Istanbul, Eyüp
Turkish Daily news

Fatih Sultan Mehmed had a shrine built here and then a mosque. Thise proved to be a popular religious site so much so that Eyüp is now considered the third holiest shrine in Islam after Mecca and Jerusalem, and pilgrims throughout the centuries have come here

Near the head of the Golden Horn on the south side, there is a fascinating district filled with wooden houses, old mosques, graves and mausoleums and known simply as Eyüp. It lies outside the Byzantine/Ottoman walls of Istanbul and is a wonderful place to go walking and exploring on a cool autumn day. The colored leaves that litter the tree-lined main avenue and their smell are exhilarating.

Eyüp was founded in a most curious way. Seven centuries before the Ottoman conquest of the city (1453) and following the emergence of Islam, crusading Muslims sped overland on horseback as far as the walls of Constantinople (674-678), which they besieged for a number of years. During this first siege one of the companions of the Prophet Mohammed, Eyüp al-Ansari, died and was buried outside the walls. His grave was forgotten; by other reports, it was considered a saint's grave and visited by people from far and near. Who knows!?

This leads us to 1453 and a charming tradition involving the sultan, the grand vizier and a dream. Fatih Sultan Mehmed had not been able to conquer Constantinople and he insisted that Eyüp al Ansari's grave needed to be found. Suddenly, his grand vizier, Akşemseddin, proclaimed that he knew where it was and fell down to the ground as if asleep. When he awoke, he told the sultan that the grave was to be found in the very spot where he had fallen asleep. It was dug up and, low and behold, there was a marble slab on which was written in kufic letters (an early form of Arabic) that this was the grave of Eyüp al Ansari.

There is some contradictory evidence to suggest that the Byzantines knew very well where it was, even in the 13th century, and it's unlikely to have been forgotten in the years prior to the conquest.

The sultan had a shrine built here and then a mosque. These proved to be a popular religious site so much so that Eyüp is now considered the third holiest shrine in Islam after Mecca and Jerusalem, and pilgrims throughout the centuries would come here first and then go on to Jerusalem and Mecca. Muslims earned special merit by worshipping in all three places.

Over the centuries, Eyüp as a holy place attracted people to be buried there, including members of the imperial family, top administrators and just ordinary citizens. It was a place where members of the royal family had summer homes, the Bosphorus not yet being very popular. So we know there were elegant wooden houses along the waterfront and also within the village. The hills above would be planted with orchards and fruit and vegetable gardens. Even today, Eyüp is famed for its plants and trees that are sold there. The sultan himself would even come by boat along the Golden Horn, disembark at one of the landings to relax and enjoy himself in the homes of one or another of his sisters or half-sisters.

Another unusual aspect of Eyüp is that it was where the sultans would essentially be crowned if they wore crowns. When the throne changed hands, the sultan would come by boat to Eyüp and then at the mosque he would be girded with a sword, which effectively proclaimed him the official sovereign. Then he would return to Topkapı Palace on horseback. Legend has it that there used to be a Byzantine monastery on the site and Byzantine knights would come there for a religious blessing before going out to do battle, which included them being girded with a sword.

Visiting Eyüp:

As more and more people wanted to be buried there, a number of mosques and mosque complexes were built, some by the famous Mimar Sinan. And the graveyards spread up the hills and into the village that had grown up around the Eyüp Sultan Mosque. When you first enter it from landside by bus or taxi or car, you have the impression of having come to a city of the dead where seemingly everywhere are tombstones, many of which are still white or gray and standing upright.

The vegetation has grown up around the stones as it is a practice to visit graves on special days but not necessarily to clean up around them and, of course, after centuries, families have died out. But some of this practice stems from the belief that what was public property, for example streets, squares, graveyards, waterways, etc., was the responsibility of the sultan, or today the municipality. Turkish homes are almost always immaculate inside so there's no reason why the streets shouldn't be clean. Perhaps that's why Turks still have a rather cavalier attitude towards garbage disposal, by not wrapping it properly or putting it out when the garbage truck comes by.

Anyway, walking around Eyüp is fascinating. Many of the old wooden houses have intricate wooden lattice-work over the windows that allows the people inside, especially women, to look out without being observed from outside. Huge old trees provide shadow over the roads and it's like being transported back in time to another era -- you can almost hear the horse-drawn carriages clacking over the stone pavement.

Here and there you will find yourself at a mausoleum such as that of Zal Mahmut Paşa, who was the husband of Princess Şah Sultan, the sister of Sultan Selim II. Mimar Sinan built it as a mosque, mausoleum and school and it has a charming irregularity about it. Although it was in ruins for years, it has been restored and makes it worth a visit. So walk down the stairs to look at the interior of the complex more closely.

Other mausoleums such as that of Sokollu Mehmed Paşa are being put to good use. Just across the street from the Eyüp Mosque, a portion of the complex has been turned into a children's clinic, guarded by a deaf Van cat, or at least it was a couple of years ago.

Eyüp Sultan Mosque itself is interesting but it's not the original. Today's mosque dates from 1800. There always seems to be a line outside the shrine containing the body of Eyüp al Ansari. Some of the tile work is very interesting. While the mosque can be extremely crowded on Fridays for prayer service -- it's a favorite place for politicians to come for the Friday prayer service -- the Eyüp Municipality's mehter band (Janissary band) gives a performance beforehand. The municipality has also set up a restaurant and coffeehouse nearby where you can get some refreshments. There are also some restaurants in town that offer lamb for example, roasted over a bed of charcoal in front of your very eyes.

While the gardens don't exist any more, there are people who still have some farms where they raise and sell plants and trees, and it is known as one of the best places in the city to buy outside of Eminönü or the Belgrade Forest.

From Eyüp, you might want to explore the Pierre Loti Café, a walkable distance but all uphill. Not too long ago, the Eyüp Municipality had a cable car built so that you can easily get there; it's much nicer to walk downhill. Pierre Loti was a 19th century French writer who was in love with Turkey and wrote a number of novels based in Turkey. He is supposed to have written them in this little teahouse that offers a splendid view from the head of the Golden Horn all the way to Topkapı Palace. It's a pleasant way to wind up a visit to Eyüp.

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