On the skirt of one of Istanbul’s seven hills, crowned by an Ottoman imperial mosque lies the striking world heritage site of Süleymaniye. Most visitors are drawn to this quarter of the historic peninsula to view the grand 16th- century mosque that was constructed by the influential ottoman architect Sinan, but beyond the archways of the pristine complex lies a window into local life that mustn’t be overlooked.
Upon exiting the mosque, one is naturally drawn towards the rows of cafes adorned with flashing halogen lights that occupy the narrow cobbled streets leading up to Istanbul University. Tourists will often be promised succulent kebabs and local delicacies for the "best price", but in reality the food served at most of these joints is both average and overpriced. The students and locals prefer Ali Baba’s slowly stewed beans with seasoned lamb, at his no-frills restaurant directly opposite the mosque. It’s a rare chance to invigorate your taste buds while local life unfolds in front you.
After eating Ali Baba’s wholesome dishes, one might feel the desire --as I did-- to take a stroll. There is no formula for discovering Süleymaniye; the best way is to lose oneself amidst the narrow streets lined with Ottoman era wooden houses and modern restorations that mark the beginnings of a vast and highly contested urban renewal project.
Modern life plays out in a colorful way on these historic streets, making it a popular place for photographers. Young children play games with bare feet under rows of colorful laundry alignments, while musicians perform traditional folk music against the backdrop of architect Sinan’s tomb with the occasional chicken or duck scurrying past.
In the 1950s Süleymaniye became a popular settlement area for migrants from Eastern Anatolia. Many would move together with their livestock and use it as a stepping-stone to an area of the city with better living conditions.
Now, most of these Ottoman era houses are being turned into luxurious town houses or high end cafes that boast the view of the golden horn estuary that runs like a silk sash between the historic peninsula and the rest of the city.
Some streets are empty, while others are bustling with locals engaged in backgammon or chess tournaments. Local women set up small stalls on street corners, selling handmade goods that come without the hassle of the ardent sellers of Sultanahmet.
Süleymaniye is so much more than a site of stock historic landmarks; it begs to be explored.