One of the last strongholds of minorities in Istanbul is the archipelago of nine small islands in the Sea of Marmara, the legendary Princes' Islands. The name refers to the biggest of the islands, Prínkipos, which in Greek means the Isle of the Prince.

An unspoilt beach guarded by a single stork on the southern shore of the isle of Büyükada accessible only by boat or through the shrubbery

Byzantine chroniclers tell us that the emperor Justin II (r. 565-574) had a palace and a convent built on the island. After this the island was increasingly referred to as Prínkipos. The darker side of the story is that heirs to the Byzantine Empire, princes and princesses born in the purple, were as a result of family feuds sometimes blinded and exiled in the convents on these islands.

Still, in the luxuriant gardens with palms and lemon trees, behind old gingerbread houses, one can hear Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian, Ladino (the Judaeo-Spanish language spoken by the Sephardic Jews driven out of the Iberian Peninsula in the late fifteenth century) and obviously Greek, the main language up through the history of the City.

On their way back from an unsuccessful siege and attempted conquest of the fortified Constantinople, various armies landed at the Princes’ islands and looted them instead. Not that there was been much to pillage in the fishermen’s villages and the vineyards of Greek monks. Islanders were also suffering from pirates marauding in the Sea of Marmara.

Shortly before the fall of Constantinople in 1453 the Princes’ Islands were conquered by the Turks. The islanders had made a vain attempt to resist their powerful enemy and were therefore sold off as slaves. However, it is said that Mehmet II the Conqueror forced Greek families from coastal villages and towns of the Black Sea to move to the islands to avoid complete depopulation there. Tradition also holds that Christian gypsies were brought from the depths of Asia Minor and resettled on the islands on the recommendation of the patriarch.

The new islanders were, at least in the beginning, exempted from capital tax and the feared devşirme or child-levy, a system where the Ottoman authorities collected young Christian boys to join their sultan’s most loyal servants. Thus the Princes’ islands continued to flourish as fairly independent units under the Ottoman hegemony.

From the middle of the nineteenth century, the Princes’ Islands began to serve as summer resorts for Constantinople’s Christian and Levantine population. Sumptuous mansions were built in timber or brick and their owners would distinguish themselves from the other Constantinopolitans by wearing stylish European clothes and swimming suits.

Later, when the English-made steam ferries were put into daily service during the summer season, the travel time between the city and Prínkipos was reduced to less than two hours. Now there are Norwegian-made sea-buses which bring passengers the same distance in 25 minutes.

Once on the islands, however, the rhythm goes down. The atmosphere in Istanbul is essentially different from island life. People move around on bikes or horse-drawn carriages as motorised vehicles are generally banned on the islands. And the soothing breeze from the sea makes hot summer days a lot more bearable than in the city.

Bucolic scene in the pine groves of Büyükada. The islands have been planted during the latter decades and the scent of pine resin and needles is ubiquitous.

Day trippers rent or bring their own bikes on the ferry and explore the islands.


The summer 2005 I bought the property Altınordu caddesi no. 26 and its adjacent lot which I have used as a garden. The building is a listed timber frame house with modest features in Art Nouveau. Before the construction of new premises for the Municipality of the Islands (Adalar Belediyesi) the three-storeyed house was overlooking the sea and the shores of the Asian side of Greater Istanbul. Its location is probably very near the harbour where the Byzantine emperor mentioned earlier would moor his ship on his way to his island estate.

Looking out from the large windows inside the shahnish one can still watch the ships as they set out from the quay. The shahnish is in the middle floor only. On top of it there is a balcony with an elaborated guard rail.

Less than a stone’s throw from my house the Metropolitan Church of Hagios Dimitrios was built in 1860. When the foundations for the church were being laid the workers unearthed a marble column capital with the relief monogram of Justin II and his wife Sophia. An elaborate Corinthian capital appeared recently in a private garden nearby and is now used as a basis for a dining table. Whether there are such treasures underneath the foundations of my own house or in the garden remains unrevealed.

From the book Wooden Istanbul: Examples from Housing Architecture (Istanbul Research Council 2008).

According to the previous owner, one of the sons of an Armenian physician, the house was owned by a Catholic Greek family called Cortesi a century or so ago. Some artefacts and pieces of furniture still in the house must have belonged to the first owners. Dr. Ardavazt, the Armenian physician, took over the property in 1934 and the family used it as a summer residence. Now both of the sons live abroad and they decided to sell their properties in Istanbul when their parents had passed away.

The house on the Princes’ Islands which “on a small scale”, says Martin Bachmann, “symbolises in its miniaturized shape the end of this epoch, which is so rich in design.” (Martin Bachmann (ed.) Wooden Istanbul: Examples from Housing Architecture (2008), p. 182).

