Culture, Discover Turkey, Travel

New Series: Historically Important Ottoman Empire Sites (Part 1 of 3)

by Mary Bloyd

History has always been an interest of mine, whether learning about the development of a nation, the meaning of certain words and phrases in different languages, the evolution of a cuisine or culture, or the chronology of a country’s royal family. In my opinion, if you want to gain an in-depth understanding, the most important thing you can learn about any country is the story of its history.

For the purposes of this article, and specifically regarding the history of the Republic of Türkiye, from countless hours of research (which I happen to love to do), I have learned about a few of the hundreds of significant events that took place over the centuries in this remarkable country. Obviously, we cannot bear witness to the events that have already taken place which have, over time, shaped present-day Türkiye. However, through the many landmarks and sites, libraries and artifacts, and other knowledge that has been painstakingly preserved, we can look back into the past and explore the traces left behind for us and for future generations.

Osman I, Portrait
From 19th Century Manuscript

Whenever the history of Türkiye is mentioned, discussed, or written about, the Ottoman Empire and its influence naturally comes to the forefront of the narrative. The Ottoman Empire was founded by the Turkoman tribal leader, Osman I, at the end of the 13th Century in northwestern Anatolia, then known as Asia Minor.  After 1354, the Ottomans crossed into Europe, conquered territory, and increased their strength and power. With the conquest of the Balkans, the Ottoman beylic (territory under the jurisdiction of a bey or tribal leader) was transformed into a transcontinental empire. In 1453, when Mehmed the Conqueror finally attained his obsessive desire to conquer Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), the Byzantine Empire came to an end. Between the 14th and early-20th centuries, the Ottoman Empire controlled the territory defined in the map below titled “The Ottoman Empire at its Greatest Extent”.

The Ottoman Empire

Under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire was at the peak of its power and prosperity. It was also at the highest development of its governmental, economic, and social systems. At the beginning of the 17th Century, the empire contained 32 provinces and numerous vassal states. Over the course of centuries, some of them were absorbed into the Ottoman Empire while others were granted various types of autonomy. With Constantinople as its capital, and by controlling the lands around the Mediterranean Basin, the Ottoman Empire was at the center of interactions between the Middle East and Europe for a remarkable six centuries. 

Mustufa Kemal Atatürk

The Ottoman Empire ended in 1922, and in 1923, Türkiye officially became a Republic and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk its first President. Then the new Republic went through numerous significant changes from that point forward. Thankfully, the historically significant and important landmarks and sites from the Ottoman era have been painstakingly preserved. Today, these sites remain the physical evidence of Türkiye’s history and growth from Ottoman times to the present. Quite different from today’s modern world, the sites preserved from the Ottoman Empire are unique, authentic, important, and protected vigorously. Since Constantinople served as the center of the Empire, many of the preserved Ottoman sites are naturally in and around Istanbul. However, there are numerous sites all around Türkiye from this era.

Ten different sites will be presented in this new series, with three being presented in this article (Part 1 of 3). I freely admit to being a frustrated historian and total research geek, so please bear with me! The narrative presented on these ten important historical sites will include background and history and be somewhat lengthy. Therefore, the choice has been made to present them in a three-article series. I hope you will find them interesting, informative, enjoyable to read, and not too academic!

#1 – The Blue Mosque; Istanbul

The Blue Mosque, an imperial mosque, is one of the most famous sights in Istanbul, both in general terms and within the category of important Ottoman Empire sites. Its construction was undertaken to show the rest of the world how powerful the Ottoman Empire had become. The decision to build the Blue Mosque was made during the reign of Sultan Ahmed I and the centennial of the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. The Ottoman Empire was going through its brightest period and ruling on three different continents. The Blue Mosque was built between 1609 and 1616. Its purpose was to reassert the power held by the Ottoman Empire following its crushing loss in the 1603-1618 war with Persia. It would be the first imperial mosque in more than 40 years.

