Green parks, historical monuments and untold nooks and crannies give Istanbul the feeling of an open-air museum. The water fountains spread around the city are among the many attractions. Some of them, including the Sultan Ahmet Fountain, outside the Imperial Gate of the Topkapi Palace, feature rococo or baroque design. Others are simpler, less “dressy,” and easy to miss if you're not looking for them.
Istanbul is believed to have more than 1,000 “cesme” and “sebils.” The word “cesme,” derived from the Persian root “cesm,” meaning “eye,” translates as “water fountain.” This type of fountain can be found all over the world, but a sebil, on the other hand, is unique to the Levant. Found on busy city streets and along major caravan trade routes, sebils are small kiosks for distributing cold water in cups to passers-by free of charge. There is no English translation for “sebil” or “sabil.” In Arabic, they are called “rahat,” which denotes rest and comfort.
So why did water fountains become such a frequent and decorative ornament in Istanbul? Murat Guvenc, director of the Istanbul Studies Center at Kadir Has University, told Al-Monitor, “Prior to the Industrial Revolution, cities could not distribute water to each household because they lacked pressured plumbing systems. Hence, cities would build aqueduct bridges to bring in water, as it could not travel uphill. Around the Mediterranean and Levant, fountains and sebils were the most distinctive components of water distribution before the Industrial Revolution.”
Hygiene was the main reason water fountains became so widespread around the Ottoman Empire, especially in Istanbul, the empire’s most populous city and its capital. People believed that running water was cleaner and safer to use for cooking and drinking. Another reason was religious. People with means wanted to build something to benefit others, and fountains, along with mosques or schools, were a common form of charity. Several hadiths — words, sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad— urged believers to help quench the thirst of others. Building a water fountain was the cheapest way to be charitable, and people of average means, along with the wealthy, were eager to give. There was, however, a catch.
“Though it was easy to build the structure for a fountain, bringing the water to the fountain was a challenge,” Guvenc said. “The public administration at the time would not allow ‘free rides’ — building fountains on routes along which others had [already] brought in water — so if you wanted to build a fountain, you had to pay not only for the structure, but also for [new transport routes].”
Guvenc explained that as many major European cities are built along rivers and other sources of fresh water, it was relatively easy to transport water to fountains there. In the Levant and the Mediterranean basin, it was a challenge, but many rulers and elites nonetheless managed to build fountains and sebils in their name across Anatolia and in the major Levantine cities of Jerusalem, Damascus and Beirut.
From the 15th to the 19th century, outdoor fountains were the main source of water for residents of Istanbul. Though the original structures consisted of clay pipes and simple designs, by the end of the 17th century, they had become quite elaborate displays and used lead pipes. They were not only functional in providing water but also visually impressive installations.
By the 18th century, fountains and sebils had also evolved as “specimens” of architectural innovation, so today there are quite a few books tracing art history in Istanbul based on fountain design and decoration. The structures are also of interest to literature lovers because of the poetry inscribed on them in different calligraphic styles. Those built by the Ottoman sultans sometimes carry verses written by them. Almost all fountains display their date of construction and in whose memory it was dedicated. Some also occasionally identified the patron.
Fountains from the Tulip Era (1718-30), a period defined by hedonism and a concern for aesthetics, display impressive but simple engravings, but some of the 18th-century structures are in baroque or rococo styles. Well-to-do Ottomans loved the sound of water so much that in palaces and mansions, some rooms had their own water fountains. They also served a decorative purpose and could block sounds from reaching the ears of eavesdropping domestics.
As the Ottoman Empire declined, so did many of the services it provided. The supply of water was no exception. Gradually the system of using “sakas,” elaborately dressed water carriers who would deliver water to houses, also collapsed, as workers began claiming ownership of fountains, and water became a marketable commodity.
Toward the end of 19th century, Sultan Abdulaziz contracted water distribution in Istanbul to a French firm, Guvenc explained. The company supplied water to the growing city from nearby Terkos Lake and transported spring, underground and stream waters to it after treatment.
Guvenc further noted, “The company would also update the water distribution system of Istanbul, bringing water to all public buildings and set up faucets that fire fighters could use during emergencies. However, the company did not deliver on most of its promises, as it failed to generate profits.”
The French outfit continued to provide its services into the early years of the Turkish Republic, founded in 1923, but left Turkey in 1929, during the Great Depression. “Shortly afterwards [in the 1930s], the water system was nationalized,” Guvenc noted.
Fountains not only provided water, but also created employment opportunities and encouraged socializing in neighborhoods. The fountains emerged as a gathering place for courtship, gossiping and announcements. Several folk tales, songs and street names highlight the social function of fountains over the centuries.
Another intriguing aspect of fountains today is how one can trace women’s financial independence and charitable giving through the inscriptions on them. Hatice Aynur of Istanbul Sehir University has identified three categories of women who built fountains: those of the Ottoman Palace, wives of prominent bureaucrats, generals and religious men (ulema) and average women. Their donations of water fountains varied according to their individual wealth and the architectural style of the day. For these women, fountains were a way to leave a legacy, which ultimately led to Aynur being able to demonstrate that women were not invisible under Ottoman rule.
Today only a handful of the water fountains in Istanbul actually function. Some have been plundered by thieves, who regularly steal the faucets from monumental fountains. Not finding running water in these fountains may be one of the most disappointing moments for tourists on walking tours.
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