We visited a lot of mosques during our time in Istanbul, most of which were centuries-old architectural masterpieces built by the Ottomans. But Islam is very much a modern religion, so we felt compelled to check out a couple of the city’s contemporary mosques, one in Kadiköy and the other in Umraniye.
Kadiköy’s beautiful Şakirin Camii, completed in 2009, has the distinction of being the first mosque in Turkey whose interior was designed by a woman. And Zeynep Fadillioglu made sure that the female debut in the world of mosque-design would be something memorable. The Şakirin’s blue mihrab and asymmetrical chandelier are unlike anything we’d seen in other mosques, and the whole place is just lovely. There’s an elegant fountain in the courtyard, and the large cemetery behind the mosque supplies a mournful backdrop.
In the neighborhood of Umraniye, across a busy street from Istanbul’s IKEA store, is the defiantly modern Yeşilvadi Mosque. Most reminiscent of a small IMAX theater, this spherical mosque is probably the strangest we visited in Istanbul. A lot of mosques have domes, but this is the first time we’d seen a dome-shaped mosque. It’s just a shame about the location; the Yeşilvadi was completely empty during our visit. Apparently, a trip to IKEA doesn’t leave a lot of time for prayer.
The Yeni Camii translates to “New Mosque”, and really demonstrates the problem inherent in naming things “New”. Sure… back in 1665, the Yeni Camii was Istanbul’s great new mosque, and everybody in the Ottoman Empire was freaking out about how brand new it was. But 350 years later? Not so much.
Even though it’s one of the city’s grandest mosques and conveniently located right next to the tram stop and ferry terminal, visiting the Yeni Camii was one of those things which we kept putting off. Every time we almost went inside, we were lured away by other, more compelling sights nearby. The Spice Bazaar. The Rüstem Paşa Camii. The streets of Tathakale and the fish stands in Eminönü plaza. But finally, during our last week in the city, we made the trip.
Construction on the Yeni Camii began in 1597, but wasn’t finished for 68 years. The project was subject to a great amount of political jousting and controversy, and progress was delayed time and time again. The mosque was built in the historically Jewish neighborhood of Eminönü, and an old synagogue was demolished to make room. Some believed that the mosque was a pretext for disempowering the city’s Jewish community.
Despite the strife, the Yeni Camii was eventually completed. It enjoys a grand location on the shores of the Golden Horn and, with its 66 domes, cuts an impressive figure when seen from the shores of Galata. The courtyard and surrounding plaza are far less peaceful than other mosques, which isn’t surprising given the mayhem of the adjacent Spice Bazaar. And the interior isn’t as architecturally pleasing as that of the Süleymaniye or the nearby Rüstem Paşa. But the mosque is definitely worth a look, particularly if you’re already in the area. And on almost any visit to Istanbul, you’ll be in the area.
The Süleymaniye Mosque might not be as popular as the Blue Mosque, but it’s arguably more impressive. This massive complex near the university was built for Süleyman the Magnificent and includes a library, a soup kitchen, an amazing courtyard, and the tombs of both Süleyman and his famous wife Roxelana.
The woman who became known as Roxelana (the Russian) was born as Hürrem Haseki in the Ukraine. Exceptionally beautiful, she was kidnapped during her youth and brought to the harem of the Ottoman Court, where she soon captured Süleyman’s eyes. So smitten was the sultan that he had his son Mustafa executed, in order to start a new family with Roxelana. After converting to Islam, the ambitious and wily Roxelana convinced the sultan to free her from slavery and take her as a wife. Quite a break with tradition: Süleyman was the first sultan in 200 years to marry.
Roxelana quickly established herself as a major political force in the Ottoman Empire, and became even more powerful after Süleyman’s death and the ascension of Selim II, their son. As “Valide Sultan”, or mother of the Sultan, she exercised enormous influence over her boy and the court. Selim had fallen far from the tree of his “magnificent” father, and went by a somewhat less awe-inspiring nickname: Selim the Sot. A drunkard primarily interested in orgies, Selim was happy to leave the business of running the empire to his mother.