Sultan Ahmed I

The predecessors of Sultan Ahmed I funded their mosques from the spoils of war. However, since Ahmed I had not gained any remarkable military victories, he procured funds from the Treasury to build his sultanic mosque. This caused anger within the ulama, the Muslim jurists who were the guardians, transmitters, and interpreters of religious knowledge in Islam, including Islamic doctrine and law. The Blue Mosque was built on the site of the palace of the Byzantine emperors. Its site was in front of the Hagia Sophia, the primary imperial mosque in Istanbul at the time, and the Hippodrome, a site of significant symbolic meaning which dominated Constantinople’s skyline from the south. Huge parts of the south side of the Blue Mosque rest on the foundation of the vaults of the old Grand Palace of Constantinople.

The official name of the mosque is the “Sultan Ahmed Mosque”. The name “Blue Mosque” was first coined by foreigners and tourists. The upper area is decorated with approximately 20,000 hand-painted, glazed ceramic tiles in 60 different tulip patterns, giving it a stunning sapphire hue. The lower stories are illuminated by 200 stained glass windows.  The mosque is preceded by a forecourt with a large fountain and a special area for ablution. At night, the exterior of the mosque is bathed in blue as lights frame its five main domes, six minarets, and eight secondary domes.

Interior of Blue Mosque

Almost superfluous to say, one of the most appreciated characteristics of the mosque is its architectural properties. There are traces of Ottoman style, Byzantine characteristics, traditional Islamic arts, and swirls of decorations on the 141-foot domes and on its minarets (the tall towers used to call the faithful to prayer). Its külliye (the buildings surrounding and related to a mosque) contains Sultan Ahmed I’s tomb, a madrasah (an Islamic school), and a hospice.

The design of the Blue Mosque was the culmination of two centuries of mosque development during the Ottoman Empire period. Incorporating many Byzantine elements of the neighboring Hagia Sophia with its traditional Islamic architecture, it is considered to be the last great mosque of the classical period. The architect, Sedefkâr Mehmed Ağa, synthesized the ideas of his master, the famous imperial architect Mimar Sinan, aiming for overwhelming size, majesty, and splendor in the construction.

An interesting fact:  An iron chain hangs in the court entrance on the western side of the Blue Mosque. Only the Sultan was allowed to ride into the mosque on horseback. As a symbolic gesture to ensure his humility before Allah, he would need to lower his head each time he entered the court so he would not hit the chain.

Ceiling of Blue Mosque

Becoming known over time only by the name “Blue Mosque”, millions of visitors and tourists come each year to admire its unparalleled beauty. It sits next to the Hagia Sophia, another popular tourist site and the principal mosque of Istanbul until its construction. In 1985, the Blue Mosque was included in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list, under the category of “Historic Areas of Istanbul”.

A final notable fact: The Blue Mosque was the site of the second visit ever by a Catholic Pope to a Muslim place of worship. The first visit was made by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 and the second by Pope Francis in 2014.

#2 – The Selimiye Mosque; Edirne

The Selimiye Mosque is considered one of the highest achievements of Ottoman architecture and was built when the Ottoman Empire was at the peak of its military and cultural power. An imperial mosque, it was designed by Mimar Sinan, who has been named the greatest imperial architect of the Ottoman Empire. (The name Mimar means “architect” in Turkish.) Among all his other designs, Sinan referred to the Selimiye Mosque as his masterpiece. He was 85 years old when it was completed.

Sultan Selim II

The mosque was commissioned by Sultan Selim II, the son and successor of Suleiman the Magnificent. Instead of Constantinople (the Ottoman capital), he chose the city of Edirne as the location where he would build his own sultanic mosque. The reasons for this decision have been debated among historians. Selim II had served as the governor of Edirne between 1548 and 1550 and seemed to have a passion for the city, visiting it often after becoming sultan. Edirne was also a former Ottoman capital and one of the most important cities in the empire. It was a major stop on the imperial highway between Constantinople and the Balkan provinces.

Another motivation for Selim II’s choice of Edirne may have been the absence of a prominent hilltop site in Constantinople where an imperial mosque complex could be built. Also, when Selim II commissioned the mosque, he had not commanded a victorious military campaign. This was considered a requirement to build a sultanic mosque in Constantinople by the ulama (Muslim jurists, the guardians, transmitters, and interpreters of religious knowledge, doctrine, and law in Islam).

