holds an appeal. The rustic outdoor restaurants on the banks of the Birgi Çayı attract crowds from the neighboring towns. Not only houses or food, but the wandering musicians, the friendly faces, the street cats, the inquisitive children and the hospitable folk of Birgi that promise the innocence of times gone by, preserved only in memory.