Travel

Ten of Turkey’s best Ottoman monuments — the early years

As the crowds flock to see “Fetih 1453,” the smash-hit Turkish film about the conquest of Constantinople, all things Ottoman have rarely seemed more fashionable.

Whether it’s Ottoman motifs in fabrics, Ottoman houses finding new life as boutique hotels, or Ottoman-era mosques being given a wash and brush-up, Turkey is now in the throes of a full-blown love affair with its pre-republican past. So now seems like a good time to look again at what the country has to offer visitors who want to explore that wonderful Ottoman heritage.

Governing an ever-expanding area of what is now modern Turkey from 1299 onwards, the Ottomans were originally nomads who moved into the vacuum created in Anatolia after the collapse of the Selçuk Empire. Slowly they expanded their grip on the country from bases first at Söğüt and Bursa and then in Edirne until finally in 1453 under Sultan Mehmed II, later known as Fatih Sultan Mehmed (Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror), they managed to breach the great walls that ringed Constantinople and make the Byzantine capital their own. From that base Sultan Mehmed (who was only 21 when he achieved his goal) imposed his will on the rest of northern Anatolia. It fell to Sultan Selim I (r. 1512-20) to seize most of the rest of what is now the territory of modern Turkey. It’s a story that is recorded in many excellent, readable books, including Caroline Finkel’s “Osman’s Dream” and Jason Goodwin’s “Lords of the Horizon.”

For tourists in search of the Ottomans, İstanbul is far and away the most important place to visit. However, there are also hugely impressive reminders of the early Ottoman period in Bursa and of their 16th-century Golden Age in Edirne. Fine Ottoman mosques can also be visited in Manisa and Amasya, two of the three towns where the sultans’ sons were sent to learn about government, although not, rather surprisingly, in distant Trabzon, the third of the trio and the birthplace of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent.

Unlike the Selçuks, the Ottomans are often said to have left few physical marks on the Anatolian heartland. That may be true, but there are certainly some exceptions, particularly around Konya and Kayseri, which boast fine early Ottoman-era mosques.

Topkapı Palace, İstanbul

First post of call for Ottoman lovers has to be the Topkapı Palace, the wonderful collection of kiosks and pavilions set in landscaped gardens overlooking the confluence of the Bosporus and the Golden Horn that provided the center of government and home to the sultans until 1856, when Sultan Abdülmecid I abandoned it in favor of Dolmabahçe Palace. You come to Topkapı not just to see where the sultans and their harem lived but also to admire their wonderful jewels and kaftans, their carriages, their weaponry, their portraits, even their cooking pots.

Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı, İstanbul

Near the palace you can find out what it would have been like to bathe in Ottoman style at the newly restored Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı, designed by the most famous of all Ottoman architects, Koca Mimar Sinan, for Roxelana, the wife of Süleyman the Magnificent. It’s luxury all the way here, although don’t expect your wash to come cheaply.

Süleymaniye Camii, İstanbul

Sinan (c. 1490-1588) stamped his mark all over İstanbul, especially in the shape of the many glorious mosques. The most admired is the one that also dominates the skyline for miles around and that is the Süleymaniye Camii, newly restored to its old splendor and well worth visiting not least to understand how the early mosques stood at the heart of a network of social services, including schools, hospitals and libraries.

With so many Sinan mosques to choose from (42 in all) everyone will have their particular favorite, but others that generally set pulses racing include the small Rüstem Paşa Camii, in the Tahtakale neighborhood near the Galata Bridge, and the Sokollu Mehmed Paşa Camii in the back streets of Kadırga, within easy walking distance of Sultanahmet.

Sinan was not just a builder of mosques and bathhouses, and as a break from all the sightseeing you can easily stop off for a Turkish coffee in the pretty little Cafer Ağa Medresesi, the theological school beside Aya Sofya that he built in the 1550s.

