Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Eight Thousand Years

Remnants of the outer walls of the Basilica of St John, with the Selcuk Fortress at the top

“My father found our new house”, my husband Abit told me as he came into our vintage textile shop one afternoon in late August 2005. Oh God, this was bound to be tough – what chance was there that Baba had selected a house that I would like? So far in the 6 years I’d known him, other than the gentlemanly way he dressed or the care he took to arrange carpets outside our shop, I’d not seen obvious signs of an esthetic eye. And since I knew we had to find a place in which my in-laws and some of my husband’s 9 siblings would also live, I was less than sure we’d find anything we’d all agree on quickly, if ever.

Abit and I were tired of living in the ‘suburbs’ of Selcuk, in indistinctive beige concrete housing blocks so alike they were easy to become lost among. We wanted to find an old house somewhere closer to our business in the center of town. The problem was that we had to sell our entire 3-flat building to have the money to buy another home, with enough left over to free ourselves of debt from our business. So Abit and Baba walked the older neighborhoods of Selcuk, looking at houses and talking to everyone they knew about who was likely to sell. To me, the American foreigner, the idea that older single family homes, usually with charming original details and a private courtyard garden, were selling for less than a two-bedroom apartment stacked in anonymous rows of new buildings, was ridiculous. But fortunately that was true.

Ayasuluk Hill, with Selcuk’s Byzantine Fortress and the Tomb of St John in the foreground. Our house is to the right with the red tile roof.

The central district of Selcuk is surrounded by the Isabey Mahallesi to the west, where the Byzantine fortress and the ruins of the 6thC Basilica of St John crown Ayasoluk Hill, with the 11thC Seljuk Isabey Mosque just below. To the east of town is Zafer Mahallesi, which has lovely western views of the valley and the Aegean Sea beyond. But we’d spent part of a year in that neighborhood already, attempting to run a small pansiyon whose owner didn’t really want to give up control of her business. So that district, though lovely, was somewhat tainted in our minds.

“C’mon, let me show you this place. I want to buy it today”, said Abit, half out the door.

Huh? “Today?!? Why so fast?”

“My father has already been talking to the owner. As soon as other people find out we’re interested, we’ll have competitors and the price will go up”.

“But doesn’t everyone know the house is for sale anyway?”

As it turned out - yes. It would be hard for anyone to miss the fact the place was on the market, since the first thing I saw when we got within a block was a towering unpainted plaster building with “Satiliktir” - for sale - spray painted in huge black letters on two sides.

“Hmmmm. Looks like a wreck…” I began.

“No one has lived here for 6 years” Abit said. So, there would be a sudden rush to buy a place that’s been abandoned, and looked it??

Abit did not have a key to the garden iron double gate, so went around to the other side of the garden to hop the neighbor’s fence. Oh, great, a secure location, I thought. I had noticed as we had nearly run though the neighborhood below, up the hill to where the house stood, that the area was densely populated with large families in mostly old single family houses, interspersed with the newer concrete bunker-type apartments of our suburban mahalle, or neighborhood. But I was too intrigued with the Byzantine castle that loomed over the house to think about how close all the neighbors were, how there were so many people out on the street compared to our current 5022 Sokak (street) home. And how even more neighbors were coming out to see who was looking at the empty konak, the proper Turkish name for this type of traditional large house.

Abit opened the gate from the inside, and I stepped into an overgrown garden, with the large house perched on the hill seemingly even bigger because we were 4 levels below the red tiled roof. Abit showed me across the weeds to a stone staircase on the opposite side, up to a small terrace level and finally up terrazzo stairs. I stopped dead in my tracks at the top of those stairs, and stared at my feet.

The terrace, where I now spend much of my time

Tile. If there is something decorative I love as much as textiles, it’s tile. And here were vintage, diagonally set encaustic tiles in quilt-like patterns of three quirky shades of tan, brown and cream, covering the expanse of the small terrace that led to double Ottoman style painted wood doors at the home’s entrance. I turned to look back over the garden, and beyond to the eastern hills behind Selcuk. The sun was just going down, and the houses and hills were bathed in red- orange light. The garden’s several fruit trees and the neighbor’s large date palm, the tile roofs of the houses below – the scene was a Mediterranean dream, like being home in Santa Barbara’s Riviera hills. Even my “Goat Castle” – the next fortress in the chain that lined the Aegean coast and so named for an attack Ataturk’s troops had made there on the Greeks camouflaged in goatskins – was visible to the north on its’ high mountain pinnacle.

