Beauty and the Beast – An Ottoman fairy tale

‘How much more interesting is this place than Dubai?’ The words were spoken by a tourist holding the door for his wife and teen-aged daughter as they boarded a taxi near the waterfront at Eminönü. Dilek and I had just descended from the terrace of Rustem Pasha Mosque, and the sentence wafted to my ear on a gentle breeze as we strolled towards the Marmaray Metro station for a train that would take us under the Bosporus back to the Asian side of the city.
I didn’t hear the reply our anonymous tourist received from his female companions. Possibly stony silence was the best response to an insensitive male unable to comprehend the joys of seven-star hotels and 24/7 duty-free shopping. Certainly Istanbul has no kilometre-high mega-skyscrapers, artificial islands in the shape of the world’s major landmasses, fully enclosed climate-controlled football stadiums or multi-million dollar tennis tournaments featuring Federer, Djokovic, Nadal and their globetrotting ATP buddies.
Sinan the architect and Princess Mihrimah
What Istanbul does have is a recorded history of more than two thousand years, evidence of human settlement going back a further 6,500, and a geography that is home to locations featuring in the myths, legends and folk tales of at least four major civilisations. What Istanbul does have is religious and secular structures dating from centuries when the 600-year Ottoman Empire was the major Mediterranean power and terror of Europe. What Istanbul does have is columns, mosaics, statuary and churches from the days when, as Constantinople, it was capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire – first in the latter years of its pagan existence, and later in its Graeco-Christian embodiment. I could go on, but you get the picture. Istanbul is a realplace – a multi-cultural city whose geo-political significance stretches back into the dim mists of time immemorial.
Dubai, on the other hand, as Wikipedia informs us, receives no mention in anyone’s records until 1095 CE, and ‘the earliest recorded settlement in the region dates from 1799. Dubai was formally established on June 9, 1833, by Sheikh Maktoum bin Butti Al-Maktoum when he persuaded around 800 members of his tribe of the Bani Yas, living in what was then the Second Saudi State, to follow him to the Dubai Creek by the Abu Falasa clan of the Bani Yas. It remained under the tribe’s control when the United Kingdom agreed to protect the Sheikhdom in 1898 (from what, I can’t help wondering) and joined the nascent United Arab Emirates upon independence in 1971 as the country’s second emirate.’
Maşallah! as Turks say. Good for them! And you have to appreciate what those Bani Yas tribesmen have achieved in the intervening 43 years. As for me, however, I willingly pay a little more for my annual airfares to and from New Zealand to avoid stopping over there. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that those United Arab Emirates represent just about everything that is wrong with the modern (or post-modern) world. And I think that’s what our anonymous English tourist was getting at, whether or not his wife and daughter agreed with him.
But let us retrace our steps just a little. Dilek and I were descending the stairs from the elevated terrace of Rustem Pasha Mosque to the Levantine chaos of Hasırcılar Street – and I want to tell you why.
In fact we were rewarding ourselves for a successful journey to the outer reaches of European Istanbul. Our building has been declared an earthquake risk, and we have had to find alternative accommodation for a year or two while it is demolished and rebuilt. In such a case, the government, God bless them, will pay some compensation for expenses and inconvenience incurred. To lodge your claim however, you must make your way to the one and only office authorised to process it – situated in Küçükçekmece, a little-known and less-visited location some 50-plus km from our new abode. The expedition did at least give us the opportunity to make use of Istanbul’s much-vaunted public transport system, and we rode four Metro lines before taking a 20TL taxi ride for the last stage.
Our reward, then, for finding the office, lodging our claim and getting back to civilisation, was a delicious lunch and a wander around the ancient streets of old Istanbul. Eminönü stands near the mouth of the Golden Horn, a deep inlet of the Bosporus which divides the old city from the ‘newer’ European enclave of Galata/Pera, and provided a second watery defence for the triangular Seraglio Point, site of the Roman, Byzantine and later, Ottoman, capitals. In Ottoman times, Eminönü was the commercial port of the city, and the Egyptian, or Spice Bazaar (built in the 1660s), a bustling outlet for the riches of the Orient.
A modern visitor to the Egyptian Bazaar may emerge from its western gate, lured by the irresistible aroma of freshly roasted beans emanating from the premises of Mehmet Efendi, purveyors of coffee to discerning Istanbul residents since 1871. From here you may force your way (politeness will get you nowhere) through the teaming throngs in Wicker-workers’ Street to a shopping experience unlikely to be met with in any air-conditioned Dubai commercial fantasyland. You may sample the indescribable gourmet delicacies of Namlı Pastırmacısı; purchase balloons, paper hats and other party essentials in wholesale quantities; or pass through a time warp to ironsmith workshops selling knives, axes, billhooks, scythes, forks, ploughshares and other agricultural implements from a bygone age.
After a hundred metres of this you may need a breath of fresh air. Keep an eye out for a dingy timeworn stone staircase on your right. Lay aside Western fears of muggers and rapists lying in wait, ascend two flights through the gloom and you will find yourself in one of the less-frequented gems of Imperial Ottoman Istanbul – the mosque of Rustem Pasha, Grand Vizier of Suleiman the Magnificent, husband of the Sultan’s beloved daughter, the Princess Mihrimah, and one of the richest men in the richest city in the richest and most powerful empire of 16th century Europe, possibly the world.
Rich he may have become, but Rustem was born a simple swine-herding OpukoviĆ in the Croatian town of Skradin. His path to unimaginable wealth and power began when he was whisked away from family and hearth in the grip of the devshirme system, whereby likely young lads from remote regions of the empire were brought to the capital to be educated and trained as future civil and military leaders. Fabulously rich he may have been, but Rustem, it seems, was no fine figure of handsome Ottoman manhood. He did, however, have the major advantage of being held in high esteem by Suleiman, Sovereign of the House of Osman, Sultan of Sultans, Khan of Khans, Emperor of Rome and Successor of the Prophet. In consequence, this ‘squat ugly man’ won the hand of the Sultan’s seventeen-year-old daughter, gaining at the same time, and in true Turkish fashion, the support of her mother, the legendary Roxelana (Hürrem Sultan).
Suleiman, contemporary of English Tudor monarchs Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, is generally considered to have reigned over the Ottoman Empire at the peak of its power and influence. His death, on a military expedition to Hungary in 1566, began the slow decline that concluded, some 350 years later, with defeat and dissolution at the end of the First World War. Many reasons have been offered for this decline – but few focus on the role played by our man Rustem.
One of the strengths (and weaknesses) of Ottoman sultans was the system of royal succession. The imperial harem housed a bevy of fair women at the beck and call of the padishah. The first male offspring produced therein was the natural successor to the throne (Shehzade), and any subsequent boy children born would be quietly strangled, when the time came, to ensure a calm and peaceful transfer of power.
Suleiman, the tenth Ottoman Sultan, was the first to break with tradition and honour his favourite concubine Hürrem (Roxelana) by making her his one and only official wife. Inconveniently, however, one of her harem sisters, Mahidevran (also known as Gülbahar) had already given birth to the senior heir, Mustafa. Needless to say, the favoured royal wife was having none of that, and contrived, with the aid of her son-in-law Rustem, to have the young Mustafa done away with, allegedly by five hitmen whose tongues, as a precaution, had been slit and their eardrums broken so that they would hear, and subsequently speak, no evil.
The way was thereby cleared for Hürrem Sultan’s eldest son Selim to ascend the throne on the death of Suleiman. Sadly for the great empire, he was not half the man his father had been. Sometimes referred to as ‘the Sot’, Selim II, it seems, was a little too partial to drink, and not much inclined to military exploits or affairs of state. Apart from the unflattering epithet, he is best known for presiding over the Ottoman naval defeat at Lepanto, considered by some historians as the turning point in their hitherto successful advance into Europe.
No blame, it seems, was ascribed to Rustem Pasha during his lifetime for his hand in the fateful conspiracy. According to Wikipedia, when he died in 1561 ‘his personal property included 815 lands in Rumelia and Anatolia, 476 mills, 1,700 slaves, 2,900 war horses, 1,106 camels and 800 Qur’ans’. One thing he not have, however, was the love of his wife Mihrimah. Legend has it that the royal princess was beloved of the illustrious architect Sinan. Although thirty years her senior, Sinan outlived Mihrimah and immortalized his vain love for her, if the tales are true, in the construction of two beautiful mosques, one near the city walls at the gate of Edirnekapı and the other on the Asian shore of the Bosporus at Üsküdar.
‘Mihrimah’ means ‘sun and moon’ in Persian, a language that made a significant contribution to Ottoman Turkish; and the royal princess is said to have been born on 21 March, the spring equinox. The stories, which I have so far been unable to verify personally, say that Sinan constructed the two mosques in such a way that, as the sun sets behind the single minaret of the one at Edirnekapi, Mihrimah’s birthday will be celebrated by the moon rising between the two minarets of the other at Uskudar – a touching and very Turkish tale, given that the great architect carried his unconsummated love to his grave at the age of 98.

