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Restored Traditional Turkish Architecture To Boost Anatolian Tourism

September 26, 2005


By Christopher Deliso

A recent article from Turkey’s Zaman describes new steps the Turkish government is taking to revitalize tourism and, in some cases, introduce it for practically the first time in some of inland Turkey’s most forgotten and poorest places.

The challenge of expanding tourism beyond perennial favorite destinations such as Istanbul and the Aegean coast is a big one. According to the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, Turkey’s 14 million annual visitors remain “…concentrated along [the] Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, where about 80% of Turkey’s bed capacity exists.”

However, considering the wealth of history and richly varied natural beauty visible everywhere else in Turkey, drawing more foreign tourists is possible, and should begin by increasing the visibility of the hinterland. The government hopes that such regional initiatives will lead to increased foreign investment. In fact, new ‘investor friendly’ legislation has been passed to make the country more attractive to potential investors.

While the government is active on a variety of fronts, one interesting project discussed in detail by Zaman is the refurbishment of traditional Anatolian houses.

According to the newspaper, “…The number of historical buildings restored in the last five years across the country is nearly 3,000.” Many of these are located in the cities of central, eastern and southeastern Asia Minor – areas with a sizable Kurdish minority.

This process has been expedited by a new law governing the protection of historic buildings. The newspaper quotes Turkish Municipality Association Chairperson Aytac Durak as saying the law has “…bestowed a considerable authority to the municipalities.”

While the has spearheaded the policy, in many cases local authorities have taken a leading role in choosing the sites to be restored and carrying out the refurbishments – as well as in the task of compensating and relocating the current occupants.

In order to acquire the historic buildings, municipal governments must first purchase them from their owners, who then receive another, more modern dwelling. In addition, mansions once inhabited by famous historical figures “…are often reopened as hotels, restaurants, museums and cafes generating employment.”

Turkish tradition architecture varies by region. Asia Minor is a vast expanse that includes mountains, valleys, lush forests and near-desert climates. Throughout history, these contrasting climate zones have always dictated the building materials used and types of constructions built. For example, in the verdant and thickly forested Black Sea coast, wood was primarily used to build houses, whereas stone houses are common in many areas of southern and western Anatolia. Remarkable mud-brick houses exist in the east and southeast and central moonscapes of Cappadocia.

In most cases, construction followed a unique order that was celebrated by even foreign tourists of yesteryear:

“…the Turks built the garden before proceeding to build the house. This attracted the attention of the French architect Le Corbusier who is regarded as one of the greatest of our age and he wrote: ‘the Turk first of all lays out the garden and plants trees; the Frenchman cuts down the trees to build the house.’ The gardens were planted with climbing roses, honey-suckle, geraniums and fruit trees. Lanterns used to be hung at different places in the gardens.”

The objective of traditional designers was to respect social and cultural norms, while following aesthetic ideals. Thus, high walls preserved the privacy of women according to the Islamic tradition, while an inner door opening to a luxurious garden provided beauty and harmony. The interior living room or sofa was given over to the rituals of daily life, and led on to other rooms, while divans set in front of narrow windows provided a cool and comfortable spot for relaxation.

Now, it looks as if the rejuvenation plan is starting to have results. In one example of mansion reclamation, the Veli Pasha Mansion has been outfitted with wax figures of Turkish soldiers and representatives of the states that signed the fateful Mudanya Armistice of 1922 – thus providing a bit of Madame Tussaud’s in the heart of Anatolia.

According to Zaman, “…the mansion is now [the] Cultural Center and its garden serves as a restaurant. Municipality officials indicate that they have already recouped the restoration cost of YTL 400 billion from the average 350 daily visitors it attracts.”

The town is located in the northern part of the Central Anatolian Plateau, along a river of the same name, and famous for its Byzantine castle and 13th century Seljuk mosque.

This demonstrated success is also attested in other municipalities. In the northwestern Anatolian Black Sea region of Safranbolu, the municipality would like to restore 82 houses in a district “…that already possess 1,200 protected historical houses,” says Zaman. Local officials point to the increase in employment opportunities and tourism-relate revenues that have followed these initiatives.

Located near Zonguldak, UNESCO World Heritage Site Safranbolu has been inhabited for over 5,000 years and accordingly displays an intriguing mixture of cultures. The area boasts over 1,000 examples of historical architecture, which include many examples of Turkish traditional architecture.

According to the above-linked article, Safranbolu houses reflect “…the Turkish social life of the 18th and 19th centuries… the impressive architecture of their roofs have led them to be called ‘Houses with five facades.’

The houses are two or three storied consisting of 6 to 9 rooms, each room is entirely detailed and has ample window space allowing plenty of light. The delicate woodwork and carved wall and ceiling decorations, the banisters indoor knobs etc. all come together to form an unmatched harmony of architectural aesthetics and Turkish art.”

The Turkish Ministry of Culture has not forgotten traditional houses in two other Anatolian regions, Mugla in the southwest and Bursa in the far northwest. Traditional houses dug into the foot of Mt. Hisar “…are structures reflecting the traditional texture with red roof tiled roofs, whitewashed walls and green trees overflowing over these walls forming a harmonic trio in the urban silhouette,” while Bursa’s classic homes feature distinctive interior decorations, fireplaces and “…above the main windows are smaller windows placed high in the walls with stucco tracery and coloured glazing.”

Indigenous dark stone construction is noted in another remarkable destination, Bitlis in the east, nearby Bingol, a town surrounded by mountains with glacial lakes (the town’s name in fact means, ‘a thousand lakes’). Also in the east, near Erzincan, Kemaliye is famous for its traditional homes. Yet more work remains to be done in these remote areas to realize their full tourism potential. The government offers investment incentives in some of them.

In a good example of early successes, Ankara-area Beypazari Municipality, 500 year-old buildings have been turned into tourist attractions, which has helped dramatically increase the number of annual tourists to the area to nearly 200,000 in only a year and a half. Mayor Mansur Yavas told Zaman that the municipality plans to restore 3,000 more historic houses. Some of these houses are characterized by an odd practice: leaving parts of them unfinished. “…According to traditions, people in Beypazarı leave the part untreated to emphasize that they had more things to do in this world.”

Economic development through tourism in poor areas is inextricably linked with another key factor- state security. The worrying revival of Kurdish mlitancy in the southeast has resulted in new clashes with the Turkish Army, terrorist attacks and several deaths. It is a truism that security problems can often be solved in non-military ways by showing unhappy minorities that they too can profit from a stable state and economy. Since poverty inevitability leads to dissatisfaction and scapegoating, the opening of Turkey’s southeast to tourism can reinforce the country’s stability by providing new economic opportunities for locals. Of course, traditional Kurdish society is far more conservative and closed than Turkish society, but solutions can be found within the existing social parameters that both respect local norms and provide a basis for economic growth through tourism.

Indeed, some of Turkey’s most breathtaking sights are to be found in the southeast: Lake Van, Nemrut Dag, the desolate mountains of Hakkari leading to the River Zab, the castle of Hasankeyf carved out of sand and a multitude of other historic and natural sites. As the Ministry of Culture and Tourism notes, “…travelling around the east is more challenging, with huge distances between towns, extremes of climate and fewer facilities, but this is amply compensated by the remote beauty, relatively unspoilt scenery and of course hospitality of the people.”

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