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In 20 BC Emperor Augustus erected a column in Foro Romano; it was called Miliarium Aureum because it served as the starting point for measuring the length of the roads leading to the main towns of the empire (it is now lost). In Constantinople this function was assigned to an arch (Milion) which was located at the northern end of the Hippodrome; recent excavations have brought to light a long stone which is thought to have been part of that arch.
The most touristic street of modern Istanbul (inside the walls of the ancient city) follows the same route of Mese road, the main artery of Roman Constantinople. In 1950, during excavations made to enlarge the street, remains of a small podium were found near Beyazit Medresesi. Other findings in the area included pieces of columns and fragments of a triumphal arch; they now have been assembled in a rather haphazard way along the pavement of the street.
Polyeuktos was a Roman army officer who was beheaded in the IIIrd century because of his Christian faith; the events surrounding his martyrdom provided the basis for a drama by Pierre Corneille and later on for operas by Charles Gounod and Gaetano Donizetti. In 524-527 Princess Anicia Juliana enlarged and embellished an existing church dedicated to St. Polyeuktos. She was the daughter of Anicius Olibrius, one of the last western Roman emperors and a relative of the Theodosian emperors who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire for a long period. The church was most likely already abandoned in 1204 when Constantinople was sacked by the Crusaders; the Venetians took from this church a porphyry relief thought to portray the Tetrarchs. The remains of this church, which was pretty large, were found during the construction of an overpass.
After the death of Emperor Justinian several events weakened the Byzantine Empire; in Italy the Longobards conquered most of the peninsula, in Asia a very long war with the Persians paved the way to the Arab invasion of Syria, Palestine, Egypt and parts of Anatolia. In 672 the Arabs managed to lay siege to Constantinople (it lasted several years). During the VIIIth century the issue of iconoclasm tore apart the unity of the remaining part of the empire; this may explain why Istanbul does not retain evidence of churches or other monuments built during those difficult years.
The conditions of the empire improved under the reign of Emperor Basil I (867-86): according to some art historians, but not to all of them, Gul Camii was built during the reign of this emperor. It was a church dedicated to St. Theodosia, a martyr of the VIIIth century who was killed for having tried to save a sacred image. The church was turned into a mosque: its name is generally attributed to the fact that when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, they found the church full of garlands of roses, which had been placed there for the saint's feast. The present building shows several modifications made after it became a mosque, but the brickwork of its three apses is very typical of Byzantine architecture.
Another small church at a short distance from St. Theodosia's shows a similar design; its original dedication has not been identified: it was turned into a mosque by Koca Mustafa Pacha, a grand vizier of Sultan Beyazit II; because another mosque is named after him, in this one he is called Atik (ancient) instead of Koca (illustrious, but also old).
In 1261 the territory of the Latin Empire was reduced to just Constantinople, a small part of Thrace and a few fiefdoms in Greece. A small army sent by Michael VIII Palaeologos, the Byzantine ruler of Nicaea, profited from a temporary absence of Baldwin II, the Latin Emperor, and easily managed to enter Constantinople with the help of its Greek population.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend this saying was adopted as a key policy by the new rulers of Constantinople: in order to contain the growing pressure of the Ottomans on their eastern border, they sought an alliance with the Mongol Ilkhanate of Persia, which controlled also parts of Syria and Eastern Anatolia. In 1265 Emperor Michael VIII betrothed Maria, one of his daughters, to Abaqa Khan. She lived at the Mongol court for fifteen years until the death of her husband. At her return to Constantinople she was asked by her father to marry yet another Mongol khan; she preferred to become a nun and retire in a monastery which she renovated; its church was not turned into a mosque by the Ottomans, but the current building bears little resemblance with the original Byzantine church. Its interest lies in its historical background.
Ayasma means holy spring and it is not uncommon to find Greek Orthodox churches or other religious establishments near a spring thought to have healing powers. The imperial palace of Blachernae was plundered and almost entirely destroyed after the conquest of Constantinople, but its famous holy spring continues to attract many people and not just Christians. It is not the only holy spring in the city: in addition to that of St. Karalamboy, there is another holy spring outside Silivri Kapi.
In 1720 Sultan Ahmet III allowed the Greeks to rebuild in a larger size the church which was the seat of the Orthodox Patriarchate since ca. 1600. It is possible that the decision was influenced by the indirect help given to the Ottoman army during the 1714 re-conquest of Morea: the local Greek Orthodox population resented the Venetian attempts to promote Catholicism there and did not hinder the Ottoman return.