Find your way to the Rustem Pasha Mosque
If by chance you ever find yourself in the vicinity of the New Mosque (1660) and the Egyptian Spice Bazaar in district of Eminönü, and you feel you can brave the jostling multitudes in Hasırcılar Street, do climb that stairway and pay a visit to the mosque of that erstwhile Grand Vizier. The building is sheathed inside and out with spectacular glazed tiles from the workshops of Iznik, famed for the colour and beauty of their ceramics. A particular secret guarded by those Iznik craftsmen was production of the colour red, which features prominently in the Rustem Pasha tiles. There are many larger mosques in the Islamic world – probably one or two in Dubai for all I know – but few more beautiful and historically interesting.
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2 thoughts on “Beauty and the Beast – An Ottoman fairy tale

  1. I read a lot about Dubai and how it is the best destination etc etc, but like you, the history of Istanbul intrigues me. Always something new to learn, and there is always somewhere to go that has a story to tell. Having never been to Dubai, I can not criticise it but someone needs to give me a very good reason, before I would even contemplate visiting it.

  2. I've been to the airport a few times. My flights from Istanbul to NZ used to drop me off there for a night so I could shop in their duty-free stores. Maybe I'm misjudging them – but I have read some nasty things about the imported labourers who do most of the construction work on those mega-buildings.

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