Ottoman fountains served as focal points in days gone by

October 02, 2011, Sunday/ 14:20:00

Until the recent past no district or neighborhood in İstanbul was without its fountains. In 1925 the Water Foundations (Su Evkafı) determined the number of fountains in İstanbul to be 1,553, whereas at present approximately 800 of them survive.

According to the Prophet Muhammad, it is a good deed for a Muslim to provide someone else with water. Donating money for the construction of a fountain was thus considered an act of piety.

It is for this reason that piping water from springs and constructing fountains were regarded as being among the most honorable acts of charity. Accordingly, people were not charged any money for using the water.

Most of the sultans, sultan’s mothers and daughters, grand viziers and other prominent people endowed a fountain in their name, expressing their economic, social and political status. Fountains thus became an important part of the architectural tradition.

Types and functions

Starting in the late 16th century, the Ottoman government preferred to provide people with water through public fountains rather than fountains in private dwellings.

This made the local fountain an indispensable structure, marking the center of every neighborhood as throughout the day groups of people could be seen waiting their turn to get their drinking water.

Like mosques and coffee houses, fountains served as meeting places for the people. It was here that news was exchanged and new relationships between people took root.

There are various types of fountains both in terms of function and structure, reflecting the architectural taste and styles of their time.

But often the name of a fountain tells its own story, as in the case of the Ayrılık Çeşmesi (Fountain of Departure), which was built at the spot from where the army departed for its campaigns, where caravans headed east and where pilgrims to Mecca bade farewell to their loved ones when departing from İstanbul. The Ahmet Ağa Fountain (1741) in İstanbul’s Haydarpaşa neighborhood is an example of an Ayrılık Çeşmesi.

Similarly, the Selâmi Çeşme (Fountain of Greeting) was a fountain at the location where travelers arriving in the city were welcomed. Today one such fountain, the Selâmi Fountain (1800), can be found in Kadıköy.

Namazgâh Fountains were constructed to be used by travelers on caravan routes, and at places for excursion to provide water that Muslims needed to perform their ritual ablutions before praying. Examples of such fountains are the Üçler Mevkisi Namazgâh Fountain in Atmeydanı (1516) and the Sadrazam Mehmed Paşa Namazgâh Fountain in Topçular, between Edirnekapı and Rami (1617), both in İstanbul.

Two stories of İstanbul fountains

The myth of the Saliha Sultan Fountain in Azapkapı is one of the most interesting stories surrounding the city’s fountains. One day, when Rabia Gülnuş Valide Sultan, wife of Mehmed IV (1648-1687), was passing through the Azapkapı neighborhood she saw a small girl with a broken water pot crying in front of a street fountain. To console the child she put a coin in her hand, but the child said that she wasn’t crying over the pot but because she would not be able to take the water home.

Rabia Gülnuş was so moved by her reply that she adopted the child and brought her up in the palace with a special care and attention to her manners and education.

When Saliha Sultan, the girl, was old enough, she was married to Mustafa II (1695-1703), Rabia Gülnuş’s son. Saliha Sultan decided to construct a fountain worthy of her position as a royal wife on the spot where she had broken her water pot as a child.

Another interesting story is that of the German Fountain. When German Emperor Wilhelm II visited İstanbul for the second time in 1898 during the reign of Abdülhamid II, he was so pleased with the time he had spent in İstanbul that he ordered the German government to construct a fountain and deliver it to İstanbul in several pieces by ship. On the dome of the German fountain, decorated with a golden mosaic, we find Abdülhamid II’s tuğra (seal) as well as the emperor’s imperial seal.

And the fountain’s inscription, written in German, says: “German Kaiser Wilhelm II presented this fountain in the autumn of 1898, in thankful remembrance of his visit to the Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II.”

Restorations in the last decade

The management and property rights of the fountains are shared by the İstanbul Waterworks Authority (İSKİ), the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality and the Directorate General for Foundations (VGM), which makes it difficult to inspect and construct in an orderly way.

Another conflict concerning this issue is when a foundation or a private institution attempts to restore a historical fountain, it gets caught up with the VGM’s strict regulations and restrictions.

But according a restorer who asked to remain anonymous, the municipalities will soon take over the property rights of all the fountains.

Another important issue the restorer brings up is that there is a debate among the restorers on whether water should flow from the historical fountains or not.

Some of the restorers are concerned about the original form of the fountains, asserting that historical fountains are the monuments of today, while others argue that İSKİ should connect them to the water grid.

Starting in 2005, the project for the restoration of the historical fountains was taken up and carried out by institutions such as the İSKİ, the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality, the Kuveyt Türk participation bank, the VGM and the Turkish Water Foundation.

During the restoration, more than 150 fountains in İstanbul were restored and reconnected to the water grid. 800 fountains were examined thoroughly; their names, dates of construction, architects and, if any, the inscription on the fountain that usually contains a prayer or a verse of the Quran were revealed.

With this new information, not only were the characteristics of the fountains determined, it also offered new perspectives and became a source of information on Ottoman history and architecture. Apparently the extensive restorations encouraged other city municipalities, as from 2010 onwards many similar projects were carried out.

In the last two years three historical fountains in Kocaeli were restored, eight in Karabük, three in Bursa, 12 in Konya’s Selçuklu district, four in Mardin and fountains in Burdur, Afyonkarahisar, Gebze, Antalya, Eskişehir, Malatya and Çanakkale were revived and restored to their original state.

Two of the most important fountains are a Hellenistic monumental fountain from A.D. 700 in Burdur’s Ağlasun district, located in the ancient city of Sagalassos, and Tekirdağ’s Başçeşme Fountain, which dates back to 1546.

The most important fountains in İstanbul that have been restored are the Ahmed III Fountain, which is situated at the Imperial Gate of Topkapi Palace, the Tophane Fountain of Mahmud I (1732), the Saliha Sultan Fountain in Azapkapı (1732), the Göksu Fountain in Üsküdar (1728), the İshak Ağa Fountain in Beykoz (1749), the Vezir Hekimoğlu Ali Paşa Fountain in Kabataş (1732), the Abdülhamid II Fountain in Maçka (1901) and the Hamidiye Fountain in Galatasaray (1906). The oldest known fountains in İstanbul are the Davutpaşa Fountain (1559-1560) and the Şahruh Fountain in Fatih (1559-1560).

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