I observe the panorama of Istanbul; the skies have turned crimson at sunset. The waves of the Bosphorus have turned from purple to dark blue, and are hitting the shores. The first veil of the evening darkness is descending upon Istanbul, the city of minarets. Every time I try to count these hands of the city extending up to the skies, I always miss one out. But this is a reality known to all who love Istanbul. Istanbul, like Rome, was founded on seven hills, and there is a mosque sitting on each of them. The next day, I waste no time in getting on the Üsküdar-Eminönü ship as this is the route where I will be able to see the hills and mosques together more clearly. I am connecting the hills on a triangular route in the region known as the “Walled City” (Suriçi) or “Historical Peninsula” on the European side of Istanbul. I am determined: this time I will solve this Istanbul puzzle, beginning from the first hill.
According to legend, Roman Emperor Constantine founded the city on seven hills in a way that these represent the sun, the moon, and five planets. The Ottoman state also founded its city on seven hills and had majestic mosques built on each one of them. Today, these hills, located more or less in walking distance of one another, cover a triangle extending from Sarayburnu to Edirnekapı and Aksaray.
As always, Sarayburnu is bustling. The voices shouting “Balık Ekmek!” (Fish sandwich!) are rising from the boats. Clouds of smoke spread the smell of fish cooked on a charcoal grill above the district. Sarayburnu Hill, 45 meters above sea level, was the heart of the city in both the Roman and Ottoman periods. The Topkapı Palace, Sultanahmet Mosque, and Hagia Sophia are the leaders among the historical monuments that determine the city’s appearance. The Sultanahmet Mosque is the symbol of this hill spanning from Sirkeci in the north to the Kadırga Port in the south. This 400-year-old mosque was built by architect Sedefkâr Mehmet Agha upon the order of Sultan Ahmed I and was Istanbul’s first mosque boasting six minarets. The Sultanahmet Mosque is also called “Blue Mosque” because the interior is decorated with more than 20,000 Iznik tiles.
The Sultanahmet-Çemberlitaş route is one of Istanbul’s most enjoyable places to walk. Owing to the bakeries and sweetshops, each offering equally delicious flavors, and the glittering display windows of shops selling jewelry and souvenirs, the distance of around 10 minutes by foot takes much longer. As the Column of Constantine (Çemberlitaş), erected in honor of Emperor Constantine I in AD 330, begins to appear on the horizon, I realize that I have reached the second hill. The Grand Bazaar, the largest covered market in the world whose foundation was laid in 1460, is also here. The Ottoman tradition “a mosque on each hill” was strengthened even further in Çemberlitaş with the Nuruosmaniye Complex. The Nuruosmaniye Mosque was built in 1755 by architect Mustafa Agha and his apprentice Simon Kalfa on the request of Sultan Mahmud I and Osman III. This was the first mosque in Istanbul to be built in the Baroque style.
Getting lost among the extremely colorful and noisy shops of the Grand Bazaar is a tradition in Istanbul. Leaving behind the glass lamps, silver jewelry, coffee sets, fabrics, rugs, and leather bags hanging in the narrow streets of the bazaar, I head towards the third hill. The legend of the East related by the Grand Bazaar ends in front of the central campus of Istanbul University. The university’s grand entrance resembles a triumphal arch, and is one of the city’s symbols. I am in Beyazıt -also known as the third hill. Young students with backpacks, books, and folders in their hands walk about on this hill. The Süleymaniye Mosque built 462 years ago by architect Sinan on the order of Suleiman the Magnificent, encompasses the hill. The façade of the Süleymaniye Mosque, whose wise architect called it his “master builder work,” overlooks the sea, and offers equally exceptional scenery for photography enthusiasts in every season.
