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The Spirit of Istanbul

By Christopher Hall

Jun 19, 2012

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Christopher Hall finds heavenly domes, serene gardens, and a genially sadistic bath attendant as he follows the trail of Sinan, the man who designed a golden age.

I had entered the steamy confines of Istanbul’s 425-year-old Çemberlitas Hamam in search of Ottoman architectural splendor, but Omar, my bath attendant, had other ideas. A friendly bulldog of a man, Omar was, like me, sweating and naked but for a flimsy, plaid wrap covering him from waist to knee. He led me to the göbektaşi, the heated marble platform at the center of the bath’s domed hararet (hot room), and motioned for me to lie down. For the next 30 minutes, working with a firmness that only occasionally edged toward sadism, he sloughed off what I hoped was dead skin with a rough cloth mitt, massaged all but my face and privates through mounds of soapy lather, and doused me again and again with warm water from a metal bowl.

A thwack on my butt reverberated through the hararet. This was Omar’s signal that his ministrations had ended. With a proprietary wave of his meaty hand, he made it clear I was free to remain and relax in this voluminous space of pearly gray marble. Elegantly proportioned columns and gently pointed arches framed openings that led to bathing chambers encircling the göbektaşi, and above us, in the crowning dome, a constellation of small, round windows admitted the faint glow of twilight.

Sinan,” Omar said, as if this single word—a name, actually—explained the palpable sense of serenity the room evoked.

Evet,” I replied. Yes. I understood. For Sinan was the reason I’d come not just to this hamam but to Istanbul itself.

Mimar Koca Sinan Ağa (ca 1497–1588)—usually shortened to Mimar Sinan (“Architect Sinan”) or simply Sinan—stands alone in the history of architecture. No other single designer has ever shaped a city as Sinan did Istanbul during his 50 years as chief royal architect for three Ottoman sultans. He created mosques, hamams, and schools for the 16th century’s most important world capital, building a legacy felt today by anyone who walks the city’s streets or sets foot inside one of his masterpieces. His domes are structural tours de force sheltering immense interiors of suffused light and deep shadow. According to Nobel Prize–winning Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, his mosques link the secular and the sacred, blending “monumental exteriors proclaiming the power of the Ottoman empire” with “pure inner spaces that draw the faithful into direct communion with God.”

I had come to see Sinan’s Istanbul. More than a hundred of his buildings still exist in the city. Some are in ruins, others put to uses Sinan would never have imagined, a few gloriously restored. The buildings would give me a glimpse of Istanbul’s golden age as the capital of a vast, multicultural empire. But they also tell the tale of a modern megalopolis of 13 million Istanbullus, many newly arrived from poor regions of a secular republic that of late has seen a rise in Islamism. My journey would take me from the grandeur of imperial mosques to a once lovely hamam turned into a mini-mall, from the murky depths of Turkey’s still Byzantine bureaucracy to the thrilling heights of a slender minaret. I would meet the devout who pray in Sinan’s buildings; the shoppers who buy shoes in them; and the academics and restorers dedicated to making sure they endure.


“Why don’t you turn the mosque into a disco? At least then you’ll have more people.” As we sat drinking tea in the café of Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, retired architect Kafiye Saatçi recalled what she had told Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then the mayor of Istanbul. Erdoğan, now Turkey’s prime minister, had asked Kafiye what it would take to revive the once thriving residential district around the Süleymaniye Mosque, one of Istanbul’s most important Sinan sites. Built for Süleyman the Magnificent, the mosque is now surrounded by dilapidated wooden houses where metalworkers bang away making bowls. “He was shocked,” said Kafiye. “But did he really want to hear that he needed to fix the houses, chase away the small factories, and make the area good for families again? I don’t think so.”

Kafiye once led UNESCO’s preservation efforts in the Süleymaniye district. She knows how impressive Sinan’s works are in aesthetic and structural terms, but having grown up in a neighborhood indelibly shaped by Sinan, she also feels a passionate connection to them. Hence her frustration with a politician who didn’t want to do what was necessary to truly bring the streets around the mosque back to life.

After tea, we rode a streetcar through the historic peninsula, Istanbul’s ancient city center, where Kafiye has lived most of her life. “These buildings, these streets, are in my blood,” she said. With us was her husband, Sinan scholar Suphi Saatçi, who pointed out the architect’s works as we passed: two of the Aya Sofya’s minarets; the kitchens and a pavilion at Topkapi Palace; a medrese (Koranic school) that’s now a crafts center; and a hamam being converted back into a bathhouse after years as a carpet shop.

“My family has been here since the Byzantines,” Kafiye said. “My school was in an old stone building, and I would go with my mother and brother to the old hamam. I remember warm nights when I would watch puppet shows in the Topkapi gardens. For me, these works of Sinan are something we live with. And I don’t know how I could ever live anywhere else.”


