The Ancient District of Üsküdar – Palace Intrigues and Sufi Mystics

Alan Scott
17 August, 2014

Üsküdar is said to have 180 mosques. I haven’t counted, but I well remember the first night I spent – or at least the first day I awoke in that blessed quarter of Istanbul. It was a summer’s morning in August. I had just taken over tenancy of a small flat on the Asian shore of the Bosporus and spent a tiring day moving house. I was jolted awake around 6 am by a muezzin seemingly bellowing the call to prayer centimetres from my ear. In between phrases, another marginally more distant brother took up the call, and another, and another. When they finished others took over – and the performance went on for a good twenty minutes.


As time passed, I grew accustomed to the pre-dawn chorus (though I usually kept my bedroom window closed at night, whatever the weather), and I actually bought a flat of my own in the neighbourhood. It’s a locality steeped in history, whose recorded origins date from the 7th century BCE when it was founded by Greek-speaking colonists who named it Chrysopolis. In those days it was a small city with its own harbour, having strategic importance for trade and the collection of tax from ships passing through the strait to and from the Black Sea.

After the Roman Emperor Constantine I established his ‘New Rome’ at Byzantium on the opposite shore, Chrysopolis was the focal point for trade routes to Asia, and the mustering zone for military campaigns in that direction. It was also a key outpost for invaders aiming to conquer the imperial city across the water – an Arab army in the 8th century and Ottoman forces in the 14th. Chrysopolis became Skoutarion in the 12th century after a Byzantine imperial palace was established in the vicinity – and that name evolved over subsequent centuries into Üsküdar as we know it today.

Present-day Üsküdar has a reputation for being one of Istanbul’s more solidly Islamic communities, as we might guess from the number of mosques, but clearly it hasn’t always been so. Three large cemeteries located side by side in the Altunizade neighbourhood, one for the Armenian congregation, one for Eastern Orthodox faithful and the third for Muslims, attest to a greater cultural diversity in days gone by. There are still at least two Eastern Orthodox and four Armenian churches, as well as two Jewish synagogues in the district – not to exclude a somewhat infamous Roma community in the Selamsiz ‘hood just up the hill from the apartment I purchased.

Üsküdar’s role as a centre for trade was apparently the main attraction for Armenians. Caravans carrying goods from the east ended their journey here, before the building of the railroad.  Armenian merchants established schools and churches, built houses and buried their dead for centuries after Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. Testimony to Ottoman tolerance of religious and cultural diversity can be found in a recently restored courthouse established by Sultan Mehmet II more than five centuries ago. It was here that the Padishah issued many of his edicts on the governing of his expanding empire. One related to the conquest of Bosnia in 1478. In a firman dated April of that year, Mehmet decreed that, so long as they accepted his rule, the religion of his new subjects was to be respected, and their churches should come to no harm.

An interesting story is told about this courthouse exemplifying the justice system of the time, and the respect accorded to judges. The conqueror of Constantinople was having a palace built in his new capital. Apparently the Greek architect made an error in his measurements and several columns were cut too short, whereupon the Sultan had one of the errant craftsman’s hands cut off as a salutary example to others of his trade. The architect, however, appealed to the court, won a decision in his favour, and the judge ordered the Sultan’s hand amputated according to the requirements of Shariah law. The architect, perhaps wisely, decided to forgo the pleasure of such strict application of retributive justice, and accepted a generous payment of compensation instead.

As well as its function as a centre of trade, Üsküdar also served, in the days before rail and air travel, as departure point for annual pilgrimages to the sacred city of Mecca. This may account for the district’s popularity among wealthy benefactors seeking to gain a foothold in heaven by building a mosque or two before passing on to meet their Maker. Interestingly some of the largest mosques in the area were established in the name of women of the royal household. All visitors to Üsküdar know the two monumental buildings on either side of the main road beside the ferry wharf: the older built in 1548 by master architect Sinan and dedicated to Mihrimah, beloved daughter of Suleiman the Magnificent - the other commissioned by a loving son for his mother. Emetullah Rabia Gülnuş Sultan was the wife of one Sultan and the mother of two more, the second of whom, Ahmet III, had the mosque built on her death in 1710.

Lesser known, but more intriguing are two mosques located uphill from the main market area. Çinili Cami is so-called because of the beautiful ceramic tiles decorating its interior. Although erected to the honour of Mahpeyker Kösem Valide Sultan (Mother of the reigning sultan), the mosque does not bear her name. Sultana Kösem was the wife of Ahmet I, whose ‘Blue Mosque’ in the Sultanahmet area is one of Istanbul’s main tourist attractions. Like most of the women in the royal harem, Kösem was not ethnically Turkish. She was a Christian of Greek origin, although conversion to Islam was a requirement for ‘serving’ the Sultan. After her royal husband died in 1617 there were some problems with succession resulting in Kösem’s son Murat IV ascending to the throne in 1623 at the age of eleven. For the next 38 years until her death in 1651, Sultana Kösem virtually ruled the Ottoman Empire during the last years of its imperial glory. She was official regent to the eleven-year-old Murat, unofficial ruler during the reign of her second son İbrahim on account of his much-publicised mental instability, and regent again on the accession of her juvenile grandson Mehmet IV in 1648.