Blue (Sultanahmet) Camii, İstanbul

Few visitors to Sultanahmet fail to visit the glorious Blue (Sultanahmet) Mosque, which was designed by Sedefkar Mehmed Ağa, a pupil of Sinan’s, and was, when it was completed in 1616, unique in having six minarets. Its walls are papered with lovely İznik tiles, one of the handicrafts that flourished in the Ottoman heyday. Try to imagine what it would have looked like in the days when the floor would have been covered with the same sort of glorious carpets as are on display nearby in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.

Tomb of Ertuğrul Gazi, Soğut

Heading out of İstanbul for Eskişehir you could pause in Soğut to inspect the tomb of Ertuğrul Gazi (c.1191-1281), the father of Osman, the first of the Ottoman sultans. His shrine is relatively demure. However, there is a very real sense in which this is where the story of the Ottomans began, and every September that fact is commemorated with a huge festival in the arena beside it.

Muradiye Camii, Bursa

Just a quick ferry ride across the Sea of Marmara from İstanbul, Bursa was, from 1326, the first Ottoman capital and is the burial place of the first two sultans, Osman and his son Orhan Gazi, who lie in shrines that were completely rebuilt in 1868.

Bursa is the best place to come to appreciate the early evolution of Ottoman architecture, and there are some lovely mosques to be seen here, including the delicately tiled Yeşil Camii, built for Sultan Mehmed I in 1424 and the Selçuk-style Ulu Camii on the high street that is actually an “Ottoman” work, built for Sultan Beyazıd I (r. 1389-1402) in 1396.

Most attractive, though, is the less obvious Muradiye built for Sultan Murad II in 1426. He is buried here in the lovely graveyard along with several crown princes who had been killed by their own relatives in the days before primogeniture decreed which son would succeed his father as sultan.

Selimiye Camii, Edirne

In 1363 Edirne superseded Bursa as the Ottoman capital, and it became the base from which the assault on Constantinople was planned. Even after the conquest, the sultans retained strong links with the city, and Mehmed II spent much of his time at the Edirne Sarayı (Edirne Palace) here rather than in Topkapı.

The palace was deliberately destroyed in 1877, but by then Edirne was home to the stupendous mosque that Sinan regarded as his masterpiece: the Selimiye Camii, built in 1569 for Sultan Selim II. Last year it became the latest addition to Turkey’s list of UNESCO-recognized world heritage sites and few visitors could fail to be impressed by the drama of its huge dome — wider even than that of Aya Sofya — and the huge windows that allow light to flood the prayer hall.

II. Beyazıd Külleyisi, Edirne

Impressive as the Selimiye is, many people are almost as wowed by the less well-known II. Beyazıd Külliyesi, a mosque complex that was completed for Sultan Beyazıd II in 1488 and now houses a small medical museum. The special beauty of this mosque lies partly in its location in the picturesque water meadows ringing Edirne.

II. Beyazıd Camii, Amasya

Like Bursa, Amasya is home to several fine examples of early Ottoman architecture, including the lovely II. Beyazıd Camii, built in 1486 for Sultan Beyazıd II, whose grand vizier, Hüseyin Ağa, was also responsible for the unusual octagonal medrese on the opposite bank of the Yeşilırmak river. Here, as with the Süleymaniye, much of the social complex associated with the mosque still survives, as does its pretty garden.

Muradiye Camii, Manisa

Right in the center of town, Manisa is home to yet another splendid mosque, the Muradiye built for Sultan Murad III, an ex-governor of Manisa, in 1586. Designed by Sinan, it was finished off by Sedefkar Mehmed Ağa after his teacher’s death. Internally the mosque has an unexpectedly flattened shape, but it’s so beautifully decorated with İznik tiles that you’ll hardly notice.

Also worth seeking out: 

Kapalı Çarşı (Grand Bazaar), 

İstanbul (1461)

Büyükçekmece Köprüsü 

(Büyükçekmece Bridge), 

İstanbul (1567)

Sultan Selim Camii, 

Konya (1574)

Kurşunlu Camii, Kayseri (1574)

Sultaniye, Karapınar 

(1566)Kurşunlu Camii, 

Eskişehir (1525)

Rüstem Paşa Bedesteni 

(covered market), 

Erzurum (1550)

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