Things changed during the XVIIIth century when the Russian Empire became a great power. Empress Catherine II annexed the Crimea and made no mystery of her objective of conquering Constantinople; she sent a small fleet to the Aegean Sea to promote an insurrection of the Greeks.
In 1821 the Greeks of Kalamata and Patras started a general rebellion which eventually led to the creation of a small Kingdom of Greece. In retaliation Sultan Mahmud II hanged Gregory V, the Patriarch of Constantinople, on the main gate of the Patriarchate.
During the second half of the XIXth century the Sultans made an attempt to regain the loyalty of their non-Muslim subjects by giving them new rights and by removing the limits to the size of their churches and institutions. The Phanariots took advantage of this opportunity and built a large school near the mosque dedicated to Sultan Selim.
Whereas the Greeks were looking at freeing themselves from the Ottoman rule, the Bulgarians wanted to free themselves from the Greek (religious) control. The Patriarch of Constantinople was the head of the "Millet of Rum" the community which included all the Orthodox of the Ottoman Empire. The awakening of the Bulgarian nation started by asking the Sultan to establish a "millet" for them. This actually occurred in 1870, although Sultan Abdulaziz left a supervision on some canonical matters to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Bulgarians built a cast iron church on the Golden Horn: it was designed in a combination of different styles by an Armenian architect and it was manufactured in Vienna and then shipped to Constantinople, where it was inaugurated in 1898.
The gate leading to the imaret, the soup-kitchen, is among the few elements of the original structure which survived: it is decorated with fragments of verd-antique and porphyry.
The turbe (mausoleums) of Sultan Mehmet and his wife Gulbahar Sultan were rebuilt; the former according to the prevailing style at the end of the XVIIIth century, the latter very closely to the original. According to tradition Gulbahar was Christian by birth and, although in a concealed way, she remained faithful to her original belief. This may explain why of the many visitors to the garden where the turbe are located, very few pray at hers. She was the mother of Sultan Beyazit II.
A hammam was part of the ancillary facilities which surrounded the mosque built by Mahmut Pacha; it is of an unusual size with a very large domed entrance hall.
It was difficult to please Sultan Mehmet II; not only he executed his viziers, but in 1471 he became dissatisfied with Atik Sinan, the architect of Greek origin who designed the sultan's mosque; the poor man was executed and buried in a mescit (small mosque) he had embellished with a Byzantine relief portraying two doves drinking at the fountain of life.
Burmali Camii is one of the very few mosques of this period which was not designed by Sinan; this probably because it was not commissioned by the sultan or by a member of his families or of the court, but by an Egyptian Kadi (judge), Emin Nurettin Osman. This may explain the design of its spiralling (burmali) minaret which is a smaller replica of a famous one which already existed at Edirne (Uc Serefeli Camii).
Sinan is regarded as the Michelangelo of Ottoman architecture, but unlike his contemporary Florentine colleague, he could not impose his will on those for whom he worked: he had to seek their endorsement for his projects. Although he gained their trust he had to be careful not to seem to forgo their views. He probably had in mind some revolutionary ideas for the design of minarets, but he was able to put them in practice only in a mescit (small mosque) which he built at his expense.
Some think that in the Muslim world women are not regarded as equal to men; they might change opinion by seeing this work by Sinan (the two domes are not identical because perfect symmetry should be reserved to God).
Even a finely designed building loses its interest when it is too much adapted to the needs of business. In 1559 Sinan designed a medrese for Cafer Aga, the Chief Black Eunuch. It is today located along a very commercial street and shops have been opened in its structure; the small courtyard is a crowded café: one wonders what the bust of the great architect would say if only it could speak.
Eyup is a neighbourhood of Istanbul at the end of the Golden Horn, a mile or so outside the walls of the city; many westerners heard of it through the works of the French writer Pierre Loti (1850-1923) who loved to spend his evenings in a teahouse on a hill above Eyup.
The neighbourhood had a quite different relevance for the Muslim inhabitants of Constantinople, because it was there that Eyup Ensari, the standard-bearer of the Prophet, was buried. He was one of the leaders of the first Arab armies and took part to the siege laid to Constantinople in the VIIth century, during which he was killed. According to tradition his burial place was found in 1453 during a search led by Sultan Mehmet II and the site was named after him and it became a Muslim holy place.
Sokullu Mehmet Pacha had this in mind when he decided he wanted to be buried at Eyup.
Sinan designed two almost identical buildings: one is the turbe of Sokullu Mehmet, the other the dershane (lecture hall) of an adjoining small medrese; the two are linked by a short gallery: their doors face each other and are both decorated with ancient marbles: green for the turbe and red for the dershane.
