by Mary Bloyd, Culture Writer
This is the final piece in a three-part series designed to showcase ten historically important Ottoman-era sites in Türkiye. By no means should these ten sites selected be considered the “only” important sites restored and/or preserved for posterity. Many additional locations throughout Türkiye could rightfully be included in such a list. However, that would require copious research and the compilation of a very long, complex, and scholarly book – i.e., a “tome”. Maalesef, I am neither qualified nor motivated to take on such a labor-intensive task!
My goal for this three-part series was to introduce, explore, and provide background on the more recognized and famous locations of a “must see list” for locals, tourists, and travelers from abroad visiting the beautiful lands of Türkiye. I hope this has been achieved in some small measure and that, together, we have learned more of the history of this rich, cultured, and beautiful nation.
Fair warning! The narrative of these last four sites is long. I confess to experiencing serious difficulty trying to capture the most relevant information. Each site has such a rich history and background. For example, it is not an easy task attempting a synopsis of the Grand Bazaar! (Please don’t yell at me under your breath!! Maybe you can read one section at a time — with a break in between?)
#7 (of 10) – Beylerbeyi Palace; Istanbul
As is true with many palaces that are centuries old, the Beylerbeyi Palace’s best stories have undoubtedly been lost in the mists of antiquity. Its name in Turkish is Beylerbeyi Sarayi, which literally means “The Palace of the Bey of Beys”. The Palace is located in he Beylerbeyi neighborhood in the Üsküdar District of Istanbul, immediately north of the first bridge built to span the Bosphorus. This neighborhood has long been considered a privileged area of Istanbul. The Beylerbeyi Palace is the only palace built by the Ottomans on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. It was specifically designed to impress from the water; its most stunning façade faces the Bosphorus (photo above).
The original Palace was built of wood by Sultan Mahmud II in 1829. When it was partially destroyed by fire in 1851, Sultan Abdülaziz, the next emperor, determined there was a need for a stronger palace. The wooden palace was demolished, and between 1861 and 1865, the new Beylerbeyi Palace was rebuilt on the same location.
The Palace was designed by Armenian architect, Sarkis Balyan. His brother, Nigoğayos Balyan, was the architect of the Dolmabahçe Palace. The Balyans were a prominent Armenian family in the Ottoman Empire of court architects. They served the Ottoman Sultanate and other members of the Ottoman dynasty during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The triple-story Beylerbeyi Palace was built in the neo-Baroque style with six staterooms and 26 smaller rooms. It contained three prominent and important sections: the Mabeyn-i Hümayün (the State Apartments); the Hünkar Dairesi (the Sultan’s Apartment); and the Valide Sultan Dairesi (the Queen Mother’s Apartment). One of the most attractive rooms is the Reception Room which has a pool and a fountain. Running water was popular in Ottoman houses for its pleasant sound and cooling effect in the heat. Along with the verandas and horse stables, sofas, ornaments, carpets and curtains have also been preserved.
Sultan Abdülaziz was passionate about the Ottoman Navy. At that time, it was the world’s third largest fleet after the British and the French fleets. The Sultan requested that the ceilings and edges of the Palace be adorned with nautical motifs. Many paintings of ships can also be seen throughout the Palace.
The Beylerbeyi Palace was an imperial Ottoman residence, built to host the royals as a summer palace. Many sultans did spend summers there. The Palace was also used to host distinguished guests and foreign visitors. The Palace’s stunning gardens, pool, and sculpture collection frequently left foreign visitors in awe.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Franz Joseph of Austria, and Eugénie de Montijo, the Empress of France, were some of the famous guests of the Palace in the late 1800’s. Empress Eugénie was so delighted with the elegance of the windows in her guest room that she ordered replicas made for her own bedroom in the Tuileries Palace in France.
When the Republic of Türkiye was established in 1923, the Palace continued to receive distinguished visitors from various nations. Reza Shah Pahlavi, the second-to-last shah of the Iranian monarchy, is the most renowned of these visitors and was hosted by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1934. The Balkan Games were also held at the Palace in 1936.
