By Jessica Tamturk
While Istanbul's yali's (mansions) may be arguably the most sought after real estate in the world, their appeal - at least to Westerners - lies more in their history than as the symbol of wealth they project.
So enthralled was Lord Byron by the site of these mansions lining the Bosphorus that he immortalized them in his poetic epic Don Juan: “Each villa on the Bosphorus looks a screen/New painted, or a pretty opera scene.”
Since their construction in the late 17th century, the yali - the wooden mansions that line both sides of the natural, 30 kilometer long Bosphorus strait that marks the continental divide between Asia and Europe - once attested to Ottoman spoils. Princes, Sultans, aristocrats of the era, and even the unbelievingly wealthy all staked their claim along the waterway to erect these opulent summer abodes. Istanbul's few remaining yali's - pronounced yahlih, derived from the Greek yialos, or seashore - are a testament of the former empire's sweeping grandeur; its high society, politics and architecture, as well as the social standing they bestowed their owners.
These seasonal residences, once crafted in the popular style, art nouveau, baroque, eclectic arabesque, or the neoclassical style favored in the early 19th century - reflected their owners' tastes, and purses. Prominent European architects, such as Antonio Lasciac, who in 1899 designed and constructed Sait Halim Pasha's pink marble palace located on the upper European shore of the Bosphorus, were all the rage. But, perhaps the most renown of Ottoman art-nouveau designers was Raimondo d'Aronco, an Italian who served for 12 years as imperial architect to Sultan Abdulhamid II in the late 19th century. Inspired by the Viennese secessionist movement and the Italian stile floreale, d'Aronco melded these with Byzantine and Ottoman decorations to create the style unique of the era and the area.
The facades were traditionally tinged a light maroon, a color referred to as "Ottoman rose." Stained just so, as to pop against the backdrop of verdant hills splashed with the pink of cherry blossoms, the dark tones of reedy cypresses, and the plush green of chestnut and walnut trees. Later, the yali's exteriors adopted the lighter pastel shades that were all the rave in early 18th century Europe.
Once inside, these mansions would reveal a floor plan inherited in part from traditional Turkish abodes, with a center salon - or sofa ( a Turkish word, accepted in English literary annals in the 17th century, meaning a raised section of a floor, covered with carpets and cushions, and derived from the Arabic term suffah or bench). The center salon contained a fountain to acclimate its inhabitants during the torrid summer months. The largest yali's also housed a haremlik for the ladies, a selamlik for the men, and a hamam (Turkish bath). The latter was typically constructed of marble, with a steam, sauna-like chamber, and adjacent rooms where one gender at a time could cool off.
Along the way, the newer yali's became larger and more elaborate, adopting the trendiest designs, while still optimizing scenic water views and boat access. Most were baptized and are still known by their moniker: Pink Lion (Pembe Aslan) Yali, Snake (Yilan) Yali, Egyptian (Misirli) Yali, Writers' (Yazarlar) Yali ; even the “Deli” (Crazy) Fuat Pasha Yali in Istinye - so called for an Ottoman patrician who decried the tyrannical rule of Sultan Abdulhamid II.
With such prominent owners, the larger yali's invariably played host to events that would change the course of history. Viziers would entertain foreign heads of state and ministers with lavish feasts set in sprawling salons overlooking the Bosphorus before negotiating the fate of their nations.
One such locale, the Koprulu Yali, is where the Karlowitz Treaty was signed, a document that relinquished the once Ottoman-owned Balkan territories to Austria in 1699. The Kuçuk Kaynarca Treaty granting Crimea its independence was also ratified in the villa some 75 years later. The wall-to-wall sofas of the Sait Halim Pasa Yali also have witnessed the early 20th century tale of alleged musings with German politicos, negotiations that would lead the Turks into World War I.
