9 Aralık 2013 Pazartesi

Golden Horn - Eyup - Pierre Loti

Following in the footsteps of the sultans at Eyup

Tucked away at the far end of the Golden Horn, Eyüp is Istanbul's most conflicted suburb, meaning one thing to most of its Turkish visitors and quite another to the foreigners.

Tourists usually head for Eyüp with the romantic story of 19th-century French writer Pierre Loti and his love affair with the mysterious Aziyade ringing in their ears. Turks, on the other hand, come here thinking of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, the standard bearer and friend of the Prophet Muhammad, who died and was buried here during the Ummayad siege of what was then Constantinople in 668-9. Such was his fame that Mehmed the Conqueror rushed to build (or more probably rebuild) a mosque on the site of his grave. This shrine came to play a hugely important role in rituals surrounding the coronation of the sultan, with the ruler processing here to strap on the sword of Osman, the first Ottoman sultan, thus confirming himself in his new office.

Today Eyüp still feels surprisingly like a self-contained village unto itself with its twin poles, the shrine of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari and the teahouse where Loti used to sit and fantasize, separated from each other by a sprawling cemetery filled with wonderfully elaborate tombstones that gives it an unexpectedly rustic atmosphere.

Let's turn first to Pierre Loti, or Julien Viaud as he was actually christened. Born in Rochefort in France in 1850, Loti joined the navy and traveled the world, spending the winter of 1876 in Constantinople, where he set up home in Eyüp. It was there that he seems to have fallen in love with the Circassian wife of a wealthy merchant, an affair that inspired him to write his novel “Aziyade.” Many of today's visitors probably believe that they are drinking tea in front of the precise same teahouse as the writer although in fact his beloved cafe died a death long ago and has been replaced by a cozy imitation. The views, too, are much changed since Loti used to sip tea and admire them, although most will still find them satisfactorily spectacular, especially if they've swung up over the cemetery in the cable car to reach the cafe. Interestingly, the only surviving place in Istanbul where Loti did actually spend time is a far more inconspicuous building west of Divan Yolu as you make your way towards the Grand Bazaar. It's marked with a plaque, albeit one that's very easy to overlook.

But Pierre Loti is a touristy distraction from the reality that is modern Eyüp where, on any given Friday, you can expect to see many small boys dressed in colorful satin-and-feather circumcision outfits, having been brought to this holy spot by their parents as part of the celebrations attached to their sünnet (circumcision). It would be hard to overstate the importance of the Eyüp Sultan shrine, which is always packed with people praying (or at least it was until restoration work began on the room containing the shrine recently). An enormous complex, it has had to be rebuilt over the centuries, in particular following a massive earthquake in 1766. Despite its importance though, the name of its architect is unknown, which will probably come as a surprise in these celebrity-obsessed times.

Crowds press hard upon Eyüp Sultan Cami, which makes it all the more surprising to find that the narrow, tree-lined lanes around it can be virtually devoid of visitors despite housing the finest collection of Ottoman funerary art in the whole country. Not surprisingly, the richest and most powerful individuals vied with each other for the honor of being buried in the immediate vicinity of the mosque. This is where you'll see the stand-alone tombs of such grand viziers as Sokullu Mehmed Pasa and Siyavus Pasa, although Lala Mustafa Pasa, the ferocious conqueror of Cyprus, managed to bag himself space right inside the grounds of the mosque. If you stroll along the alleys separating the tombs you will also pass hundreds of magnificent tombstones marking the graves of the next tier down in society. Most are topped off with stone turbans and fezzes (for men) or carved with fruit and flowers (for women).

Almost lost amid all this splendor, the single most impressive street in Eyüp has to be Cülus Yolu (Accession Road), the route along which the new sultan would progress towards the mosque after being deposited on the shore by his caique. Today it's easy to overlook its significance because the road running along the Golden Horn was later constructed on reclaimed land, leaving Cülus Yolu high and dry, its entrance completely severed from the water. Visitors heading for the cable car up to Pierre Loti Cafe usually rush straight past without realizing the significance of a road that is lined from end to end with magnificent marble walls, but it's well worth taking the time to stroll along it in the footsteps of the sultans. If you do that you will probably be most struck by the glorious sebil (fountain) attached to the Mihrisah Valide Sultan complex and by the adjoining Imaret, one of the last places in the city where soup was dispensed to the poor on a regular basis and is currently under restoration. While the Eyüp Sultan Mosque is being renovated you can even inspect photographs of the last sultans processing along Cülus Yolu on its walls, a thoroughly impressive sight.

The last but one sultan, Mehmed V Resat (1844-1918), was buried at the waterside end of Cülus Yolu. His newly renovated tomb can be seen right beside the local primary school, which would once have had the Golden Horn lapping almost literally at its doors.

By the time you've visited the mosque and inspected all the tombs you may be starting to feel that you've had enough of religious monuments for one day. Still, you should try and save a little energy to stroll back towards Ayvansaray along Feshane Caddesi because if you do that you will pass by the graceful Sah Sultan complex and come to a truly spectacular work of Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan in the form of the brick-and-stone-striped Zal Mahmut Pasa Mosque, cleverly designed on split levels to fit a piece of sloping land. In the grounds lie the entombed remains of grand vizier Zal Mahmud Pasa and his wife who, unusually, died on the same day as each other in 1580.

Now turn your mind back to the name of the road you've just walked along -- Feshane Caddesi -- and then cast your eyes across the busy main road to the long, low, maroon-painted building that lines the waterside. This was, indeed, the Feshane, the workshop in which maroon-covered fezzes were turned out by the thousands right up until 1925 when Atatürk decreed that henceforth every man should wear a hat. Today it's mainly used for temporary exhibitions. The tomb of Hüsrev Pasa, the man responsible for introducing the fez to Turkey from Tunisia, stands to one side of Cülus Yolu.

Returning to the center of Eyüp you may want to admire some of the old wooden houses that have been restored and given a new lick of paint, much like those around the Süleymaniye Cami. Here, too, you will find seemingly endless stalls selling religious items, including pretty little prayer rugs and fine rosaries made from a variety of materials. Look back out over the Golden Horn and admire the old and much-loved Galata Bridge, which was decommissioned in 1992 and later shipped along the inlet where, until recently, it served as a footbridge linking Eyüp to Sütlüce. And that imposing building on the opposite shore with its twin turrets? That's the Haliç Kongre Merkezi (Haliç Congress Center) housed in what was, until 1984, the city's largest slaughterhouse.

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