The Süleymaniye Mosque is the largest in Istanbul, and the crowning achievement of Mimar Sinan, whose tomb is in a lovely garden next door. Set atop a hill in the middle of the old town, the mosque and its four minarets are visible from all over the city. At 53 meters in height and 26 in diameter, the dome is breathtaking and sits atop a huge, empty worshiping area. Despite the mosque’s size, visitors are restricted to a small section towards the front of the mosque, which is a shame.
Around the mosque are a number of buildings which once constituted the külliye, or complex. Four Koran schools, a hospital and a hamam joined a soup kitchen and an inn. Also present are the mausoleums of both Süleyman and Roxelana. Today, the former soup kitchen houses a fancy restaurant, with an atmospheric tea garden in a sunken courtyard next door. From the mosque’s terrace, you can look over the Golden Horn and the rooftops of Eminönü.
It’s incredible that so many tourists line up to visit the Blue Mosque, while so few make it out to the Süleymaniye. Both are worth-seeing, but the Süleymaniye Mosque offers the more enjoyable experience.
Squeezed between two amazing mosques and the covered market, Gazi Park is the heart of Bursa, and was the logical place to begin our exploration of the city.
The Ottoman Empire is generally thought to have emerged in 1299, beginning with the ascension of Osman Gazi. Osman united a number of Turkish emirates and, just before his death in 1326, was able to capture Bursa (then the Byzantine city of Prousa). It was the first great military victory of the nascent empire, and far from the last.
Bursa enjoyed its golden years during the reign of Osman’s son, Orhan, who promoted it to capital of his young empire. So it was no surprise to find a mosque here named in his honor. The Orhan Gazi Camii was built in 1339, in the center of the city. Unfortunately, due to funerary proceedings, we weren’t able to spend more than a couple seconds inside, and instead walked a few meters over to another ancient mosque.
The Ulu Camii was built in 1399 by Orhan’s grandson Bayezid I, who went by the name of “Yıldırım” (“Thunderbolt“). He earned this nickname for his military acumen, which was especially evident during one of the greatest Ottoman victories of all time. In the 1396 Battle of Nicopolis, Bayezid’s men routed a combined force of Germans, French, Bulgarians, Italians, Romanians and Hungarians: basically the entire Christian army of Europe.
Before the battle, Beyazid had vowed to erect twenty mosques in Bursa should he emerge victorious. Perhaps he didn’t expect to win, because instead of the twenty promised mosques, he ended up building just one. But he gave it twenty domes, apparently hoping nobody would remember his exact wording… or at least dare to question him on it. The resulting Ulu Camii is one of the more architecturally interesting mosques we’ve seen. The twenty small domes are arranged in a 4×5 grid, lending the interior a sense of grandiosity.
Just outside of the Ulu Camii is the entrance to the Koza Han, or “Cocoon Hall”. Bursa was once the final stop on the Silk Road from China and, throughout the centuries, the fine fabric has been the focus of this market. Hundreds of vendors in the beautiful old han concentrate on silk, with prices that are more than reasonable.
The Koza Han is connected to Bursa’s bewildering covered bazaar, which extends in all directions through halls, into courtyards, down underground, along tiny passages and onto upper floor terraces looking down on tea gardens. In terms of size and confusion, Bursa’s bazaar is nearly the equal of Istanbul’s. The main difference? Things are much cheaper. We picked up a coffee grinder for a third of the price we’d seen in the Grand Bazaar. In retrospect, we should have done all of our souvenir shopping during our stay in Bursa.
The neighborhood of Yeşil (Green), separated from the city center by the Gök Dere river, takes its name from Bursa’s most well-known sights: the Green Mosque and Tomb. Visible from across Bursa, the mausoleum sits atop a hill and is covered in monochrome tiles of a unique light-green color.
Green is definitely the color of Bursa. Its most famous mosque complex is decorated in green tiles. An entire neighborhood is named “Green”. Despite the urban sprawl, there’s a generous amount of parks and trees, and the city is surrounded by a green landscape at the foot of Mount Uludağ. The football squad Bursapor’s color? One guess.
