Suleiman the Magnificent and His Mosque

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August 12th 2015
Published: August 12th 2015
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So, who, exactly, decided Suleiman was magnificent? Was it his mother? His wife? She had good reason to think well of him. Maybe one of his concubines? We know he had at least three. Who was this guy?

I got interested in Suleiman because of the mosque named for him. Suleiman wanted to turn Constantinople into the jewel of the Ottoman Empire, and to that end he had Mimar Sinan, one of the greatest architects of all time, design a resplendent mosque on a hill overlooking the Golden Horn.

You can see this mosque quite clearly from the Beyoğlu side of the Galata Bridge, and it looked pretty, well, magnificent. And big! I decided this was to be my destination for the morning, and while I had a general idea of how to get there, I didn’t map it out street by street. Part of my reason for this was that street signs are pretty few and far between in Istanbul, and besides, it was a big place, I should be able to see it from blocks away. How hard could it be?

Pretty hard as it turned out. While you can see the mosque clearly from the other side of the bridge, once you are in the twisty warren of back streets and alleys in the neighborhood around the mosque, the mosque disappears from view. It’s very hilly in the area, and there isn’t enough open space to get a clear view.

Needless to say, I got lost pretty quickly. But I believe that with a good map and a working compass I can find just about anything. This area, or at least the part I found myself in, was full of small warehouses and little machine shops. I’d see someone unloading a truck, point to the mosque on my map, and they’d point me in the direction to get a block or two closer. I’d then repeat the process until I got to the walls of the mosque compound.

Side note: For those of you with GPS on your ever-so-smart phones, don’t gloat. I saw one group of young Germans march confidently into an alley that dead-ended in a parking lot. There may have been a passage there once upon a time, but it isn’t there now.

Finally, I came upon the sign identifying the area as part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. I followed the wall until I came to an opening, and found myself on the lawn in back of the mosque. Even from the back this place was impressive. I found the entrance to the courtyard and the entrance for visitors.

It’s hard to describe how beautiful this place is without resorting to clichés. The inner courtyard is light and airy, with a vaulted colonnade for shelter from the weather. The fountain in the center is no longer used for ritual ablutions, but it is still a lovely centerpiece for the courtyard.

The Mosque of Suleiman is actually bigger than the Blue Mosque, and to my eye much more stunning. It seems lighter, there are more windows, and the tiles are pastel colors, not just blue. The dome rises to about 174 feet (53 meters) which contributes to the feeling of lightness, as do the pastel stained glass windows.

Since Islam prohibits the depiction of living beings, the decoration inside the mosque is a fine display of calligraphy and geometric design. Your eye is immediately drawn to the huge medallions with the names of Muhammad and Allah written in calligraphy.

Even though I wasn’t required to go to the women’s section – it wasn’t prayer time – I went behind the screen anyhow. And while the wooden screen separating the women from everything else was beautifully carved, it was really hard to see through. I felt very much cut-off from the activity in the main hall.

Suleiman didn’t have just a mosque built, though. The complex included a school, a hospital, an inn for travelers, a medical school, a tomb complex, and a soup kitchen. The soup kitchen now is home to a restaurant. The tombs of Suleiman and his wife are still there, in a well maintained graveyard that is set in a pretty garden. It is a very calm resting spot. A little noticed feature of Suleiman’s tomb is a bit of black stone set in an arch above the entrance. This is a piece of the Hajar al Aswad, the eastern cornerstone of the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam.

Just outside the gate to the complex I stopped to have a lemonade in one of the little cafes that line the street. Back in the 16th century, the income from these little shops would have helped to support the mosque. As I was sitting there looking at my map, trying to figure out how to get back to the tram without getting lost, I found an area labelled “Botanik Parki, and since I was in the neighborhood, I decided to stop by.

After walking past the entrance three times – the outer wall was undergoing restoration and covered by scaffolding – I found my way in. Turns out this is part of Istanbul University’s horticultural department. I was greeted by a gentleman about my age who turned out to be one of the professors. I think he was a little lonely, it was summer and there were no students or other professors around. He showed me his classroom and told me a little about the history of the gardens. It was green and beautiful and a nice oasis before trying to find my way back.

Oh, and it was the Europeans who called Suleiman the “Magnificent” or the “Great Turk.” Among his own subjects he was known as “Kanuni” or the lawgiver, for his development of a single legal code for the Ottoman Empire. He was also known as a great poet, a protector of Christians and
Allah calligraphyAllah calligraphyAllah calligraphy

Note the design in the center white part is a calligraphic representation of the name of Allah.
Jews within his empire, and a fierce (and successful) military commander.

But I’m betting his wife thought he was pretty magnificent, too. She was a Polish slave who he elevated to be his official wife, and to whom he wrote delicate love poetry. She stayed with him at court until her death.

Additional photos below
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women's sectionwomen's section
women's section

behind the screen...

14th August 2015
view from Galata Tower

Gotta go there
There'd be something wrong if you were not blown away by the enormity and magnificence of Suleiman's Mosque. He's built it for that purpose. Held in awe not just by everyone. Lucky you.
14th August 2015
view from Galata Tower

This was - hands down - one of the most beautiful sites I've seen. Another point in its favor was that almost no one was there. Compare this to the hordes of tourists off the cruise ships taking selfies in the Blue Mosque and I'll take the mosque of Suleiman any day.
14th August 2015
dome medallion close up

Amazing Islamic Art!
Suleiman and Sinan were two of my favorite characters in Turkey, and I traveled around to see Sinan's architectural masterpieces. Isn't it wonderful how Suleiman was not only a great lawgiver but also a poet and promoter of the arts. We just don't get leaders like this anymore. And how fun to get lost in those wonderful little streets of medieval Istanbul--it brings back lovely memories. Thanks!
15th August 2015
dome medallion close up

So beautiful
My only disappointment was that I don't read Arabic and couldn't decipher the calligraphic art. But it really didn't matter, it was so lovely. And the more I learned about Suleiman, the more impressed I was. Well, except for the part where he had his son strangled...

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