This ambitious lady, perhaps the most powerful woman in Ottoman history, is reported to have attended meetings of the Divan seated behind a curtain. With some reputation for brutality, she possibly did not endear herself to all her subjects. Legend has it that she was scheming for the removal of the ten-year-old Mehmet, whose mother, learning of the plot, commissioned ‘Tall Suleiman’, chief black eunuch of the harem, to strangle the venerable grandmother, allegedly with her own hair. And the mosque she had erected to preserve her name for posterity, in fact, does not.

The Sultana Nur Banu was perhaps less influential in Ottoman politics than Kösem, but her mosque complex built in 1583 is considerably grander, and has kept her name alive for future generations. She was probably a highborn Venetian (and Christian) or possibly a Spanish Jew, attaining pre-eminence in the harem and becoming the wife of Selim II, sometimes known as ‘The Sot’. Possibly acquiring administrative skills while her husband was otherwise engaged, Nur Banu became Valide Sultan on his death in 1574 when she engineered the accession of her son Murat III. This she managed, it is said, by concealing Selim’s death and preserving his mortal remains in a casket of ice until Mehmet could make the journey to Istanbul from Edirne where he had been serving as governor. 

Nur Banu effectively ruled the empire during her son’s reign in partnership with the grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmet Pasha. Communication with the world outside the harem was apparently carried out by a servant woman, Esther Handalı whom some have suspected of being the royal dowager’s lover. The complex of buildings that bears her name is the second-largest mosque foundation in Istanbul, including public baths, hospital, schools, alms-house and caravanserai. In the end it was possibly her Venetian roots that were her undoing. It is said she was poisoned by a Genoese agent whose masters had been angered by policies favouring their great Mediterranean trading rival.

One of the oldest mosques in Istanbul can be seen overlooking the water as you pull into Üsküdar on your ferry from the European shore. Its distinctive brick structure sets it apart from the other stone edifices nearby. Mehmet Pasha, of Greek ethnicity, was vizier to Mehmet the Conqueror but fell from favour before his mosque was completed, strangled on the Sultan’s command in 1470 – illustrating the transience of worldly status and the risks of serving a powerful master. Also catching the eye of the ferry passenger is the seaside mosque of Shemsi Pasha – a miniature gem by that indefatigable architect Sinan. Apart from the mosque, the commissioning vizier left little else to posterity other than a tongue-twister to test students of the Turkish language: ‘Shemsi Pasha Pasaji’.

The home of my accounts with the Garanti Bank for some years was the Ahmediye Branch, and I recently discovered the reason for the name. Ahmet III, the loving son mentioned above, ruled the empire from 1703-1736, gaining a reputation for sound financial management and a Western-oriented outlook – possibly in part attributable to the influence of his two French wives. During his reign the printing press was somewhat belatedly introduced for the publishing of texts in Arabic and Ottoman Turkish. Ahmet’s rule was also characterised by a craze for tulips among the aristocracy, bulbs being re-imported from Holland after actually originating in Anatolia. A small but picturesque mosque in a back street behind my bank was built to honour this sultan by an admirer, Emin Ahmet Aga in 1722. A large ornamental fountain also commemorating the third Ahmet is located on the foreshore next to the Mihrimah Mosque.

Üsküdar is rarely explored by visitors to Istanbul, but it’s a popular destination for locals in the know. Kanaat Restaurant behind the Mihrimah Mosque is an unprepossessing eatery with a reputation for fine food far surpassing its humble appearance. A little further up the road on the left you will see a small ancient cemetery in a copse of cypress trees, an ornamental fountain and gate, and a sign announcing that here is to be found the tomb of Sheikh Mustafa Devati. Monumental mosques are the most obvious feature of Islam in Turkey – but there is another less ostentatious aspect of the religion that has a strong hold on people despite the efforts of the secular and religious establishments to suppress, or at least discourage it.