Institute in Istanbul (DAI) have been engaged in research and documentation of the heritage of the dwindling timber houses in Istanbul since the early 1960s. In November 2007 Bachmann and a team of eight students of architecture from the University of Karlsruhe produced a complete set of survey drawings of Altınordu caddesi no. 26. His description of my house goes as follows:

“Different from most of the other houses on the Prince's Islands, this building was spared large restoration measures or renovation, but was preserved for decades including the furnishings. This is an unusually lucky chance and was appreciated in the documentations. In the façade, already panelled with industrially made rabbets, the intention to maintain a representative standard even with modest means can be discerned. To this belonged a definite programme of element which was generally found in larger buildings of that time. For instance, the entrance area was disproportionately spacious and, grouped under a representative rounded arch a double winged entrance door with windows on either side, took up almost the whole width of the façade. Above that, a bay projects which could still be counted to the Ottoman architectural tradition, if it didn't have a modern polygonal shape. This abstained from a geometrical correction of the layout which runs diagonally to the straight street line. A curved umbrella-like roof finish arches over the wide projection of the bay, which has only been designed for the 1st floor. In its wave-shape it is almost typical for Ottoman architecture at the turn of the century. But this can also be understood as time-reminiscence of older examples. Together, these described elements and a muted Art Nouveau decoration point to a date of origin around 1900.” (Istanbul Research Institute: Wooden Istanbul, Examples of Housing Architecture, 2008, p. 174. (The book makes the basis for an exhibition in the Pera Museum during the winter 2008/2009)).

The house on the Princes’ Islands before restoration.

The house on the Princes’ Islands during restoration.

The front faςade after restoration.

‘Large restoration measures’ is still a threat to the built heritage in Istanbul and when I took over this house I intended to carry out minimal repairs to the structure while to a large extent keep the authenticity of the craftsmanship and architectural forms.

Through the double front door the visitors can be seated in Viennese rotin chairs and study motives from Othello from prints on the lime washed wall.

Due to the lack of motorised vehicles on the islands, the furniture usually goes along with the real estate during change of ownership.

The kitchen is fully modernised and functional.

A winding staircase. A bell from in the upper floor can be pulled with a string from downstairs when dinner is served.

Interior details with a scalloped marble basin.

The master bedroom upstairs with access to the balcony on the front faςade. The furniture has probably never left the property.

“The narrow wooden structure with an elongated ground plan was erected at the turn of the 20th century and displays decorative elements discreetly reminiscent of art nouveau. Both the floor plan and the conception of the house are entirely indebted to European models. The investigation focused on the timber frame of the building to the extent that it was possible to identify it.” (Martin Bachmann, 2008)

The timber frames in these late Ottoman houses are constructed out of oak and rests on a solid substructure consisting of both brick and stone masonry. Then there are usually common studs out of pine and braces out of beech. The vertical beams or sills are made out of oak if close to the ground but often pine if in less vulnerable positions.

These structures are rather simple as there are no complicated joints. The members are cut to measure and nailed together without mortise and tenon. To nail fully seasoned hardwood without predrilling can prove very hard even with modern steel nails. Therefore green oak (unseasoned wood directly from the forest) was used in traditional wood construction during the Ottoman Empire. As green oak will subside even under its own weight the deflections in historic houses is a trustworthy sign of authenticity.

A couple of years after DAI’s documentation project another group of Germans came to carry out the necessary repairs of the façades on Altınordu caddesi no. 26. The team consisted of seven skilled apprentices and a Meister. This project was facilitated through Berlin based Zukunftsbau (www.zukunftsbau.de), a company committed to the vocational training of disadvantaged young people and long-term unemployed with the aim of social and professional integration. our local partner in the project was the turkish timber association (www.ahsap.org), an ngo which had launched a unesco endorsed campaign to salvage timber houses in the poor inner-city neighbourhood of zeyrek in istanbul.

The project was funded through the exchange programme Leonardo da Vinci, a part of the European Commission’s Lifelong Learning Programme, and the participants attended various presentations on Ottoman architecture and building techniques in the city of Istanbul.

Supporting the initiative the Mayor of the Municipality of the Islands, Mustafa Farsakoĝlu, courteously provided scaffolding and accommodation for the young joiners in the historic hotel Anadolu Kulübü (previously known as the British Yacht Club). The project gained publicity, and both visitors and islanders were following the restoration day by day.

The result after three weeks of work can be seen here:www.projekt-baerwaldbad.de/index/1981/

There is a deeply rooted scepticism against timber in many parts of the world. When Istanbulites notice decay in timber structures which are just over hundred years old and they see how crooked the buildings are, some believe that the wood has been eaten through by worm or is so rotten that it might collapse any moment. The meagre knowledge and competence on how to use and treat wood contribute to the fact that a substantial part of Istanbul’s world heritage is being demolished, now.

Following the example of the Turkish Timber Association, and especially their aforementioned ‘Save our roofs’ campaign in Zeyrek where the feasibility of in situ restorations of timber houses is demonstrated, I have endeavoured to restore listed timber houses in Istanbul on a modest budget, individual efforts and plenty of idealism.

My second project is a twin-house in the dilapidated quarters around the mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent, the grandest of all Ottoman monuments in Istanbul (see Ayrancı Sokak 16-18).