Ottoman Istanbul was a vibrant city located at the center of trade routes. The Ottomans added many new structures to the works they inherited from the Roman and Byzantine period.
In this article, I will tell a story that began in 1453, when Constantinople was taken by the Ottomans, and ended in the 1920s, with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after WWI.
You will witness the short history of the Ottoman Empire and its capital, Istanbul, through the buildings in the city. Almost all of these structures can still be visited in Istanbul today.
Short History of Ottoman Istanbul
Ottoman Istanbul was one of the busiest trade centers in the Eastern Mediterranean. Goods from the Silk Road first arrived at the Port of Constantinople and were exported from there to Europe.
The Ottomans inherited this trading system from the Byzantine Empire. The goods coming to Istanbul were transported to Europe by the Genoese and Venetian trade colonies, just as in the past.
Constantinople has had a cosmopolitan structure since the Byzantine period. After the Ottomans took the city, it became an even more multinational city with the arrival of the Muslims.
At the height of the Ottoman Empire, one-third of Istanbul was non-Muslim. Ottoman Istanbul was predominantly inhabited by Muslims, Greeks, Armenians and Jews. In addition, there were the Levantines (Western Europeans who traded in the East).
In addition to mosques, there were Orthodox churches, Armenian churches, Catholic churches and many synagogues in the city. Traces of this cosmopolitan life can still be seen today in Fener and Balat, Beyoglu (Karakoy, Galata) and Kadikoy districts.
1. Rumeli Fortress
Rumeli Fortress was built by the Ottomans shortly before the Siege of Constantinople in 1453. The purpose of the castle was to prevent aid from Europe coming to Constantinople by sea.
Mehmed the Conqueror had well analyzed the failed siege during the reign of his father, Murad II. He knew that Venetian and Genoese ships could come to help Byzantium.
Giant cannons were placed in the Rumeli Fortress and warships were prevented from passing through the Bosphorus. This castle made it possible for the Ottomans to conquer Istanbul on May 29, 1453.
2. Eyup Sultan Mosque
Eyup Sultan Mosque was the first mosque built by the Ottomans in Istanbul. It was built on the site where one of the important Islamic figures, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, is believed to have died.
Constantinople had been one of the important centers of Christianity from the time of Constantine the Great. It was one of the five holy cities in the hierarchical system called the Pentarchy.
When Emperor Constantine declared Istanbul the co-capital of Roman Empire, he built the Church of the Holy Apostles to give the city a spiritual power and placed the relics of some of the apostles there.
The first two things the Ottomans did after they conquered Istanbul were to build Eyup Sultan Mosque and turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque. In this way, they wanted to give the city a new identity a millennium after Constantine.
3. The Old Palace
The Old Palace was the first palace built by the Ottomans in Istanbul. This first palace stood in the middle of the peninsula that made up Constantinople. This palace was very close to today’s Grand Bazaar.
The reason why this palace was called “Old Palace” was because Topkapi Palace was built later. With the construction of the New Palace (Topkapi Palace) in Sultanahmet in the 1470s, the sultan moved there.
In the early years of Ottoman Istanbul, there was no Harem in Topkapi Palace. The Sultan had designed Topkapi Palace as a military facility and office. The female members of the dynasty remained in the Old Palace.
Many historical artifacts from Ottoman Istanbul have survived to the present day. However, as the Harem was later moved to Topkapi Palace, the Old Palace fell out of favor and disappeared. Some parts of the palace today form the Istanbul University.
4. Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is the oldest shopping place in Istanbul. The core of the Grand Bazaar was built in the 1450s and expanded over time by including other market places around it.
Constantinople had been a place to showcase fabrics, carpets, and spices from Asia since Byzantine times. The area where the Grand Bazaar is located was also a lively trade center during the Byzantine period.
After Constantinople was sacked in the Fourth Crusade (1204), Byzantium was in a period of collapse and could not recover. The Ottomans, on the other hand, revived Constantinople, one of the richest cities in history.
