‘Kusevi’ (koosh-evvy) are Turkish bird-houses that are very often built into the walls of buildings, especially mosques. I spotted one particularly ornate one in Istanbul years back and since then have always been keeping a lookout and they seem to be all over the place.
Birds have been regarded as sacred since ancient times. The Romans, Byzantines and Seljuks had their powerful eagles, and doves and pigeons have always symbolised the peace that used to be such a rare and precious commodity.
The Turks have a particularly protective attitude when it comes to birds of every kind, a fact that has been noted by generations of travellers. This can’t just be down to Islam because although in Turkey doves and pigeons are left in peace in places like Egypt they’re bred for the table.
Most of Turkey’s dovecotes date to Ottoman times but there are a few survivors from earlier periods. Non-migratory birds find shelter in them during frequently harsh winters, and protection from predators throughout the year. They come in many shapes and sizes, from small niches to miniature palaces and they always form part of the main building rather than being built separately.
The charters for new mosques often included provision for feeding the birds that lived in these shelters. The Beyazit II mosque in Istanbul, built in the late 15th century, had a charter that allocated 30 pieces of gold each year to look after its birds. Even when the charter was eventually revoked in the 1920s the official then in charge of the mosque continued to feed them out of his own salary until 1947. In the great Dolmabahce Palace there’s a room that was devoted to looking after sick and injured birds.
Fazil Husnu Daglarca, the famous Turkish poet, relates how a man in Sivas used the income from two shops to look after the city’s birds, and all across turkey you come across similar endowments. In Islam there’s a tradition, at least there used to be, of endowments for everything from poor kitchens, fountains, homes for widows and alms for orphans to trousseaus for poor girls and books for libraries and colleges. Endowments providing water and grain to birds and other animals were just a part of this enlightened attitude.
Bird-houses were made from wood, plaster, brick and stone and built into all sorts of structures from houses and pavilions to palaces, mosques, medreses, libraries, tombs, caravanserais, mint buildings, water towers, bridges, synagogues, churches and gasilhane (buildings for washing the dead).
You can find these charming things right across Turkey. I myself have seen them in Tokat, Amasya, Kayseri, Bolu, Bursa, Edirne, Erzerum, Milas, Sivas and of course in Istanbul and in many other towns and cities of this magical country. They all seem to blend harmoniously into their host buildings and reflect the love of life and the natural world of the people for whom the buildings were made.
I think that not just in Turkey but everywhere else as well modern houses, blocks of flats and offices could benefit hugely by having colourful and ornate bird-houses incorporated into them. I’m sure someone like Grayson Perry could do a great job designing them. They’d certainly add a touch of humanity, individuality and fun to these increasingly grey and monotonous times.