Spellbound by Suleymaniye Mosque.
Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.
September 25th, 2020.
Our journey from Cambodia to Turkey was a long one. And that’s putting it lightly. First we flew from Phnom Penh to Singapore (2 hours 5 minutes) where a grossly overpriced “special COVID rate” hotel awaited us at Changi Airport. 24 hours later (long story), we boarded an empty flight from Singapore to Istanbul. That one was 11 hours, thank you very much.
Sladja and I felt like zombies on that early morning airport bus into Istanbul. But not so zombified that we couldn’t feel excited by the crazy project we had dared to throw together. You see, we were supposed to be on our way to Serbia to sit out the rest of the pandemic.
In Belgrade, I would be applying for temporary residency so that we’d be able to stay together. However, we then realised that Turkey (where we had to transfer) was one of just a few countries in the world still open to visitors. No restrictions. Hmm, should we? Throwing caution to the wind, we decided to delay our Serbia settling with an 18-night stay in the Turkish capital.
Spellbound by Suleymaniye Mosque.
Needing separate rooms and strong WIFI to keep our teaching schedules running, we secured an apartment in the trendy Sisli district on the European side of the city. On that first day we definitely would’ve benefited from an early night to get our body clocks back on track. Instead though, we couldn’t resist heading out into the city for some late afternoon exploring.
Before long, light was falling as we picked out a walking route to our very first Istanbul mosque. As lovers of Islamic architecture, we knew the city was going to deliver some amazing structures over the course of our stay. And we thought why not cross off a real beauty on our first night.
Think of Istanbul’s great mosques and, for the most part, folk get all gooey over the likes of Hagia Sophia and The Blue Mosque. Which are both gorgeous, obviously. And yet, there is a strong case for the spellbinding Suleymaniye Mosque. An Ottoman Imperial masterpiece perfectly perched atop the city’s Third Hill, it was completed in 1557 following seven years of backbreaking construction.
Adventures in Istanbul.
We arrived at dusk, not long after the call to prayer, which we’d heard from several streets away. This was poor planning on our part, due to the fact that we now wouldn’t be able to enter the mosque while it was in use. Soon, it was going to close for the night. So we swiftly ducked into the splendid inner court for a look, while we could.
What a special moment it was as we entered the court, bathed in a blue glow from the early evening sky. Inside the mosque itself, behind thick wooden doors, we could hear traces of the Imam doing his thing. This lent the courtyard a pleasingly hypnotic feel as we considered the history that lay here.
After all, this was the complex that Suleiman the Magnificent had envisioned as the biggest and boldest mosque of the city. And so it was, at least for 462 years until Çamlıca Mosque sprang up in 2019. Spoilsports.
Not knowing how long we would have, and anticipating a sudden rush of exiting people at any moment, we savoured a brief but nevertheless full circular of the court’s finely sculpted, colonnaded covered walkway. A tasteful concoction of marble, granite and porphyry, a word I’m not ashamed to say I had to look up. The soft pinky-red glaze patterns on the arches, meanwhile, are brilliantly subtle.
Keen to avoid being swallowed up by the imminent crowds, we grabbed a few final shots and called it a night. Indeed I wanted a photo of myself in front of one of its four stupendous minarets. Each one containing ten galleries. Because, you know, Suleiman the Magnificent was the 10th Ottoman sultan.
This brief flirtation with Suleymaniye Mosque had not been enough, we knew we’d have to go back. The next morning, after a gloriously long and restful sleep, we awoke early full of beans. Thus, after a quick breakfast, we wasted no time in setting off for a second look.
This time we were able to enjoy the full splendour of the pretty mosque garden. Autumn was busy weaving its magic across the trees and plants as we sauntered down the path to the main entrance.
With nothing but the sounds of tweeting birds in the air, I initially thought Sladja and I had the place all to ourselves. But then I spotted a lone man resting quietly under a tree. For a moment our eyes locked and he gave me a solemn nod.