There are two bathing pavilions. One for the harem (women only); the second for the selamlik (men only).
The Beylerbeyi Palace shares a traditional Ottoman house plan with glimpses of French neo-liberal style. The long side of the rectangular plan captures the unique view of the Bosphorus from its windows and gardens. The interior displays the taste of elegance and contemporary touches of a European look. Compared to the marble outside, the interior design of the Palace is more concentrated on a wooden and brick composition. The floors are covered first with Egyptian reed matting to protect against humidity and to serve as a form of insulation. The interior decoration is complimented with large Hereke carpets, French clocks, Turkish and Chinese porcelain pieces, and French Baccarat crystal chandeliers. The details in the interior of the Palace were designed to show imperial power, exclusivity, and the expansion of the Ottoman empire.
Note: Hereke rugs are famous, handmade Turkish carpets. They used materials such as silk, and/or a combination of wool and cotton. Gold or silver threads were sometimes woven throughout the various patterns.
Note #1: Sultan Abdülaziz’s mother, Pertevniyal Sultan, was living in the Dolmabahçe Palace in 1868. Since she was visiting the region on her way to attend the opening of the Suez Canal, the Sultan took Eugénie de Montijo, Empress of France, to meet his mother. It appears that custom and protocol were broken and an unfortunate event occurred. Pertevniyal Sultan considered the presence of a foreign woman in her private quarters of the harem (in Turkish, seraglio) as an insult and reportedly slapped the Empress across the face! This came very close to causing an international incident!
Note #2: According to another account, Pertevniyal Sultan also became outraged by Eugénie’s forwardness in taking the arm of one of her sons as he was giving her a tour of the palace garden. She gave her another slap, on the stomach this time, as a “possible” more-than-subtle reminder that they were not in France any more!!
An interesting fact: There is an historic tunnel under the Beylerbeyi Palace, built to separate the Palace from the main road. It was commissioned by Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II in 1829 and completed in 1832. The tunnel is under a hill on the Asian side of the Bosphorus which is today the terrace garden of the Palace. The tunnel connects Üsküdar with Beylerbeyi and Çengelköy. After its closure, it was used as a museum and exhibition site.
On September 19, 2016, the Beylerbeyi Palace Tunnel (in Turkish, Beylerbeyi Sarayi Tüneli) was re-opened to traffic to ease the congestion on the coastal road in the area under the Bosphorus Bridge. Later, however, it was shut down to traffic again to preserve the historic structure from damage caused by exhaust emissions. Only small vehicles, and obviously pedestrians, are allowed in the tunnel.
Since 1984, the Beylerbeyi Palace Museum has been open for visitors.
#8 (of 10) – The Grand Bazaar; Istanbul
The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, often called the world’s first shopping mall. Kapaliçarşi, its name in Turkish, means “Covered Market”. It is also called Büyük Çarşi, meaning “Grand Market”. Located inside the walled city of Istanbul in the Fatih District of the Kapaliçarşi neighborhood, there are 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops covering an area of 30,700 meters (roughly, 7.59 acres). It is among the world’s most visited tourist attractions with some 400,000 visitors daily. In 2022, nearly 40 million people visited the Grand Bazaar. (Source: TravelDailyMedia.com)
In the winter of 1455-1456, after Sultan Mehmed II, Mehmed the Conqueror, succeeded in capturing the prized city of Constantinople, construction on the core of the Grand Bazaar began. It was part of the sultan’s broader initiative to stimulate economic prosperity. Sultan Mehmed II (1432-1481) was the seventh and among the greatest sultans of the Ottoman Empire. His conquests consolidated Ottoman rule in Anatolia and the Balkans, transforming Constantinople into the administrative center, cultural hub, and capital of the growing Ottoman empire. These triumphs marked the end of the Byzantine Empire and ushered in a new era of Ottoman dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean (seen in yellow on this map dated 1450 AD),
The location of the Grand Bazaar was near his palace in Constantinople. So, Sultan Mehmed II commanded that an edifice be erected stating it would be devoted to the trading of textiles and jewels. Named Cevâhir Bedestan (“Bedesten of Gems”), it also known as Bezzâzistan-ı Cedîd (“New Bedesten”) in Ottoman Turkish. (The word bedesten is adapted from the Persian word bezestan, bez meaning “cloth, and can be translated as “Bazaar of the Cloth Sellers”.) The Grand Bazaar sits on the slope of the third hill of Istanbul. The construction ended in the winter of 1460-1461 and was immediately endowed to the waqf of the Hagia Sophia Mosque. (A waqf is a charitable endowment containing certain stipulations under Islamic law.) Analysis of the brickwork shows most of the structure originating from the second half of the 15th century, although some scholars claim the edifice was actually a Byzantine structure.
