Many of us have had the opportunity to travel to Türkiye to visit its beautiful cities and the special sites preserved for posterity. Modern-day Istanbul seems to possess a special draw and allure for visitors and tourists alike. Perhaps it is the mystique of its former, ancient name of “Constantinople” that stirs and sparks the imagination. I know it had that effect on me. When I was able to travel to Türkiye a few years ago to experience Istanbul and other locations and sites for myself, I was not disappointed. The lure of this beautiful country is still calling me back.
Someone must have thrown water behind my plane as I boarded for the return trip to the United States! The tradition of throwing water happens when someone, perhaps a family member, is going on a long journey and will be away for some time. Water is thrown behind them as they leave. A symbolic act that expresses the hope that their journey, away and back again, flows like water, smoothly and surely. I am claiming this tradition for myself, with the hope of returning to Türkiye one day!
Constantinople became the center of the Ottoman world when Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror achieved his dream of conquering this city in 1453. Today’s traveler to Türkiye can experience firsthand the traces of this ancient culture. In the exotic atmosphere and aura that inhabits its streets and markets, in its famous mosques and neighborhoods (mahalle in Turkish), and in the thousands of villages scattered across its seven regions. Türkiye is a unique country filled with time-honored traditions, culture, and cuisine, with a heritage of preserved landmarks and sites that are a source of national pride.
To provide context… the Ottoman Empire was founded by Osman I at the end of the 13th Century. The Ottomans crossed into Europe after 1354 and conquered additional territory, dramatically increasing their strength and power. Between the 14th and early-20th centuries, with Constantinople as its capital, the Ottoman Empire controlled the lands around the Mediterranean Basin. They were then at the center of interactions between the Middle East and Europe for an incredible six centuries.
The Ottoman Empire ended in 1922. With Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as its first President, Türkiye officially became a Republic in 1923. To be expected, many significant changes did take place in this newly-minted nation. However, importance was given to the preservation of the historically significant and important landmarks and sites from the Ottoman era. They remain the evidence of Türkiye’s history and growth up to the present day.
The next three of the ten historically important Ottoman-era sites explored in this series are presented in this article (Part 2 of 3). As with Part 1, the narrative includes extensive background and history on each site and may be somewhat lengthy. Nevertheless, as we learn together more about these sites, it is my hope that you will also find this article interesting and enjoyable to read.
#4 (or 10) – Topkapi Palace; Istanbul
The Topkapi Palace is another remarkable palace and an important Ottoman-era site located in the heart of Istanbul. In Ottoman times, this palace was the most important building in the Empire. Indeed, it was the center for everything. Located between the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus, the complex of the Topkapı Palace covers an area of approximately 700,000 square meters (or 175 acres). It served as the main residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman sultans. In fact, the Palace was home to each of the Ottoman sultans until the reign of Abdulmecid I began in 1839. A period of nearly four centuries.
After the Republic of Türkiye was formed in 1923, the Topkapi Palace became a museum. It is thought that the Palace and the Harem (the Topkapi Sarayi) likely have more colorful stories to tell than most museums of the world. While it was the court of the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and 19th centuries, libidinous sultans, ambitious courtiers, beautiful concubines, and scheming eunuchs lived and worked here. A visit to the opulent pavilions, jewel-filled treasury, exhibition halls, and sprawling 300-room harem of the Topkapi Palace gives a fascinating glimpse into their lives.
There are various gates and courts to explore in the footprint of this illustrious palace/museum.
Bab-us Selam – The Gate of Salutation/The Middle Gate:
Shortly after his conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Mehmet the Conqueror built the first stage of the Topkapi Palace. He lived there until his death in 1481. Subsequent sultans lived in this rarefied environment until the 19th Century, a period of nearly four centuries, before moving to European-style palaces which they built on the shores of the Bosphorus. Before entering the Palace’s Imperial Gate (Bab-I Hümayun), just outside sits an ornate structure in the cobbled square. The rococo-style Fountain of Sultan Ahmet III was built in 1728. This sultan highly favored tulips. The photo below is circa 1890. Of course, the fountain still looks the same today. I just happened to love the character and appearance of this older picture of the fountain.