When Sinan was working at Sokullu Mehmet Pacha Turbesi, he was also involved in the construction of another building at Eyup. It was commissioned by Zal Mahmut Pacha, a man who owed his fortune to a rather gruesome event. He was the officer who in 1553 personally strangled Prince Mustafa; because the prince was of strong constitution, the officer who overcame him was given the additional name of Zal, a Persian hero known for his Herculean strength. It was not his only reward because he later married a daughter of Sultan Suleyman. The size of the mosque named after him is in a way "Herculean" too.
Seamen in general regard with some distrust those who work on land; they prefer to keep to their own views. Piyale Pacha was probably one of such men because he chose to build his small turbe and a nearby very large mosque in a very remote location on the northern side of the Golden Horn, as much inland that Constantinople could not be seen from there (nor the mosque could be seen from the city).
The mosque was not designed by Sinan and it is based on a multi-domed pattern which had been in use in Bursa (Ulu Cami) and in many Seljuk towns.
Two gigantic granite columns helped in supporting the six domes so that the prayer hall is extremely wide and (apart the columns) unobstructed. Granite columns of a smaller dimension were used throughout the building and in the small turbe.
We do not know the name of the architect of this mosque, but we know that he built upon ideas developed by Sinan. The final result would have been surely approved of by the great architect. Nisanci was the title given to the officer responsible for many administrative functions at the sultan's court.
Sinan chose to be buried in a simple open turbe in the garden of his home near Suleymaniye.
This mosque was built on the abandoned site of Blachernae, the Byzantine imperial palace; its minaret can be seen above two thick towers which strengthened the walls of Constantinople in that point. Ivaz Efendi was a kazasker, a military judge, probably the highest official of that branch of the Ottoman judiciary system. Its design is popularly attributed to Sinan, but the mosque is not mentioned in Tezkeret-ul Ebniye, the list of Sinan's works drawn up by one of his friends and thought to be very reliable. The use of bricks and white stones shows continuity with the Byzantine tradition.
Koca Sinan Pacha is best known for having been Grand Vizier five times; this is an indication that the Sultans were no longer executing their grand viziers when they grew dissatisfied with them. He built a small kulliye of which by far the most imposing building is his own turbe. It is a fine work by Davut Aga.
The role played by Kosem Sultan is testified by the fact that she did not limit herself to funding pious institutions and building mosques, but that she gave her name to the largest han of Costantinople (buyuk means large); it is difficult to find and it is surrounded by other buildings. At one time it was mainly used by Persian merchants and the little mosque in one of its courtyards was reserved to Shia Muslims. Another large han was built later on at a short distance from Buyuk Valide Han and in this case it is possible to appreciate its size and design.
Koprulu kulliyesi included also a han which still stands opposite to the turbe of the founder (in between them Divan Yolu, the most touristic street of Istanbul); the purpose of the han was to provide the kulliye with enough revenue for the sustenance of its clerics and its maintenance.
In 1669 the war between Venice and the Ottoman Empire ended after 24 years; the Venetians surrendered Candia, but there was little to celebrate in the Ottoman camp: all the inhabitants and the troops left the town on board of the Venetian fleet; they carried with them all which had a value.
Hungary had been disputed between the Ottomans and the Habsburgs for a long time. In 1681 Calvinist Hungarians rebelled against the Habsburgs who tried to enforce Catholicism: they sought the help of the Ottomans; in 1682 war was declared and in the next year an Ottoman army laid siege to Vienna. The arrival of the King of Poland with his cavalry led to the Ottoman defeat.
Kara Mustafa Pacha, the Grand Vizier who personally led the Ottoman army, was charged for this setback: his head rolled at the feet of Sultan Mehmet IV in Belgrade. He was buried in a turbe which was completed by his son. He had chosen a location very near the tomb of Mehmet Koprulu.
In the following years the Habsburgs and the Venetians successfully continued the war which ended in 1699 with the Ottoman Empire ceding most of Hungary to Austria and Morea to Venice. The terms of the peace were negotiated by Grand Vizier Huseyin Pacha, who contained the Ottoman losses. He was known as amcazade (cousin) because his career was helped by his being the cousin of a Koprulu Grand Vizier. Unfortunately the complex he built is now included in a private clinic.
The Venetians celebrated the gains made during the war by renovating their embassy; the new building was an elegant palace in Italian style; the Venetian ambassador was known as bailo and the neighbourhood where the palace is located was called after him (Beyoglu); it now houses the Italian consulate.