In a market near the Grand Bazaar (in Turkish, Esir Pazarı), the slave trade was carried over from Byzantine times and was still active. Other important markets in the area were the “Second-Hand Market” (in Turkish, Bit Pazarı) and the “Long Market” (in Turkish, Uzun Çarşı) — a long, porticoed mall stretching downhill from the Forum of Constantine to the Golden Horn. It was one of the main market areas of the city. After the 1894 Istanbul Earthquake, the “Old Book Market” (in Turkish, (Sahaflar Çarşısı) was moved to its present picturesque location near the Beyazid Mosque.
Some years later, Sultan Mehmed II had another covered market built – the Sandal Bedesten – located north of the first market. Its name comes from a type of thread woven in Bursa which has the color of sandalwood. The trade in textiles then moved to this location while the first covered market was reserved for the trade in luxury goods. The two covered markets were isolated at this point, but many sellers soon opened shops in and around the area. A whole quarter was then established which was devoted exclusively to commerce, creating a hub for all trade within the Mediterranean at the start of the 17th Century.
As shown on the following layout of the Grand Bazaar, it resembles a small city. There are 18 different gates, 67 roads (named after the sellers of particular goods), squares used for daily prayers, mosques, schools, fountains, along with various inns and caravanserais (lodgings for humans and animals). Throughout its existence, recurrent calamities, fires and earthquakes have damaged the Grand Bazaar. The first fire occurred in 1515 and numerous others followed. A fire in 1701 forced the rebuilding of several parts of the complex and, when a new law was issued in 1696, several parts of the Bazaar between the two open markets were covered with vaults. Despite this action, additional fires ravaged the complex again in 1750 and 1791. In addition, the earthquake of 1766 caused more damage, repaired a year later.
At the beginning of the 17th century, the Grand Bazaar had achieved its final shape. The enormous extent of the Ottoman Empire into three continents, and its total control of road communications between Asia and Europe, established the Bazaar as the hub of Mediterranean trade. Until the first half of the 19th century, it was unrivaled in Europe because of the abundance, variety, and quality of the goods offered for sale.
By 1850, the success of the Grand Bazaar was in decline, caused by several factors: (1) Growth in the textile industry in western Europe; (2) the introduction of mass production methods; (3) capitulations signed between the Ottoman Empire and many European countries; and (4) European merchants preventing the supply of raw materials needed to produce goods in the Ottoman Empire’s closed economy. Rents in the Bazaar were ten times lower than two-three decades before. Moreover, the birth of a West-oriented bourgeoisie and the commercial success of Western products pushed the merchants belonging to minority populations (Greeks, Armenians, and Jews) to move out of the Bazaar and open new shops in the quarters frequented by Europeans.
The last major catastrophe happened in 1894 when a strong earthquake rocked Istanbul. Until 1898, the repair of the Grand Bazaar was supervised by the Minister of Public Works, resulting in a reduction of the area of the complex. The Bit Pazarı (the “Second-Hand Market”) was left outside the new perimeter and became an open-sky road named Çadırcılar Caddesi (“Tentmaker Road”). Some of the old gates were also demolished. Among the hans (the “inns”) belonging to the Market, many were left outside the structure and only nine remained enclosed within the structure.
