Kadırga Limanı Avenue, which stretches from Kumkapı -famous with its fish restaurants- to Little Hagia Sophia, is one of the oldest and richest avenues in terms of historical heritage. I have walked down this street perhaps a thousand times. Many times I have purchased a simit from the small bakery under Hagia Kiryaki Church, walked to Kadırga Park, greeting acquaintances as I go. If I still have some simit left, I get a tea from the tulumbacı (historical fire brigade) coffee shop next to the police station, and continue my journey. That is what I will do today -as I will be talking about Little Hagia Sophia, I might as well enjoy it from the start!
This is a neighborhood that is full of Roman and Ottoman works. Sultanahmet Square is adjacent to this neighborhood on the north side. To the south, the neighborhood runs to the Marmara Sea. What a wonderful location! What is interesting is that small models of iconic buildings like Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque were first built in this neighborhood. It is for this reason that Sokullu Mehmed Pasha Mosque is older than the Blue Mosque.
Sokullu Mehmed Pasha Mosque, a work of Mimar Sinan, was built in 1572 for the tallest and long-serving Ottoman grand vizier. Thus, what stands before me is not a small neighborhood mosque: the complex, consisting of a madrasah, a tekke, fountain, and shops all form a large structure. The real magnificence is inside! As soon as you enter, while observing the blue Iznik tiles that cover the mihrab wall, you cannot miss the peerless carving of the mihrab and minbar. As you walk around the mosque, you will see the ruins of the Helvacı Mosque, which is under restoration, in the northwest corner. The Buhara Ozbek Tekke, which is immediately opposite, has finally been restored and looks brand-new. This tekke, built in the 17th century for dervishes and hajji candidates who came from Turkistan, is now associated with the Istanbul Design Center where design students are trained.
Seeing these works restored, which for years had been in ruins, pleases both myself and the local residents. They talk about Little Hagia Sophia as being not as famous as its neighbor the Blue Mosque -and they are right! This is partly because it is a bit far from the transportation network, partly because it is on a hill, but more due to neglect and disinterest. So much so, that in earlier times, residents of Istanbul would come to this neighborhood to have their televisions repaired rather than its abundance in history, and they would think they had actually come to a neighborhood Kadırga. In the last 20 years, times have changed, the television repair shops have closed, and in their place little art studios have opened. Thus, the number of people coming and going has increased, and the neighborhood’s profile has changed.
I stop again at Nakilbent Street. As I do every time I come, I look to my left at the high brick walls of a ruin, and the Sultanahmet Vocational and Technical Anatolian High School perched on top of the ruins. The first time I looked at this view was in 1978 in the month of October: I was surprised when I saw that the school I was about to attend had been built upon ruins. What I saw were the remains of a sphendone that had been there for 1,700 years, and which is the sole part of the magnificent Byzantine hippodrome that remains aboveground. In my second year of high school, I learned that behind the giant brick mass, 120 meters in diameter, was a gigantic underground complex consisting of numerous rooms and secret long tunnels. Even if the aboveground structure of the hippodrome interests me as much as what is underground, there is a problem finding information. Later on, I collected a number of drawings and renderings of the structure as it was in the Byzantine period from the Internet, but they are not very satisfactory.
And then something wonderful happens. I hear that the exhibition Hipodrom, which had been opened in the Byzantine cisterns located under the Nakkaş Halı shops that are 50 meters from the sphendone, is still open. Time to kill two birds with one stone! It is partly due to this exhibition that I am here today. When the store manager Zeynel Ünlüsoy hears that I have come for the exhibition, they leave their post and give me a great deal of information about the cisterns and the exhibition, and invite me to enter, urging me to enjoy myself. It is clear that they are pleased not only by the public’s interest in the treasures they have in the shop, but also by the events that take place in the cisterns! Truth be told, these are things that are very hard not to appreciate.