Today, some yali's have been reincarnated into pricey boutique hotels, popular open-air restaurants and glitzy cafes. One of the best in this category in Asia has to be the splendid A'jia Hotel, a totally renovated 19th century yali that offers state-of-the-art rooms. But if hopping continents is not de rigueur, Hotel Les Ottomans, situated in a European yali, will lavish its guests in Ottoman-esque appointed rooms.
Others were transformed into sumptuous apartment rentals and even served as sets for popular television series. But the majority have remained in families for generations, passed on like a torch. Some, through meticulous maintenance, have burned brighter than others.
Owning a slice of waterfront heaven along the Bosphorus will set one back by about $5,000 to $10,000 per square meter; renting will vary form $25 to $40 for the same dimensions, according to a ballpark figure received from Colliers International, a high-end real estate consulting firm. Compare that with one of the most expensive residences listed for sale in Venice - a 14th century waterfront grand palazzo now listed for sale at about $6,500 per square meter - and you'll realize that, if the going rate measures demand, then yali's are highly coveted.
Through serendipity - marriage, to be exact - I've become a part of a yali's legacy. Contemplating their history and raison d'être has been humbling. Like the vernacular “jewel in the crown”, the waterfront “cottages” beg to be heard, maintained and passed on.
The view from their docks is quite abundant; always expected, but never the same: like the mega-tankers that inch their way precariously from one sea to another; the various currents seeming tame but being quite dangerous; palamut (bonito) and other finned creatures so aplenty one could just reach in and grab a handful; and, that perpetually tantalizing invitation for a swim, were it not for the walls of mussels (midye) that can slice through an inadvertent swimmer's epidermis.
One thing I've not learned yet, but have been trying to for more than 15 years, is to get accustomed to the proximity of the 20-story tankers that meander toward the Sea of Marmara ¬- their rumbling, magnified through the water, echoes through and shakes the wooden foundation of the family abode. To make matters worse, I still haven't learned how to avoid the tsunami-like waves the glide of these sailing mammoths create. Do you run for higher ground or do you step aside and weather the spray? While the former seems instinctual, my husband, who grew up in the house, does the former, inevitably staying dry and chuckling at every occasion.
Today, where else can one leisurely witness the traces of three empires, be inspired by the architectural splendors lapped by the water; and, on a clear day, wave at European neighbors from a waterfront villa in Asia!
But more telling are the words of 19th century poet and author Lamartine: "The Bosphorus can be described as an avenue of water surrounded by mansions one more beautiful than the other. Believe me, if fate had granted you one of these, you would never think of leaving to your last day."
One of the best ways to view these mansions is by hopping on an IDO ferry. The only wintertime boat departs daily from Eminonu at 10:35am; stops in Besiktas at 10:50am, and reaches the pier at Anadolu Kavagi, some 90 very pleasurable minutes after departure. Ferries journeying back depart at 3:00pm. As of mid-April 2007, IDO will offer an additional cruise departing daily from the same ports at 1:35pm and 1:50pm respectively. With a late return available at 5:00pm. Round trip fares are about 8YTL. (www.ido.com)
Yali's at a Glance - European Side
The Serifler Yali
Located in Emirgan, the Serifler Yali is the oldest of its kind on the European side. Built in 1780 by Yusuf Pasa, the mansion derives its name from Serif Abdullah Pasa, an Ottoman governor once appointed to rule over what are now Syria, Jordan and Iraq. Restorations have revealed splendid frescoes through the abode, which is currently owned by Turkey's Ministry of Culture.
The Afif Ahmet Pasa Yali
Counting suspense author Agatha Christie as one of its famous guest, the five-story, steepled neo-baroque mansion was built by Alexandre Vallaury - a French architect who also crafted the Pera Palas Hotel. This majestic house abode is located in Yenikoy and is privately owned.
The Faik & Bekir Bey Yali
Located in Yenikoy, the Faik & Bekir Bey Yali was crafted by Ottoman Imperial Architect Raimondo D'Aronco in 1906. Inspired by the art-nouveau style, this house was created for two siblings, and is thusly known as the “twins” mansion separated lengthwise to optimize its living area and sprawling views equally. Since, the building was sold separately.
