Suleyman’s magnificent mosque

Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent commissioned a mosque in 1550 CE, and Mimar Sinan built it on the third hill of Contantinople by 1557. We walked up a steep sloping path from the street gate into a large courtyard, green with grass, shaded by trees, overlooking the Halic (Golden Horn). It is a beautiful view. From below, the skyline is dominated by the domes and minarets of this mosque, and I should have expected this breahtaking view. What I could not have anticipated is the calm of the complex.

It is hard to get a good view of the totality of the mosque from nearby; you have to be at the Golden Horn (Halic) to get a good photo. Perhaps the best view from inside it in the fore-court, with its fountain and peristyle. The taller pair of minarets, 76 meters high, are then visible (photo above) flanking the 26.5 meters wide main dome. You can see two wires strung between the minarets. Between them they carry bulbs which spell out messages for the month of Ramazan. The extreme foreshortening in this view prevents you from seeing the supporting semi-domes on the east and west, and the tympanum arches on the north and south.

The inside was full of light from the windows on the qiblah wall, in the domes and in the tympanum arches. It is here that I understoood the smart design involved in moving the tympanum out to the exterior; it can then be pierced by windows which let in light. The large crowds inside produced a hushed sound, indicating that the acoustics of the place is deliberately designed. Apparently part of the clever architecture is the carving of resonant cavities into the stone blocks used in the main dome. I understand that water reservoirs were cut into the hill below the mosque to supply the neighbourhood, and to provide climate control inside by recirculating hot water from the hamam under the floor of the mosque. When I visit it again, this is something I would love to see. One of Sinan’s innovations was to incorporate the buttresses into the interior, to preserve the harmonious external appearance of the mosque. You can see them on the edges of the photo above. The minbar is pushed towards the central mihrab to accommodate this, and the back wall pushed outwards by a meter.

The interior decoration is not as overwhelming as in the Sultanahmet mosque. There use of handpainted Iznik tiles is muted. In the photo above you see one of the largest areas covered with tiles. Apparently the red colour was an innovation made for the use of this mosque. I could not see any way of getting up the upper baclonies. Perhaps you need to take special permission to go up there. Looking up from near the chimney over the central door I took the featured photo. You can see the many different sizes of domes used in this structure.

The stained glass in the windows on the qibla wall glowed with light. Although the sun had already moved west past the zenith, it was a bright and clear day outside. The Ottoman state had a ministry called the Nakshane whose job it was to promote the fine arts. The continuous development of new hues in Iznik pottery is partly due to its investments. Little has been written about Ottoman stained glass, except for a description of the windows installed in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem during Suleyman’s time.

Archaeological evidence has been obtained for the extensive use of coloured glass in Umayyad palaces in the 8th century CE. A glass lamp is apparently mentioned in the Quran, and there is extensive writing about coloured glass in the court of Haroun al-Rashid in Baghdad in the 10th century CE. In any case, this window glass is unlikely to be from the 16th century, because of several large fires and earthquakes. The inscription above the main gate to the courtyard (photo above), however, is likely to be original and gas coloured glass embedded into the stone.

The Family and I could tear ourselves away from the mosque with great difficulty. I was sure that there was much we had missed because of the lack of writing about the structure. Since this is a working mosque, there are no tickets, and no one has bothered to put together an audio guide. It is also impossible for tourists to come here during prayers, and therefore it is impossible to experience the acoustics. The Family was lost in admiration of the decorations on the facade. I had not noticed earlier the maqrana vault that you can see in the photo above, or the round glass pieces in the windows which, through lensing, served to control the amount of light available inside the mosque. We were not the only tourists lost in admiration of Sinan’s masterpiece.

The outer courtyard is also magnificent, with an incredible view of the Halic and the Bosphorus. We did not have the time to explore the whole complex, with its hospital, the hamam, the medrese, and the public kitchen which is now a restaurant. However, we did want to see the mausoleum to sultan Suleyman and his family. Unfortunately the tombs were closed. We peered in through a window to get a restricted view of an incredibly decorative interior, which we have to go back to see.

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Turkish Street Furniture

You might not be surprised by Istanbul’s charm. A little square between buildings in Fatih with a swing and a teeter-totter makes a decent playground for the neighbourhood’s children. A few benches are scattered around for parents who are too tired to stand. And someone has painted a cheerful canary on the blue wall of one of the buildings which encloses the area. Charming? Sure. Surprising? No.

But in Galatasaray, two dolphins rearing up on their tails holding telephones in their plastic bellies is a touch of whimsy that one does not anticipate. We’d watched dolphins fishing in the Golden Horn. Here, a kilometer or two away, a telephone company had decided to use them as a symbol. Nice thinking.

Between the two, in the Eminönü district, a tap at the German fountain still works. Tourists and locals drink the water it dispenses. There is no sign saying which sultan had it placed here, but supplying potable water to citizens was a task that the Roman empire took very seriously, where in its first capital, or in the successor capital, Constantinople. We asked the locals about the tap water. They do not recommend it to tourists, but they drink it themselves. So we followed their example now and then, without getting into trouble.

On our drive through the town of Selçuk we saw an avenue lined with lions. This was quite surprising, and I hopped off the car to take a quick photo. I haven’t come across a description of this before, nor an explanation. Is it recent? Not recent enough for it to be made of concrete poured into moulds. The columns were made of stone. Sometime, somewhere I suppose I will eventually find the history of these lions standing on two paws.