Until its restoration after the 1894 earthquake, shops in the Grand Bazaar bore little resemblance to those in the western world. Along both sides of the roads, merchants sat on wooden divans in front of their shelves of goods, each occupying a space 6-8 feet wide and 3-4 feet deep; this was their dolap (meaning “stall). Their more precious goods for sale were stored in cabinets within their stalls. As was common in the East, traders of similar goods were forcibly concentrated along one road which took its name from their particular profession. This kind of organization disappeared gradually, although today concentration of the same type of businesses can be seen again along certain roads within the Grand Bazaar.
The most picturesque parts of the Grand Bazaar were the spices and herbs, the jewelers, armor and weapons, the old book market, flea market, and the shoe market. Thousands of shoes of different colors were on display on high shelves. At that time, the Ottoman sumptuary laws (laws controlling spending for religious and moral reasons) prescribed yellow shoes for Muslims, blue for Greek Orthodox, black for Jews, and red for Armenians.
Until the mid-19th Century, the ethics of trade in the Market were quite different from those of modern times. These traits existed during the golden age of the Grand Bazaar of Ottoman times: indifference to profit, absence of envy in the successes of other traders, and a single and correct price. The reason for such behavior lies partly in the ethics of Islam, and partly in the guild system which provided support to the merchants through the administration of a small monthly fee. To establish a new guild, it was only necessary to have enough traders of the same goods. However, at some point, a monopoly was formed and the number of traders and shops was frozen. One could only be accepted in the guild through co-optation, either as son of a deceased member, or after paying a suitable sum to a member who wanted to retire. The guilds eventually lost their importance and were abolished in 1913, replaced by various associations of merchants. However, no single association is representative of the whole seller community.
Another peculiarity of the market during the Ottoman age was the lack of restaurants. The absence of women in the social life and nomadic conventions in Turkish society made the idea of a restaurant an alien concept. The merchants brought their lunch in a food box called sefertas. The only food on sale was simple dishes and Turkish coffee, prepared and served in small, two-story kiosks in the middle of a road. During the Ottoman era, the Bazaar was the place where the inhabitants of Constantinople could see each other. Not only was the market the only place in town where women could go relatively easily, it was also the only public place where the average citizen had a chance to casually meet members of the Imperial Harem and Court.
Now there are countless small cafes, coffee shops, and restaurants where visitors can stop for a while, rest their tired feet, enjoy a refreshing cup of tea or coffee, and perhaps have a small meal before going on their way through the Grand Bazaar. Here is one example: the 500-year-old Havuzlu Restaurant inside the Grand Bazaar offers generous servings of traditional Turkish food. Customers can view the menu offerings of the day before being seated, just to whet that appetite. It looks delicious!
Today the Grand Bazaar is a thriving complex, employing some 26,000 people and visited by as many as 400,000 people daily. It is one of the major landmarks of Istanbul, however, it must still compete with modern shopping malls that are now common in Istanbul. Nevertheless, the beauty and fascination of the Bazaar still give it a formidable advantage. The head of the Grand Bazaar Artisans Association claimed that in 2011, the year of its 550th birthday, the Bazaar was the most visited monument in the world.
I was excited to experience the Grand Bazaar on my trip to Istanbul a few years ago. It not only lived up to my expectations but exceeded my imagination in more ways than I can even begin to describe. Although knowing it would be impossible to explore it fully on one trip, I still longed to see it all! This last picture shows the draw and allure of this magnificent space. “I’ll just go down one more corridor… visit one more lamp and ceramic shop… sample that seller’s Turkish delight… Oh, I can’t forget the gold and jewelry… just one more stop. I promise!!”
The Grand Bazaar is an endless delight and deserves several days to visit its many treasures! It is an absolute requirement on any “must see list” for Istanbul.
#9 (of 10) – The Green Tomb; Bursa
Considered the most extraordinary and well-known tomb of all the Ottoman sultans, the 600-year-old Green Tomb (in Turkish, Yeşil Türbe) is the final resting place of the fifth Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed I, considered the second founder of the Ottoman Empire. After his death in 1421, this tomb was built by his son and successor, Sultan Murad II. It was designed by architect and vizier, Hacı Ivaz Pasha (d. 1428) who also designed the Green Mosque which sits opposite it. The Green Tomb sits amid cypress trees at the top of a hill in the Yeşil neighborhood in Bursa, higher than the rest of the Green Mosque complex.
