When the Roman Emperor Justinian I presided over the dedication of Hagia Sophia, the great church he had ordered rebuilt in Constantinople, he is reputed to have said, ‘Solomon, I have surpassed you!’ Justinian ruled the Empire from 527 to 565 CE, and is referred to by some as ‘The Great’, for his efforts to reconquer western territories and restore the imperial glory lost to ‘barbarians’ a century before. His reign may also mark the beginning of the confusion over this part of the world that has bedevilled Western minds for a thousand years.
Justinian is said by some to have been the last ‘Roman’ emperor, and to have been the last to speak Latin as his first language. Others prefer to call him a ‘Byzantine’, and to focus on Hagia Sophia’s long history as the centre of Eastern Orthodox Christianity for many centuries. Roman or Byzantine, the Emperor was justly proud of his new cathedral, completed in 537. So proud was he, indeed, that he compared his achievement with that of the Hebrew King Solomon, whose legendary temple in ancient Jerusalem continues to serve as a powerful symbol of . . . certain things that we needn’t discuss here.
Having heard this tale often repeated, I was surprised to learn just the other day that the great Justinian may have had a more immediate and pressing reason for making his proud boast. With this story we will begin our stroll around the UNESCO-listed historic quarter of Zeyrek.
If you walk from Aksaray towards the Golden Horn, before passing under the great aqueduct of the 4th century Emperor Valens, you will see on your left, or perhaps smell, a large fenced-off area, somewhat overgrown, with the ruins of obviously ancient masonry below the level of the street. What you are seeing is all that remains of the 6th century church built and dedicated to St Polyeuctus by the fabulously wealthy Roman Imperial Princess Anicia Juliana. Possibly because of her Roman connection, this lady may have harboured some resentment towards the Constantinopolitan line, and wished to make a point with the church she endowed.
Whatever her motive, the good princess funded the construction of the largest basilica church in town just as our man Justinian was ascending the throne. Little remains of the great edifice apart from vaulted foundations and scattered fragments of marble columns and capitals – but in its day it was apparently spectacular in its ostentatious display of wealth. What may have particularly got Justinian’s goat was Juliana’s claim, expressed in a self-glorifying inscription, that her new temple had been specifically designed to rival or overshadow that of Solomon. What self-respecting emperor could stand for that?
Hagia Sophia is one of modern Istanbul’s major tourist attractions. St Polyeuctus, sad to say, is now little more than a home for the homeless – which accounts for the aroma assailing our nostrils as we pass by. Both churches, however, had lapsed into hard times long before the city fell to its Ottoman conquerors in the 15th century. Juliana’s grand project had fallen into ruin by the 11th century, and much of its gorgeous decoration had been reused in other buildings. Siege and conquest of Constantinople by crusading Christians from the West in 1204 saw Hagia Sophia itself converted to a Roman Catholic church – and many of the city’s treasures carried off to Venice, Vienna and Barcelona. Spare a thought for the passing of once-mighty empires as you pass by.
We have some walking ahead of us, so I suggest a hearty meal to build up your reserves of energy. A year or two ago The Guardian newspaper published an article entitled the 10 Best Meat Restaurants in Istanbul. Continue down the main road and just before arriving at the aqueduct, veer left into an open square featuring the statue of an Ottoman warrior mounted on a stallion leaping over the heads of several surprisingly calm-looking gentlemen in robes. The horseman is Sultan Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople and namesake of the district, Fatih, where we now find ourselves. Ahead you will see a side road passing under one of the arches of the ancient aqueduct which will lead you into another world of street-vendors, halal butchers, and on the right, our next port of call: Siirt Şeref Kebap Restaurant. Don’t waste time studying the menu – what you want (with apologies to vegetarians) is a dish of Büryan Kebap, small pieces of barbecued lamb served on Turkish bread, and maybe perde pilavı, a miniature castle of rice, chicken, walnuts, currants enshrined in a thin pastry shell. If you have room for dessert, the house speciality is dondurmalı irmik helvası, a baked semolina-based sweet with a heart of ice cream and topped with a squirt of chocolate sauce. What more can I say?
Take your time strolling down the street, enjoy the ambience, buy some honey or dried fruit and nuts if you can carry them. After the shops end and the road narrows, you will arrive at a small, newly renovated but evidently historic building labeled as the tomb of Zembilli Ali Efendi, Şeyhülislam (chief religious authority) at the beginning of the 16th century. Ali Efendi was apparently such a venerated character that people were afraid to seek his advice face to face. The preferred method was to place written questions in a basket (zembil) lowered from an upper storey window for delivery to the great man above. Answers would be delivered by the same means to supplicants waiting respectfully on the street below. Some present-day Turks living in upper-storey flats preserve this custom when dealing with their local grocer.
Preliminaries over, we are now ready to visit the main attraction in the Zeyrek quarter which did, in fact, give its name to the entire neighbourhood. Major restoration work is currently in progress, so getting inside is more difficult than formerly – but even from the outside the structure is impressive. The building that Molla Zeyrek took over after the Ottoman Conquest as a madrasah, an educational complex, had been built in the early 12th century as a monastery dedicated to Christ Pantokrator. After Hagia Sophia, it is the second largest Byzantine religious edifice still standing. What remains consists of two churches on either side of a smaller chapel, and the mortal remains of numerous Byzantine dignitaries, including several emperors and empresses are buried here.