The First Court:
The First Court is entered by passing through the Imperial Gate, known as the Court of the Janissaries or the Parade Court. Inside is the former Imperial Mint building, constructed in 1727, and the Hagia Irene Museum, the oldest church of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire (photo left), and the second largest church in Istanbul after the Hagia Sophia. Its name means “sacred peace”.
This is the first place where Turkish museology was born. (“Museology” means the science of organizing, arranging, and managing museums.)
The Hagia Irene is a typical Byzantine structure in materials and architecture. It was built out of wood in 330 on top of an older temple. The Nika Revolt in 532 led to the devastation of both the Hagia Sophia and the Hagia Irene. They were rebuilt together.
The First Court (sometimes called the Outer Courtyard) is the largest and only public courtyard. During the reign of the Ottoman Empire, any unarmed person could enter through the Imperial Gate. The courtyard’s open space made it ideal for ceremonies and processions and was likely the most bustling of the palace’s squares.
The Middle Gate (Ortakaiı or Bab-üs Selâm) leads to the palace’s Second Court, used for the business of running the empire. In Ottoman times, only the sultan and the valide sultan (the mother of the sultan) were allowed through the Middle Gate on horseback. Everyone else, including the grand vizier, had to dismount.
The Second Court:
Sections of the Second Court: (a) Divan, (b) Harem, (c)Iftariye Pavilion, (d) Baghdad Pavilion, (e) Library of Ahmet III, (f) Palace Kitchens, and (g) Treasury.
Located in a beautiful park-like setting, the Second Court is unlike typical European palaces which feature one large building with outlying gardens. The Topkapi Palace is a series of pavilions, kitchens, barracks, audience chambers, kiosks and sleeping quarters, all built around a central enclosure.
A point of interest: the great Palace Kitchens (f on the diagram above) incorporated a dedicated Helvahane, a confectionery kitchen. They also housed a small portion of the Topkapi’s vast collection of Chinese celadon porcelain. It was highly valued by the sultans not only for its beauty, but also because it was reputed to change color if touched by food that had been poisoned.
The council met in the ornate Imperial Council Chamber (Dîvân-i Hümâyûn) (a on the diagram) to discuss matters of state. The reigning sultan would sometimes eavesdrop through the gold grille that is set high in the wall. Clocks from the Topkapi Palace’s collection are showcased in a room next to the Council Chamber. The Outer Treasury (g on the diagram) houses an impressive collection of Ottoman and European arms and armor.
The members of the 300-room Palace Harem (b on the diagram) were the sultan’s mother, the sultan’s daughters, sisters and wives, and female relatives of the dynasty such as aunts and siblings. Other members of the harem were those who were gifted to or brought to the palace. Only a few females who were not members of the dynasty became wives of the sultan. The following photo is one of the opulent rooms within the Palace Harem. It is filled with luxurious and elegant furnishings, with beautiful rugs and pillows in gorgeous colors.
Also on the grounds is The Old Palace, built behind Beyazit Square before the Topkapi Palace. It is considered an extension of the Harem organization. Women who were relatives of the rulers, or whose fathers or wives were not on the throne, lived in the Old Palace.
Mutferriks (those who work in government service), gardeners, clerks, gunmen, clergymen, janitors, mehters (grooms and stable boys), bakers, left-handers, sekbans (mercenaries of peasant background), pocketmen, private barn workers, saddlery, grooms, coachmen, goldsmiths, hawkers, tippers were the officials registered in the Palace. It is said that the people of the Topkapi Palace numbered more than 1,500, including the Harem and those in close service of the ruler.
After the Republic of Türkiye was officially formed in 1923, the Topkapi Palace became a museum. It hosts millions of tourists today who want to learn more about Ottoman history and to experience and explore this architectural masterpiece.
#5 (of 10) – Rustem Pasha Caravanserai; Edirne
The Rüstem Pasha Caravanserai is a magnificent 16th Century caravanserai located in the historic center of Erdine, a city in the Erzurum Province in the Marmara Region of Türkiye. It was commissioned by Rüstem Pasha, Ottoman statesman and grand vizier of Suleiman the Magnificent (who reigned from 1520-1566). Built by court architect, Mimar Sinan, it was completed in 1561. It served travelers with every option that might be needed, be it day or night. It contained a hospice, a small mosque, resting places, shops, and a stable for the travelers to keep their animals.
