Reviving old Istanbul

Located a bit up the hill from the historic and tourist-heavy Beyazıt, the Süleymaniye district offers visitors a different, non-modern view of Istanbul. This was once the heart of Old Istanbul. Its monuments, narrow streets and old houses represent the true Istanbul spirit. Generally, many people – local and foreign – come to this district just to see the Süleymaniye Mosque. But there are other treasures, like the 4th-century Bozdoğan Arch, and just beyond it, Kalenderhane Mosque, a former Byzantine church that was known as Theotokos Kyriotissa before the conquest by the Ottomans.

Directly behind Vezneciler Metro Station, 16 Mart Şehitleri Street is perhaps the most beautiful route to Süleymaniye, as it passes by the Kalenderhane Mosque and a cluster of wooden buildings across from it. The scenery changes with every step. As you complete the first 50 meters, the renovated Süleymaniye houses with their lovely colors begin to appear on both sides, as if heralding the coming of that “other” Istanbul. The first section of these homes ends with the centuries-old Bozdoğan Arch, which regarded as a boundary between the commercial and modern texture of the Fatih district and Süleymaniye’s ever-changing demographics. After a lengthy restoration, one of these stone rooms is home to Istanbul Kitapçısı, a bookshop run by the municipality that sells books about Istanbul and other souvenirs. Across the street are dürüm and börek sellers, tea shops, and fruit vendors hawking freshly sliced bananas, cucumbers and watermelon. Welcome to Old Istanbul. This pleasant hustle is not such an old pastime in this cosmopolitan district, but no matter how strange it may seem, you’ll adapt in minutes.

Now, let’s rewind a little. Byzantine vaults, cisterns and churches (that now serve as mosques) show that this district was once a popular living settlement. The Saray-ı Atik (Old Palace), built after the conquest, was the first sign of the district’s bright future in the Ottoman period. Later on, Süleyman the Magnificent commissioned two big kulliyyahs (social complexes) designed by Mimar Sinan: the Şehzade Mosque first and then the Süleymaniye Mosque which ushered in the golden age of the district and made it a distinguished neighborhood inhabited by the Ottoman ulema and administrators. However, Süleymaniye started to lose its importance after the 20th century and also its historic structures after the 1950s. Up until 20 years ago, there were signs that read, “This building is being preserved” on the façades of wooden buildings. Some of those abandoned buildings (on which you couldn’t hammer a single nail) were either dilapidated or burnt down. Now, there’s a push to resuscitate the remaining ones, and, over the last decade, rapid restoration has been taking place on many streets.

Kirazlı Mescid Street, off 16 Mart Şehitleri Street, will give you an idea of the district’s future from the increasing number of renovated wooden houses among the abandoned buildings. Loyally restored, most of these structures are home to foundations and associations affiliated with Ottoman, Persian and Turkish cultures, essentially giving Süleymaniye its identity back. Some of the renovated wooden mansions serve as cafés and turn these streets that connect the old madrasas and the university campus into areas crowded by students during the semesters. Though the prices of these wooden structures are jaw-droppingly high, it really is a neighborhood of workers, students and local shopkeepers. When a luxury automobile and a garbage man come across each other on the street, one lets the other pass. One’s power and the other’s elbow grease are both well-respected.

A photography spot for locals and tourists, the tea shops in these narrow streets preserve their traditions. The stools and small tables that line the sidewalk may not be very comfortable, but the taste of the freshly brewed tea is certainly delicious. The restaurant managers across from the Süleymaniye Mosque, who fiercely compete with each other are hopeful: “The tourists talk about our white kidney bean dish when they go home. The more they spread the word, the more foreign customers we get.” It really is true. Considered the forerunner dish of Turkish cuisine, especially among men, white kidney beans, kuru fasulye, is an interesting choice for tourists.

The only thing that spoils this century’sold historic atmosphere around the Süleymaniye Mosque are the tourist buses and cars. Otherwise, the local texture would make visitors feel as if they have traveled back in time 200, maybe 300 years. The wide square, and the magnificent and unique mosque here are so impressive that they leave tourists speechless, and Turks in a state of pride, as well as nostalgic longing. Süleyman the Magnificent, who commissioned the mosque, has a unique place among Ottoman sultans. Mimar Sinan, the mosque’s designer and architect, is the most skilled architect in history and raised the bar very high with the Süleymaniye and Selimiye Mosques; inarguably, no one has surpassed these works yet. If you look around a little more, you’ll see another sanctuary, the 12th-century terracotta-and-white-stone Molla Gürani Mosque, just ahead of the great Süleymaniye. Once known as the Theodoros Church, it was later converted into what is today the Molla Gürani Mosque. Now, it shines brightly like a pearl as the surrounding structures are being demolished. The Süleymaniye neighborhood is undergoing a transition that will highlight the architectural heritage of the Ottomans and the Byzantines.

60 Years of Süleymaniye

The owner of the Üniversite Pharmacy, Galip Niya talked to us about the transformation of the district.

You were born and raised in Süleymaniye. What are your memories of the district?

I was born in this building in 1951. I studied in this district until I enrolled in the Istanbul University Faculty of Pharmacy. I’ve been a pharmacist in this building for 43 years. Süleymaniye was one of the most exquisite districts in the city. My grandfather used to have a mansion here, named İbrahim Efendi Mansion. Mevhibe İnönü’s mansion, Hamit Efendi Mansion, were nearby. We couldn’t see the sky in my grandfather’s garden because of the tall trees. It was where I first saw a kite, a turtle, an owl, a porcupine and a weasel.

The old houses here are being renovated. Do you think there’s a transformation toward the neighborhood atmosphere of your childhood?

Yes, the buildings are being renovated and the streets are getting lovelier. But it feels like a ghost town when it’s not occupied by people all day. After 5 p.m., the neighborhood is as quiet and calm as a movie set. They’re building nice structures, but that’s all there is to them. If we’re going to have a neighborhood culture, we need families and neighbors. We’re waiting for them.

Is there an advantage or disadvantage to being from Süleymaniye?

We have a famous restaurant here that cooks a white bean dish, maybe you’ve heard of it. A couple of friends of mine visit and ask me to take them there almost every day. I’m afraid of getting bored of eating it. Jokes aside, it’s great to live in a district people visit from far corners of Istanbul just to taste this dish.