The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

I've decided to forgive Selçuk Altun, despite his protagonists assassinating other mustachioed characters. Towards the end of his tongue-in-cheek and somewhat trying-hard-to-be-clever novel, Songs My Mother Never Taught Me, is a quest for a murderer, which ends up involving visits and researches into six parts of Istanbul that I had never previously heard of. My first thought was that Altun made up these venues and their back histories. I was wrong - and, really, what need is there to concoct such wonders when the city itself is a miracle? So here you go - six visits to hidden parts of Stamboul, mosques and graveyards in equal measure.

Kariye Museum

 kariye Over fifteen hundred years old and surrounded by some truly ugly buildings, this edifice used to be a church, converted to a mosque during the years of Ottoman rule, and finally became a secular museum from about 1948. Supposedly, foreigners are charged three times the entry rate as locals, but that's par for the course for those of us from India where such discrimination is even more overt. Altun's protagonist, Arda's murdered father once claimed that the thematic frescoes on the ceiling were 'Byzantium's most astounding visual works'.

When the church became a mosque in the sixteenth century, the eyes of the Blessed Jesus were made null and void. (But in the right wing, one can sense the dim foreknowledge in the concerned eyes of the Virgin Mary fixed on her baby.)


Cellatlar, The Executioners' Graveyard

Arda couldn't find anything on the Cellatlar (Executioners') Graveyard in encyclopedias or the Internet. He has a point - I am unable to dig anything out about it, other than what's described in the book. The graveyard is on a slope by the historic Pierre Loti Coffee House on the ridges of Eyüp Sultan district.

Over the graves were erected thick stones of human height. Even though these executioners only fulfilled state orders, they have always been universally detested, buried separately, and never admitted into public cemeteries.

The coffee-house was named after the French writer, Loti, who, for no reason other than that he was a foreigner, was treated with exaggerated hospitality by the Ottomans. The view of the city and the Golden Horn is supposedly rather good from here. The coffee is said to be tasteless.

Although the executioners were ostracised even in death, there is a reason why they were buried in the holy grounds of Eyüp. The gratitude of the State, perhaps? Roughly carved gigantic gravestones mark their burial spots. Right by this ghoulish graveyard is the more salubrious burial ground of elite Ottomans. Sultan Beyazit II's Grand Mufti (who fathered 99 children, each given, no doubt, one of the equally numerous names of Allah) has his remains interred there. Also, Field Marshal Çakmak's large gravestone graces the area, I am quite pleased to announce.


Kıztaşı, The Maiden Stone

In the Fatih district of Stamboul is the fifth century Kıztaşı monument, named the Maiden Stone after the sculpture of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, on the northern face of the pedestal. The obelisk itself, made from a single block of grey stone, was erected in honour of the Emperor Markianos (451-457) by his lackey Tatianus, then governor of the city. In 1908, the surrounding area was torched in a fire, and the column could no longer be hidden in private grounds. It is said that a statue of Markianos once stood on the column; it had the interesting ability to tell if girls walking by were virgins or not. When Justinian II played the trick on his sister-in-law, the statue broke.

Kıztaşı lies on a quiet street in a genteel area, and the Byzantine buildings seem to have hypnotized the neighbouring buildings and city-dwellers... While not surprised that disgusting weeds had embraced the pillar, concealing it till it became a rubbish dump for plastic bottles, I couldn't come to terms with the abandonment of a stone column, thus depriving history of an inscription that summarized 1,500 years of its past. At a time of column vandalism, I hated to see a campaigning poster for local government elections hanging at a height that only a giraffe could reach.


İmrahor Camii, Mosque of the Stablemaster

The Holy Church of St. John the Baptist, the oldest sacred building in Istanbul, dating from the fifth century, had been open for worship for a millennium. Then it was reopened as a mosque, and dubbed İmrahor Camii. It is by Çamlıca, and is a high-walled building, converted for Islamic worship in 1468 by a Sultan's stable-manager, a post known as İmrahor. An enormous fig-tree spreads across the courtyard. At the south wing, I followed the henna-coloured bricks of a powerful wall, and saw with pleasure the west wing embellished with the names of heroes from the eastern provinces, opposite a park with red-tiled paths that matched the colour of the secluded museum... Like an unfinished Kahn project, the museum with its geometrical floor design as enchanting as a silk carpet was a remarkable monument. It had survived the 1782 fire and the earthquake of 1894, but in 1908 the roof had collapsed under heavy snow and now it would never be repaired. I walked through the main gate feeling uneasily that I was a citizen of a country that didn't even have the sensitivity of an Ottoman stable-master.

Oh, and feel free to have a cake soaked in syrup, called a tulumba, at the nearby Rumeli cakeshop.


Atik Ali Paşa Mosque

  The philanthropic donor who converted the Kariye church into a mosque also bequeathed a large complex of buildings in the district of Çemberlitaş. Hadım Ali Paşa was twice the Grand Vizier of Sultan Beyazit II, and in contemporary sources, referred to as Atik Ali Paşa. Now Hadım means Eunuch, while Atik means Energetic (There can't be a more suitable word than atik to describe someone who can rise from pimping to becoming prime minister, Arda's father might have said), and clearly this man knew where his allegiance lay, building the mosque in 1502 in tribute to the Ottomans.

The mosque has five domes; opposite the three-gated entrance to it is a lovely old fountain. Arda saw a notice on it: PLEASE DO NOT TAKE LARGE CANFULS OF WATER, and it turned his stomach when he saw the subtitle Pest Extermination Service stuck prominently on the notice. The environs were peaceful; supposedly there were diamond and silver workshops in the neighbourhood, all operating miraculously in silence.

The mosque's facade is of cut sandstone. There are four attached buildings to the left of the courtyard. It was interesting to see cobblers and grocery-stores creating income for the mosque complex under the old buildings rented out to silver wholesalers. Were the construction date and the architect of this geometrically simple and architecturally attractive monument deliberately kept unclear?


The Sadeddin Efendi Fountain in the Karacaahmet Cemetery

A fountain now used for ablutions is situated on the axis of the mosque, graveyard and tomb of the man who built it. (Istanbul is famous for its fountains, which not only provided water for ablutions before prayer but also for drinking; many date from Byzantine times, although several philanthropists established some during the Ottoman era.)  Arda discovered that this was the only Su Güzeli (Water Beauty) engraved by the orientalist artists Eugene Flandin and W.H. Bartlett.

It lies on the right side of the street that leads to Tunusbağı, following the angle of the Karacaahmet tomb. It was built in 1741 (AH 1154) by Sadeddin Efendi, son of Kazasker Feyzullah Efendi, and grandson of Şeyhülislam Hodja Sadeddin Efendi - who wrote Tacü' t-Tevarih (The Domain of Islam) - to bless the soul of his dying daughter Zübeyde. Sadeddin Efendi was a lecturer; during his post as a mullah in Egypt he acted as judge in Mecca and Istanbul and died in 1759. He lies in an open tomb behind the fountain...


Take it away, Szerelem!


Maddy said...

you would love the city if you spent a week there, such is the lure of Istanbul. I lived there for 5.5 years and to date would rate it the bestest place to live...

Fëanor said...

You're right, it's a lovely place. I was there for a few days on my honeymoon, in fact. Am plotting a return!

Post a Comment