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Fountains of Istanbul


Until the recent past no neighbourhood of Istanbul was without its fountains, and if the districts outside the city walls and the villages along the Bosphorus are included these numbered many hundreds. Here local people obtained their drinking water, so at all times of day groups of people were to be seen waiting their turn. The city had several water systems, the largest being the Kirkcesme or Forty Fountains. Piping water from springs and constructing fountains were regarded as among the most honourable acts of charity, and no charge was made for using the water. Since, like the mosque and coffee house, fountains served as meeting places for local people, they played an important social role. Here news and gossip were exchanged, and flirtations between young people took root and flourished. The oldest fountain to which we can put a date in the city is that next to Davut Pasa Mosque built in 1485 during the reign of Bayezid II (1481-1512), and the loveliest is the Ahmed III Fountain which stands before the Imperial Gate of Topkapi Palace on the site of a former Byzantine fountain known as Géranion. This was built in 1728/29 by Mehmed Aga, chief architect to Ahmed III (1703-1730), whose reign corresponds to a period known as the Tulip Era because of the popularity of this flower in gardens and as a motif. The fountain is in the form of a miniature pavilion roofed by a lead-covered central dome and four smaller domes, which flare out into broad eaves. There are taps in each of its four faces, and at each corner is a sebil, or kiosk where drinking water was distributed in cups to passers-by. Encircling the fountain is an inscription band in letters of gold on turquoise tiles. This inscription is an ode by the poet Seyyit Vehbi praising the fountain and comparing its water to that of the holy Zemzem well near the Kaaba in Mecca. One of the loveliest fountains outside the city walls is Tophane Fountain, built in Turkish rococo style in 1732, during the reign of Mahmud I (1730-1754) by the architect Ahmed Aga. Originally this fountain stood in the crowded square beside Tophane quay, but the shoreline here was later filled in, so that it is now set back from the sea. Another elegant fountain is Saliha Sultan Fountain in front of Sokollu Mehmed Pasa Mosque which stands at the northern end of the Unkapani Bridge in Azapkapi on the Golden Horn.


One day when Rabia Gulnus Valide Sultan, wife of Mehmed IV (1648-1687) was passing through Azapkapi she saw a small girl with a broken water jar weeping in front of a street fountain here. To console the child she placed a coin in her hand, but the child explained that she was crying not over the jar but because she would not be able to take the water home. Rabia Gulnus was so touched by this reply that she adopted the child and brought her up at the palace, devoting personal attention to her manners and education. When the girl was old enough, she married her to her son Mustafa II (1695-1703). Saliha Sultan resolved to build a fine fountain worthy of her new position as royal wife in place of the one where she had broken her water jar as a child. However, for some reason this wish was not fulfilled until 1732/33 after her son Mahmud I had acceded to the throne. He commissioned Mustafa Aga of Kayseri to build a new and elaborately carved fountain in place of the old one, and had a new water channel built connecting it to the Taksim line which was supplied from Topuzlu Reservoir.It has been claimed that the unusual feature of two large domes over this fountain were inspired by Saliha Sultan's generous breasts.On the other side of the Bosphorus in Uskudar is another fountain in the decorative style of this period. Uskudar Fountain was constructed by Ahmed III in 1728/29, but this has been extensively altered during repairs and renovations and lost much of its original character. On the seaward face are lines of poetry by Nedim and other famous poets of the time.Behind the small harbour in Kabatas facing Uskudar on the European shore of the Bosphorus is the Vezir Hekimoglu Ali Pasa Fountain dated 1732. This marble fountain is noted for its intricate carving. Another magnificent fountain dating from the Tulip Era is the Bereketzade Fountain near Galata Tower. Built in 1732 during the reign of Mahmud I, this provided water for the inhabitants of Tophane and Kuledibi. kely to come across old fountains, usually set into walls, but sometimes in the form of freestanding structures. Numerous sebils and a few of the decorative cascading fountains known as selsebils have also survived. The latter were used in gardens or sometimes indoors, and were exquisite works of art. What a pity it is that such fountains are no longer made to adorn houses and gardens. We can only regret that such delightful features of the past have been discarded so ruthlessly, instead of evolving them for our pleasure today.

Eser Tutel is a researcher and writer

Source: Sky life 01/2001

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