Ashes of Safranbolu

A dispatch from Turkey's living shrine to Ottoman-era domestic architecture.

By / August 2012

Descending the dry valley into Safranbolu, my eyes latched onto the charred remains of an old manor. It was the last thing I expected to see. This quaint canyon outcropping 60 miles south of Turkey’s Black Sea Coast is known as a trove of well-preserved Ottoman-era architecture. But there it was, a burned-out house, its blackened timbers shriveled like matchsticks, collapsed in a heap.

A little Web research turned up details. The fire had occurred two years earlier, in 2010. Months prior to that, the owner, a man called Mustafa Sari, had completed a $2 million restoration. Suspecting arson, he called on authorities to investigate. “This is one of our national treasures,” he told a local newspaper. “Turkey must raise this mansion to its feet once again.”

From the look of things, Sari’s calls, however sincere, had gone unanswered. Meanwhile, the silence of his charred mansion was deafening. The line between treasure and trash, come to find out, is more feint than we realize; a single flame can easily efface it.

Sheltered in a deep ravine in the heartland of Turkey, some 200 kilometers north of the capitol, Safranbolu remains an anomaly. In the 1970s, the steel industry transformed nearby towns such as Karabuk, but Safranbolu maintained the mystique of an old-growth forest, even as its structures gradually deteriorated.

Many of Safranbolu’s homes — outfitted with ornate pine and walnut paneling, wooden shutters, and windows of wavy glass — date back to the 1500s. Some of the biggest houses even feature expansive indoor pools, which were used as a kind of centralized air conditioning prior to the advent of AC.

These homes eventually caught the gaze of traveling artists and photographers who brought them to the fore of the national conscience. By the 1980s, the Turkish government had moved in to preserve what remained of their grandeur. In 1994 the city of Safanbolu, which was a center of the saffron trade along a popular caravan route between Asia and Europe in centuries past, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, the revived town thrives as a tourist destination and a kind of feeder-community for the nearby steel mills.

Along the local bazaar, saffron-infused soaps and candies still flavor the alleyways. But the residue of wealth created by the spice and accompanying trade is most clearly seen in the elegant, timber-framed homes. From inside Cukur (the Hole), the central neighborhood of Safranbolu, cube-shaped buildings rise in rows on the hillside. Like vines, narrow streets bend and climb through whitewashed houses.

In town, traders and craftsman peddle hand-made glassware, woodcarvings, and tablecloths. Like Mustafa Sari, many investors have restored mansions, turning them into boutique hotels or bed and breakfasts. Across the street from the burnt mansion, up stone steps cluttered with flowering weeds, sits Eyvan Ev Yemekleri (Eyvan’s Homefoods). The restaurant features a simplistic menu and a single cook, Husniye Halac. “Everything we serve I make by hand,” she told me.

When my family and I stepped over the threshold onto the squeaky hardwood entryway, Halac peeked through an interior window and invited us in. She had grape leaves in her lap. She had picked them fresh from the garden pergola and was about to wrap them around a stuffing of meat and rice.

We sat on rug-covered benches under a green canopy overlooking town while Halac readied a dish of hand-cut noodles sprinkled with crushed walnuts and a bitter, parmesan-like cheese. Her husband, Ibrahim Atik Halac, sliced sourdough bread in the cramped kitchen. Now retired from a job with the local municipality, Ibrahim has been helping his wife at the restaurant for the last five years.

As we left, sufficiently filled, Ibrahim thanked us for coming and lamented, “If only we could have made you more of our homemade breads.”

Back in the bazaar, we came across Husnu Yildirim, a craftsman who has been making leather pouches, bags, and belts in the same location for the past 50 years. Yildirim showed us how he hand-stitches sheaths for pocket knives and holsters for guns. Above him, cow bells and saddles dangled from hooks, along with several belts that Yildirim swore could ward off evil spirits.

The belts traditionally offered consolation to lonely shepherds with nothing but the hills to protect them. “It’s just something we believe,” Yildirim said.

In a way, Safranbolu is a town keenly aware of its need for protection from outside forces. Since 1947, more than 20 structures have been claimed by fire. Hundreds remain intact. The ashy skeleton of Mustafa Sari’s home echoes the call to save what is left.


Brian McKanna is a contributing writer for EthnoTraveler.