(On our second day in the city, there was a massive green procession from the football stadium to the town center. Thousands of people had taken to the streets, wearing green jerseys and carrying green Bursaspor flags, to mourn the passing of the club’s president. He was a popular figure in the city, having brought Bursa its first and only domestic championship in the 2010/11 season.)
The Yeşil Camii was built in 1421 by Sultan Mehmed I, who had reunited the Ottoman Empire after an eleven-year civil war. His mosque is one of the more unique we’ve seen; far removed from the massive complexes of Istanbul, the Yeşil Mosque stands out for the lovely turquoise color of its tiles. The surrounding courtyard and tea houses, too, are beautiful, and boast views overlooking the valley below.
Just behind the mosque and further up the hill, is the Yeşil Türbe. This octagonal tomb holds the remains of Mehmed I, and is perhaps even more striking than the mosque itself. During our visit, just before the call to worship, it was filled with locals counting beads, reading their Korans and praying.
Found outside the old city walls at the end of the Golden Horn, the neighborhood of Eyüp is one of the most sacred spots in the Islamic world.
The best way to get to Eyüp is aboard the Haliç (Golden Horn) ferry which leaves from Eminönu. But as luck would have it, water traffic was closed on the Saturday morning that we had chosen on our visit, after heavy fog had caused a ferry collision. So we were forced to reach Eyüp by bus… providing a lesson that we’ll now impart to you: if you have to take a bus to Eyüp, you might as well walk! The traffic along the southern Golden Horn is ridiculous, especially on weekends, and it took 90 minutes to complete the five kilometer journey.
By the time we finally arrived, we were in miserable spirits. But Eyüp made a valiant effort to cheer us up, with its cute, pedestrianized streets and festival-like atmosphere. This has been an important pilgrimage site for Muslims for centuries. Ayyub al-Ansari, the friend and standard bearer of the Prophet Mohammed, died here during the first attempted Muslim conquest of Constantinople, and was buried in the location that would later bear his name (Ayyub → Eyüp).
Apart from its lovely location on the Golden Horn, Eyüp’s prominent feature is its enormous mosque. We ducked inside during prayer time, but left quickly; the place was so packed we could hardly find an open patch of carpet on which to stand. Right across from the mosque is Ayyub al-Ansari’s türbe, or tomb. Although closed during our visit, it’s supposed to be amazing; completely covered in Iznik tiles.
For centuries, Eyüp has been the most fashionable place in Istanbul to be laid to rest, and it’s surrounded by cemeteries. The largest of these stretches up a steep hill that eventually ends at the Pierre Loti Café, named for the French novelist. This lovely garden cafe boasts a view that takes in the entirety of the Golden Horn, all the way to the Bosphorus Strait. Breathtaking, and it was the perfect way to end a long day.
After hiking up Istanbul’s biggest hill, the Büyük Çamlıca, our tired bones had earned a reward. So we made our way to the gorgeous Çınılı Camii, Üsküdar’s Tiled Mosque, and ended the day in a hamam.
Built in 1640, the Çınılı Camii is a miniature work of art, reminiscent of Tathakale’s Rüstem Paşa Camii: perhaps our favorite of Istanbul’s mosques. The doors were locked tight when we arrived, but it wasn’t difficult to find a caretaker who was happy to open up. The Çınılı Camii’s nickname, the Tiled Mosque, is certainly deserved. The interior is covered in wonderful Iznik tiles, colored blue, red, white and green, making this one of the more richly decorated mosques we’ve seen.
Just around the corner, we found the Çınılı Hamam. I’ve come to learn that there are two types of hamam experiences a person can have in Istanbul. One is the tourist-oriented luxury of the larger, downtown hamams, which charge spa-like prices and provide spa-like services. The other is an experience like that offered by the Çınılı Hamam: local, cheap and authentic.
The Çınılı was exactly what I had expected from a Turkish hamam: an ancient bath house full of locals washing themselves, an invigorating massage on the marble slab under the star-shaped skylights, a ridiculously hot sauna, and a no-nonsense scrubbing by the sinks.