Edirne is located on the mainland route between Asia Minor and Europe. It was the capital of the Ottoman Empire for a short time in the 15th Century and continued to be a key military and commercial center of the European provinces. Commissioned by Rüstem Pasha to design the caravanserai, eminent court architect, Mimar Sinan, created a design where the building surrounded a grand rectangular courtyard with a marble basin in the center. A second courtyard of irregular shape was added later by an unknown architect. This smaller yard was initially used as camel stables and a soup kitchen. The front façade of the building had an arcade with a row of shops.
The walls of the caravanserai were erected of alternating courses of cut stones and bricks. The lower level of the building is supported by circular arches and covered with vaults. The upper level is supported by pointed arches and domes. The small mosque located in the larger courtyard was destroyed during the Ottoman-Russian War of 1877-1878. The destruction which began during this war was aggravated by the Bulgarian occupation of Edirne in 1912-1913. As a result, many walls, vaults, and domes collapsed.
The restoration project of the Rüstem Pasha Caravanserai was initiated and sponsored by the Department of Pious Foundation. The work began in 1960 and in 1964, it was agreed that the property would be converted to a hotel. Work was completed in 1972, resulting in 35 rooms with a cradle vault behind the lower floor porches, and 38 rooms behind the domed gallery on the upper floor. The rooms on the lower side have shops in front facing the street. The upper rooms extend over these shops.
An inscription over the entrance gate reads, “This is a border post.” (In Ottoman Turkish, ribat.) It was so named due to the position of Erdine as a border city at the time. Forty to fifty strong troops were stationed at the border outposts. After the eastern borders of the Ottoman Empire territory were extended out to Tbilisi and the Caspian Sea, mansions, shelters, barns and shops were added to the caravanserai.
The building had a rectangular construction with two floors, a courtyard, and a hammam (a Turkish bath). The front part of the caravanserai housed 21 shops. For centuries, the commercial courtyard was a marketplace for silk from the domestic moths grown in the area of Edirne. There was also a well area and a mescite (a small mosque) in the courtyard. It was destroyed during the siege by the Russians in 1877-1878. The Rüstem Pasha is an important example of how a caravanserai was built using the principles of Ottoman architecture. The two-story building surrounds a rectangular courtyard. The courtyard has an entrance in the west and in the east. The gates are vaulted with pointed arches.
In 1972, after two years of redevelopment, the building was restored. It was converted to a hotel with one hundred ten guest rooms. There are also around one hundred workshops and souvenir shops, situated behind verandas looking to the courtyard. Many of the shops sell items made of local Oltu Stone.
Of note: Sometimes called “Erzurum Stone”, Oltu stone beds form when fossilized trees are subjected to deformation of the earth’s crust which involves folding and faulting. Beds of this dense, organic, mineral-like substance vary in thickness and have the nature of coal. Extraction is done by digging narrow tunnels and shafts below ground. It is generally black, but can be velvet-black, blackish-brown, grey or greenish. Oltu stone’s most interesting characteristic is its softness when excavated. It only begins to harden when exposed to the air and for this reason can be carved easily. It is cut or carved to the desired form and then polished. Various decorative ornaments and utensils like rings, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, tie pins, smoking pipes, cigarette holders, and prayer beads are created from this material. (Samples can be seen in the photo above.)
In 1980, the restored caravanserai was granted the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA). This award is presented in three-year cycles to projects that set new standards of excellence in architecture, planning practices, historic preservation, and landscape architecture. It seeks to identify and encourage building concepts that successfully address the needs and aspirations of societies across the world where Muslims have a significant presence. The award carries a prize of $1 Million USD. (Source: https://the.akdn.org)
While the jury of the AKAA commended the restoration of this important architectural monument, they also criticized the failure of its re-use. While the renovation represented a high standard of conception and performance, the decision to convert this traditional building into a modern hotel proved to be impractical economically, and unrealistic in its ability to provide the sophisticated services expected of this type of property. Edirne has cold winters, and the rooms open to the central courtyard are difficult to heat. The windows are too small to provide sufficient light to the rooms, and some corner rooms have no windows at all.
