Üsküdar lies along the Bosphorus, ushering the high foothills of Çamlıca into the waters of this most famous of straits. Each moment of the day, it welcomes ships, ferries, fishing boats, and guests in search of a peerless view of Istanbul.
It’s a wonderful feeling to watch Üsküdar from Beyoğlu and Fatih on the other side of the Bosphorus. It’s even better to breathe in the smell of old Istanbul in its narrow streets, to shop in its bazaar, to brush up against history in bookstores, and to smell the Istanbul air in its hills…
Used as a picnic area by the Ottomans after the conquest of Istanbul due to its rich flora and fresh air, Üsküdar was once adorned with summer houses and hunting lodges built by the court and the rich. After becoming a center of art and science in the 16th century, Üsküdar began to develop as a district. Charities built by the gentry turned the district into a hub of knowledge on the Anatolian side, while the structures built by Mimar Sinan, the famous Ottoman architect, started to give the district a distinct silhouette. Figures such as artist Ali Üsküdari, Hezarfen Necmeddin Okyay, sufi Aziz Mahmud Hüdayi, modern architect Turgut Cansever and Ahmed Yüksel Özemre are just a few of the personalities who have helped create the 500-year-old local culture of the district.
Hopping on a ferry from Eminönü is the best way to gaze at Üsküdar from the sea. As you pass by the Maiden Tower, you watch the houses that jostle to gaze out at the Bosphorus stretching from Harem to Çengelköy. The moment you step on the shore, two hostesses welcome you to the district: Valide Sultan and Mihrimah Sultan, the mother and daughter of Süleyman the Magnificent, respectively.
The long coastline between Kadıköy and Beykoz is one of the loveliest walking routes on Istanbul's Asian side. Filled with green parks, palaces, pavilions and mansions from Kanlıca to Beylerbeyi, the ever-present guardians of this route are the coastal fishermen. Enjoying the city all year round, sea and fishing enthusiasts are a fixture of Üsküdar, with the Bosphorus in the background. Situated on coastal slopes, Fethi Paşa Grove is an open-air and refreshing escape for those who’d like to enjoy the coast without the noise or the crowd. Home to various kinds of trees and many bird species, the grove has a mansion which currently serves as a restaurant and cafeteria – a tiny tip for those who’d like to have an iftar dinner with their friends during Ramadan. Start climbing the path to the highest point of the grove, accompanied by the smell of the pine trees, and you’ll be rewarded with an unforgettable Bosphorus view. The mossy smell of the Salacak coastline right by the Maiden Tower, one of Istanbulites’ favorite spots in the city, whispers the secret of the city in your ear during an evening walk after iftar: “Bu şehr-i Sitanbul ki bi mislü behadır” (loosely translated as “This precious city of Istanbul is one of a kind”).
Doğancılar Street, which cuts the district center in two, and Selmani Pak and Hakimiyeti Milliye Streets that lead up to Zeynep Kamil are the most popular shopping areas in the city. The portion between the two streets is the must-visit Üsküdar Bazaar, where you can find delicious spices and nuts. It’s a custom here to stop by and chat with the local shopkeepers.
Don’t be surprised if you happen to find poets, composers and authors among them who have been managing shops here for years. The ancient texture of Üsküdar permeates the residents and even the travelers. On your way from the bazaar to Doğancılar Street, you can stop by Asaf Osman Efendi’s tea house to enjoy a cup of strong nihavend (a mode of Turkish music) or segâh (a mode of Mugham music) tea to better understand this atmosphere.
Speaking of Doğancılar, it would be remiss to forget about Hezarfen Ahmet Çelebi, the first man to have achieved sustained unpowered flight. As told by Evliya Çelebi in his Seyahatname, Hezarfen, an inventor during Murad IV’s reign, took flight from the Galata Tower in Beyoğlu with wings of his own design, flew across the Bosphorus and landed in Doğancılar Park in Üsküdar.
On the right side of the park, which deserves to be called the first landing area in the world thanks to Hezarfen's flight, stand mosques built and named for the two spiritual owners of Üsküdar: Pir Nasuhi and Aziz Mahmud Hüdayi. Spreading affection all over Istanbul, from sultans to locals, the peaceful shadows of these two men of spiritual wisdom still watch over Üsküdar.
Ramadan in Üsküdar
We sat down with Neyzen (lute player) Ahmed Şahin, the owner of the Dinle Neyden Art Workshop.
Why did you choose this district?
I chose Üsküdar to open my workshop because it is one of the oldest districts in Istanbul and has a central location. It also has a spiritual atmosphere. The street we’re located leads to Aziz Mahmud Hüdayi Mausoleum. A bit further up is Nasuhi Üsküdari Mausoleum. Old structures such as Yeni Valide Mosque, Atik Valide Mosque and Mihrimah Sultan Mosque add to this spiritual atmosphere.
What is Ramadan like in Üsküdar?
In Ramadan, we pray the tarawih in the Enderûn style, one of the oldest treasures in Istanbul, at the mosques I mentioned. Tarawih is still prayed in Turkish music modes by some of the locals.
What do you do in Üsküdar in your leisure time?
I’m interested in architecture, so I stroll around the streets and examine old structures, mosques, and mausoleums. Some of the neglected structures in the district such as Cennet Efendi Mausoleum and Çamlıcalı Mehmet Efendi Mausoleum are being restored. I love watching these old structures come back to life.