I knew that the clean-shaven man was an imam, a Muslim priest, from his gray robe and circular turban. I had arrived after Friday prayers at the Rüstem Pasha Mosque. As I wandered shoeless in the mosque’s interior, a space luminous with blue-and-white tiles decorated with intricate floral motifs, I spotted the imam heading to his office. I followed him across a courtyard bounded by arches through which I could see ferries in the Golden Horn, the estuary that divides Istanbul’s European side. He invited me in, introduced himself as Ismail, and said that he had served at Rüstem Pasha for nine years.


I asked him what it’s like to pray in such an exquisite setting. “So long as people are in a clean place, they can pray alone or with the imam,” he said. “But making prayer with the imam is better, according to Mohammed. And when people pray in an old mosque like this, they tell me they feel happy.” Ismail added that he was working on a book about the mosque’s famous tile work.

He spoke of his son’s desire to visit the United States, and of his own doubts that the son of an imam could ever get the necessary visa. He asked if I had seen Sinan’s tomb, next to the Süleymaniye Mosque. “Sinan made such grand buildings, but his own tomb is so simple. He was a …” Ismail stopped, unable to think of the right word, and reached for a small, handheld translator. He typed in a Turkish word and the device responded in a warbly, electronic English voice. “Ah, yes,” Ismail said. “Sinan was a humble man.”

I left Rüstem Pasha and began the 15-minute walk to the Süleymaniye Mosque, which crowns the most prominent of old Istanbul’s seven hills. I smelled coffee and chiles as I passed the Spice Bazaar, a blur of almonds, figs, honeycomb, pastel pyramids of Turkish delight, and mountains of brick-red seasonings. I stopped for a lunch of lamb-stuffed eggplant and pomegranate juice at a lokanta. Afterward, I located Sinan’s tomb, an unadorned sarcophagus sheltered by a graceful stone vault, visible through an opening in the surrounding wall. An old man in a white crocheted skullcap and brown robe stood in front of the opening, eyes closed and palms held open in prayer.

Sinan’s final resting place was as unassuming as Ismail had described it. The tomb felt forgotten in the bustle of the neighborhood, though I knew this was not always the case. In the 1930s, as Atatürk’s young republic forged its Turkish identity in the wake of purging itself of Armenians and Greeks, it became imperative to transform Sinan into a Turkish cultural hero. Somewhat inconveniently, Sinan was born to Christian parents who were likely Armenian, and he later became Muslim after being drafted into imperial service. Nevertheless, in 1935, to promote its racial theories, the Turkish Historical Society exhumed Sinan’s body and examined his skull, which was dutifully reported to be of the “brachycephalic Turkish race.” Even in today’s debates over Turkish identity, Sinan is claimed by all sides. Some see him as purely Turkish, others see him as purely Muslim, still others see him as being above politics and religion. His complicated biography, born of a complex time, resists modern simplification.


I left Sinan’s tomb and entered the mosque. To my dismay, almost all of it was closed for restoration. “We are taking three years to restore every architectural detail,” said the project’s manager, Nilgün Olgun, when I found her in a portable construction office in the mosque’s garden. Nilgün, who has worked as a restoration architect for 20 years, talked about the plight of Istanbul’s historic buildings. “Istanbul is a big, heterogeneous family with a lot of different historical backgrounds. Istanbullus want to live with their history, but we cannot save all of the historic buildings. That is why we sometimes feel hüzün, a melancholy. Also, life has changed in Istanbul. Old people say it was better in the past, and they may have a point. Before, everyone talked with their neighbors. You were friends. But now I never see my neighbors. I leave my house at nine in the morning, and sometimes I don’t return until nine at night.”

When I asked Nilgün if I might visit the closed portions of the mosque, she didn’t sound hopeful. I would need to get permission from the director of the Süleymaniye Foundation. She promised to make a call. “Maybe he will say yes,” she told me before adding the ultimate qualifier: “Inşallah.” God willing.

During the next week, my request entered the channels of Turkish bureaucracy. Nilgün and Kafiye spoke with the foundation director, who punted to the central government. I faxed a letter to the office of an anonymous Ankara bureaucrat. We waited and heard nothing.

In the meantime, I experienced Sinan’s city along with the Istanbullus who live and work there. In the Findikzade neighborhood, I saw doctors and nurses treating patients in a medical clinic that occupied a cluster of small chambers where students of the Koran once lived. In the courtyard of the Sinan Pasha Mosque, next to an ablution fountain, I spoke with a researcher who liked praying at that mosque because it was near a Starbucks with Wi-Fi. I joined a group of architectural restoration students—the young people who will carry on Sinan’s legacy—in examining the carved stalactites known as muqarnas that adorn the Shehzade Mehmet Mosque. In a caravansary—a traders’ inn—now used by makers and sellers of bolts and chains, I wandered through brick-arched arcades that smelled sharply of oil, blowtorches, and hot machines. A man with grease-stained hands looked up from his filing wheel, smiled, and—like Omar at the hamam—simply said, “Sinan.” He knew why I was there.