There was a musty smell in the hamam, and my massage toed the precarious line between vigorous and vicious: while there were bits of brutality that I perversely enjoyed (such as an unexpected punch to the middle of my back), there were others I didn’t. Still, I’m happy that we found the courage to try the hamam out; there were a surprising number of locals getting the same treatment as us, and no other tourists. The whole program, including sauna, scrubbing and massage, was just 35 lira per person.
Whether or not you’re in the mood for a bath, this little-visited area of Üsküdar merits a visit. It’s uphill and difficult to reach by walking, but a taxi ride is inexpensive. And the downhill walk back down to the ferry terminal is very pleasant, particularly after your body has been twisted, pounded, rubbed and scrubbed.
Located in the neighborhood of Çarşamba, just up the road from the Yavuz Selim Camii, the Fethiye Museum preserves some of the best Byzantine mosaics in Istanbul. It’s small and difficult to reach, so most tourists skip right over it in favor of the similar and better-known Chora Museum.
The Church of Theotokos Pammakaristos (All-Blessed Mother of God) was built sometime in the 11th century by Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Ducas. By the time of the Ottoman conquest, the Pammakaristos had become one of Constantinople’s most important Orthodox churches and, sensitive to the feelings of their new Greek citizens, the Ottomans initially left it alone. They even made it the temporary seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. But in 1592, to celebrate of the Ottoman annexation of Georgia and Azerbaijan, the church was finally converted into the Fethiye Mosque.
During renovations in the 1950s, beautiful 14th-century mosaics were uncovered in the parekklesion, or side chapel, and these became the focus of a museum which opened in 2006. Under the dome, visitors can admire a depiction of Christ Pantokrator ringed by twelve prophets from the Old Testament. There’s also a large mosaic panel of Jesus’s baptism, and representations of various Biblical saints, including a deesis with Mary and John the Baptist.
The Fethiye Museum is a like a delicious Byzantine Mosaic hors d’oeuvre, before the more filling main course served up at the nearby Chora Museum. The mosaics in the Fethiye aren’t as expansive as those of the Chora, but the experience of visiting is more pleasant. We were the only ones inside the church on the Thursday afternoon we chose for our trip, and able to explore in peace.
The Hagia Sophia isn’t just the best-known tourist attraction in Istanbul, or one of Europe’s most cherished landmarks… it’s one of the greatest buildings in human history. This church, nearly 1500 years in age, was once the center of Byzantine faith, later reborn as the predominant mosque of the Ottoman Empire, and today has found a new purpose as one of the world’s most popular museums.
We spent nearly three hours inside the Hagia Sophia. There’s a lot to see, and all of it is fascinating. This is the kind of place where even the floors, doors and walls have stories to tell. I’m serious: this circular pattern in the floor marks the Omphalos, where Byzantine emperors were crowned. That massive wooden door is the Imperial Gate, reserved for the entrances of the emperor and his family, and rumored to have been made from the wood of Noah’s Ark. And there in the wall, you’ll see one of the church’s magnificent Byzantine mosaics.
These mosaics have survived the centuries in superb condition, thanks mainly to Muslim sensitivities. Human representations are disallowed in mosques, so the mosaics were covered up and thus protected during Ottoman rule. The mosaic above the aforementioned Imperial Gate depicts Emperor Leo VI on his knees before Christ. There’s a wonderful Deesis mosaic in the upper gallery, with Mary and John the Baptist imploring Christ to forgive humanity. And the mosaic of Mother Mary with baby Jesus in her lap, in the dome of the apse, is marvelous. But our favorites were those of the four seraphim, God’s guardian angels, in the dome’s supporting pendentives. During restorations in 2009, one was discovered to have a face hiding underneath its protective golden shield.
Impressive as the mosaics are, they can’t compete with the church’s dome: a true architectural wonder. Measuring in at 55 meters in height and 32 meters in diameter, with 40 windows that allow in abundant light, this dome was by far the largest ever attempted when it was constructed. Especially with the two half-domes which exaggerate its size, the dome creates an illusion of immense space. Standing down at ground level, looking up, it’s hard not to feel insignificant.