Today, the Grand Bazaar is one of the most popular tourist centers in Istanbul. With 67 streets and more than 3000 shops, the Grand Bazaar shows how Istanbul was a vibrant commercial city in history.
5. Fatih Mosque
Fatih Mosque is the oldest of the imperial mosques in Istanbul. This elegant mosque was built by Mehmed II (the Conqueror), the first Ottoman ruler in Constantinople.
Fatih Mosque is located in Fatih district, which is the heart of the Historical Peninsula. On the site of the mosque was the Church of the Holy Apostles, formerly the second largest church in Constantinople.
The Church of the Holy Apostles was the burial place of famous emperors such as Constantine the Great, Justinian the Great and Heraclius during the Byzantine period.
This church was badly damaged during the Sack of Constantinople (by the Crusaders) in 1204. The Ottomans built the first iconic mosque of the city in place of this church, which was on the verge of destruction.
Fatih Mosque could not preserve its original shape due to earthquakes and was rebuilt in the 18th century. The mosque is located right in the heart of old Istanbul, whose borders were determined by the Theodosian Walls.
6. Topkapi Palace
Topkapi Palace rises on the site of the ancient Greek acropolis, the first settlement of the city. Istanbul was founded here in the 7th century BC by the legendary king Byzas and the Megarians accompanying him.
Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, the first Ottoman sultan in Istanbul, had found the famous palace of the Roman emperors (the Great Palace) in ruins. The Blachernae Palace, where the late Byzantine emperors lived, was outside the city.
Thus, the sultan first built the Old Palace in the middle of the Historic Peninsula. A short time later, the construction of Topkapi Palace began on Seraglio Point, the most beautiful hill in the city.
Topkapi Palace was a place where the sultans would conduct their diplomatic and military affairs in the early periods of Ottoman Istanbul. However, since the reign of Sultan Suleiman, the character of the palace changed with the relocation of the Harem here.
Today, the Harem houses the beautiful decoration elements of Ottoman architecture. However, because it had no place in the original plan of the palace, the Harem Rooms are narrow and dim.
On the other hand, visiting Topkapi Palace is a great pleasure. Consisting of four large courtyards, the palace promises its visitors a well-preserved Ottoman heritage and magnificent Bosphorus views.
7. Bayezid Mosque
Bayezid Mosque was built during the reign of Bayezid II, the second Ottoman sultan in Istanbul. Dogan Kuban, one of the writers I inspired while writing my articles about Istanbul, defines this mosque as the pinnacle of the “early Ottoman architecture”.
The Ottoman Empire was established as a small principality in 1300. The Ottomans, which were neighbors with Byzantium, first conquered Bursa, a strategic city, and made it their capital.
The Ottomans had begun to take the first steps of becoming an empire during the reign of Murad I. During this period, Edirne (Adrianople) was conquered and became the second capital. With the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Istanbul became the third and last capital.
Ottoman architecture spent its infancy in Bursa. Early architecture, which matured in Edirne, reached its peak in the first 50 years of Ottoman Istanbul in the Bayezid Mosque. Ottoman architecture had completed the first of its three periods.
In the 16th century, “Classical Ottoman architecture” would show itself. Blending Turkish, Arab, Persian and even Byzantine traditions, this architecture would represent the heyday of the empire.
8. Yavuz Selim Mosque
Yavuz Selim Mosque was built on one of the seven hills of Istanbul. The mosque is located close to Fener and Balat districts, one of the popular walking routes of Istanbul in recent years.
During his short reign of eight years, Selim I had rapidly expanded the territory of the Ottoman Empire. During the reign of Sultan Selim, important centers in the history of religions such as Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem and Alexandria were captured.
Since Yavuz Selim Mosque is out of the tourist route, it is often overlooked by those visiting Istanbul. However, it is one of the first mosques of the peak period of the Ottoman Empire.
