Faces of Istanbul
For nearly a century, they have been silently looking at us. They
have seen everything that has happened in this city over that time
without themselves being noticed by any but the most observant. Most of
us are unaware of their existence, despite having passed by them and
looked in their direction so many times. Yet masks and caryatids adorn
the facades of many Istanbul buildings, and once having seen their
photographs, you will be astonished not to have noticed them before.
From the mid-19th century until the early 20th century was a time of
strong Western influence on Ottoman architecture, and large numbers of
masonry buildings with facade decorations in the form of human faces and
statues dating from this period can be seen in Istanbul, particularly
in the districts of Beyoglu and Galata
. Both these districts have changed little in architectural terms over
the intervening century. Although sculptures depicting human figures
were traditionally frowned upon, their widespread use as architectural
decoration in this peri
god attracted no adverse reaction.
This may be attributed to the fact that Beyoðlu and Galata were originally Genoese and Venetian settlements in Byzantine times and remained the home of Istanbul's European and Levantine communities during the Ottoman centuries. Hence they were the most westernized and cosmopolitan areas of the city. The architecture of this period has been described as Facade Architecture on account of the extensive use of masks, statues, floriate carving, columns, and other decorative elements. The palaces and grand houses built from the mid-19th century onwards by the sultans and politicians were highly westernized in style, above all where their decoration was concerned. When designing other buildings, architects followed this trend. The facades of the era reflect the desire of the owners for elaborate display. The faces and figures perform no architectural function but exist only to narrate diverse stories.
Among them, we find mythological faces resembling Medusa, but fortunately unable to turn us into stone at a glance, and Zeus with long rippling hair and beard. Others tell contemporary stories about the buildings themselves, as in the case of the clown's face on the facade of the Halep Arcade, which once housed Pera Circus. Over the Orient Bank building entrance in Karakoy, designed in 1890 by the French architect Alexandre Vallaury is the face of a Roman soldier seeming to stand guard over the bank. The most fascinating and tragic of these facade stories is that of the women of ancient Caria, after whom the term caryatid derives. These female figures in draped costumes were used in ancient architecture to support the entablatures of temples and other buildings and seem to carry their entire weight on their shoulders. When the Carians took the part of the Persians, the Greeks slaughtered all the Carian men and took the women captive, marching them through the streets in their traditional costumes.
Caryatids symbolize the humiliation they suffered and serve as a lasting memorial to their fate. So next time you are walking the streets of Istanbul, look up from the shop window fronts at street level to the neoclassical caryatids and let them remind you of those tragic women of two and a half thousand years ago.
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