From a corner of the garden, we stumbled upon an absolutely breathtaking panoramic. Delightful rows of Turkish bathhouse rooftops preceding a stretch of the Bosphorus and the city beyond.
Working our way back to the courtyard we’d entered the night before, we came upon a handful of local men performing wudu. These guys had gotten here early, as according to our calculations we had at least an hour before the next call to prayer was due.
As special as it had been to experience the courtyard at night, our daytime arrival caused us to catch our breath all over again.
It was so perfectly crafted and gleaming I wondered if there had been some recent restoration work. But apparently its last major makeover took place between 2007-2010.
Prior to that there had been a significant rebuild after the Great Fire of 1660 that saw well over half of Constantinople completely destroyed. Another renovation took place to fix damage caused by a devastating earthquake in 1766.
Interestingly, the courtyard served as a weapons depot during the First World War. Which of course eventually led to another fire and yet another refurbishment in 1956.
Tentatively approaching the entrance steps to the interior, we realised that the morning cleaning session was in progress. Uh oh. There was sweeping, vacuuming and odd jobs going on inside and spilling out into the courtyard. Would we be able to go in?
Luckily, a local man saw us looking bashful and asked if he could help. When we told him we were very much hoping for a stroll inside, he went and asked somebody for us. A minute or so later he returned with a smile. “Please, enjoy our beautiful mosque!” So we removed our shoes and Sladja covered her hair and shoulders.
I’m certainly glad we didn’t miss out on the interior, a fine mix of Islamic and Byzantine elements crowned by a sizeable half-dome inscribed with verse from the Quran. Suleiman hired the royal architect Mimar Sinan to design it, a man whose life work consisted of around 300 of the Ottoman Empire’s finest mosques.
Adventures in Istanbul.
Adjoining the mosque, just to the south of the main courtyard, sits an ancient cemetery. To miss it would be a crime, just duck under the stone doorway and suddenly one is completely lost in a picturesque garden packed with historic graves.
Beautifully kept and wonderfully peaceful, we spent some time strolling down the various paths. Trying (and failing) to make sense of the gravestones and their mysterious inscriptions.
For over 450 years, key royal, religious and political figures have been laid to rest here. Unfortunately, English language information about who precisely has proven hard to track down.
Suleymaniye Mosque Cemetery.
In any case, the graves here are clearly a mere warmup act for what visitors really want to see when they come to the cemetery. Because, yes, it also contains two large mausoleums home to a number of royal tombs.
First, you’ve got the Mausoleum to Suleiman the Magnificent himself! He died in the autumn of 1566 aged 71 during a military expedition to Hungary. Historians reckon the mausoleum was built that year and probably finished in 1567.
The octagonal structure kept funny opening times during COVID, so we felt lucky to have been granted access. Right place at the right time, I guess. Mr. Magnificent lies alongside his daughter, Mihrimah Sultan, in addition to two successive sultans, Suleiman II and Ahmed II.
Although tiny, the mausoleum is lavish, showcasing a veritable feast of Islamic art. Several walls, for example, are covered in polychrome Iznik tiles.
Most impressive of all, dominating the back wall, are a string of inscriptive panels quoting verses of The Quran.
Mausoleum of Suleiman the Magnificent.
Interestingly, Suleiman’s wife, Hurrem Sultan (Roxelana), got a mausoleum all of her own. This one dates back to 1558, when she passed away just a few years after her husband.
She was one of the most powerful women in Ottoman history. A close adviser to her husband, a diplomat in her own right and commissioner of public facilities. Not to mention the mother of future sultan Selim II. Sadly for us, we didn’t get to view her tomb, as it was closed that day. Bummer.
All in all we could have no complaints. Our first Istanbul mosque visit had been a resounding success. As such, it remains perhaps my favourite. Though as you’ll see in my upcoming articles, it definitely has some fierce competitors.
Like this? Take a look at my series of articles on Istanbul.
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