As a tenant of Istanbul’s European side, I have been very lazy about exploring Istanbul’s older (though less populated) counterpart to the east. In fact, I have to shamefully admit that in the year plus that we have been here, the only trips I have taken to the Asian side – aka Anatolia – have been inspired by cravings for Swedish food that only IKEA could satisfy.
Pitiful, I know.
So when I saw a notice about an upcoming walking tour of Üsküdar, I jumped at the chance to redeem myself. The tour took place last Tuesday. While the weather was less than ideal for photos, it was pleasant enough for walking. I met up with five other fellow explorers, just where the ferries arrive from the European side.
Anatolian Istanbul boasts an array of fascinating areas to explore, just like its European counterpart, Üsküdar being just one of them. Üsküdar is a large, populated and conservative district spread along the Bosporus and within waving distance to Eminönü, Beyoğlu, and Beşiktaş, all on the European side. It was established in 1600 B.C. and was, at the time, called the City of Gold.
While we did not discover gold, we found other cultural nuggets, such as the Mihrimah Sultan’s Mosque, where we started our exploration. The mosque – meaning Sun and Moon – stands right across the street from where the ferries arrive from Europe. Just one of the almost 200 mosques that are peppered throughout Üsküdar, Mirhrimah Sultan’s Mosque was built by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent for his favorite daughter.
From Mihrimah Sultan’s Mosque, we headed upward. Istanbul’s offering of hills to climb seems unparalleled, and the Üsküdar district is no exception. Luckily, we opted for one of the bright, yellow dolmuş (shared) mini-vans to carry us up the hill to our next destination: Şakirin Mosque and Karacaahmet cemetery. In Karacaahmet cemetery’s three plus square kilometers of land, approximately one million dead are laid to rest, making it the largest cemetery in Turkey and one of the largest in the world.
The cemetery is named after Karaca Ahmet, a dervish and army physician, and a man revered as a saint by the Alevis Muslims. The Alevis are a Muslim group that makes up Turkey’s largest religious minority. Alevis differ from the majority Muslim group in a few ways, more than what I can name here (and probably more accurately). From what I understand, Alevis pray in their own assembly houses (cemevi) instead of mosques, and they do not pray five times a day. They do not make a pilgrimage to Mecca and don’t necessarily participate in Ramadan. In Alevism, men and women are regarded as equals and pray side by side. The main characteristics of Alevism are: love and respect for all people; tolerance towards other religions and ethnic groups (if one harms another person, ritual prayers are considered to be worthless); and respect for working people.)
The Karacaahmet cemetery dates back to the mid-14th century, so you can stumble upon ancient tombs, as well as modern ones. It is enough, however, to just meander through the peaceful grounds, be astounded by the sheer number of identities and dates represented, and to note the tombs that belong to a man (signified by a fez, turban or similar) or a woman (symbolized by a plant whose number of flowers represents her number of children).
Near to the cemetery is Karaca Ahmet’s tomb, and it the destination of thousands of pilgrims every week, who come to pay tribute and pray for his help. Karaca Ahmet’s horse’s grave, located in the cemetery yard, is also much sought-after place, especially by parents of children with leg problems. The children are placed in the open gravesite area under a dome, and parents sprinkle oats or barley between their legs as a treat for the horse and a hope for a cure. Nearby there are columns where people place stones, which symbolize their never-ending love for lost loved ones.
Just at the mouth of the cemetery is Şakirin Mosque. It is the only mosque in the world designed by a woman, Zeynep Fadillioglu. Built in 2009, it is modern in its design and bright with natural light that highlights the unique blue-hued, shell-like prayer niche and asymmetrical chandelier that boasts hundreds of teardrop-shaped glass.
On the way to our next location, we stopped and watched a stone artisan – one of the many in this area, as you can imagine – chiseling a gravestone for the deceased. We then passed Doğancılar Park, noteworthy as the destination of the courageous, if not shortsighted, aviator, Hezârfen Ahmed Çeleb. The aviator made the 1200-meter trip from Galata Tower to the park on artificial wings. His amazing feat unfortunately cost him his life. Although the sultan gifted the man with money, the sultan considered any man capable of such a feat to be a threat and exiled him to Algeria where Çeleb eventually died. Just past the park, we stopped at the small Nakliman Köfte Kebab Restaurant where we received a friendly welcome and hot tea before continuing on to the Ayazma Mosque, one of my favorite mosques yet.
Ayazma Mosque is a single-minaret mosque unique for its beautiful stone birdhouses. The luxury bird homes were added to the exterior walls of the mosque by its architect in recognition of the Muslim belief that the act of feedings birds has a positive religious significance. The birdhouses are special, true, but it was the bright-coloured, warm and cheerful interior that made it a favorite.
Heading back toward the water, we passed the Yeni Valide Mosque, or ‘the mosque of the Queen Mother’ and, from there, stopped at our final destination: Kanaat Lokantası. Lokantası means ‘restaurant’ and no tour is complete without the cultural insight conveyed by a good meal, especially if conveyed by a famous local eatery like Kanaat Lokantası. If the number of patrons hadn’t convinced us of the quality of the place, then the food, delivered by an efficient and friendly staff, definitely did. In a word: yum.
Stuffed to the gills, we all parted ways, some of us waddling to cars, some to ferries. The day was a good reminder to expand my tourist musings beyond the sights of Europe, and it is a reminder that I would pass on to all people who visit Istanbul. While the vast majority of tourists – it seems – never leave Sultanahmet, Istanbul is much, much more than just old town. It offers a slew of delights beyond the Golden Horn that are just waiting to be enjoyed.