Suleymaniye Mosque is a ten-minute walk north from Beyazit Square. Suleymaniye sits atop Third Hill and looks out across the heart of Istanbul along a terrace on the northeast side (but you do have to climb to get above the inevitable commercial strip).
Outside, on the side where believers enter the mosque …
Inside the courtyard of Suleymaniye …
Its shapely elegant design was the work of Mimar Sinan, master architect to Suleiman the Magnificent, sultan of the Ottomans.
Strolling Through Istanbul touts Suleymaniye as “the second largest but by far the finest and most magnificent of the imperial mosque complexes in the city.”
Suleymaniye, southwest (?) elevation. Wikimedia. Public Domain. Cornelius Gurlitt, Die Baukunst Konstantinopels, Berlin: E. Wasmuth, 1912. “Scanned figure downloaded from MIT libraries’ Dome and restored.”
Eyewitness Turkey guidebook:Istanbul’s most important mosque … built … on the grounds of the old palace Eski Saray 1550-57 … not only a place of worship, but also a charitable foundation or kullyie. The mosque is surrounded by its former hospital, soup kitchen, schools, caravanserai and bath house … This … welfare system … fed over 1,000 of the city’s poor — Muslims, Christians and Jews alike — every day.
The mosque, centre, flanked by courtyard and graveyard, with madressas and other public buildings outside. From the website Mimar Sinan Eserleri (where reside dozens of high-res scans of old plans).
Orhan Pamuk: “Even four hundred years after it was built, I can look at Suleymaniye and see a mosque still standing in its entirely, just as it first did, and see it as it was meant to be seen.” (Istanbul)
The mosque’s interior space rises most impressively, awesomely above a wide square of space free of columns, free of any adornment — except, in the vistas of carpeting, the pattern outlines bodies praying in endless ranks and files. We visitors were confined by fencing to the outer part, while Muslim men came, prayed singly or severally, and went. No charge, but you surrender your shoes and don plastic slippers at the door.
Istanbul’s civic icon is certainly a domed mosque, but which one? Suleymanyie is sometimes held up as the icon of icons, the Blue Mosque sometimes, AyaSofya sometimes. Or it is, Orhan Pamuk maintains, the cityscape:
No one monument dominates the Istanbul skyline; it owes its magnificence not just to Suleymaniye but also to Hagia Sophia, Beyazit, and Yavuz Sultan Selim, and the other great mosques in the heart of the city, together with the many little ones built by wives and children of sultans, and all the other stately old buildings that still reflect the aesthetic ideals its architects intended. (Istanbul, 255)
Given the Manhattanization of Istanbul’s financial district several kilometres to the northwest, the preservation of viewlines in Sultanahmet and Beyazit is doubtless no accident, and the work that must have gone into it is reason for great thanksgiving.
The grounds of Suleymaniye enclose the graveyard of Suleiman the Magnificent, his wife Hurrem Sultan and a few others of Ottoman royalty — and Mimar Sinan.
Suleiman, attributed to Titian, circa 1530. (Image in public domain; at Wikipedia)
My guidebook is all superlatives about Suleiman:
[Under him] the Ottoman Empire reached the pinnacle of its greatness. Süleyman became sultan in 1520, when he was 25 years old, and ruled until his death in 1566, the longest and most illustrious reign in the history of the Empire. As Evliya Celibi writes of Süleyman: ‘During the forty-six years of his reign he subdued the world and made eighteen monarchs his tributaries. He established order and justice in his dominions, marched victoriously through the seven quarters of the world, embellished all the countries which were vanquished with his arms, and was successful in all undertakings.’ (Strolling, 202)
To me Suleiman’s court had a much more interesting presence than Suleiman — his wife, Hurrem Sultan. (Hurrem, meaning Joyous or Laughing, was a name given to her in her adoptive home.) Mrs. Suleiman, often called just Roxelana or Roxolana, is a well-known figure in European histories, drama, music and letters. Usually she is represented as dark and mysterious and evil.