Following the defeat of Sultan Bayezid I at the Battle of Ankara in 1402, Mehmed (one of his sons) was confirmed as the new Sultan. However, his brothers refused to recognize his authority and each claimed the throne for himself. The result was the Ottoman Interregnum or the Ottoman Civil War which lasted almost 11 years.
Mehmed I emerged as the victor, crowned himself Sultan, and restored the Ottoman Empire. The Green Tomb sits higher than the Green Mosque, which was highly unusual, to give the message, “We are standing” against the enemy. In his 34 years of struggle, Sultan Mehmed I participated in war 24 times and was injured in 40 different places.
Built in a hexagonal plan, the Green Tomb is crowned with a hemispherical dome. The exterior of the mausoleum is clad with the green-blue tiles that gave it its name. Following the 1855 earthquake in Bursa, a majority of the tiles were replaced by contemporary tiles from Kütahya, a city in western Türkiye, the seat of the province and district bearing the same name. The making of ceramics is an important field of art in Kütahya and a vital source of income for its economy. This art began with the Hittites in Kütahya and continued to develop until the end of the Ottoman era. Still a thriving industry today, Kütahya tiles are used in architectural works in Istanbul and other important places.
The entry portal of the Green Tomb is crowned with a semi-umbrella vault with muqarnas niches above marble seats in place on both sides of the entrance. The term muqarnas refers to a three-dimensional decorative device used widely in Islamic architecture. Tiers of individual elements, including niche-like cells, brackets, and pendants are projected over those below and could be executed in stucco, brick, wood, and stone. It was consistently applied to cornices, the inner surface of vaults, and to other parts of buildings throughout the Islamic world from the 12th Century.
Also adorning the entry portal are İznik tiles with flower patterns in blue, white and yellow.
Entering through the carved wooden doors, the royal catafalque of Sultan Mehmed I stands on a platform at the center. The tomb of Mehmed I is surrounded by seven other, smaller tombs where his four daughters, two sons, and a nanny are buried. The sultan’s tomb is raised above the others and is richly decorated with scriptures and flower designs painted in yellow, white and blue glazed tiles.
The lower section of the walls surrounding the tombs is lined with blue-green tiles, also used in the tympana of windows on the interior. A tympanum is the semi-circular or triangular decorative wall surface over an entrance, door or window, bounded by a lintel or an arch. It often contains pedimental sculpture or other imagery or ornaments. Many architectural styles include this element.
The mihrab (a niche in the wall of a mosque) on the qibla wall (direction that points towards Mecca which a Muslim must face when praying) is also set in a large frame of ornamental tilework. The mosaic of tiles inside the niche depicts a garden of roses, carnations and hyacinths. The chandelier above the royal catafalque and the colored glass windows are later additions inside the tomb.
A major restoration was carried out in the Green Tomb by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and Bursa Governorship in 2007-2009, with the financial support of the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey. The color of the Green Tomb fascinates people with the effect of the dome and tiles that gather the light on the horizons of Bursa, a city filled with Ottoman treasures. As you can see from this last picture, the colors of the interior of the Green Tomb are majestic and breathtaking, befitting the sultan of a great empire!
Note: In 2014, the Green Tomb was added to the UNESCO World Heritage listing as part of “Bursa and Cumalıkızık: the Birth of the Ottoman Empire”.
#10 (of 10) – Hagia Sophia; Istanbul
The Hagia Sophia (in Turkish, Ayasofya) is an architectural marvel originally built as a basilica for the Greek Orthodox Christian Church nearly 1,500 years ago. Much like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Parthenon in Athens, the Hagia Sophia is a long-enduring symbol of the cosmopolitan city of Istanbul. But as notable as this structure is, its role in history is also significant and touches upon matters related to international politics, religion, art and architecture. The Hagia Sophia anchors the Old City of Istanbul and has served for centuries as a landmark for both Orthodox Christians and Muslims. Its function has changed several times over the centuries and its significance has shifted with that of the dominant culture.
