I am often asked what brought me to Turkey. These days I tend to reply, ‘The Hand of God’. People in Turkey can accept that as an answer, and to me it seems as good an explanation as any other. That was the first time. As for the second, I’m a lot clearer on that. It was a dream that clinched my return.
I’m not a big believer in the meaningfulness of dreams, and I certainly don’t let them direct my life – except that once. Even then, an objective observer might question the wisdom of basing a life-changing decision on what could be simply the sub-conscious mind playing around. All I can say is, arguments for and against seeming to be in a state of balance, something was needed to tip the scales. And that dream did it – sent me on a 17,000 km journey to a new life.
But I’m not here to tell you about my personal journeying. I just wanted a lead-in to a more interesting story involving a far more intrepid traveller. I don’t know how many mosques there are within the twenty-two km walls of old Istanbul. I’ve read that there are 185 in Üsküdar across the water, so I guess there must be more than that, and it’s the larger ones, of course, that tend to attract the most attention.
The mosque of Ahi Çelebi, minding its own business on the shore of the Golden Horn beyond the Galata Bridge, is easily missed. It was in a state of dilapidation until recent restoration, and was possibly more noticeable then for its obvious antiquity. Its original sponsor was a distinguished medical practitioner who served four sultans during the Ottoman Empire’s days of greatest glory. At the age of 90 he made the pilgrimage to Mecca required of all good Muslims, but failed to complete the round trip, falling ill and passing away in the year 1524 in Cairo, where he was buried with full honours.
A century and a half later, another Ottoman gentleman of note, Evliya Çelebi, dreamed a dream in which he found himself beside the mosque of the renowned doctor. On entering, he was amazed to encounter the spirits of the Prophet Muhammed and several other holy men. Wishing not to miss such an opportunity, Evliya begged the Prophet to intercede for him for God’s mercy. Unfortunately, a little overawed by the grandeur of the occasion, his tongue tripped over the Arabic word for intercession, and instead produced a similar sounding word meaning ‘journey’. Muhammed clearly had a sense of humour, and promised to take care of both. Evliya Çelebi henceforth embarked on a remarkable expedition taking him all over the Ottoman Empire as far as Vienna, across into North Africa, and later into the neighbouring Muslim empire, Safavid Persia. He described his experiences in his Seyahatname, one of the great travel books in any language according to the cognoscenti.
Three centuries further on, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, after a successful struggle to found the Republic, in which Turkish nationalism played a major role, implemented a programme of reforms, one of which was an attempt to rid the language of its extensive Arabic and Persian borrowings. His aim was a pure Turkish language written in a simplified Latin alphabet. Well, the latter was a success, for which modern students of Turkish are grateful – but the former was doomed to failure. Imagine trying to rid English of its words derived from Latin and Greek, in an attempt to return to pure Anglo-Saxon! So when I struggle in Turkish with words like tatbikat, talimat, tamirat, tadilat, tarikat, whose meanings cover such diverse concepts as ‘religious cult’, ‘earthquake drill’ and instructions to my bank for an automatic payment, I remember and sympathise with that wanderer of old.
Across the road from Ahi Çelebi’s mosque are grander buildings which I’m not going to tell you about. You can find them in any good guidebook: Yeni Cami, the New Mosque, completed in 1665; the elaborately tiled mosque of Rüstem Pasha, son-in-law of Suleiman the Magnificent; and the 17th century Egyptian or Spice Bazaar. Instead I want to lead you into a back street behind the New Mosque to a large, but seemingly abandoned five-storey office building dating from the late 19th century.
Known as Sansaryan Han, its deserted state is apparently owing to an on-going court case involving the Armenian Patriarchate and the Istanbul Metropolitan Council. The building was constructed by an Armenian architect, Hosep Aznavour, among whose other works are the old tobacco factory that now houses Kadir Has University, and the Bulgarian church dedicated to St Stephen, an eye-catching structure a little further up the Golden Horn.
Originally designed for commercial use, Sansaryan Han was later bequeathed by its owner, Mıgırdıç Sanasaryan (apparently the correct spelling) to the Armenian church, and functioned as an orphanage and school for children from Erzurum in eastern Anatolia – a fact which may be related to other events involving Armenians in that region around that time.