In March of 1568, Sultan Selim II asked Mimar Sinan to renovate the city’s Old Mosque, an early 15th Century Ottoman imperial mosque also known as the Grand Mosque. At the same time, plans were begun for Selim’s new sultanic mosque to be located on the hilltop above the Old Mosque. Construction was begun in 1568-1569 and completed in 1574-1575, funded with the help of Selim’s share of the spoils from the 1571 successful conquest of Cyprus. Unfortunately, Sultan Selim II died in December of 1574 before he was able to see the completed mosque.

The Selimiye Mosque is more than just a mosque. Its complex included Islamic schools (called madrassas), a covered bazaar, a clock house, an outer courtyard, and a library. Due to the harmonious interaction of the various structures on the site with one another, the mosque represented one of the most well-constructed külliye (buildings surrounding and related to a mosque) in the Ottoman Empire. Some of the most beautiful decorations in the interior of the mosque are from the peak period of production of hand-glazed, ceramic tiles from Iznik.

Example of Turkish Iznik Tiles

The innovative structural design of the Selimiye Mosque called for the use of numerous windows. This created an abundance of natural light, illuminating and highlighting the beauty of every detail of the interior.

Interior of Selimiye Mosque

Over the centuries since the Selimiye Mosque was completed, several events occurred which affected the mosque. In 1584, after lightning caused minor damage, the mosque underwent its first repairs by Mimar Sinan. In 1752, an earthquake caused minor damage. In 1808, some of the calligraphic decoration in the mosque was restored and a roof was added over the courtyard fountain; it has since disappeared. During the reign of Sultan Abdülmecid I (1839-1861), the interior of the mosque was re-plastered and the decoration was redone in a style which partially imitated its former ornamentation.

During the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, some of the decorative tiles on the walls of the sultan’s loge were stolen and taken to Moscow. During the siege of the city in 1913, the dome of the mosque was damaged by artillery fire. Upon the orders of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, traces of the damage were left unrestored, to serve as a reminder and a warning to future generations. Soon after, at the end of the Second Balkan War (June 29-August 10, 1913), some of the oldest carpets of the Selimiye Mosque were looted by retreating Bulgarian troops.  The Selimiye Mosque has undergone restorations between 1954 and 1971 and in 1982 and 1984. In late 2021, another comprehensive restoration project on the mosque began which is scheduled to be completed by 2025.

An interesting fact:  The Selimiye Mosque was depicted on the reverse of the Turkish 10,000 lira banknotes of 1982-1995.

A notable fact:  In 2011, the Selimiye Mosque was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the official designation as “Selimiye Mosque and its Social Complex”.

#3 – The Dolmabahçe Palace; Istanbul

The Dolmabahçe Palace is in an area that was originally a bay which served as a natural harbor from the times of antiquity. The ships of Sultan Mehmed II, The Conqueror, were hauled over a wooden ramp and launched into the waters of the Golden Horn from this harbor. The Ottoman’s naval fleet anchored in the bay and naval ceremonies were also held at this harbor. From the 17th Century onward, however, the bay was filled in to be used as an Imperial Garden. It was given the name “Dolmabahçe”, which means “filled garden”.  Prior to the 19th Century, all buildings in the complex were named the “Beşiktaş Waterfront Palace”.

Beşiktaş Waterfront Palace

During the 1839-1861 reign of the 31st sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Abdülmecid I, the Beşiktaş Waterfront Palace had become impractical and was demolished. The Sultan and his family had previously lived in the Topkapi Palace. However, compared to the palaces of European monarchs, Sultan Abdülmecid decided the Topkapi Palace lacked contemporary style, luxury, and comfort. He decided to build a new, modern palace and ordered the construction of the Dolmabahçe Palace. It was designed by four imperial court architects who were assisted by two building supervisors commissioned for the work. The new imperial palace was built between 1843 and 1856.

From the year 1856, when the Dolmabahçe Palace was completed, it was inhabited by six sultans and the last Caliph of the Empire. After the foundation of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk stayed in the Palace temporarily for a total of four years, between 1927 and 1938. It was also used as a presidential residence during the term of Ismet Inönü until 1949. Along with its original furnishings, it was opened to the public as a museum in 1984. Apart from its main building, the Dolmabahçe Palace consists of diverse buildings used for specific purposes. These include a glass factory, a foundry, an aviary, and stables. Also on the grounds was the Apartment of the Crown Prince, the Clock Tower, and Departure Kiosks behind the Crown Prince’s apartment, constructed during the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876-1909).

