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Historical Erzurum Houses: Wondrous journey back in time

Prominent 17th century Turkish traveler Evliya Çelebi included Erzurum in his travel book, describing it as the city where the ‘black cat freezes” in the harsh winter when jumping from rooftop to rooftop.

Çifte Minareli Medrese

But besides a history of challenging weather, Erzurum also has an extensive cultural pedigree. It served as a fort in Eastern Anatolia for many civilizations, with an advantageous setting amid fertile plains and rivers. Erzurum is a cradle of civilization that has survived to the modern day.

Witness to history

Erzurum has been home to the Urartu, Byzantine, Persian, Arab, Sassanid and Roman civilizations, to name but a selection, and many churches, forts, monasteries and other archeological remains in the region date back to these periods. Timur and Alexander the Great are among the most famous leaders that settled in this east Anatolia city, which is enclosed by high mountains and fertile plains. Turks took control of Erzurum after the Malazgirt victory of 1071. Its geographic location makes it easy to defend against attacks from the East. Sultan Selim I annexed Erzurum to the Ottoman Empire in 1514. In the early 20th century the Anatolian defense led by Atatürk also began in this city. The Aziziye Forts played an important role in the war against Russia. The legendary female hero of the War of Independence, Nene Hatun, even carried weaponry and missiles on her back to this fort. Erzurum is a proud city that wakes up every day honoring its historical victories.

Begin your tour of the city on Cumhuriyet Caddesi because not only will you find several historical buildings here, but also it will lead you to the other cultural and significant spots in the city. Now let us experience Erzurum’s unique Anatolian atmosphere together…

Among the popular historical sites and centers of attraction are the Yakutiye Medrese, Taşhan (home to stoneworkers and silversmiths), Palandöken ski resort, Tortum Lake, Narman fairy chimneys and much more. However there is a place that offers a taste of both the city’s historical and social fabric and should definitely be visited: the historical Erzurum Evleri (Erzurum Houses).

The story of these homes begins with Siyami Demir, who was upset that his childhood streets were losing their character amid unchecked modernization. The manager of the Erzurum Houses restored old and damaged houses and opened them to the public as a sign of his loyalty to his hometown. Restoring and combining nine 300-year-old homes, Demir decorated their interiors in the traditional Erzurum fashion and also launched a restaurant business. “If a see a second-hand dealer on the road selling something that has nostalgic importance, I will stop the car and buy it,” Demir said and added that he has plans to add four more homes to the current nine.

In the restaurant section of the homes earthenware pitchers, bronze jugs, kilims, floor pillows and tables were all designed to provide a comfortable experience for guests. As you enter the front door, which is decorated with straw and agricultural tools, a friendly waiter will greet you in a dadaş (a local term that means being brave, hospitable and patriotic) outfit (there are 55 staff in total). He will ask you to remove your shoes and give you a pair of slippers to wear inside. You are not allowed to walk inside with outdoor shoes because of the Turkish tradition and custom of keeping the home clean. You are welcome to tour the historical venue even if you do not buy something to eat. Demir says they provide a “cultural service” and adds that “eating is just an excuse; the purpose is to experience nostalgia.” Many popular figures have visited the restaurant, such as singer Mustafa Keser, journalist Savaş Ay, the prime minister’s wife, Emine Erdoğan, and presidential candidate Abdullah Gül’s wife, Hayrunnisa.

Enjoying a nice meal, Turkish coffee or tea in one the wide rooms will enable you to feel the Anatolian culture from within. Meals are cooked in Erzurum’s unique tandır ovens. I recommend the kesme soup (noodle and green lentil). Vine leaves, su böreği, tandır kebap and mantı are among the other delicious choices on the menu. As for dessert, kadayıf dolması (made with shredded thin pastry and walnuts) is delicious. Another wonderful sweet dish is pestil ve dut çullaması, a fried dessert made with eggs.

Traditional Erzurum homes were built to withstand the climate and also provide a unique attribute to the city’s architecture. Horizontal beams were embedded into the stone wall at various intervals to connect these tall homes to each other. This method also played an important role in strengthening the stone walls against earthquakes.

One of the most fascinating structures in the city is the Çifte Minareli Medrese. There are no historical records of the medrese, therefore it is unknown when and by whom it was built. Many historians believe it was built by Seljuk Sultan Aladdin Keykubat I in the 13th century for his daughter Hundi Hatun. The student rooms, which are located around the courtyard, have low and arched entrances, thought to be so designed to make people bow their heads in respect for knowledge before they enter the room. The huge stone structure is enchanting and awakens a sense of respect in people. The courtyard is decorated with authentic designs that allow people to experience history as they sit on benches in the courtyard and drink tea. Guests can also lounge on the pillows lined up against the courtyard wall and relax or read a book.

The different architectural designs and the designs in the motifs are eye-catching. Locals say the medrese was built by a remarkable master and his apprentice. As they built the building, the apprentice tried to exhibit more talent than his master. Although the master was disturbed by this he did not say anything. Then one day, the apprentice asked his master to bring him some water. Infuriated the master said “Usta idim oldum şegirt, al destiyi suya seğirt” (I became a servant when I was the master, go get your water yourself) and jumped from the minaret. The apprentice understood his mistake and also threw himself from the minaret. But the death of the master and apprentice upset the other workers and they too left the job without completing it. This legend is intended to explain the difference in the designs in the medrese.

Bird’s eye view from  the clock tower

The clock tower in Erzurum was built by Emir Muzaffer Gazi in the 12th century as an observation tower. The clock was taken by the Russians during the Crimean War. The clock now in the tower was a gift from the British administration. You can reach the top of the clock tower through a narrow stone staircase and from the top gain a new perspective on the town. Modern structures may fringe the outskirts of Erzurum, but not the historical districts of its downtown. Damage to the original fabric of the city remains a concern and it is important that these old homes are restored. Old buildings may preserve a spirit of originality, but are often also damaged and gloomy. Every city has its own spirit. If you don’t protect that spirit the city will lose its enchantment.

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