Sufi mysticism played an important role in the spiritual life of citizens in Ottoman times, from the Sultan down to the lowliest commoner. Among people who hold a place for religion in their lives there are those who enjoy the company of others while communing with their God; who like to congregate in grand purpose-built edifices at fixed times and perform rituals of worship prescribed by others with specialist knowledge. Some, however, prefer a less public, more personal, internalised approach to the Deity, believing that certain individuals have achieved spiritual union with God, and are capable of passing on their knowledge, or at least acting as intermediaries who can help realise the needs and wishes of their less-exalted brethren. There were numerous such sects in former times, each with its own leaders and saints, the best known in the West being the 13th century mystic poet Mevlana Rumi. 

After the Republic of Turkey was established in 1923 with secular separation of ‘church’ and state as one of its founding principles, Sunni Islam was brought under state control and became the ‘official’ religion. Sufi sects and mystical brotherhoods were considered breeding-grounds of reaction and opposition to modernisation, and were outlawed. Ninety years of republican government, however, has clearly not been sufficient to erase all traces of long-established folk beliefs. In the 17th century Sheikh Mustafa Devati was a teacher in the school associated with the Valide Sultan Mosque mentioned above. Subsequently he resigned all official duties, assuming the role of resident wise man and spiritual guide at the mosque that bears his name and subsequently became a centre of Sufi worship and ceremonies. 

A little less accessible, but better known to Istanbulites of a certain persuasion is the establishment dedicated to Aziz Mahmut Hüdayi and housing his tomb. The sainted Mahmut (1541-1628) was, in fact, the spiritual master of Sheikh Mustafa, and served as a judge and teacher in Edirne, Egypt, Damascus and Bursa before setting up shop in Istanbul, inspiring sultans and common people alike with his miracles, conversation, poems, sermons and advice. His life spanned the reigns of eight sultans, and he is said to have been greatly respected by Murat III and Ahmet I. An interesting feature of such tombs is a notice placed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs listing activities that are not considered orthodox Sunni practices, among them, lighting candles, tying pieces of cloth to trees and fences, leaving votive offerings of food, asking the saint for help in the curing of illness, and whirling – indicating that such hangovers from ancient folk religion and dervish ceremonies may still be considered effective among certain sections of the populace. 

Another curious site worth visiting in Üsküdar is the cemetery of Bülbülderesi (Nightingale Stream). The graveyard is accessible from a street called Selanikliler Sokak, and is a little unusual for a Muslim burial ground in that many of the tombstones are decorated with photographs of the dear departed. Many of those interred here evidently migrated to Istanbul from the city of Salonika after it was occupied by Greek forces in 1912. In Ottoman times, Salonika was a major port and commercial centre with a large population of Sephardic Jews. It was also home to a community known as ‘Dönme’ or ‘converts’, followers of the 18th century self-styled Messiah, Sabatai Zevy – who, with his devotees, made himself sufficiently unpopular with Ottoman authorities that he was given the choice of conversion or death. Taking the pragmatic option saved him from martyrdom but also undermined his credibility, I guess, and the movement fizzled out. There has long been suspicion that forced conversion failed to win the hearts of the Dönme, and some may have continued surreptitiously practising their traditional faith. The illustrated gravestones by Nightingale Stream perhaps lend credence to this theory. In this cemetery, incidentally, you can find the last resting place of Dr Şükrü Bey, Town Clerk in Izmir, who allegedly opposed the Greek invasion in 1919 and became its first Turkish casualty.

Well, if I had more time and space, I might tell you about the Kite Museum, where Mehmet Naci Aköz displays spectacular creations from around the world, sells personalized designs and runs classes to instruct children in the art of kite-flying. I might speculate on the achievement of Hezarfen Ahmet Çelebi, 17th century proto-aviator, who reportedly flew under his own power from the Tower of Galata across the Bosporus to land in what is now Doğancılar Park. I might tell you of the Selimiye Barracks, built by a later modernizing sultan, Mahmud II, in 1828, and housing a museum commemorating Florence Nightingale, pioneering nurse to British troops wounded fighting for Queen and Empire in the Crimean War of the 1850s. Brits of a classical bent liked (and may still like) to refer to Üsküdar by its Greek name of Scutari. The ancient harbour of Chrysopolis, however, has long since been filled in, and nightingales no longer sing on the tree-lined banks of burbling streams – but Üsküdar will handsomely repay a day spent exploring its labyrinthine streets. 

Uskudar History Art Ottoman History Culture And History Buff
Alan Scott

Alan first came to Turkey in 1995. From the first he was captivated by the country – the incredible layers of history, the diversity of cultures, the music and the legendary hospitality of the people. Since then he has spent most of the intervening years living and working in Istanbul as a teacher of English.
He lives in that Queen of Cities with his Turkish wife, Dilek; visits regularly an ever-increasing whanau in Australia, New Zealand and the USA; writes a blog about Turkey; rides a bicycle, and escapes to Gümüşlük whenever the opportunity arises.

comments powered by Disqus