The main structure consists of two regular floors, one attic, and one basement. The floors were divided into three sections, each having a separate function. One section was the Administrative Section (Mabeyn-I Hümâyŭn) where the affairs of the country were discussed. The second section was the Private Section (including the Harem) where the Sultan and his family lived. Between these two rooms was the third section, the Grand Ceremonial Hall where the Sultan received notables of the state on religious days and where state ceremonies were held.

The Sultan’s Harem

The Palace has 285 rooms, 44 halls, 68 toilets, and six Turkish baths. It is the biggest palace in Türkiye with a ground area of 110,000 square meters. Both architecturally and functionally, the Palace preserves the traditional Turkish house layout with a hall in the middle (the Grand Ceremonial Hall) and rooms surrounding it, as previously noted. A Western approach using Baroque, Rococo, and Neo-Classic elements was blended with traditional Ottoman cultural styles. This resulted in a new interpretation of the space. Hereke carpets (prized Turkish hand-knotted carpets), Baccarat crystal, Sèvres and Yildiz porcelains, gifts from various state leaders, and paintings by Western artists were used for the decoration of the walls and the floors of the Palace.

Turkish Hereke Carpet

The construction of the Palace cost five million Ottoman gold lira or 35 tons of gold, the equivalent of $1.9 billion in gold values of 2021. This astronomical sum corresponded to approximately a quarter of the yearly tax revenue. The construction was financed through debasement, the massive issue of paper money, and by foreign loans. This huge expense placed an enormous burden on the state purse and contributed to the deteriorating financial situation of the Ottoman Empire. Eventually, the Empire defaulted on its public debt in October 1875, with the subsequent establishment of financial control over “the sick man of Europe” by the European powers in 1881.

From 1856, when the Dolmabahçe Palace was first inhabited, it was home to six Sultans up to the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924. The last royal to live there was Caliph Abdülmecid (1922-1924). A law went into effect on March 3, 1924 which transferred ownership of the Palace to the national heritage of the new Republic of Türkiye. The founder and first President of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, used the Palace as a presidential residence during the summers and enacted some of his most important works there. Atatürk spent the last days of his medical treatment in this Palace and died there on November 10, 1938.

The Dolmabahçe Palace is on the European coast of the Bosphorus Straits in Beşiktaş, a popular area in present-day Istanbul. It served as the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 to 1887, and again from 1909 to 1922. Today, the Dolmabahçe Palace is managed by the Directorate of National Palaces, and responsible to the Grand National Assembly of Türkiye, usually referred to as simply the Parliament.

Even though the Empire was collapsing, the Dolmabahçe Palace is one of the most significant landmarks from the Ottoman Empire period. It is often described as the symbol of Westernization in the Ottoman Empire. Along with the richness and the splendor of the Palace, the gardens on the grounds are a landmark in themselves. They occupy a large area with beautiful landscaping, flowers and trees, and a giant fountain in the center. Millions of tourists consider a visit to the Dolmabahçe Palace an absolute “must” before leaving Istanbul.

Gardens of Dolmabahce Palace

I hope you have enjoyed this article about three of the historically important sites of the Ottoman Empire. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series. It will focus on the background and history of the Topkapi Palace, the Rustem Pasha Caravanserai, and the Süleymaniye 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.

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  1. When I look back at my formal education, I realize that it focused on Europe and “Western” civilization. It wasn’t until I started watching historical dramas on Netflix that I came to realize how advanced the rest of the world was. I was surprised to learn that the Ottoman Empire existed into recent history. I visited Istanbul several years ago and saw some of the buildings you write about. It’s amazing that in my later years I’m filled with curiosity and a desire to learn more about the world and people who occupy it. Keep the articles coming, and point us in the direction of fabulous historic people and places. It’s so much fun to learn without worrying about grades or tests, BTW, through a DNA analysis, I learned that I have a little Anatolian in me! That amazing Ottoman Empire is in my blood!

  2. Thank you. I am a fan of North America Ten, love history and enjoy reading your articles.

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