May 4, 2011

Compassionate architecture: bird houses and sparrow mansions

A view from Ayazma Mosque in Salacak, Istanbul.

Bird mansion in Ayazma Mosque, Istanbul.

Notice the two bird mansions on the side of Ayazma Mosque, Istanbul.

Gates of Ayazma Mosque also features bird houses.
As the important sociologist Nilüfer Göle says (in Mahremin Göçü) Turks’ relationship with modernity has been about forgetting. They have been taught that everything modern and developed comes from the West and being Western means adopting Western ways while forgetting everything that is nice and good about yours to the point of sometimes even being embarrassed about your culture. Politically, Islamists and nationalists were the first to revolt against this concept of “modernization”. While this oversimplification does not justice to the Orientalist tone in it, today, with the growing confidence of the country, many practices, cultures and details forgotten in the past are grabbing renewed attention. One of these is definitely the bird houses and sparrow mansions prevalent in the Ottoman architecture. I discovered them thanks to a tour organized by Fest Travel, one of the best culture tour firms in Turkey. 

A view from Selimiye Mosque in Istanbul.

A bird mansion in Selimiye Mosque, notice the stairs.

Another bird house at Selimiye mosque in Istanbul.
 It is said that the practice of building bird houses on mosques, houses, tombs or other buildings goes back until Seldjuk period. Although it is seen in some parts of Europe and Japan, it is mostly prevalent in the Ottoman geography (including Christian and Jewish places of worship) such as the Balkans and the Middle East. In fact, bird houses are visible in Plovdiv and Veliko Tarnovo in Bulgaria. The practice is said to have religious overtones and is based on Quran’s Surat An-Nur (24:41), saying the following: “Do you not see that Allah is exalted by whomever is within the heavens and the earth and [by] the birds with wings spread [in flight]? Each [of them] has known his [means of] prayer and exalting [Him], and Allah is Knowing of what they do..

Yeni Valide Mosque in Istanbul has varieties of bird houses, simple, bigger.

A master piece at Yeni Valide Mosque, notice the minarettes of the bird mansion.

So if birds are praying and exalting the name of Allah, masters of stonemasonry must build shrines for them. According to Arkitera (a Turkish architectural website) the practice started initially with little holes but then with the influence of the Barock style in Europe, they have also become monumental architectural pieces. While some scholars explain the practice by an emulation of sculptures, some explain it as an architectural dream following Ottoman poetry. However, the practice compeletely disappeared in 19th century.

Eyüp Sultan Mosque in Istanbul and its bird house.

The ceramic tiles at the Eyüp Sultan Mosque in Istanbul.

The gate of Eyüp Sultan Mosque is also decorated with a bird house.

Time for tulips on the tombs at Eyüp Sultan Mosque.
The tour of bird mansions and sparrow houses started on the Asian side of Istanbul in Üsküdar and took us to three mosques that I have never stepped foot. Ayazma Mosque (1760-1) in Salacak, its name implying that it was built on a water sacred for Byzantium; Selimiye Mosque (1801) right behind the grandiose Selimiye Military barracks and the Yeni Valide Mosque (1708-10) in Üsküdar square. The first two were built in Barock style while the latter was more of a classic style. These three had the most extensive and pretty bird houses.
Amcazade Hüseyin Paşa Külliyesi in Istanbul
on Hungarian brothers street.

Beyazıt Mosque in Istanbul has a well designed for birds to drink water.

This well is for birds to drink water at Yeni Valide Mosque in Istanbul.

We then crossed to the European side and arrived at Eyüp Sultan Mosque in Eyüp which right at its entrance greeted us with a bird mansion. Eyüp is a neighborhood which developed after the take over of Istanbul outside the city walls. Today, it is an important religious center. The Eyip Sultan Mosque is not only a mosque but also has a shrine for Eyüp Sultan (Ebu Eyyub El-Ensari). Interestingly, although my grandmother must have spent half of her life in this mosque, I have also never set foot here either. I was not only impressed with the beauty of the mosque, the ceramic tiles of the shrine and the tombs, but also with the crowds (which until then was the main reason for me to refrain from going). Indeed, this mosque is said to be full even in the morning prayer (taking place around 6 AM). For non-Muslims reading this, a Muslim does not have to pray in the mosque but can also pray at home. So the fact that someone goes to mosque for morning prayer at 6 AM, is a serious sign of devotion! When we got there, it was noon on a weekend, so kids with circumcision costumes, married couples and all sorts of people were present at the mosque already. It is definitely a site worth seeing but do not even think of visiting during Ramadan as terrible traffic jams will suck the blood out of you.

Bird house of Laleli Mosque in Istanbul.

General view of Laleli mosque in Istanbul

Do not let the names of all the mosques confuse you. The Asian side mosques are all very close to each other and if you include Eyüp Sultan Mosque, the four places are easily explored within 3-4 hours. It is enough to give you an understanding of the practice. But for the more ambitious bird house lover, the tour continues and becomes an extended Old City tour. Indeed, we then walked on Golden Horn to Architect Sinan’s not so much liked Zal Mahmut Paşa Mosque, built with brick and stone. Here, the tomb of Gevher Sultan also had a bird mansion. 

Close to Grand Bazaar in Mercan district of Istanbul,
a bird house dating from 1764 with a mashallah on it.

Our next stop was Feyzullah Efendi madrasa close to Fatih Mosque in Fatih  (neighborhood named after Mehmet the Conqueror). This madrasa houses an important collection of manuscripts including a copy of the first known Turkish dictionary. A little bit further down is the Amcazade Hüseyin Paşa Külliyesi on Macar Kardeşler Caddesi (Hungarian Brothers street) probably named after Kont (Count) Szechenyi who has established the fire department in Istanbul by an invitation from the Sultan after a big fire in 1871. At those times, Istanbul had many Hungarian immigrants.

In Taksim, Istanbul, every day we pass by without even recognizing
these two bird houses.
Afterwards we went to Ordu Caddesi in Laleli and saw the Barock styled Laleli Mosque. Surprise surprise its bird mansion had birds in it although I felt sorry for them as they were stuck in the middle of traffic and pollution. We then strolled to Beyazıt neighborhood, and saw inside the Beyazıt mosque the well designed for pigeons to drink water. We then descended towards Eminönü and saw civilian examples of bird houses. Totally mesmerized, I discovered that even the good old Spice Bazaar that I went by many times had little bird houses as the well in Taksim right at the entrance of İstiklal Street that I walked by thousand times. So I am glad that my eyes got sensitized for the bird mansions. The question remains how a culture that was so humane, graceful and esthetic in creating these bird houses and mansions has so degenerated it is today only obsessed with building ugly concrete buildings and mosques. Is this all about forgetting?

A shorter version of this post is available at Hurriyet Daily News.