Culture & Travel

10 August 2020
Istanbul’s Wooden Frame Houses 

Even though it sounds like a fairy tale for most these days, a greater part of Istanbul was home to wooden frame houses even in the 1960’s. From the 15th and 16th centuries on, most unusual samples of the traditional “Turkish Houses” existed in Istanbul. The city once had a unique culture that was developed with the texture of wooden houses. 

Wooden houses in Istanbul attracted an immense attention from European travelers. Oriel windows, wooden doors, sofas, fast-closing windows... From the 17th century on, travelers visiting Istanbul tell the story of the efforts they have made just to catch a glimpse of the insides of these houses. Some travel books are seen to lengthily explain these houses and the lives within. 

Eternalizing the samples of this tradition with unique photographs in his book “İstanbul’un Kaybolan Ahşap Konutları” (Istanbul’s Lost Wooden Houses), Prof. Dr. Reha Günay explains how these houses were mentioned in travel books: “The wood engravings depict a whole nother world with cantilevers, consoles, mutules, and eaves that pour over narrow streets. And those waterfront mansions, those wooden houses stretching out on the water, those windows facing the sea, shadows and lights flickering on the water! You can even hear the soft plashing sound made by three rowboats passing the mansion. As you keep staring into these pictures, you find yourself lost in another world. There was not a single example of that environment back at the time.” 

But why were the houses in Istanbul built from wood? Reha Günay explains this by stating that wooden houses were built faster and cheaper when compared to stone or brick structures. “Even though it had great risks like fire, residents of Istanbul preferred wooden houses. Thanks to the handicraft tradition and craft guild at the time, wooden houses were built extremely fast. The Ottoman state preferred stone and brick for service buildings. This way, they were able to build durable structures to serve for a longer duration.”  

The greatest fear for wooden houses that reminded mortality and momentariness in this Earth was fire. Since almost whole the town was built from wooden houses, it was possible for a fire to destroy it completely. Many great Istanbul fires are told throughout history. For the very same reason, households were extremely careful with using fire and the children were not allowed to use matches. For example, eggplant season fires were infamous. The pans used to fry eggplants heated and burst into flames very easily, causing large-scaled fires, hence the name. “When a fire started, the whole neighborhood, even the bystanders, used to come over to help. As a precaution for the houses adjacent to the one on fire, one person used to go up to the roof while others formed a chain and carried water buckets to water the roof, preventing it from catching fire from the flames or a piece of hot wood blown off by the wind. It was even said that hot nails vaulting from the house on fire used to start fires in other houses.”