Seats and water fountains are probably as ancient as the very notion of a city. Telephones have had their day, and phone booths are now quaint reminders of the twentieth century. It was comforting to walk by the Halic and see a line of ATMs waiting patiently. I didn’t have to use them, but after spending a week wandering through Anatolia, it was nice to be reminded that one was back in a city.

Tulip and turban

In the late afternoon we sat down for a quiet time and looked at the crowded road outside Sirkeci station: the lines of taxis, people crossing the road, trams coming and going. It looked so calm and unhurried, compared to the tempo of Mumbai, that I wondered about the inflamed imagination of writers who passed through here in the nineteenth century. Could this really be the colourful East of their imagination: debauchery, glamour, exotica?

A hint of that exotica arrived at our table in the form of güllaç (pronounced guellash). This traditional sweet is made only for Ramazan: thin layers of pastry oozing milk, filled with nuts and pomegranate. Perfect with çay. We’d run into güllaç before, and had put off our first experience of it. Now that we had only a couple of days before we left Turkey, we were rushing through our list like the last episode of the Game of Thrones. The result would be some hard-to-shed holiday weight.

That plate looked nice. We took a closer look at the design. Swirling bands of green and gold looked like the “awful turbans” which Mark Twain took such a dislike to. The tulips recalled the heady days of the Ottoman-era tulip craze. This shop was certainly standing when Twain’s ship pulled into Halic to dock. We’d had a wonderful reception at the counter of the sweet shop. We didn’t see a place to sit in, and were gently led upstairs to their cafe. I’d carried my library of books about Turkey on my phone. When I opened Mark Twain’s diatribe about Istanbul (“Everybody lies and cheats”) we had a hearty laugh at the depressive comic who might as well not have left home.

Street food on the Halic

The ferry terminal on the Golden Horn may not be the most fashionable place to eat in Istanbul, but it is easily accessible. The double decked Galata bridge has a deck full of restaurants. The punters here were mainly tourists, and the restaurants were beginning to shut down already at 11 at night. Continuing music indicated that at least one bar was planning to keep open later.

We’d spent the evening hopping from place to place tasting wonderful Turkish wines and little eats, otherwise it would have been nice to sit at one of these tables and stare out at the ferries. The atmosphere reminded me of the waterfront eateries on Shamian Island in Guangzhou.

The upper deck of the bridge was lined with people fishing. Those must be really long lines, to reach all the way down to the water. I should have asked one of them how high the bridge is, because I couldn’t find the information any where. It is a bascule bridge, rolling up to let shipping pass below it, but only only traffic here seem to be the ferries, and they are low enough to pass. People with smaller lines were fishing on the waterfront below the bridge. The cheerful candles must have been special to Ramazan.

We stopped to look at a kiosk open for late customers. I love to look at the kind of things that would have stopped me in my tracks when I was a school boy, only now I don’t think of buying them. The silent school kid inside me must be screaming at this betrayal. The young salesman was very friendly and smiled for the camera.

The waterfront is a great place at this time: not too crowded, but there is activity enough to be interesting. Just the place to sit down for a chat. The Family stepped up to the safety wall to check for a place to sit. I was happy to take photos. We walked on.

There was a quiet little party happening on a boat. One person stepped off as we stood nearby. Another couple of friends joined them. It was very casual, quiet, just a small thing after a day’s work. The man fishing nearby was quite sure that the chatter and the lights would not keep the fish away, but I didn’t see him land a catch in the time we stood there.

The ferry terminal was closed, but this man in front of it had a lot of yet unsold mussels. I thought for a moment of trying out one. The Family does not like to risk it. If there had been a crowd around the man it would have reassured me enough to risk it. But with no local around, I was not sure whether fresh catch from the Halic is edible. Maybe it is; Erdogan came to power first as a mayor of Istanbul who promised a clean-up of the Golden Horn.

A cart nearby was selling boiled corn. I’m used to barbecued corn on the cob with lime, salt, and chili flakes. That’s a staple of Indian street food. The boiled variety does not tempt me. Also, I saw no chili flakes. The cart made a pretty picture, though. As pretty, in its way, as the picture of the chap frying fish on a boat. Earlier, we’d seen a bar right up on the terrace of a building looking out to the Halic and Bosphorus. It was time for a nightcap.

The Golden Horn

We were lucky with our choice of a hotel in Istanbul. It was close to the ferry terminals in Eminönü and to the Topkapi palace. When we tired of the history of Constantinople, we could immerse ourselves in the everyday life of Istanbul. Waking up in the mornings, above the sounds of the streets, all you could hear was the deep and mournful honks of ferries and the mewing of gulls as they floated past our windows.

After the stormy weather of the first evening and the next morning, it was wonderful to walk in the sun next to the Golden Horn, called Halic. As we stood and looked at the sea, we saw dolphins. This was not something we were expecting! Dolphins are hard to photograph, even with The Family’s patience forcing mine. They would hump up in the air briefly, and then disappear, only to reappear meters away. It seemed to me that they were feeding, and probably leaving bits of fish uneaten, because gulls had begun to sweep down into this area. I tried to keep photographing the gulls, hoping that I would catch a dolphin surfacing by chance. I didn’t get the dolphins, but I did get a lot of activity on the Golden Horn.