Despite being in the center of the city, the neighborhood of Laleli just doesn’t feel like the rest of Istanbul. Maybe it’s the curious absence of döner joints. It could be the shops with names like “XXL ??????? ??????” and “???????? ???????”, or the giant blonde women shouldering past with icy attitudes more befitting the tundra than Turkey. When you’re in Laleli, there’s no mistaking that you’ve arrived in Istanbul’s Russia Town.
Laleli isn’t going to win any awards for its striking historic beauty. It’s almost all shopping here. Large, forgettable buildings crammed with equally forgettable stores that sell clothes, cheap shoes and fake Yves Saint Laurent handbags. Still, Laleli is an interesting place to see if just for the oddity of its Russian atmosphere. And it has a couple mosques that are worth the trouble of seeking out.
It took some effort to find the Bodrum Mesipaşa Camii, hidden like a jewel behind ugly modern buildings. Built as a burial church in 922 by the Byzantine emperor Romanos Lekapenos, this small brick structure was converted into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest. Given its diminutive size, we planned to spend about ten minutes inside, but hadn’t counted on meeting Mustafa Alpoy, the mosque’s amicable Imam. We were in Mustafa Bey’s office for a long time, looking at pictures of the mosque’s restoration, helping decipher some German scribbled in his guestbook, and listening to the stories of previous illustrious visitors.
Not far away is the much larger Laleli Mosque, or the Mosque of the Lily, built in 1780 when the Baroque style was fashionable in the Ottoman Empire. Colorful marble, instead of tiling, is the dominant element in this mosque, which features a huge central dome and stained-glass windows.
Outside the mosque are burial halls of two important Ottoman rulers, Mustafa III and his son Selim III. Selim III is a particularly interesting figure. Well-educated, multi-lingual and accomplished in poetry, calligraphy and music, he was an exceptionally modern ruler. During his regency, Selim hoped to modernize the languishing Ottoman Empire, starting with its army. Of course, reform will always find an enemy, and in this case, it was the powerful Janissary Corps — the bloated and powerful elite branch of the army. Rather than see itself obsoleted, the Janissaries revolted. They deposed the Sultan and had him executed, stabbed to death in the harem by the Chief Black Eunuch.
(I’m considering pitching “Clue: Ottoman Edition” to Parker Brothers. Chief Black Eunuch in the Harem with the Knife is incalculably more thrilling than Mrs. Peacock in the Kitchen with the Candlestick.)
We ventured into the vault beneath the mosque, and were returned immediately to the shopping spirit which truly defines Laleli. This beautiful basement centers around an old fountain and the heavy pillars which support the structure above, and is occupied by clothes sellers. The dark vault beneath a huge mosque complex might seem an odd place to shop for, say, a denim jacket with fur frills. But somehow, here in Laleli, it makes sense.