The winding Bosphorus strait lends legendary beauty to the city of Istanbul, with its hidden bays, hilly shores sprinkled with woods and gardens, and picturesque waterfront buildings. People have responded to its irresistible charm with countless poems and songs, celebrations, romantic meals, love stories and sweet memories. We are not all fortunate enough to live on the shores of the Bosphorus but the rest of us can at least enjoy outings there. These are quite different from visiting any other part of the city, since on the Bosphorus waterway nature and city are intertwined in an eternal dance. Here arose a culture and way of life with its own distinctive identity reflected in the traditional architecture, which is as much part of the magical Bosphorus scenery as the Judas trees with their purplish pink blossom. Waterfront houses, palaces and pavilions made of stone and wood gaze tranquilly at their own reflections in the blue water, creating a landscape in which nature and human beings have worked hand in hand.
Music was an important part of life on the Bosphorus in Ottoman times, particularly on moonlit summer nights when boating parties were got up among friends. Accompanied by musicians or singing and playing themselves, their voices and melodies echoing across the water were inspired by the natural symphony of the Bosphorus. The Bosphorus was also famous for its parks and meadows where people took excursions in fine weather. Such outings went far beyond merely taking fresh air and picknicking, but were festive occasions where the elegantly dressed parties were entertained by musicians and dancers. One of the most popular of these excursion places was the valley known as Göksu or Küçüksu (after the two rivers between which it lay) on the Asian shore. The Austrian historian Hammer, writing in the early 19th century, declared that ‘Küçüksu is more extensive and lovelier than the heaven-like foothills of Kahlenberg in ViennThe 17th century Ottoman writer Evliya Çelebi writes of the River Göksu: ‘This is a river like the fount of life, pouring down from the Alem Mountains through vineyards adorned by high trees on either bank. Over the river is a wooden bridge. Friends row up the river in caiques to the villages beyond and delight in one anoth’sss company and conversation beneath the trees.’ The Ottoman sultans were as enamoured of Küçüksu as their subjects, and built several pleasure pavilions here over the centuries. Part of the valley was a royal estate from the 16th century onwards, and it was here that Sultan Mahmud I (1730-1754) built a wooden pavilion set in gardens whose ornamental pools and fountains were supplied with water channelled from the hills behind. Since the wooden pavilion required frequent repairs, Sultan Abdülmecid (1839-1861) had it demolished and a magnificent stone kasir or summer palace built in its place.Flowers overflowing from vases, rosettes and garlands compete for space on the elaborate facade, that seems engaged in an eager scramble to fit in all the plants and trees of its setting. The sculpted swans of the fountain also reflect the fashionable exuberance of baroque and rococo style. This splendid miniature palace covers an area of just 15 by 27 m, and consists of a basement, ground and upper storeys. Instead of the high thick walls which surround other Ottoman palaces, here there is a graceful railing with gates in each of the four sides. Clearly the unique atmosphere of the Bosphorus has imposed its own aesthetics, sweeping aside considerations of security and privacy that traditionally mark palace architecture. In the basement is a larder, kitchen and servants quarters, while the main storeys each consist of a central room known as a sofa extending in bays between the rooms at each of the four corners of the building. There are two entrances to Küçüksu Kasir, one in the landward façade and one facing the Bosphorus.
A double staircase whose sweeping curves join at the landing links the ground to the first floor, and here again we see the elaborate style of decoration fashionable at the time displayed on the bannisters in particular. The corner rooms facing the sea each have two fireplaces and those at the back one. The fireplaces are carved from Italian marble of different colours and different designs in each room. The palace was intended only for use when the sultan made excursions to Küçüksu, and was probably rarely if ever used for overnight stays, but only to enjoy days and evenings in this beautiful spot. At a time when insensitive new architecture is spreading like a rash across the Bosphorus hills, Küçüksu Kasir seems to have withdrawn into memories of the past, murmuring a nostalgic Bosphorus song.
*Ali Konyali is a photographer and cultural researcher (from Skylife)