Ottoman Palaces on the Bosporus, Discreetly Up for Sale

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ISTANBUL — A palace on the Bosporus, one of the fabled waterside summer houses of the Ottoman sultans, is like a work of art. There is no way to calculate its true worth until a buyer and a seller come together and set a price.

Even then, the honor of the Turkish owners, some of whom are descendants of the original owners, the equivalent to royalty, keeps the price confidential and the sale a secret.

Famous for their opulent lifestyle and exquisite taste, the Ottoman sultans first built their summer palaces 300 years ago along the shores of the Bosporus, the glittering 20-mile stretch of water that runs from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean, splitting the city of Istanbul and dividing the continents of Europe and Asia.

The Bosporus is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world, but its shoreline is protected and its waterside residences — known in Turkish as yalis — are among the most sought-after properties in the region.

Experts say there are about 20 yalis currently on the market, but none of them are publicly advertised, said Ulvi Ozcan, a partner in the Bosforce real estate firm, who has been dealing in luxury homes for 20 years.

Such discretion is demanded by the owners, he says. If you are interested you need connections, and are carefully vetted first by the few real estate firms in the business.

Istanbul, once the ancient city of Byzantium and then Constantinople, was for centuries the most famous city in the world, center of a holy empire and host to many cultures and artistic influences, said Seli Elvasvili, the managing partner of Space, a luxury real estate firm in Istanbul and one of a handful of companies in the market.

“The Bosporus is the most beautiful part of this city,” she said. “Living on the Bosporus means you live in the city but also with an accommodation of culture. It is the most elite culture in terms of lifestyle. For us it is heaven on earth.”

Many of the graceful wooden homes from the Ottoman era have been lost to time and development, but there remain over 360 summer houses of historic or architectural significance. Some are owned by the government, embassies and foundations; a handful have been turned into hotels and museums, but most remain in private hands.

Modern villas have sprung up around them, replacing or crowding in on the old mansions, and bridges soar over them in places, but only those with historic origins or high architectural value are considered real yalis.

They are traditionally built of wood, with decorated verandas and bay windows leaning over the water, and they are painted in various colors, often a summery white or cream — a purplish red house denoted the home of a pasha, a high-ranking officer of the Ottoman Empire. The first yalis were built in the early 18th century, the later ones in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

They rarely change hands.

“We are happy if a good yali comes along in 40 years,” Ms. Elvasvili said. Her firm has sold one in the past year, and three waterside apartments in converted mansions.

International buyers have caused a spike in real estate sales in Turkey in the past year, taking advantage of an economic downturn and the decline of the Turkish lira to buy into a developing market. Any purchase of a property worth more than $250,000 brings with it automatic citizenship, as well as a place in this city of domes and minarets.

Clients from the Middle East and Central Asia, in particular, have been seeking homes in Turkey, while wealthy Turks have been selling property and moving to the West in recent years, Mr. Ozcan said.

Yet sales are slow for the yalis. They always have been, a measure of the difficulty in valuing the properties and the reluctance of Turkish families to part with them. Mr. Ozcan last sold a yali five years ago.

Prices of yalis range from $10 million to $100 million, depending on the location and the length of the property along the waterside.

“A yali in a bay is less valuable, but on a promontory is more valuable,” Mr. Ozcan said. That can come with risks from the notoriously swift current in some places.

Many yalis have been extensively renovated and even rebuilt after falling into disrepair, burning down or being struck by a wayward tanker struggling with the strait’s tricky curves.

Most surviving yalis are on the Asian side of the Bosporus, which is quieter and greener. Among the most valuable neighborhoods for yalis are Beykoz and Kandili on the Asian side and Yenikoy on the European side.

Since the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, bought one of the largest existing yalis in 2015 — a pale pink mansion once owned by Sehzade Burhanettin, a son of Sultan Abdul Hamid II — for a reported $95 million, there has been excited speculation in Turkish publications that rich Arabs were moving in to buy up the Ottoman summer houses.

But the real estate firms dealing in luxury Bosporus homes say the rumors of a rush of Arab buyers are media hype. The owners and buyers of yalis remain predominantly Turkish, they say, and unlike the Ottomans, who used the waterside palaces as summer houses, owners today tend to use them as permanent homes.

“They are living here, their children are here,” Ms. Elvasvili said. Maintenance is not easy, since the wooden houses need painting and renovation every year, and so the houses are not practical as a holiday home, she added.

One of Istanbul’s most famous hostesses, Demet Sabanci Cetindogan, frequently entertains in her home, the Zarif Mustafa Pasha mansion, furnished with original Ottoman chandeliers, paintings and a baby grand piano from the sultans’ Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.

Besides the breathtaking views, the villa has its own freshwater spring, an underground grotto where the ladies of the harem could bathe privately in the salt water of the Bosporus and an original Ottoman-era paved driveway that leads to the front door.

But it is the view of the Bosporus that Ms. Cetindogan prizes the most. She grew up in another yali owned by her father, Haci Sabanci, one of a family of rich industrialists, and bought her current home in 1999. “I get up at 6.30 a.m. Everyone is sleeping. I take my tea and come here,” she said, sitting in the garden beside the water. “That’s the best part,” she added, “only me and the fisherman.”

Of two yalis open for viewing, one was newly constructed at Kanlica, a small bay on the Asian side. Rebuilt from the original plans, it bears a grand name, the Sipahiler Agasi Mehmet Emin Aga Yalisi, but its size (750 square meters, or about 8,100 square feet, and eight bedrooms) and position puts it on the less extravagant end of the yali scale; for comparison, the mansion bought by the Emir of Qatar has a palatial 94 rooms.

For what it lacks in original structure and character — some yalis are said to be haunted, others laden with legend — a newly rebuilt yali has the advantage of modern kitchens and bathrooms and even, as this one does, an elevator. Renovations and modernization in the older buildings are restricted because of their protected status and construction regulations on the Bosporus.

“We advise that they work with an architect who knows the Bosporus,” Mr. Ozcan says of prospective buyers.

Another property open for viewing is the Ethem Pertev Bey Yali, which has a distinctive carved veranda and is one of the few historical yalis available for rent. Built in the 1860s for Fatma, a princess said to be a favorite of Sultan Abdulmecid I, the yali is named for a subsequent owner, a pharmacist who created a famous skin cream.

The main house, and a second wing built around 1900, are modernized but furnished with Ottoman touches, including a portrait of an Ottoman courtier in a swooping, balloon-shaped turban, a grandfather of the current owner. A modern guest wing at the back makes the house 500 square meters, with a total of seven bedrooms and bathrooms.