Our view of Zafer Mahallesi to the east

Inside was much less of a dream. The massive meter thick walls meant the four rooms were tiny, at least by my Western standards. The central salon had a blocked-in window to the west so only the entrance doors let in any light. But the terrace tile covered this floor too! The two bedrooms off the salon had wood floors, and bizarre shades of pink, yellow and green paint, but the wood casement windows facing the Fortress were wide, and folded completely open, effectively removing half the walls. The owner had set metal window frames in the salon, ready to rip out the wooden casements and ‘modernize’ the place since it had not sold for 6 years. And I could see he was planning to rip out the floor tiles too, in favor of faux marble ceramic stacked in the corner.

The bathroom had a tiny door off the kitchen hallway, but held the best tile of all. Four tiles together formed a repeat of brown and tan, a tropical forest of artichoke/thistle motifs that reminded me of Samarkand suzanis, or Matisse cutouts.

And the kitchen had yet another pattern, this time Escher-like triangles of grey, black and cream. The kitchen looked straight out of the early last century, with stove hood in plaster in the corner, dish shelves running high around the walls, and no sign of modern day appliances.

Two views of the sunny kitchen, cluttered but well used. We’ve added a modern stove where I’m sure a wood-burning one previously stood.

Maybe I should have been horrified, but I was entranced. The castle hovered over us outside the bedroom windows, glowing now like a welcoming medieval lantern, as it would every night from dusk until dawn. What American romantic who had studied art history and had worked as an interior designer would not want to live in the shadow of a Byzantine fortress? And in a house that was built from the rubble of the ruins of a basilica’s outer walls, on the same hill not 50 meters from where Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora had built that massive cathedral over the tomb of St John the Evangelist? And with the added treasure of tile floors that would cost thousands of dollars to replicate, already worn to a glowing, slightly chipped patina by 70 plus years of pattering feet?

Or course, we bought the house that week. I was not about to let anyone destroy that tile. Perhaps not the most rational way to make such a big decision, but I knew the bathroom floor tile alone would make me happy just to see it each morning.

The entire house was painted while I was in the US that winter, in versions of the colors I wanted, though Abit overruled me and made the doors and window frames the traditional Aegean turquoise, to ‘protect’ the house. Though the workers got paint all over those tile floors, Abit was able to convince the family not to replace them as a “surprise” for me.

Four summers later, we’ve not done much else to restore the actual house yet with so many people still living in it – there are 4 to 7 residents upstairs at the moment, counting one sister and her two children who stay here part-time. But the garden has thrived under Baba’s green thumb, with tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and squash under an orchard of fruit trees. Though we enter our floor from the garden and the family enters their second floor from the street level on the west side, privacy is still somewhat of a challenge. With thin wood floors that are strangely covered in wood grain printed wallpaper upstairs, it’s a bit like living with elephants overhead.

The mid-level patio, covered by grapevines on an arbor Baba built

We have a handmade ‘tandir’ in the lower garden, where Abit’s mother and his sisters convene every few days to bake bread. We’ve also had a goat in the lower garden, replaced by rabbits in a mud-walled, tile-roofed house that Baba took more care with than with any house for his 10 children. But now, only cats prowl the rows of veggies and flocks of sparrows inhabit the pomegranate, lemon, olive and mandarin trees.

Pomegranate trees in bloom

Above us under the Fortress, archeologists are currently digging to uncover a Bronze Age settlement recently discovered here on Ayasuluk Hill. Our Kurdish family is not impressed. They’ve lived among such antiquities all their lives and prefer the modern; they tell us they are not as happy here as they were in our previous modern apartment building. But this Californian loves living among the remains of the 8000 years of human civilization, even if the neighbors living here now are a little too close. Abit hopes to retire here someday and tend to the garden himself. And maybe buy a few surrounding houses to create a haven for writers and artists to stay, learn and be inspired by our Selcuk/Ephesus Valley. I hope to see that happen.

A portrait of Ataturk; view from our window on a national holiday


  1. Great post Catherine. Your house and garden look really lovely. Looking forward to reading more!


  2. How cold does it get there and what kind of heating system does the house have?

    Love the post!

  3. Heating system in an old Turkish house!?! lol We have a removable wood-burning stove for the main room, and the bedrooms have space heaters. It gets into the 30's F in the winter. Lots of rain but the window sills are deep...but the tile roof upstairs has developed a few leaks!