I am an eight-minute walking distance from the fourth hill; I head towards Fatih Mosque on Fevzipaşa Street. The Fatih Hill took its name from the sultan who conquered Istanbul. During the Byzantine period, a church dedicated to the Twelve Apostles was built on this hill. In the Ottoman period, in 1470, architect Atik Sinan constructed the Fatih Mosque and Complex on the site of the church that was used as the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. Since that period, the mosque shaped both the religious and social affairs of the district. I leave the mosque from Çörekçiler Gate, and enter the Malta Bazaar. The bazaar, where migrants from Malta were settled in the period of Mehmed the Conqueror, is busy at all times of the day. It is possible to find all kinds of foodstuffs here ranging from fish to liver, dates to coffee, olives to butter.
I walk towards Haliç, or the Golden Horn. Shortly, after a 12-minute walk, the fifth hill and the Sultan Selim Complex begins to appear on the horizon. The valley extending from the shore of the Golden Horn to Balat determines the borders of the fifth hill, 74 meters above sea level. Although it is winter, the courtyard is more like a recreation site. There are children running after a ball and rubbing their hands together from the cold, and others riding bicycles despite the cold weather. The tomb of the ninth Ottoman sultan, Sultan Selim I, is in the gardens of the mosque and is open to visitors every day except Mondays. Visiting the tomb and remembering the sultan with prayers is one of the customs that has been turned into a ritual by the neighborhood’s residents.
I travel by bus from Yavuz Selim up to Edirnekapı to see the sixth hill, which is the highest among the hills at 75 meters. I am welcomed by the longest city walls of Istanbul. When I see the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque rising above the heavy traffic, I consider I have reached Edirnekapı Hill. The mosque was built in the 16th century by architect Sinan for Suleiman the Magnificent’s daughter, Mihrimah Sultan, and is distinguished from similar examples by its aesthetic details. The reflections of a legend can be seen in these differences. Architect Sinan built two mosques in Istanbul for Mihrimah Sultan. One of these is in Edirnekapı and the other in Üsküdar. According to art historians, the silhouette of a woman with her skirt sweeping the ground is depicted in the Üsküdar Mihrimah Sultan Mosque, whereas in the Edirnekapı Mosque, the image of a woman whose hair touches her heels is depicted in the chandeliers and the engravings on the minaret. While the sun sets behind the mosque in Edirnekapı on March 21, Mihrimah Sultan’s birthday, the moon simultaneously appears behind the mosque in Üsküdar indicating the meaning of her name “Mihrimah” (Sun and Moon). These two mosques are interpreted as manifestations of architect Sinan’s love for Mihrimah Sultan. Although the truth of these legends may be disputed, they do make the city even more magical.
I am a ten-minute drive away from Istanbul’s last hill. The sixth hill is on the Golden Horn, the last is closer to the Marmara Sea. Cerrahpaşa Hill spans from the Aksaray district to the city walls and the Marmara shore. This looks more like a ridge than a hill. On the highest point of the ridge is the Cerrahpaşa Mosque built by Grand Vizier Cerrah Mehmet Pasha. The architect of the mosque, which was built in the 17th century, was Davut Agha, one of Sinan’s apprentices. The Cerrahpaşa Complex is still the heart of the district today. Training in classical arts including calligraphy and illumination is offered around the complex. The Cerrahpaşa Hill resembles a triangle with its three elevations: Topkapı, Aksaray, and Yedikule. There is a Byzantine monument that stands out in this triangle: the Column of Arcadius. The 40-meter-tall column, which is now enclosed in narrow streets, was erected in the 5th century for Emperor Arcadius. What is interesting is that there are steps inside. Evliya Çelebi described the Column of Arcadius in these words: “There was a tall pillar in Avratpazarı made of a thousand pieces of white marble with steps, its inside was empty like a minaret and on the top was a sculpture from a single piece of marble.”
Even if centuries pass, the spirit of this district never changes. There is still smoke coming from the houses, the bakery, and the neighborhood hamam. Life with the smell of smoke continues in the backstreets. I end my day in Istanbul that I toured to my heart’s content in Kocamustafapaşa.