Construction of the first Hagia Sophia was commissioned by Byzantine Emperor Constantius in 360 A.D. At this time, Istanbul was known as Constantinople, taking its name from his father, Constantine I, the first ruler of the Byzantine Empire. It had a wooden roof and was burned to the ground in 404 A.D. during riots in Constantinople resulting from political conflicts within the family of the then-emperor, Arkadios. Emperor Theodosios II, his successor, rebuilt the Hagia Sofia in 415 A.D. It contained five naves, a monumental entrance, and was again covered by a wooden roof. Little more than one century later, this would prove to be a fatal flaw as the structure was burned for a second time during revolts against then then-emperor, Justinian I.
Unable to repair the damage caused by the fire, Justinian ordered the demolition of the Hagia Sophia in 532 and commissioned architects to build a new basilica. The third Hagia Sophia was completed in 537 and remains standing today. The first religious services in the “new” Hagia Sophia were held on December 27, 537. At the time, Emperor Justinian is reported to have said, “My Lord, thank you for giving me the chance to create such a worshipping place.”
From its opening, the third and final Hagia Sophia was a remarkable structure. It combined traditional design elements of an Orthodox basilica with a large, domed roof and a semi-domed altar with two porches. The dome’s supporting arches were covered with mosaics of six-winged angels. In an effort to create a grand basilica that represented all of the Byzantine Empire, Emperor Justinian decreed that all provinces under his rule send architectural pieces for use in its construction.
The marble used for the floor and ceiling was produced in Anatolia (present-day Eastern Turkey) and Syria. Other bricks (used in the walls and parts of the floor) came from as far away as North Africa. The interior of the Hagia Sophia is lined with enormous marble slabs said to have been designed to imitate moving water. The 104 columns in the Hagia Sophia were imported from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus and also from Egypt.
The building measures some 269 feet in length and 240 feet in width and, at its highest point, the domed roof stretches some 180 feet into the air. When the first dome suffered a partial collapse in 557, its replacement was designed by Isidore the Younger (the nephew of Isidoros, one of the original architects) with structural ribs and a more pronounced arc. This version of the structure remains in place today. This central dome rests on a ring of windows and is supported by two semi-domes and two arched openings to create a large nave, the walls of which were originally lined with intricate Byzantine mosaics made from gold, silver, glass, terra cotta and colorful stones and portraying well-known scenes and figures from the Christian Gospels.
Greek Orthodox was the official religion of the Byzantines. The Hagia Sophia was considered the central church of the faith and the place where new emperors were crowned. It served this pivotal role in Byzantine culture and politics for much of its first 900 years of existence. However, during the Crusades, the city of Constantinople, and by extension the Hagia Sophia, was under Roman control for a brief period in the 13th century. The Hagia Sophia was severely damaged during this period, but was repaired when the Byzantines once again took control of the surrounding city.
The next significant period of change for the Hagia Sophia began less than 200 years later, when the Ottomans, led by Emperor Fatih Sultan Mehmed II, known as Mehmed the Conqueror, captured Constantinople in 1453 and renamed it Istanbul. As a result of the war law of that period, all securities and real estate owned by the Byzantine Empire were transferred to the Ottoman treasury. According to the Islamic law governing war, one-fifth of the goods obtained belongs to the state. One-fifth of these state-owned properties also become the personal wealth of the sultan who had the right to choose whatever he desired.
Sultan Mehmed II, Mehmed the Conqueror, acquired the Hagia Sophia and converted it into a mosque. When he entered the building, he performed the first prayer and read the khutbah (the address delivered in the mosque on Fridays and during annual rituals) himself during the first Friday prayer. Sultan Mehmed II did not retain the Hagia Sophia as his own mosque but donated it as a foundation for all Muslims to use.