My Turkish sources, without going into detail, tell me that the Ottoman Government took over the building some time after 1915, but for the next twenty years there was ongoing litigation about its true ownership, which seems to have ended in 1935. At first serving as offices for various government departments, Sansaryan Han was gradually taken over by the police force’s security section, and, by the 1940s, had begun witnessing the activities for which it became notorious in later days.
For some years the corridors of the former orphanage echoed with the screams of detainees subjected to torture for their political beliefs and/or activities. Prisoners were subjected to falaka (traditional beating on the soles of the feet) and electric shocks in sensitive parts of the body, either to extract confessions, or merely to show them the error of their ways. When not undergoing the tender ministrations of police interrogators, they were kept in cells known someone morbidly as ‘tabut’ (coffins), measuring 150 cm in height by 80 cm square, so that they could neither stand upright, nor lie down. Just when the police left off these practices is not clear – but they occupied Sansaryan Han until 1990, and there is evidence to suggest that political dissidents were still being subjected to physical ill-treatment well into the 1980s.
Apparently there were plans to refurbish the building for use as a five-star hotel, but the legal dispute over its ownership resurfaced and is continuing. Perhaps it’s just as well. There must be a few ghosts of former inmates lurking to disturb the slumbers of well-heeled visitors.
Somewhat ironically, quite nearby there is another easily missed, but architecturally interesting small mosque named Hidayet. This is actually one of my favourite words in Turkish, meaning ‘a God-inspired desire to seek the way of truth.’ Evidently Turkish police back in the good old days found the ways of the Almighty too slow, and preferred to rely on more direct methods.
Hidayet is not an old mosque by Istanbul standards, having been first commissioned by Sultan Mahmut II in 1813. Its wooden construction led to its destruction in one of the fires that regularly laid waste to the city, and the present structure was erected by Abdülhamid II in 1887. The latter sultan ruled the empire for 32 years in probably the most difficult period of its 600-year history. It’s not a grandiose edifice, and it’s tucked away unobtrusively in a quiet corner. Nevertheless, the design is interesting, with an arched stairway leading up to the prayer hall, and a passage opening on to the waterfront square at Eminönü. The architect, in fact, was a ‘French Ottoman’ (work that one out!) who founded the first school of architecture in Turkey and taught there for twenty-five years until 1908. Among his better-known works are the Pera Palace Hotel, the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, Marmara University’s Haydarpaşa campus and the Ottoman Public Debt Administration building (now home to Istanbul High School).
Once again I’m going to by-pass more frequented locations, though you should visit the sweet shop of Ali Muhiddin Hacı Bekir, the country’s oldest company, and purveyor of Turkish delight to the discerning since 1777. On the other side of the road you can’t miss the Legacy Ottoman Hotel, five-star accommodation housed in a tastefully renovated building formerly known less pretentiously as the Fourth Vakıf Han. Designed as commercial offices in 1911, construction was interrupted by the First World War, and not completed until 1926. Nevertheless, the unfinished building served as accommodation for French troops during the occupation of the city – until its liberation by Mustafa Kemal’s nationalist republicans in 1923. The building was designed by another prominent architect of the day, Ahmet Kemaleddin, one of the pioneers of the First Turkish National Architectural Movement that bridged the final years of the empire and the early years of the republic. Interestingly, he was involved, in 1925, in the project to restore the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, site of much strife these days between Israelis and Palestinians.
If you have an hour or two to spend, I really recommend launching into the labyrinth of narrow streets behind Yeni Cami that will bring you eventually to one of the lower gates of the Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı). This was the commercial heart of old Istanbul, and modern-day merchants carry on their trade in buildings dating back to the 15th century.
Mahmut Pasha was an Ottoman gentleman of Serbian descent, who served two terms as Grand Vizier in the mid- to late 15th century. It is said that his family had held high rank in the Byzantine Empire, but his prowess as a soldier and his literary talents as a poet won him the hand of a daughter of Sultan Mehmet II, conqueror of Byzantine Constantinople.
