Istanbul offers disappointment in only one regard – the amount of scaffolding, tarpaulin and building work that engulfs the city. Even from our flat in Kadikoy we could see the scaffolding around a minaret of the Blue Mosque and decided we didn’t want to visit.
‘Go to the Süleymaniye Mosque’, Senem told us, and so we did. The Blue Mosque could not have been any better. We laboured up through the narrow, crowded streets of the market surrounding the spice bazaar, dodging hand-carts and traffic. Constant noise, crowds and chaos shadowed us; but at the top of the hill we found ourselves in a garden, green and serene. It was overcast and grey but students sat here and there on the grass. The sheer size of the mosque (it’s the largest in Istanbul) literally made me gasp, and then I noticed the terrace and the view – over roofs and cafes crowned with parasols, to the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, the Galata Tower and bridge – a small segment of Istanbul spread at my feet. It was hard to tear myself away, but Jim had read that the mosque might close for lunchtime prayers and wanted to get inside.
My breath was taken all over again. A cavernous hall. A huge dome (almost as large as the one in the Aya Sofya). Lights hung low to the ground, spiralling, swaying ever so slightly with the breeze. A space full of simplicity, beauty and air. A space to feel free. It was as if I was floating, loosened from my mooring, empty of thought. Open space in every sense of the word.
There were a few tourists – not many. Two girls receiving some religious instruction. A couple sitting close together reading a book. Two little kids running over the acres of carpet. ‘Daaaaady’, one shouted again and again, twirling and jumping, her tiny footsteps echoing around the empty space. There was no one praying. It was not yet lunchtime and the call to prayer had not yet sounded.
We wandered into the gardens, to the tombs of Süleyman and his wife Haseki Hürrem Sultan (Roxelana). All the mosques, places of beauty and peace that they are, also reflect gobbets of brutal Ottoman history. Roxelana was kidnapped in her youth and taken to Süleyman’s harem. So enamoured of her was he, that he freed her from slavery and made her his wife. He had his first son executed, which eventually gave Roxelana enormous influence as valide sutlan (mother of the sultan) especially as Selim the Sot was a drunkard, primarily interested in orgies, and was happy to leave the business of running the empire to his mum.
Inexplicably the tombs were closed, but the gardens were gorgeous – a profusion of dusky pink hydrangeas against emerald green railings, gravestones adorned with turbans and flowers, and a fountain and the music of running water.
Lunchtime approached. Prayers for the faithful, but we joined the clientele at Ali Baba, one of the bean restaurants just outside the mosque in what used to be known as Addicts Alley. It got it’s name from the opium served up in it’s Ottoman coffee-houses. The opium is long gone but Ali Baba has been serving up beans since 1924. The sauce was spicy – with flavours of onion, tomato and chili. Meals do not have to be complicated to be good, and this one was all the better for being eaten in the shadow of the sublime Süleymaniye Mosque.
Alï Baba – Prof. Siddik Sami Onar Caddesi 11, Süleymaniye. Open midday.
The mosque closes between 13.00-14.00 for prayer.