9. Sehzade Mosque
Sehzade Mosque was the first royal work of Mimar Sinan, which would leave his mark on Ottoman architecture in Istanbul. This mosque was a masterpiece and its plan inspired many later Ottoman mosques.
Sehzade Mosque was built in the 16th century due to the early death of Sultan Suleiman’s favorite son, Sehzade (Prince) Mehmed. Mehmed died of smallpox at the age of 20. The mosque was the first work of Mimar Sinan’s trilogy, Sehzade, Suleymaniye and Selimiye mosques.
Sehzade Mosque today stands at the intersection of busy streets. Near the mosque are the Valens Aqueduct, the ruins of the Saint Polyeuktos Church and the Zeyrek Mosque (former Monastery of Christ Pantokrator).
In the next five titles, we will be examining the structures built by the characters during the reign of Sultan Suleiman. Because the sultan and his family left their mark on a period in Ottoman Istanbul, thanks to the genius of the chief architect, Mimar Sinan.
10. Suleymaniye Mosque
Suleymaniye Mosque was built for the most famous sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Suleiman the Magnificent. During the reign of Sultan Suleiman, the empire spread over large lands in Europe, Asia and Africa.
Suleymaniye Mosque was built on one of the most prominent hills of the Historic Peninsula. For this reason, the mosque can be easily seen from many parts of both Old Istanbul and Beyoglu (New City).
The Suleymaniye Mosque was built by Mimar Sinan, one of the most important figures of the Classical Ottoman architecture in Istanbul. Sinan built dozens of works during his long life and was the most prolific architect of the Ottoman Empire.
Mosques of Ottoman sultans were also designed as mausoleums for their families. For this reason, the tombs of Sultan Suleiman and his wife Hurrem Sultan are located here. In addition, their daughter Mihrimah Sultan is also here.
11. Haseki Hurrem Sultan Hammam
Haseki Hurrem Sultan Hammam is located in the middle of Sultanahmet Park today. Situated between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, this park is the most touristic spot of Istanbul.
Hurrem Sultan was the wife of Sultan Suleiman, the ruler of the Ottoman Empire at its peak. Hurrem Sultan was one of the most influential women in Ottoman history and had an influence on state administration.
During the Ottoman period, women whose sons became sultans were called “Valide Sultan”. Valide Sultan was actually an honorary rank and had no direct influence in state affairs.
However, during the reign of some powerful women such as Hurrem Sultan, Valide Sultan had a direct say in the state administration. The relevant period in Ottoman history is specifically referred to as the Sultanate of Women.
When Hurrem Sultan was at the height of her power, she had this beautiful Turkish bath built in the center of Sultanahmet. She also had a mosque complex (Haseki Mosque) built in the Haseki district.
12. Mihrimah Sultan Mosque
Mihrimah Sultan Mosque is located on the west side of the Old City. Very close to the Byzantine-era Theodosian Walls, this mosque rises on one of Istanbul’s seven hills. The mosque draws attention with its distinctive exterior architecture.
Mihrimah Sultan was the daughter of the Sultan Suleiman and the wife of the “Grand Vizier” Rustem Pasha. Ottoman palace architect Mimar Sinan built one mosque for Rustem Pasha and two for his wife Mihrimah.
Mihrimah Sultan’s mosque in the Old City is one of the most beautiful mosques in Istanbul. She had another relatively simple mosque built in the Uskudar district on the Asian side.
Rustem Pasha Mosque in Eminonu is a hidden gem. Covered with the most beautiful Iznik tiles of the period, the mosque has an impressive interior decoration. This mosque was added to the list of “100 hidden jewels of the world” by Newsweek.
13. Ibrahim Pasha Palace
Ibrahim Pasha Palace is located in Sultanahmet Square (the old Hippodrome of Constantinople). The building, which is an Ottoman palace from the 16th century, now serves as the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.
Ibrahim Pasha was a senior bureaucrat who graduated from Enderun School in Topkapı Palace. During his years at the palace, he and Sultan Suleiman (who was still a prince at that time) had established a very strong friendship.
