Traditional Furniture In Turkish Houses

Candan Sezgin
TBMM National Palaces Cultural and Representation Department
Dolmabahce Palace

Turks, for many years, lived as a nomadic community in tents (called "Yurt") in The Middle Asia. Starting in the 11th century they began migrating to Anatolia, where they continued their lives in the plateaus in summer and in the settled villages in winter. The Seljuk Turks in Anatolia, The Turkish Principalities and The Ottoman Empire that was build up in the 13th century and expanded in size and culture, then on provided a period of transition for Anatolian Turks to settle down. The nomadic culture, the Islamic world sight the Turks adopted together with the historical values of the Anatolian culture made a synthesis and formed a new style and culture.

Turks, as a result of their settled life in Anatolia, made up the famous model the "Turkish house" in which they benefited from the furniture shaped by their own culture, tradition and needs.

Because of the structure of the Turkish- Islamic way of thinking based on the "few but the main" principle, very few furniture was used in Anatolian Turkish House for years. More importance was given to functional and at the same time decorative qualities of the furniture used in homes. The traditional Turkish furnishings that vary in number in terms of the materials and the manufacturing technique used, convey the most beautiful models of the Turkish handcrafts and woodworks worth to see.

The term "Turkish house" has developed and acquired an authentic sense in the period of The Ottoman Empire. In those houses, group mentality can not be seen among the furnishings. However, the furnishings are harmonious with each other in size whereas are complementary in terms of their functions. As being fixed furniture depending upon the architecture, shelves, built in closets and sherbetlics were used, while as for sitting sets on the other hand, surrounding sedir were placed all around where necessary. However sandik, besik / cradle, sehpa / stool, rahle and kavukluk kind of wall were used as portable furniture. In Turkish Houses portables do not always stand in the middle. For instance rahle was only used when Koran or other books would be read or sehpa would be used only to put something on.

Furniture-making is shaped by the formation of the object which has a specific type and function according to the insight of the craftsman in terms of decoration and skill. Different kinds and colors of wooden materials are used. For the work of the wooden object; carving openwork (ajur), tenon (kundekari) and such techniques were made use of while for the embellishments inlaying, overlaying and painting were used, for decorative reasons.

Mother of pearl, ivory, tortoise shell, antler, gold gilding and madder have been the fundamentals of decoration. Each individually being an art work , for the brilliance and conservation of the wooden furniture ; gomalak / shellac, lak / gum lac, mum cila / wax and such type of special mixture varnishes were used.

In the period of the Ottoman Empire, Bursa, Edirne and Istanbul - the capital cities respectively in time- some special ateliers were established. Besides, there were independent craftsmen creating works carrying the local cultural characteristics in different Anatolian cities. Each furniture and manufacturing center had its own style and the copies of furniture produced their in were tried to be made in either outer lands of or in provinces under the Ottoman Empire. The works were called according to the center where they were manufactured: As Istanbul work, Adalar work, Edirne work or Uskudar work. While some elaborately dressed works are produced in centers and in cities effected by those, man in Anatolia used the furniture he embellished and painted. Too many honorable experts are trained to transform the object to an art work.

While naturalist, improvisatory designs, flower, leaf and plant motifs, flags, crescent-star, Kaaba pictures were used on the furniture in the Turkish houses in rural areas, in the city houses, stylized plant motifs, geometric patterns, heraldries, naturmontal embellishments were used that were introduced to Ottomans in the period of "Tulip Period" in the 18th century" because of occidentalizm.

The European furniture which varied in number and in model after the Industrial Revolution, in the 19th century was introduced to the palaces, kiosks and lodges of the upper class Ottomans by the catalogues and presentation of the merchants . Therefore , as well as the already used designs like animal figures, imperial monograms-tughras-, medallions and heraldries; Baroque, Rococo, Imperial and Art Nouveau styles also were added to Turkish ornamentation program of furniture.

The materials to be introduced below are few original examples used in Turkish houses and they bear the value of being important representatives and witnesses of Turkish cultural heritage and life culture.

SANDIK (Chest)
Sandik is one of the common furniture that human beings use since he or she started to keep-store and carry his or her goods, clothes, various objects, food and holy mantles for example.

Sandik is one of the most frequent furniture used in Anatolia Turkish houses. Most were made up of wood and dower chest are the loveliest examples to those. Carved, embroidered, gold, silver, mother- of- pearl and ivory inlayed, painted or covered with fabric, each of the chests has a different lock system. Some of the chests have small compartments and coffers.

In the 19th century, in Istanbul, there was a street composed of approximately 60 chest producers. The workmanship was at its peak in terms of quality. The chest would be made with that tenon system without using nails or wedges, and cypress -wood would be used for odor of the object being kept (1).

Kavukluk is a kind of the wall shelf composed of two or three pieces and is hanged or mounted on the wall. Kavukluk is hanged on the wall on the base of a height of an average person. Also there are some examples placed on the corners. Usually was used to carry the lighting equipment.

