Admiring the Uncompromising Ugliness
by Andrea Kirkby
Istanbul straddles the Bosporus, the strip of water that divides Europe and Asia. It’s a city with a mixed heritage – Roman, Greek, and Turkish – and whatever happens to Turkey’s claims to membership of the European Union, Istanbul will remain an ambiguous city, with a foot in both continents.
The geography of the city is complex. Modern Istanbul stands astride the y-shaped waters of the Golden Horn and the Bosporus; it’s a city linked by water, where the ferry docks of Eminonu belch forth huge crowds of commuters every day.
North of the Horn, now the modern city’s centre of commerce, was known as Pera under the Ottoman empire, and occupied by Genoese, Venetians, foreign traders and diplomats. The Galata tower which dominates the promontory was built by the Genoese in the fourteenth century, at the end of the Byzantine empire.
To the east, the Asian coast, with Uskudar (Scutari) faces the waterfront. To the west, the promontory of the great city, still surrounded by the walls of Theodosius, uses the great aqueducts of the Roman empire to channel water into the centre. This hilly peninsula was the historic centre of first a Roman, then a Greek, then a Turkish empire.
If you’re interested in history you’ll want to start off in the centre, in the district now known as Sultanahmet. Here the great Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia stands at the end of the Hippodrome; here the crowds came to cheer for the Blues and the Greens, and not infrequently rioted after the chariot races. Nowadays, Stambulli taxi drivers run their own version of the chariot races of the empire.
You can really get a feeling for the huge ambition of empire by visiting just two buildings – Hagia Sophia and the Süleymaniye mosque. One Greek, one Turkish, they are the climactic works of their respective cultures.
Hagia Sophia is unbelievably awe-inspiring. Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus built this ambitious edifice for Justinian – one of a series of great rulers from Constantine to Suleiman who stamped their character not only on the buildings of the capital, but on the laws of their empires. Although the church has lost most of its mosaics, it retains its gleaming marble facings and carved marble capitals; and of course the great dome, a huge unsupported span high above. (It’s actually the second dome – the original only lasted a few years before falling. You can judge the immense ambition of early Byzantium not just by the size of the dome, but by the perseverance with which Justinian, undeterred by the collapse, just ordered a rebuilding – managed by Isidore’s nephew.
Go to Hagia Sophia early in the morning to see it in dim light, and in the quiet before the crowds arrive. Even without the chanting and the incense, you’ll understand something of Byzantine mysticism.
The thing I love most about Hagia Sophia is the uncompromising ugliness of the exterior – huge buttresses, a massive plain dome, plain brick walls. There’s nothing pretty here – the architecture aims at an impression of great power and dignity, not elegance or delicacy. And that’s a theme that will echo again and again through the architecture of the city.
Sophia is also the moment at which architecture stops being Roman and becomes Byzantine. The earlier church on this site had been a basilica, with long arcades and a pedimented front that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Rome. But Justinian’s church has nothing in common with Roman architecture. If you a familiar with the Roman pantheon, with its skylight above and its solidity and simplicity, you’ll see that Sophia, with its ambiguous gallery, aisle spaces and dim lighting, has nothing at all in common with that style.
Hagia Sophia impressed the Ottoman Turks; they created mosques with domes that clearly reflect the pattern of the great church, and create an immediately recognizable skyline. The influence is evident as early as the Beyazit mosque, the earliest surviving imperial mosque. You see it at its height in the work of the great architect Sinan, under Suleiman the magnificent.
And if you stand near Hagia Sophia, and look up what’s nowadays Divan Yolu, the great street that runs towards the Grand Bazaar and the western parts of the city, you can see how although almost all the Byzantine buildings above ground have vanished, the main street of the city has remained. Even the Bazaar is probably on the site of the Byzantine market. Although Divan Yolu today is flanked by mosques, mausoleums and pious foundations, things have changed less than you might imagine
Hagia Sophia stands alone nowadays, divorced from the Great Palace and its other surroundings. But Sinan’s mosque at Süleymaniye, on the northern side of the city, is still surrounded by its original dependencies, and it’s here that you’ll need to go to understand how mosques fit into the Ottoman cityscape.
Mosques were planned as self-financing entities –surrounded by shops which paid rent to the mosque foundation or waqf. They also acted as charitable foundations, running hostels, caravanserais, hospitals, and soup kitchens, as well as medreses (religious schools), and often, the mausoleum of the founder and of other major donors. That had always been the case, but Sinan created a purpose-built complex where the forms of the architecture ordered and regulated the surrounding buildings. The fine arcades of the shops facing the mosque, and the steps leading up to it, create a monumental complex, practically a city within a city.