She was a witch. She bewitched Suleiman into marrying her. Took the upper hand in removing rivals for the sultanate. Spread malicious lies about Mustafa, Suleiman’s firstborn son (by another woman) and likely heir, that he connived against his father — the truth was more complicated — and convinced Suleiman to have him assassinated, and be present at the murder. So as to make “their” son sultan instead. By some accounts even Suleiman’s paternity is in question. The eventual winner and next sultan, Selim, was styled The Sot. Thereafter, the narrative continues, Ottoman leadership slides down the path to a perdition of weak, unstable or barking mad rulers and mad, mad rule, where horrible deeds were daily life.
Such stories were mostly invented by Europeans to feed public curiosity about the exotic Asian Ottomans, their supposed debauchery and their scary big empire. They owe little to fact. Primary sources from the sixteenth century are relatively few. The closest approach is from memoirs of Venetian diplomats. Few Europeans ever got into the Ottoman court. What Roxelana did or did not do to advance her interest in the next sultan would have been unknown even to denizens of the many-walled palaces. In some cases informants within the palace would construct versions of the dramatic events involving Suleiman and Hurrem Sultan.
What is known about Hurrem is summarized in a historiographic article, “Roxolana: ‘The Greatest Empresse of the East'” by Galina Yermolenko, in The Muslim World, Vol. 95, no. 2 (April 2005), pp. 231-48. Available as a pdf here. Yermolenko edited the impressive Roxolana in European Literature, History and Culture (London: Ashgate Publishing, 2010) of which the introduction, downloadable from the publisher’s website, gives a complete account of her life using the most up to date information.
“Roxelana” came from Ukraine (or Poland) — the name, used mostly in Europe, really means just “from Ruthenia” — a priest’s daughter, Anastasia by name, kidnapped in a Tatar raid, sold into slavery in Crimea, fated to swell the royal harem. It was said she was gifted to the sultan by his boon companion and grand visir Ibrahim (himself a freed slave). There she was just one of three hundred women. All were Christian. Most were from Slavic regions. A few vying to be mother of the next sultan. Hurrem had six children by the sultan — that in itself was an utter breach of the practice of allowing each woman one son. She astounded everyone by inspiring Suleiman to marry her — the first time a sultan had ever married; and to a slave. Absolutely unprecedented. She won preferment over the entire court. Became his privy councillor, it was said. Would not go away to the provinces with her son during his apprentice rule — another blow to custom. She stayed by his side. Seems, indeed, to have been a most admirable, accomplished, intelligent queen. Hurrem’s generosity and care for ordinary people were prodigious. To quote Roxolana: “The Greatest Empresse of the East” on her buildings:
Traditionally, “the endowments of royal concubine mothers were confined to provincial cities, while the sultan alone was responsible for the most splendid projects in the capital of Istanbul.” However, Hurrem earned the privilege to build religious and charitable buildings in Istanbul and other important cities of the empire. Hurrem’s endowment (Külliye of hasseki Hurrem) in Istanbul, built in the Aksaray district called Avret Pazari (or Women’s Bazaar; later named Hasseki), contained a mosque, medrese, imaret, elementary school, hospital, and fountain. It was the first complex constructed in Istanbul by Sinan in his new position as the chief royal architect. The fact that it was the third largest building in the capital, after the complexes of Mehmed II (Fatih) and Suleyman (Süleymanie mosque), testifies to Hurrem’s great status. She also built mosque complexes in Adrianopol and Ankara. Her other charitable building projects included the Jerusalem foundation (called Hasseki Sultan), with a hospice and a soup kitchen for pilgrims and the homeless; a soup kitchen in Mekka (imaret Hasseki Hurrem); a public kitchen in Istanbul (in Avret Pazari); and two large public baths in Istanbul (in the Jewish and Aya Sôfya quarters, respectively) (p. 237).
The reign of Suleiman is universally acknowledged the pinnacle of Ottoman civilization. Might Hurrem Sultan not have played an important part in its success?