As part of the conversion into a mosque, religious items belonging to Christianity were removed. The sultan did not allow the cutting and removal of ornaments and mosaics. However, since having them visible would prevent worship, he ordered them to be covered with a thin layer of lime. Many of the mosaics in the Hagia Sophia were covered with Islamic calligraphy. The panels which hang on the columns in the nave feature the names of Allah, the prophet Muhammad, the first four Caliphs, and the prophet’s two grandsons. The mosaic on the main dome, believed to be an image of Christ, was also covered by gold calligraphy. As is a tradition in mosques, a mihrab (or nave) was installed in the wall to indicate the direction toward Mecca. Four minarets were also added to the original building during this period. This was partly for religious purposes – for the muezzin call to prayer – and partly to fortify the structure following earthquakes that struck Istanbul around this time.
Some Ottoman historians recorded that the faces of pictures were scratched after the conquest. Some foreign travelers wrote that frescoes were exposed in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The most noteworthy restoration of Hagia Sophia was made by Swiss architect Gaspare Fossati. As seen from this picture drawn by Louis Haghe, a Belgian lithographer and watercolorist, only the faces in the frescoes were covered after this restoration and other decorations were left uncovered.
When the building was converted to a museum, it was decided that the Hagia Sophia’s minarets should be demolished. As a matter of fact, the minaret of the mosque known as the Little Hagia Sophia was to be blown up with dynamite. However, this was prevented by the museum director and historian of art who declared that the building would be damaged. It is known that many mosaics fell off in the great Istanbul earthquake of 1894. From all these narrations, it is understood that those in the interior of the building were scratched, while the ones in the outer galleries were covered.
When the mosque was closed, special embroidered historical carpets were cut and distributed. Candlesticks were taken to the foundry to be melted. Calligraphy plates, which were very large, were fortunately taken to the warehouse without any damage. In addition to the mosque, the Hagia Sophia Madrassa, built by Sultan Mehmed II as the first university of the Ottomans in Istanbul, was unfortunately destroyed.
In Islam, it is considered haram (“forbidden”) to worship in the presence of a portrait. No concessions have been made to this stance against sculptures and paintings since the advent of Islam. For this reason, the Presidency of Religious Affairs announced that the mosaic paintings would either be veiled or the lights around the mosaics would be dimmed during prayer times. Individual prayers would be performed in areas where there are no images. The Hagia Sophia would always be open to tourists. When the museum closes at 5:00 PM, it would remain open to tourists until the time of the night prayer, just like in other historical mosques.
The Hagia Sophia’s role in politics and religion remains a contentious and important one, even today, some 100 years after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. From 1935 to 2020, nine years after the Republic of Türkiye was established by its first President, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, this legendary structure was operated as a museum by the national government. Beginning in 2013, some Islamic religious leaders in the country sought to have the Hagia Sophia once again opened as a mosque. On July 10, 2020, a Turkish court annulled a 1934 Cabinet decree that had turned Hagia Sophia into a museum, paving the way for its use again as a mosque after the 86-year hiatus.
The iconic monument served as a church for 916 years until the conquest of Istanbul. It then served as a mosque from 1453 to 1934 – nearly 500 years – and most recently as a museum for 86 years. One of the most visited historic buildings in Turkey by domestic and international tourists, the Hagia Sophia was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1985.
Since its reopening for worship in 2020, the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque has turned into a magnet for domestic and foreign tourists alike, drawing an astounding 21 million visitors. “In 2021, approximately 1.3 million people visited Hagia Sophia. However, the main influx of visitors started in 2022, with a total of 13.6 million visitors. As of January-June 2023, six million visitors have been welcomed and this number continues to rise.” (Source: dailysabah.com; July 23, 2023)
This iconic landmark is a cherished place of worship and a symbol of historical significance. As the Hagia Sophia continues to captivate hearts and minds, its timeless beauty and historical significance stand as a testament to the rich cultural heritage of Istanbul and the broader region. It remains a source of awe and inspiration for millions of visitors and symbolizes a bridge between history and modernity.
It is my hope that you have enjoyed this three-part series about ten unique and historically important sites preserved from the era of the Ottoman Empire. There are many more sites and locations to see, so many experiences to have, and so much incredible food to taste in the beautiful land of Türkiye. The lure and mystique of this fabulous country continues to call me back. Some day, I hope to answer that call!
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.