The Sehzade Burhanettin Efendi Yali
Also in Yenikoy, this whopping 64-room yali is one of the largest - and, reported at more than $100 million, is the most expensive residence in Turkey according to newspaper accounts. This building was purchased in 1911 by the son of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, but is now privately owned. The property boasts a house in its backyard, and the second longest dock after the Kibrisli Yali.
The Sait Halim Pasa Yali
AKA “Pink Yali with a Lion” or, simply, “Yali with a Lion” for the two lions that face east and stand guard on either side of the mansion, it was renovated in 1995 to recapture its empire-style appeal. Sait Halim Pasa, the house's former owner, was a grand vizier who enjoyed the house for half of a decade.
While once the building bore witness to negotiations with German officials that led to Turkish involvement in WWI, today it houses Clement's Restaurant and the property is also available for all types of private functions.
The Huber Kosku/ Presidential Residence
Taking its name from its former owner, a German who represented the Krupp Company in the sales of weapons to the Ottomans. The government claimed the residence to be used as a presidential retreat in 1985. The grounds include a barn, garage, employee's quarters, rolling gardens, and 160 acres of woods.
The German Consulate's Summer Residence
Abdulhamid II is said to have spent his early years here, and later presented the yali to the Kaiser Wilhelm as a token of his appreciation, after the latter agreed to re-establish the navy of the Ottoman Empire. This abode, located in Tarabya Bay, was created by a Belgian architect and is surrounded by 45 acres of woods.
Yali's at a Glance - Asian Side
The Debreli Ismail Pasa Yali
Inspired by the Turkish baroque style, the now - boutique hotel was created in 1778 and more than a century later revamped by Vallaury, after a fire devastated the main living quarters. Situated near Beylerbeyi, the mansion - reincarnated into the Bosphorus Palace Hotel - will lavish its guests nightly in one of its rooms for about $200.
The Kalkavan Yali
Also in Berlerbeyi, this abode - along with 14 others - now belongs to Omer Sabanci, a board member at Sabanci Holding and President for the Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association (TUSIAD). The Kalkavan Yali was featured in the 1960's cult suspense flick “Topkapi”, with actors Peter Ustinov and Melina Mercuri sharing the marquee.
Sadullah Pasa Yali
Deriving its name from former owner Sadullah Pasha, who was exiled during the watch of Sultan Abdulhamid II for conspiring to depose him in favor of Sultan Murat V. Situated in Çengelkoy, this building is famous for its ornate interiors and its going price. One of its most recent owners is antique esthete Aysegul Tecimer, former wife of a wealthy Cypriot magnate Asil Nadir.
Mahmut Nedim Pasa Yali
The house, built for an Ottoman Ambassador to Austria in the late 18th century, is famous for its tower, inspired by the spires in Vienna and Prague where Mahmut Nedim Pasa once served. While this mansion was leagued to the Turkish Red Crescent Organization by the heirs of its original owner, it was purchased in 2004 by Turkish shipping tycoon Yalçin Sabanci for a reported $3 million.
Edip Efendi Yali
Situated in Kandilli, one of the Bosphorus' narrowest points and strongest currents, the yali was named after a respected bureaucrat of the Ottoman Empire. One of its former owners, Dorina Lady Neave, wrote of her experience residing on the Bosphorus in the British literary classic, “Romance on the Bosphorus”.
Who is Jessica Tamturk?
Jessica Tamturk is a freelance writer and mother of two based in Istanbul and in the United States. Originally born in Belgium, she met her Turkish husband in Los Angeles, a place she has called home for more than 20 years. The Tamturk Family own a yali situated in Beylerbeyi; it is currently home of the set for Show TV's latest hit “Ruya Gibi”.
This article was previously published in The Guide Istanbul magazine
Issue No: 92 January/ February 2007