Ibrahim Pasha rose to the rank of Grand Vizier during the reign of Sultan Suleiman and became the second powerful man of the state. During this period, he married Hatice Sultan, the sister of Sultan Suleiman, and settled in this palace.
Sultan Suleiman had equipped Pargali Ibrahim Pasha with an unprecedented authority in Ottoman history. Suleiman’s most successful years were when he led military expeditions with Ibrahim Pasha.
However, with a chain of events spanning decades, the relations between the sultan and his right hand deteriorated. Ibrahim Pasha, one of the most powerful bureaucrats in Ottoman history, was finally executed.
Hurrem Sultan and Rustem Pasha, whose works we mentioned in the previous lines, also had a share in Ibrahim Pasha’s downfall. Power struggles in the Ottoman palace marked the 16th century.
14. Selimiye Mosque
Selimiye Mosque was the final work of the chief architect Mimar Sinan. Selimiye Mosque is not actually in Istanbul. However, while commemorating Ottoman Istanbul and its architecture, it was impossible not to mention Selimiye, a milestone.
Architect Sinan advanced his art in Sehzade and Suleymaniye mosques and crowned his legacy with Selimiye. He had built this mosque for Selim II, the successor of Sultan Suleiman.
Selim II’s reign was overshadowed by his father’s legacy. However, it is necessary to remember what Selim did for Hagia Sophia. Because without the measures taken by the sultan, Hagia Sophia would have been destroyed in the 16th century.
Selim realized that the columns inside Hagia Sophia could not support the weight of the dome and were tilted to the east. As a precaution against this situation, he had Mimar Sinan build flying buttresses to support the building.
Selim also had the structures around Hagia Sophia demolished and built protective walls around the mosque. Although Selim had a magnificent mosque built in Edirne, he was buried in a tomb in the courtyard of Hagia Sophia when he died.
Sultan Selim’s Selimiye Mosque represents the pinnacle of Ottoman classical architecture. A period that started with Sehzade Mosque was completed with Selimiye, which was built in the previous capital of the Ottoman Empire.
15. Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque is one of the last works of Classical Ottoman architecture. The mosque was built in 1616 by Sedefkar Mehmed Agha, who came from the school of Mimar Sinan.
Mimar Sinan had built dozens of mosques, baths, palace rooms and tombs during his time as chief architect. During this period, Iznik tile workshops also worked at full capacity.
Ottoman pottery saw its peak during this productive period. Thanks to the momentum created during this period, the Blue Mosque was decorated with the richest tile collection in Ottoman Istanbul.
Sultan Ahmed I, who had the mosque built, died at a very early age. The mosque that is his legacy, Sultan Ahmed Mosque, gave the district (Sultanahmet) its name over time. However, it is known as the “Blue Mosque” because of the color of the tiles inside.
16. Baghdat Pavillion
Baghdat Pavillion is located in the fourth courtyard of Topkapi Palace. The palace was home to 25 Ottoman sultans between the 15th and 19th centuries, and many structures were added over time.
The powerful Valide Sultans period, which started with Hurrem Sultan, continued for about 100 years. In this period, Nurbanu Sultan, Safiye Sultan, Kosem Sultan and Turhan Sultan became prominent women.
Murad IV came to the throne during the Sultanate of Women (1533-1656) and gathered power in one hand during his reign. Murad IV wanted to reorganize the slowly and steadily declining empire.
After seven generations, Murad IV revived the tradition of sultans going to war at the head of the army. The sultan, who organized military expeditions to Baghdad and Yerevan, had two pavilions built in the Topkapi Palace to commemorate the victories.
These two pavilions, located in the fourth courtyard of Topkapi Palace today, are the last examples of Classical Ottoman architecture. The interior decoration of these pavilions, built in 1638, contains everything related to Ottoman culture.