One of the sites researched for this article stated the hotel was closed for restoration in 2017 (https//turkisharchaeonews.net). I have not been able to confirm the date if/or when an actual restoration did take place and the hotel re-opened. I can state that the Hotel Rüstem Paşa Kervansaray is open as of this date in 2023. It is listed on many of the travel sites we are all familiar with.
The photo above shows several of the many shops located at the street level of this site.
#6 (of 10) – Süleymaniye Mosque; Istanbul
The Süleymaniye Mosque is an Ottoman imperial mosque, meaning it was commissioned in the name of a sultan. In this case, it was commissioned by Süleiman the Magnificent (who reigned from 1520-1566), and designed by imperial architect, Mimar Sinan. It is located in the historical peninsula of Fatih on the Third Hill of Istanbul. The Arabic inscription above the north portal of the Mosque is carved in tuluth script on three marble panels. (“Thuluth” is a script variety of Islamic calligraphy.) It gives a foundation date of 1550 and an inauguration date of 1557. In reality, planning of the mosque actually began before 1550, and parts of the complex were not completed until after 1557.
As an example, on the left is the sample of a calligraphic panel with a prayer in thuluth. It reads: “The grasping of God brings the knowledge of His comfort.”
An interesting historical fact: Istanbul is known as the “City on the Seven Hills” (in Turkish, Yedi tepeli şehir). The city inherited this denomination from Byzantine Constantinople, which consciously followed the model of Rome which was also built on seven hills.
Behind the qibla wall of the Süleymaniye Mosque is an enclosure containing separate octagonal mausoleums of Süleiman and his wife, Hurrem Sultan (Roxelana). (Qibla is the direction of the Kaaba shrine in Mecca toward which all Muslims turn in ritual prayer.) One of the outstanding features of the Mosque is its uneven minarets. No other known mosque in the world has uneven minarets. Mimar Sinan measured the optimal light intake and built the structure accordingly. He also paid careful attention to acoustics. The Mosque he designed contains the most remarkable acoustic properties a building can have.
For 462 years, the Süleymaniye Mosque was the largest mosque in the city, until it was surpassed by the Çamlica Mosque which was completed and opened in March 2019. The Süleymaniye Mosque is one of the best-known sights of Istanbul. From its location on the Third Hill, it commands an extensive view of the city around the Golden Horn.
At first, Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent chose imperial architect Mimar Sinan to create a mosque in memory of his son, Şehzade (Crown Prince) Mehmed, who died in 1543. This mosque was one of the earliest and most important works of Sinan, and it is also one of the signature works of Classical Ottoman Architecture. Süleiman was so impressed with the Şehzade Mosque that he asked Sinan to design a mosque for himself to represent the pre-eminence of the Ottoman Empire.
In designing the Süleymaniye Mosque, Mimar Sinan took inspiration from the Hagia Sophia and the Bayezid II Mosque. Süleiman’s Mosque was built on the site of the old palace (Eski Saray) of Topkapi, which was still in use at the time and had to be demolished. The design of the Mosque played on Süleiman’s self-conscious representation of himself as a “second Solomon”. The Süleymaniye Mosque did assert Süleiman’s historical importance although it was smaller in size than the Hagia Sophia.
Like the other imperial mosques in Istanbul, the entrance to the Süleimaniye Mosque is preceded by a forecourt with a central fountain. The courtyard is of exceptional grandeur with a colonnaded peristyle, a continuous porch formed by a row of columns of marble, granite, and porphyry. The northwest facade of the mosque is decorated with rectangular Iznik tile window lunettes (half-moon shapes) (see photo left). The Mosque was the first building in which the Iznik tiles included the brightly colored tomato red clay under the glaze.
Four minarets occupy the four corners of the courtyard. The two taller ones have three galleries (serifes) and rise to 209 feet without their lead caps and 249 feet including the caps. Four minarets were added to the mosques that were endowed by a sultan. The minarets have a total of ten galleries, said to reflect the fact that Süleiman I was the 10th and the longest-reigning sultan of the Ottoman Empire (from 1520 until his death in 1566). Under his administration, the Ottoman Empire ruled over at least 25 million people.
