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Middle East Brian Dispatch

If These Walls Could Speak
March 15, 2000

"Our house, was our castle and our keep
Our house, in the middle of our street
Our house, that was where we used to sleep
Our house, in the middle of our street...."


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Do you ever wish that buildings could speak? Think of what they might say if they could. What buildings would you want to talk to? Think of what the pyramids in Egypt or the ruins at Macchu Picchu might whisper in your ear. They have been around quite a long time, and could surely keep us entertained with tales of the passing centuries.

It often seems that buildings DO speak to us because they have so much character and personality. Do you ever see a sign painted on the side of a building and think back to the days when that sign was freshly painted and the building was new? What did people look like when the building was first built? What were they doing? What were they wearing?

As I walk through the streets of Turkey I often feel whispers of the past coming from the houses that I pass. Turkey has its fair share of industrial centers and ugly concrete buildings, but, as you round a corner, you are likely to spy an old wooden house leaning precariously into the road, just waiting to greet you. These wooden houses are quickly fading from view, but they recall the days of the nineteenth century when many towns built them with pride.

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If these old houses could sing, perhaps this is what they would say:

"This Ole House" by Shakin' Stevens
(lyrics and music by Stuart Hamblen)

This ole house once knew the children
This ole house once knew a wife
This ole house was home and comfort
As we fought the storms of life

These homes were the center of bustling activity. The larger homes had as many as twelve rooms, which were divided into separate sections for men and women. The men's quarters were called the selamlik and the women's were called the haremlik. This gender division within homes can be found in many cultures, such as the Hogan dwellings of the Navajo or the homes of the Dogon people in Africa.

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It seems that the Ottomans knew how to optimize their use of space. The rooms were lined with many niches and cupboards which were used throughout the day. For example, bedding was kept in the cupboards during the day and brought out at night. Families ate on the floor around tables which were put away at the end of the meal. Even washing facilities were often concealed within closets. The only permanent furniture were low benches, or sedir, which lined the walls.

This ole house once rang with laughter
This ole house heard many shouts
Now she trembles in the darkness
When the lightning walks about

Most Turks regard these wooden houses as noisy, old fashioned and expensive to maintain. As a result, many prefer to live in modern apartment buildings. I imagine it would be hard to be silent on squeaky wooden floors, but I have never known apartment buildings to be particularly quiet either.

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Ain't gonna need this house no longer
Ain't a-gonna need this house no more
Ain't got time to fix the shingles
Ain't got time to fix the floor
Ain't a-got time to oil the hinges
Nor to mend no window pane
Ain't a-gonna need this house no longer
She's a-gettin' ready to meet the saint

If we listen closely enough, what stories can these houses tell us? They witnessed the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the Turkish Republic. They remember the days when men wore a fez on their heads, before Ataturk outlawed this act in 1935 CE.


precariously - to be unstable or uncertain
niches - a hole in the wall, often used to hold stuff
plaster - to apply as a coating

I imagine they would speak of their glory days during the nineteenth century. It is hard to imagine the glory days of these wooden homes, but they were quite beautiful in their prime. They were usually two to three stories high, with the second floor jutting out over the street on carved brackets that supported the weight. The timber frames were filled with adobe and then plastered with a mixture of mud and straw. An additional covering of wood or plaster would then be added, which the owners could adorn with their own personal touches. Wealthier homes often displayed stained glass windows above the doorway and had large gates which opened to interior courtyards designed to accommodate carts or wagons.

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As you might expect, houses built primarily of wood are very susceptible to fire. Interestingly enough, the history of the Ottoman Empire is marked by fires that have ravaged many of these homes and mosques. The shores of Istanbul were particularly vulnerable to attacking armies; the wooden homes lining the banks of the Bosphorus would go up in flames at the drop of a match.

This ole house is gettin' shaky
This ole house is gettin' old
This ole house lets in the rain
This ole house lets in the cold
Oh, but my knees are gettin' chilly
But I feel no fear or pain
'Cause I see an angel peekin' through
The broken window pane

There is hope that the history of these buildings will be preserved. UNESCO has declared the town of Safranbolu a World Heritage Site, primarily on the basis of its civic architecture. Afyon, Amasya, and Tokat also boast many wooden houses that are well preserved. A conservation movement is also gaining steam here in Turkey, and government aid may eventually be granted to help maintain these homes.

Recommended links:
Safranbolu's official website

UNESCO's website for world heritage cities:

So hopefully these old homes will be able to share their stories for many years to come. Even without government aid, it is possible to find homes that have been well preserved over the years by people who also hear the whispers of years gone by.

Take a look at your town and your home. When was it built? What were people like then? What did they wear and what did they do? If you listen and look close enough, you just might get some answers.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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