Kavukluks, on which some decorative objects or mirrors are placed have adopted a decorative identity in those splendor decor of the Ottoman Palaces. Like the rahles and sehpas, the kavukluks also do reflect the artistic understanding of their own periods. While some samples are adorned with gold gilding, openwork, carvings in Edirne work and painted usually in the colors green and yellow and used by the middle class families, the ones which are richly ornamented in Istanbul work decorate the most valuable spaces. 

Rahle , which is seen after the reproduction of the Holy Book Koran, is designed to read the Koran and the other books at ease. During the first years of Islam Korans were written on parchments in big characters and thus were great in size and heavy in weight. That's why the former rahles were pretty big and moreover some of them were designed with seats. Since great importance and care is given to the Holy Book Koran, rahles are adorned with valuable materials.

With its dictionary meaning, rahle is a small table collapsible in some and book is read or something is written thereon. Some of those have small parts in which you can keep the book being read. Together with the development of writing and the use of paper, rahles are varied in style, but were produced in a much smaller size.

Rahles have two groups: First group are the stationary ones which have horizontal desks and some also have drawers. The second group are the collapsible ones in "X" shape that are formed by the insertion of two pieces of wooden panels into one another. In the Anatolian houses, usually, this second type of rahles were used starting from the Anatolian Seljuks (2).

The rahle art has been effected by the styles emerged in architecture features in classical in 16th and 17th centuries, Baroque and Imperial styles in 18th and 19th centuries can be seen within this frame.

BESIK (Cradle)
In a Turkish house, for the fresh-born babies, the first bed is the besik with the spreads used within. It is the tradition to get ready for besik decoration and spread preparation days before the birth. To rock the besik , the edges were designed in arc form and there is a holding bar above while the couch part is raised or covered on sides. Sometimes besik is used like swings there by hanging them by the ends.

Serbetlik is the inset paneled wardrobe seen up to the 18th century in the Anatolian Turkish house. But in the course of time, it was substituted by the independent buffets fitted with mirrors. Usually it has a vaulted or quadrupled frontal and ornamented shelves and small niches on sides and is placed in the middle of the walls of the room. Surrounding small niches which are called "Gilve" are for the decorative objects like oil lamp, water bottle, pot, vase, censers etc. Some of the lower parts of serbetlik have small compartments with covers in which plates, glasses, cups, coffee pots and that kind of service objects are kept. The facades, frontal and sides of the serbetlik are usually made up of carved wood and ornamented with rosettes, various plants, flowers and landscape paintings.
The most important function of the sehpa was to carry the service tray on it. Functioning as tables, the sehpas were proportional to the divans in sizes thus were practical in use. Were produced either hexagonal or octagonal in shape. In the daily life, they were put by the divans but sometimes also were just put in the middle . Their tops could be of tortoise shell, horn, mother-of-pearl, ivory, gold, silver inlaid, but also there are the ones which have tile plaquettes on them. Besides, in homes small round tables for rolling out dough were also used and still are being used in the rural village houses today.

The mattresses used to sit on in Turkish tents left their place to the setting sets called divan or sofa after Turks settled down in Anatolia.

As a common principle, divans which became integrated with the decoration, were placed by the walls in order to create space in the middle of the rooms (3).

Divans, being formed by increasing the height of the floor with a wooden platform, usually do not exceed 1/2 meters. Surrounding the room inside, the divans are upholstered with various kinds of textile materials and for comfort, mattresses and cushions are made use of.

J. Thevenot, a European traveler who came to the land of Ottomans in the years 1655-1656, says those about interior appearance of Turkish Houses and palaces : "In all of the rooms and halls, there are sets for sitting 1/2 meters in height and called "Divan" which are covered with much nicer and valuable carpets than those used to decorate the floor. The gilded cushions are put against the walls. You can rest on these divans and spend the most beautiful hours of the day here (4).

Because divans are comfortable and traditional, they have always been used in the Ottoman Palaces. Being as models to thrones, were produced with splats and oriental motifs and called as "Ottoman or Sofa"

(1) Pretextat LECOMTE , Turkiye'de Sanatlar ve Zanaatlar / Arts and Crafts in Turkey (late 19th century), Tercuman, 1001 Eser, Istanbul, 1956, p. 85.

(2) Zeki Talip SENYURT, Turk Islam Eserleri Muzesi'ndeki Kakmali Rahleler / Rahles in Relief at the Museum of Turkish Islam Works, M.U. Institute of Islamic Studies , Master Thesis, Istanbul, 1993, p. 3

(3) Prof.Dr.Onder KUCUKERMAN, "Geleneksel Turk Evi Mimari Mekan Kimligi ve Topkapi Sarayindaki Oncu Ornekler / Identity of Archaeological Space in Traditional Turkish House and Vanguard Samples at the Topkapi Palace" , Antik Dekor, No: 15, 1992, p. 20-24

(4) Sebahattin TURKOGLU, "Saray ve Konaklarimizda Geleneksel Ic Dekor / Traditional Interior Decoration of Palaces and Mansions", Antik Dekor, No: 15, 1992, p. 26-30