The main dome is 174 feet high with a diameter of 86.9 feet, exactly half the height. When it was built, it was the highest dome in the Ottoman Empire when measured from sea level. It was, however, still lower from its base and smaller in diameter than that of the Hagia Sophia. The interior of the Mosque is almost a square, measuring 194 feet in length and 190 feet in width, forming a single, vast space. The dome is flanked by semi-domes. To the north and south, there are arches with tympana-filled windows supported by enormous porphyry (decorative granite) monoliths.
Note: (“Tympana” is the semi-circular or triangular decorative wall surface over an entrance, door or window bounded by a lintel and an arch.)
The interior decoration is restrained with stained glass windows restricted to the qibla wall. Iznik tile is only used around the mihrab (a niche in the wall indicating the direction Muslims should face in prayer). Repeating rectangular tiles have a stencil-like floral pattern on a white background. The flowers are mainly blue with turquoise, red and black – but green is not used. The white marble mihrab and mimbar (a pulpit) are simple in design. The woodwork is restrained, with simple designs in ivory and mother of pearl.
As with other imperial mosques in Istanbul, the Süleymaniye Mosque was designed as a külliye or complex, with adjacent structures to service both religious and cultural needs. The original complex consisted of the Mosque itself, a hospital (darüşşifa), a primary school (mekteb), public baths (hammam), a caravanserai, four Quŕan schools (medrese), a specialized school for the learning of hadith (the collections and sayings of Muhammad), a medical college, and a public kitchen (imaret) which served food to the poor. Many of these structures are still in existence. The former imaret is now a noted restaurant, and the former hospital is now a printing factory owned by the Turkish Army.
Religious inscriptions in parts of the mosque demonstrate its stature as a place of sacredness. Quranic messages can be found incorporated throughout the building. For example, the side entrance of the mosque has an inscription reading, “Peace be unto thee! Thou art good, so enter ye to dwell therein”. On the qibla wall, the stained-glass windows display the names of God (Allah), the Prophet Muhammad, and the caliphs. They are there to represent Allah as the lawmaker, Muhammad as the preacher, and the four caliphs as the four pillars of Islam.
In the Great Fire of 1660, which occurred on July 4-5 of that year, Constantinople experienced the worst conflagration it had experienced up to that date. The Chronicler, Abdi Paşa, estimated that the fire destroyed 280,000 houses and burned for approximately forty-nine hours. Two-thirds of the city was turned to ash, and as many as 40,000 people were killed. Thousands more died in the famine and the plague which followed the fire. The minarets of Süleiman’s Mosque were damaged but later restored by Sultan Mehmed IV.
Over time, there has been additional damage to the Süleymaniye Mosque. Part of the dome collapsed during the earthquake of 1766. The subsequent repairs damaged what was left of Mimar Sinan’s original decoration. Recent cleaning shows that Sinan had experimented with blue before making red the dominant color of the dome. This earthquake was the last major one to rock Constantinople due to a rupture of the North Anatolian Fault in the Marmara Region. The number of deaths was estimated at 4,000 with 800 of those being in Constantinople.
During World War I, the Mosque courtyard was used as a weapons depot. When some of the ammunition ignited, the mosque suffered another fire and was not fully restored again until 1956. Additional restorations were carried out between 2007 and 2010, and parts of the surrounding complex continued to be restored in the following decade.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. Stay tuned for Part 3, the last article in this series. It will focus on the background and history of the Beylerbeyi Palace, The Grand Bazaar, The Green Tomb, and the Hagia Sophia Mosque.
Copyright (c) by North America TEN and Mary Bloyd.
All pictures and video clips belong to their original owners, where applicable. No copyright infringement intended. Please ask for permission before reprints.
A retired corporate manager, Mary lives in Centerville, Ohio. She loves cooking for family and friends. Taught by a professional chef how to use spices and herbs, makes stocks and mother sauces, she developed a curiosity about different foods and cuisines. After discovering the wonderful storytelling in Turkish dizis and films, Mary became interested in and has written numerous articles about Turkish cuisine, culture, and traditions. She loves to travel, is a creative writer and poet, editor of books and articles, and is currently working on her first book, a personal memoir.