Evidently Ottoman palace politics continued the intrigues that had characterized their Christian predecessors. Mahmut lost his position as vizier in 1468 as a result of some behind-the-scenes manoeuvring by his successor – but was reinstated four years later. This time, however, he made a more powerful enemy. Word has it that Sultan Mehmet’s son Mustafa entertained Mahmut’s wife one night while the vizier was absent from the city on a military campaign. The aggrieved husband made a public fuss, divorcing the errant wife – for which sin he was dismissed a second time, and executed in 1474.
During his years of ascendancy, Mahmut Pasha endowed a mosque complex that is one of Istanbul’s oldest. Completed in 1462, the mosque is characterized by the architectural style of the earlier Ottoman capital, Bursa. Imperial mosque design changed markedly after the conquest of Constantinople, influenced by the vast domed structure of Hagia Sophia cathedral. Mahmut Pasha’s mosque has been damaged and repaired several times over the centuries, and is currently undergoing a major restoration. Nearby, textile merchants are plying their trade in the 550 year-old hamam that was part of Mahmut’s legacy. Anywhere else in Europe, one imagines, a monumental edifice of such antiquity would have been lovingly restored and put to use as a museum or some other culturally sensitive purpose. In Istanbul, it is undoubtedly on the list of heritage sites, patiently waiting for its turn to come.
In recent years a major industry has developed in Turkey producing soap operas and drama series for television. A bewildering multitude of such programmes parade nightly across screens throughout the nation, catering to virtually every niche in the socio-economic and religio-cultural spectra. Several of them have even migrated with remarkable success to foreign fields as diverse as the Muslim Middle East and Roman Catholic South America.
One of the big hits of the last three years has been a period costume drama, ‘Muhteşem Yüzyıl’ dealing with events surrounding the reign of Süleiman the Magnificent, who ruled the empire from 1520 to 1566. Well, when you’re on to a good thing, you’d be mad to let it go – and the producers decided it was well worth a follow-up project. The new series is called ‘Kösem’ after the woman who played a significant role through the reigns of four sultans in the 17th century.
Born Anastasia on the Greek island of Tinos around 1590, she was brought as a slave at the age of 15 to the harem of Sultan Ahmet I, who gave her the name Mahpeyker on her conversion to Islam. She quickly became Ahmet’s favourite, and later his wife, taking the name Kösem. Ahmet himself is not recognised as one of the great Ottoman rulers, having lost a major war with his Savafid Persian neighbours, and earning, perhaps by way of compensation, a reputation for excessive religiosity. He is mainly remembered for constructing the large mosque next to Hagia Sophia, known to tourists as the Blue Mosque.
Ahmet died of typhus at the age of 27, and Kösem had to take a back seat briefly, until her son Murat IV came to the throne in 1623 in rather dodgy circumstances at the age of 11. Kösem exerted considerable power as the sultan’s mother, and regent until he came of age. Murat the man was celebrated for his enormous physical strength, but also died young, at 27, reputedly of cirrhosis, suggesting that he had not inherited all of his father’s strict Muslim practices. He in turn was succeeded by his younger brother Ibrahim, nicknamed ‘The Mad’. Ibrahim’s mental instability ensured that Kösem continued to wield effective power, manipulating her son through his appetite for women. It is said there were 280 young ladies in his harem at its greatest flowering, and, despite his psychological infirmity, Ibrahim managed to father three future sultans.
By this time, however, the empire was in danger of descending into chaos, threatened from without by Venetian aggression and the depredations of Maltese pirates, and by rebellion from within. In 1648, Ibrahim was seized and imprisoned by an uprising of Janissaries, and subsequently executed with the consent of his loving mother. Kösem’s consolation in her grief was the accession of her grandson, Mehmet IV for whom, since he was only six years of age, she once again took the role of regent. Her downfall, ironically, came at the hands of Mehmet’s mother, Turhan Hatice, who had the seemingly indestructible grandmother strangled by the chief black eunuch of the harem, using, depending on who’s telling the story, a curtain in her bedroom, or her own hair.
Kösem’s memory is preserved, after a fashion, in the large inn she had built, Büyük Valide Han, said to be one of the city’s biggest. That and, of course, the TV drama series currently screening on Thursday evenings at 8 pm on Star TV. There is less talk these days, of Turkey’s government attempting to establish a neo-Ottoman Empire – but imperial history is clearly back in fashion with the contemporary citizenry.