17. Spice Bazaar
Spice Bazaar was built in 1664 as part of the New Mosque complex. When a mosque was built in the Ottoman period, a bazaar was built next to it. The rent of the shops in this bazaar was a fund for the future restorations of the mosque.
Construction of the New Mosque began in 1597, the middle of the Sultanate of Women period. The construction of the mosque, the foundation of which was laid by Safiye Sultan, was left unfinished after the death of her son, Sultan Mehmed III.
The unfinished construction of the New Mosque resumed during the reign of Turhan Sultan, the last member of the Sultanate of Women. Thus, the New Mosque and its extension, Spice Bazaar, were completed at the end of a 60-year period.
Spice Bazaar was one of the busiest bazaars in Istanbul during the Ottoman Empire. Spices, which were brought from Asia to Egypt by caravans and then to Istanbul by ships, were sold here.
Spice Bazaar is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Istanbul today. Spice Bazaar is located in Eminonu, the busiest district of Istanbul’s Historic Peninsula, and is also known as the Egyptian Bazaar.
18. Fountain of Ahmed III
Fountain of Ahmed III is the first historical building that welcomes visitors to Topkapi Palace. This public fountain also represents the transition from Classical Ottoman architecture to the Modern period.
During the reign of Ahmed III, we see that the sultans sought a new style. In this period, called the Tulip Era, there were new developments in architecture and art. Ottoman Istanbul was equipped with a sophisticated and detailed style.
Fountain of Ahmed III is a transitional work that still preserves the traditional ornamental elements of tiles and calligraphy, but also has the Baroque and Rococo styles, which were the fashion of Europe at that time.
19. Nuruosmaniye Mosque
Nuruosmaniye Mosque is considered to be the first historical monument in which the Baroque effect began to be seen in Ottoman mosques. The courtyard of this mosque, which is adjacent to the Grand Bazaar, is among the first examples of the Ottoman Baroque.
The early Ottoman architecture is mostly represented by palaces, mosques and tombs in the Historic Peninsula. Among them, the Nuruosmaniye Mosque represents the transitional period, while the Pertevniyal Valide Sultan Mosque is an exception as it is purely baroque.
Pure Modern Ottoman architecture, on the other hand, was embodied in the structures on the shores of the Bosphorus. In the 19th century, Westernization gained momentum and European palaces and buildings were built in districts such as Beyoglu and Besiktas.
20. Nusretiye Mosque
Nusretiye Mosque is located in the Beyoglu district outside the Historical Peninsula. The mosque, which has a distinctive baroque architecture, was built by the reformist sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mahmud II.
In the early Ottoman period, the elite infantry unit called the Janissaries had won spectacular victories. However, from the 17th century onwards, they became the main obstacle to innovation.
Osman II was the first sultan to set up a new army and was killed in the rebellion. Ahmed III’s cultural reform in the Tulip Era was also halted. Finally, Selim III‘s reform attempts ended in a bloody rebellion.
Mahmud II had barely escaped in the rebellion against his predecessor, Selim III. But he was determined to change everything radically. He learned lessons from the past and violently wiped out the Janissaries from history.
Mahmud II embarked on major reforms in the military field. Afterwards, he made great changes in the cultural field. The uniforms of the Ottoman sultans and the palace procedures of the state changed during his reign.
Nusretiye Mosque, on the other hand, made a sharp turn in Ottoman architecture, which was slowly transitioning to the Baroque period. During the reign of Mahmud II and his successors, the Modern architecture began to rise in Ottoman Istanbul.
21. Dolmabahce Palace
Dolmabahce Palace was built during the reign of Sultan Abdulmejid, the successor of Mahmud II, the pioneer of reform. With the construction of this new palace on the Bosphorus, the Ottoman sultans would no longer live in the traditional Topkapi Palace.
During the reign of Sultan Abdulmejid, wonderful structures were built on the shores of the Bosphorus. Among them were buildings such as Dolmabahce Palace, Dolmabahce Mosque and Ortakoy Mosque.