My mind is on the cisterns and the exhibition below, but to be polite I decide to take a look at the shelves. This takes 20 minutes of my time: the collection, which includes antique carpets, jewelry, and ceramics, is so beautiful and stunning that if I wasn’t impatient to go down to the exhibition, I could easily spend half a day here. Finally, remembering that time is running out, I head towards the stairs. My eyes, which must have been shining when looking at the collection upstairs, almost pop out as I go down to the cisterns. As I descend a few steps, I realize that I have not only switched location, but also my place in time.
This cistern, an extension of the water system of Constantinople, was part of the glorious underground structures of the 6th century. With dim lighting, the cisterns has been transformed into a charming area. The cistern, supported by two rows of columns, is a marvel. The exhibition is the same. On the stands are small replicas of important names and important mythological figures like Hercules, Hydra, Emperor Augustus, Heracles, and Scylla. However, what really attracts my attention are the models created with immaculate workmanship, displaying all the glory of the main building of the hippodrome. Now, let me give you more good news: the exhibition is free and will be open all year. If you find yourself in the Sultanahmet district, you really must visit it.
Let’s continue our journey and stop by the Little Hagia Sophia Mosque, which gave its name to the neighborhood. This structure was built in AD 530 on the orders of Justinian I, who also commissioned Hagia Sophia. Originally a church, it was turned into a mosque with the conquest of Constantinople. According to historical records, the church was dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. The church was built in the basilica form and nearby there was a pavilion of the Grand Palace, which was called the Hormisdas Palace. According to legend, Justinian I was to be punished for rebelling against his uncle Justin I. However, at this juncture, Saints Sergius and Bacchus came to Justin I in his dream and acting as witnesses for Justinian I, saved his life. When Justinian became emperor, he commissioned this church to be built in their honor as a sign of his gratitude. The stonework in the building is magnificent. The engravings on the capital of the columns and the friezes have been delicately carved while the Roman inscription that runs along the frieze deserves special attention.
When the building was transformed into a mosque after the conquest, Ottoman-style window frames were placed in the walls, the doors were reframed, and the building underwent significant change. Structures were added inside, like the minbar and mihrab, and outside, like the tomb, the monastery-madrasah, the primary school, and the baths, transforming the church into a complex. I start to wander around the rooms of the monastery that surround the courtyard and go outside. These small cell-like rooms have been transformed into small studios for handicrafts. While examining the miniature classic kemençe crafted by Sedefkâr Ahmet Sezen, this artist engravest a mother-of-pearl plaque with great care.
I go outside and start to wander around. The streets I walk down have beautiful, old names like Nakilbent, Çardaklı Fırın, Kapı Ağası, Hünkâr Peşrevi, Aksakal, and Suz-i Dilara. Each one has a story or a meaning; for example, Suz-i Dilara is a musical mode that was created by Sultan Selim III (1761-1808), who was a musician. Coincidentally, the great composer İsmâil Dede Efendi, the master of Turkish classical music, has a house on Küçük Ayasofya Ahır Kapı Avenue, just 300 meters outside the neighborhood. These streets are populated by low wooden buildings that carry traces of the Ottoman period. The restored buildings revive the scenery of the neighborhood, giving it an air of the recent past, while also attracting tourists to the small boutique hotels and pensions.
I decide to reach the shore via the Çatlıdıkapı pass to see Boukoleon Palace one more time. This gateway, constructed along with the ramparts of the Historical Peninsula in the era of Theodosius II (AD 408-450), cracked in an earthquake in 1532; however, as it didn’t collapse, it became known as Çatlıdıkapı (Cracked Gate). It is said to be one of the three important gateways from Constantinople to the Marmara Sea. From here, I head to Kennedy Avenue and to Boukoleon Palace. I have visited the nearly 300 meters of ruins before, but there is no way to enter now as the area has been fenced off; I am content to look from afar.
While entering the Çatlıdıkapı Social Facilities, located on the shore and belonging to the Fatih Municipality, I turn around and look at Little Hagia Sophia. If you don’t count the Avrasya Tunnel, which connects Europe to Asia under the Bosphorus, starting at the border of the Little Hagia Sophia neighborhood, this view has hardly changed in 40 years. Let’s hope it stays this way.