Catholic (Latin according to usage in the Levant) churches were not allowed within the walls of Ottoman Constantinople: the Franciscans had to relocate a parish they had in the city, first to Galata and later on near the Venetian embassy; the church was built in 1769, but its current aspect is due a later reconstruction. Draperis is the surname of an Italian lady who made a donation.
One of the causes which led to the rebellion against Sultan Mustafa II is that he seemed to excessively rely on the advice of Seyh-ul-Islam Feyzullah Efendi: he was the highest (Muslim) religious authority in the Ottoman Empire; he became the confidant of the sultan and the de facto ruler of the country, because the sultan preferred to spend his time hunting in Edirne; when the rebellion broke out Sultan Mustafa II let him down and Feyzullah Efendi was eventually put to death.
In 1700 he built a small medrese which is now used as a public library.
Because many grand viziers had the same name, their birthplaces helped in distinguishing them: Corlulu means from Corlu, a small town in Eastern Thrace. Corlulu Ali Pacha was Grand Vizier in 1706-10 during the reign of Sultan Ahmet III: he followed strict budgetary policies and tried to limit unnecessary expense. For this reason he was against waging war on Russia as suggested by King Charles II of Sweden, who, after having been defeated at Poltava in 1709, found refuge in Ottoman territory. Because of his position, Corlulu Ali Pacha lost his post in August 1710 and his life in the following year. The medrese he built opposite the turbe of Kara Mustafa Pacha now houses shops and a picturesque café.
Nevsehirli Ibrahim Pacha was Grand Vizier during the whole Tulip period and he is regarded as the true ruler of the country in those years. He reformed the Ottoman foreign policy by establishing embassies in many European capitals; he was ousted by a rebellion of the Janissaries.
Dar-ul-hadis means "school of tradition" and is a medrese where students learn theological matters; this is true for all medrese, but usually teachings include other matters.
Laleli Kulliye included a medrese and a hammam which no longer exist; the institution most likely could rely on the revenue produced by a nearby han; it was named after a fountain and nowadays is better known as Tashan because of its white stones (tas); it is small, but pretty with many shops selling clothing to Russian tourists.
Zeynep Sultan was a daughter of Sultan Ahmet III who commissioned a mosque which has the appearance of an early Ottoman building with an almost Byzantine dome.
An unusual monument of that period was built by Esma Sultan, another daughter of Sultan Ahmet III. Namazgah is an open-air mosque with just the podium for preachers which also serves to indicate the direction of prayer.
Sultan Selim III (1789-1807) enjoyed a few years of peace between 1792 and 1796 when Austria and Russia were busy dealing with the effects of the French Revolution. In 1798 Napoleon did not hesitate to break the traditional French-Ottoman alliance and invaded Egypt; in the following years the Sultan was the object of opposite pressures from France and from the coalition of the other European powers to stand on their side; the growing weakness of the Ottoman Empire became very evident.
The kulliye built by Sultan Mehmet II on the burial place of Eyup, the standard-bearer of the Prophet, was damaged by the 1766 earthquake which pulled down Sultan Fatih Mehmet Camii. In 1798 Sultan Selim III started the reconstruction of the complex: its decoration is very baroque whereas the mosque has a more classical design.
Mihrisah Valide Sultan, the mother of Sultan Selim III, chose Eyup to build her own turbe which has a very elegant sebil. Her turbe is similar to that built a few years later by Naksidil Valide Sultan, mother of Sultan Mahmut II. According to tradition she was a French heiress and similar to Gulbahar, the wife of Sultan Mehmet II Fatih, she remained a covert Christian until her death: she is thought to have influenced the Ottoman policy in favour of France after her son became sultan in 1808.
In 1813 Gioacchino Rossini wrote Italiana in Algeri, an opera about the ability of a captured young woman to become the queen of the harem. The premiere took place in Venice and probably the audience was aware of the rumours about Naksidil's past.
Sah Sultan was a sister of Sultan Selim III and she too chose to be buried in Eyup; her turbe is interesting because the traditional octagonal shape is replaced by a circular plan.
Introduction to this section
Byzantine Heritage (before 1204)
St. Saviour in Chora
Byzantine Heritage (after 1204)
First Ottoman Buildings
The Golden Century: I - from Sultan Selim to Sinan's Early Works
The Golden Century: II - The Age of Suleyman
The Golden Century: III - Suleymaniye Kulliye
The Golden Century: IV - Sinan's Last Works
The Heirs of Sinan
Towards the Tulip Era
The End of the Ottoman Empire
Map of Istanbul
Other sections dealing with Constantinople/Istanbul:
The Walls of Nova Roma