You won’t be hungry yet, I’m sure, but it will be worth your while to order a coffee in the Zeyrekhane Restaurant next door. The view over the old city, the Golden Horn, the Bosporus and newer suburbs on the European and Asian shores is not to be missed, and the price of a coffee will also buy you a photo op. If you have an Internet connection you may like to visit Byzantium 1200, a remarkable website showcasing computer reconstructions of Istanbul’s Byzantine monuments.
The Zeyrek district is notorious as a labyrinth of narrow tortuous streets and steep stairways, so I’m not going to attempt directions. I came here once by taxi with friends from New Zealand, and the driver had no idea where he was or how to get where he were going. Follow your nose and ask your way to Haydar Caddesi (Avenue). The locals are sure to be helpful.
Not far beyond Zeyrek Mosque is another former Byzantine church, now known as Eski İmaret Camii (Mosque). There is some scholarly debate, but the majority opinion seems to be that this church was part of the monastery complex of Christ Pantepoptes, built around the end of the 11th century by Anna Dalassena, mother of the Emperor Alexius I Comnenus. Few visitors find their way to this secluded corner of the old city. Getting inside the building isn’t a problem, though little survives of the interior decoration other than a marble doorframe or two. It was converted to a mosque immediately after the Ottoman Conquest and its Muslim name refers to the fact that it was the location of a soup kitchen (İmaret) for feeding the poor. Sources tell me that the church stands atop another of ancient Constantinople’s numerous cisterns – though access is sadly not yet available. This must be one of the few mosques in the Islamic world without a minaret – the one it had collapsed in 1955 and has never been rebuilt – in fact, sixty years on they haven’t even cleared away the rubble.
Find your way back to Haydar Avenue and wander slowly down the hill. You will pass the ruins of an old hamam (Turkish bath) built by the architect Sinan to the order of Haydar Pasha, a 16th century Ottoman general whose name is more famously preserved in the great railway station at Kadıköy.
In fact we are now leaving the Zeyrek quarter and entering Cibali, which runs down to the coast of the Golden Horn. On the way we will come to the 16th century mosque of Atık Paşa (1272-1333) a Sufi mystic, poet and contemporary of Orhan Gazi, son of the eponymous founder of the Ottoman dynasty, Sultan Osman. The mosque was erected to the memory of Atık Paşa by a descendant, Sheikh Mehmet Ağa, and the tombs of several other religious luminaries of the time are located nearby. Most interesting to me, however, was a small octagonal stone structure across the road on whose iron gate a modest sign announced that it housed the sacred remains of Asüde Hatun, wet nurse of Sultan Beyazid II. Beyazid, who reigned from 1481 to 1512, is my favourite Ottoman Sultan, and this touching gesture placed him higher again in my estimation. He is better known for opening the gates of hospitality to Jewish refugees fleeing the attentions of the Inquisition in Spain – thereby, as he is reputed to have said, impoverishing the Spaniards and enriching his own empire at the same time.
A little further on you will arrive at the back wall of the Kadir Has University campus, formerly the state tobacco factory. It’s definitely worth a visit, especially for its small museum, but you need to approach it from the coast road, so it is not on our itinerary today. The street we are now in, however, is of some interest. A sign in Turkish and English informs us that Nalıncı Kasım Street is named after a gentleman who was master of an art peculiar to the Ottoman Empire, the making of a particular species of clog or shoe (nalin) worn by women when walking in rough or muddy roads. The nalin consists of a wooden platform sole mounted on two high blocks, held in place by a leather strap. What made it special was the elaborate design of mother-of-pearl or worked silver with which it was decorated. Needless to say, the level of materials and artistry reflected the wealth of the wearer. The sign mentioned above quotes a saying from Ottoman times: ‘Batılı, Osmanlının nalını bulsa, gerdanlık diye, boynuna takar’ – ‘A Westerner, finding a nalin on the ground, would wear it around his/her neck as a pendant’ – perhaps a condescending comment on the Orientalist passion of Europeans for all things ‘Turkish’.
St Polyeuctus, to whom that church was dedicated, was apparently a wealthy officer in the army in the 3rd century who became a Christian at a time when doing so was not altogether the done thing in polite Roman circles. With the zeal of a new convert, not content with observing his new-found religion in the privacy of his own home, Polyeuctus made a public statement by forcibly interfering with what he considered a pagan procession carrying idols authorised by the Emperor Decius. Adhering strictly to the words of St Luke (14:26-27), he maintained his stand despite the pleas of his wife and children – and was, predictably, tortured as a prelude to execution by beheading.
I’m not altogether sure what message we should take from the example of St P. It’s pretty clear, though, that, leaving earthquakes aside, much of the destruction of ‘pagan’ art and architecture was carried out by those early Christians once they gained the upper hand. That being so, we may be grateful that the Muslim Ottomans showed a less hostile attitude, such that at least some of the works of their Byzantine predecessors can be visited and appreciated today.