I met Muzaffer Özgüles, a doctoral candidate in architectural history who pedals around the city on a mountain bike and is writing a book about the 10 mosques whose silhouettes dominate the skyline of old Istanbul. Together we visited the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Mosque in Azapkapi, a small gem with eight semidomes radiating from the central dome. “I don’t think so much about religion when I am in one of Sinan’s mosques,” said Muzaffer. “To me, they are more like beautiful sculpture. Beautiful, rational sculpture designed by a man who may have been born a Christian, who may have worked for a Muslim sultan, but who was most importantly an Ottoman. Sometimes I wish I could have seen Istanbul when it was still a mix of Turks, Armenians, Greeks, and others. Sometimes I feel hüzün not just for the ruined buildings of Istanbul but for all the different people who used to live here.”

I made several trips to Üsküdar, on the Asian side of the Bosporus, joining crowds that filed across gangplanks and onto ferries that belched black smoke. On a warm Sunday, I traveled by foot and jam-packed jitney to three mosques, a tomb, and the Mimar Sinan Bazaar, a former hamam where natural light that once fell on bathers now illuminates women picking through mounds of cheap shoes and bras. Late in the day, tired, hot, and jangled by the masses, I found myself in the tea garden of Sinan’s Atik Valide Mosque. Men sat at shaded tables sipping, smoking, and quietly talking. A breeze moved through the trees and, closing my eyes, I felt it on my face. “Şerbet gibi,” I thought, remembering a Turkish phrase that describes a situation that is pleasant and sweet. “Like sherbet.”

A few days before my departure, Kafiye and I stood on a street corner near her apartment waiting for a minibus to Eyüp, a culturally conservative district on the Golden Horn. Her husband, Suphi, had suggested I see a Sinan mosque there, and Kafiye wanted me to experience Friday prayers at the Eyüp Sultan Mosque and Tomb, one of Istanbul’s holiest shrines.

“You can never trust money, women, and Istanbul weather,” Kafiye muttered, quoting a proverb while looking at the sky. Dark clouds headed our way, pushed by strong winds—the lodos, which, according to Kafiye, warm Istanbul before a rain. We crowded onto the minibus and headed beyond the old city walls.


Eyüp was thronged with devotees who had come not only to pray but also to enjoy the holiday atmosphere, which included a costumed band playing Ottoman martial music. We wandered around Sinan’s mosque, dodging the women vacuuming the carpet in preparation for prayers, and then walked to the shrine. At its entrance, a woman in a long brown coat and Hermès head scarf handed me a cube of sugar. “She had a prayer answered,” Kafiye explained. “Now you go into the mosque, eat the sugar, and make a prayer. If it is answered, you must return another day and give people sugar or something sweet.” Inside, the imam was preaching to an overflow crowd. I ate my sugar, prayed, and left.

Two hours later, as I strolled with Kafiye through her neighborhood’s weekly market, my phone rang. I answered, heard Turkish, and handed her the phone. After speaking for just a minute, she hung up and told me it was Ankara calling to say that I had my permission to visit the Süleymaniye Mosque. She looked puzzled when I told her that I had to return to Eyüp with sugar, then laughed when I explained why. “My prayer was answered,” I said.

On Monday morning at 10 sharp, Nilgün, the project manager of the Süleymaniye restoration, explained the vast extent of the program before handing me off to her assistant, an architect named Seden Savaş. The project, which employs about 100 workers, had reached the stage at which layers of painted decoration applied through the centuries had to be documented before experts could decide which era would be represented in the restoration.

Seden walked me through the courtyard and into the mosque, where scaffolding nearly reached the top of its 157-foot-tall main dome. “I am 28 years old,” she said on the ride up in the construction elevator. “If someone had told me four years ago that I would be working here, on the most important Ottoman restoration project in Turkey, I would have laughed at the joke.”

We followed a path of planks and found a young woman scraping paint from plaster. When I asked to try, she handed me her putty knife and showed me how to hold it so I wouldn’t apply too much pressure. I scraped, and as a dusting of pigment drifted onto my hand, the next layer of decoration slowly appeared, like a ghostly apparition from an Istanbul of the past.

Back on the ground, Seden led me to one of the mosque’s minarets, through a door, and up stone steps. We stepped outside onto a 200-foot-high balcony, the place from which the muezzin made the call to prayer in pre-loudspeaker days. Acrophobia gave way to exhilaration as I gazed down at the cluster of half domes and buttresses cascading from the mosque’s central cupola, and took in the panorama of sky, water, and city. I could pick out Sinan sites I’d visited, though the view from high and far away rendered them inert and merely picturesque. I knew they were much more than that, and I recalled what Nilgün had told me not one hour before. “Istanbul is life,” she had said. “And we need to keep life in our old buildings.” A

Photographs by Carolyn Drake/Panos. This article appeared in the September/October 2010 issue.

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