Yes, standing in the center of this church, looking up at the massive dome and its seraphim, admiring the giant Arab calligraphy, considering the number of emperors and sultans who have passed through here, and who have probably stood exactly where you’re standing right now… it’s very hard not to feel insignificant. Because, and it takes maybe an hour inside the Hagia Sophia before you start to genuinely grasp this, you really are insignificant. Look up again at that dome. Think about how long ago it was built, and then try to say aloud “My life has worth”. Ridiculous. You’re a tiny drop in the ocean of human history. You, your silly problems, your proudest accomplishments… they mean absolutely nothing.
Wow. Thanks for ruining my day, Hagia Sophia. But despite the small existential crisis, our visit here was one of the highlights of our time in Istanbul. Unforgettable.
Were we excited to visit the Hagia Sophia? It’s just one of the most legendary buildings on the planet. The largest church in the world for a thousand years. The scene of some of history’s most decisive moments. A breathtaking architectural achievement on a scale unthinkable for its day. Yes, I suppose it’s fair to say that we were excited.
Ever since arriving in Istanbul, I’d been eagerly anticipating our visit to the Hagia Sophia. Scratch that: I’d been eagerly anticipating a visit since 1984 when, at the age of seven, I read about it in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Now the long-awaited day had finally arrived, and it was every bit as amazing as I had hoped. The instant I stepped inside the Hagia Sofia, the Church of Divine Wisdom, I felt transported into another world.
The building we see today is actually the third church built on the site. The first, completed in 360, was destroyed during a riot in 404, and no trace remains. And the second church was burnt to the ground in 513 during the infamous Nika Riots. One of worst riots in history, this popular outburst of rage resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the destruction of half of Constantinople’s buildings. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian, though, emerged unscathed and more powerful than ever. With a free rein to rebuild the city as he liked, he started with the Hagia Sophia.
Completed in 537, Justinian’s new church was immediately hailed as an unprecedented architectural achievement. The empire’s greatest mathematicians and physicists had been brought in to supervise and consult on the construction, nothing on the scale of which had ever been attempted. The Hagia Sophia was by far the biggest church in the world, and would remain so for nearly a thousand years. It’s almost unthinkable. Try to imagine how otherworldly and groundbreaking a modern-day skyscraper would have to be, to remain unsurpassed for the next millennium. I don’t actually think it’s possible, anymore.
Despite its preeminence, the Hagia Sophia hasn’t been immune to the passage of history. It exists, after all, in one of the most tumultuous capitals on earth, and has had as many masters as Istanbul has had names. First and foremost, it was a Byzantine church and the center of the Orthodox world. For a brief interlude, from 1204 to 1261, it was converted into a Roman Catholic church, following the Fourth Crusade which crippled Byzantine. The marauding crusaders even installed a prostitute on the patriarch’s throne, in mockery of the Eastern faith.
Luckily, the next masters of Constantinople would treat the church with more respect. After sacking the city in 1453, the Ottoman forces under Mehmet II the Conqueror enjoyed three days of pillaging, but the Hagia Sophia was mostly spared. The church had been as famous in the Arab world as in the Christian, and it had been Mehmet’s lifelong ambition to see it converted into a mosque. During the long eclipse of the Byzantine Empire, the church had fallen into a deplorable state, but the Turks restored it to its former glory. For the next 500 years, it served as the most important mosque in the Ottoman Empire.
In 1935, the nascent Turkish Republic recognized that the Hagia Sophia was more important as a monument of our shared cultural heritage, than as yet another mosque. On the orders of Atatürk, it was converted into a museum. A good move, in my opinion. Today, it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world, and certainly among the most impressive we’ve ever visited.
We're Jürgen and Mike, from Germany and the USA. Born wanderers, we love learning about new cultures and have decided to see the world... slowly. Always being tourists might get lame, but eternal newcomers? We can live with that. So, our plan is to move to an interesting new city, once every three months. About 91 days.