The common feature of these buildings was that they had an eclectic style that blended Baroque and Neo-Classical architecture with Turkish architectural elements. Thus, Modern Ottoman architecture completed its development.
The symbol behind the Classical Ottoman architecture was Mimar Sinan. The names behind the Modern Ottoman architecture were the Ottoman Armenian Balyan Family. The Balyans were palace architects for several generations.
The Balyan family built magnificent buildings on the shores of the Bosphorus. Most of the palaces and mosques you will see when you go on a Bosphorus cruise in Istanbul today were built by this family.
22. Yildiz Palace
Yildiz Palace was a structure consisting of a hunting lodge and additional buildings where the sultans went to be in touch with nature. However, it became a palace with pavilions built in the 19th century.
Yildiz Palace is associated with Abdulhamid II, one of the late Ottoman sultans. Abdulhamid II preferred this palace consisting of pavilions in a huge park. The reforms that started with Mahmud II continued during the time of Abdulhamid II.
During the reign of Abdulhamid II, modern schools and a military academy were established. Post and telegraph lines were put into service and train tracks connecting Istanbul and the Middle East were built.
23. Pera Palace Hotel
Pera Palace Hotel was a symbol of the great architectural change that Istanbul went through in the 19th century. Located in the heart of Beyoglu (aka Pera), this building was the hotel for Europeans who came to Istanbul with the Orient Express.
European visitors from Paris would arrive in Old Istanbul on the Orient Express and from there cross the Golden Horn to stay in Beyoglu (today known as Taksim). In the 19th century, the city’s most popular street, Grand Ru de Pera (today Istiklal Street), was in Beyoglu.
One of the reasons why Beyoglu and its surroundings were so European in the 19th century was the opening of embassies there. There were magnificent French and British embassy buildings in this area.
The fact that the sultans left the Topkapi Palace in the Historic Peninsula and moved to the Dolmabahce Palace on the shores of the Bosphorus accelerated the gentrification in this district.
24. Grand Post Office
The Grand Post Office is quite different from the European buildings built in the 19th century. Because this structure was built to represent the First National Architectural Movement initiated by two Ottoman architects.
Modern Ottoman architecture, which started in the 17th century and reached its peak in the 19th century, was quite far from traditional architecture. Two architects named Vedat Tek and Mimar Kemalettin showed a reaction to this.
Thus, a hybrid architecture was created, emphasizing the origins of the Turks from Central Asia but also incorporating Ottoman decoration elements. Representatives of this architecture today are the Grand Post Office, Four Seasons Hotel Sultanahmet and Legacy Ottoman Hotel buildings.
25. German Fountain
The German Fountain is located in the Hippodrome, which was the most important activity center of Istanbul during the Byzantine period. However, it is very young when compared to the Obelisk of Theodosius and Serpent Column at the Hippodrome.
The German Fountain was designed by the German emperor Wilhelm II as a gift to Sultan Abdulhamid II. The Ottoman and German empires were close allies before the First World War.
While the German Fountain resembles an Ottoman public fountain from the outside, it also refers to the Byzantine art of the past with the mosaics adorning its interior.
However, it also represents the end of the 500-year history of Ottoman Istanbul. The Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of WW1, as did the German and Austro-Hungarian empires.
Thus, we ended a story that started in 1453 and continued until the proclamation of the Republic in 1923. Ottoman Istanbul was once one of the most cosmopolitan and colorful cities in the world.
In this article, I tried to describe Ottoman Istanbul through the structures built between the 15th and 19th centuries. This article is a continuation of the “Byzantine Constantinople” article I wrote earlier.
If you want to go deeper into the history of Istanbul, you can also read the article Byzantine Constantinople, which describes the city’s Byzantine period through buildings built between the 4th and 15th centuries.
The most prominent structures in the history of Istanbul are, of course, churches and mosques. If you want to learn more about these, I would also recommend the Byzantine churches in Istanbul or the Mosques in Istanbul articles.
Written by Serhat Engul
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