This mosque was the work of Suleiman the Magnificent – though in Turkish he’s known as Suleiman the Lawgiver. It’s interesting that this is one thing he has in common with Justinian, who created a new legal code for the Byzantine empire. Like Napoleon, another great emperor, both of them saw the creation of a legal code as a longer lasting heritage than mere military conquest.
The restaurants opposite the mosque, sell fasulye – baked beans Turkish style –recommended as an inexpensive and enjoyable lunch stop. However, if you’d been here in the sixteenth century, you might have had a less sedate time – apparently several of these shops sold hashish, and the lane was known as ‘antidote alley’.
Sinan took the idea of the central dome from Hagia Sophia, but made it more elegant and graceful. He created a cascading pattern, with semidomes and turrets falling away from the central dome, diversifying the outline. This mosque complex works on different levels to cope with the sloping site. There are stairways, ramps, and the whole north eastern part of the complex is supported on huge vaults. Sinan considered this mosque his greatest work, and like his master Suleiman, he’s buried here, in a little tomb in his own private garden.
The mosque is currently undergoing repairs, which makes access difficult. But the graveyard, with the mausoleums of Suleiman and his wife Roxelana, can be visited, as can the shops and medreses and even the bathhouse belonging to the mosque.
But to understand Istanbul properly, you have to understand the smaller scale of the city as well as the major monuments. Walk the cobbled streets near Kucuk Ayasofya – the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus with their tumbledown wooden houses, and you’ll see one face of the city. Or wander the streets that extend north from the Yeni Camii and Eminonu, into the market. This isn’t a tourist market like the Grand Bazaar, but a neighbourhood market selling daily essentials. On Tahtakale you’ll see shops full of kitchen equipment, as well as food stalls. Here you’ll find a gem of a mosque, Sinan’s Rustem Pasha Mosque, elevated above the noise of the market and reached by two winding staircases in the thickness of its plinth.
Hagia Sophia and Süleymaniye are huge buildings, but bare though, Sinan filled the mosque with ceramic tiles. There are flowers, geometrical patterns, calligraphic roundels; bright reds and blues, fresh greens. The painting is precise, the colours vivid; this was the greatest age of the Iznik tile makers. If you want to see the decline of Turkish ceramic, visit the mausoleum opposite Yeni Cami – the tiles are lovely, but the colours are not as vibrant; there’s more green, less rich blue and red, and the designs are less precisely drawn and often smudged.
If you have an eye for detail, you’ll love the fountains of the city – both the shadirvans, the ablutions fountains where men wash their feet before entering the mosque, and the drinking fountains on the streets, often with a little tin mug attached. Little kiosks now serve tea and coffee, but were originally charitable fountains associated with the mosques – one near Yeni Cami still fulfills this function. In the booksellers’ bazaar, next to the Beyazit mosque, one of the fountains has been specially restored as a drinking bowl for the tribe of cats that live there. Although there are no Byzantine fountains left, the ready availability of running water everywhere in the city is another element of continuity between the two cities, Constantinople and Istanbul. It was the Roman emperors who first brought fresh water to the city, and you can still see the fine aqueduct of Valens, and two Byzantine underground cisterns.
Istanbul is a strange mixture – Roman, Greek, Turkish, and full of surprises. It’s full of tourist touts and traffic, yet, as soon as you wander off the beaten track, you find the most unexpected places and people. It’s a city of emperors and sultans, yet it’s also a city where the smell of lignite coal makes your nostrils smart in winter, where you can buy roast chestnuts in the street, and where the street cats are always glad to make your acquaintance. You can’t sum up Istanbul, you can only experience it.
For More Information:
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Private Walking Tour in Old City Istanbul
The Legends of History Tour: Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace in Istanbul
Private Tour: Istanbul in One Day Sightseeing Tour including Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace
Eat Like a Local: Istanbul Food and Culture Tour with Dinner at Local Family Home
The Jewish Route In Istanbul Private Tour
About the author:
Andrea Kirkby is a writer and photographer with a passion for travel, history and architecture. After walking to Canterbury, Santiago de Compostela and Rome along the ancient pilgrim paths, she’s now wondering whether Jerusalem ought to be next.