Travels in Istanbul: Mosques, Bazaars and Mausoleums

I had never been inside a Mosque(Camii) before; not for any specific reason, but the opportunity had not yet presented itself. In Istanbul, the most famous Mosque, the Blue Mosque, was very near our hotel, so we went to visit that the first day. Unfortunately it is under construction, and there is nothing (really) to see. In my first post on Istanbul, I relayed the story about our rug purchase; the man who sold it to us directed us to the Suleymaniye Mosque, which is near the Grand Bazaar, about a half hour walk from where we were staying near Sultanahmet Square.

The top and minarets of the Blue Mosque (with an obelisk in front)

We headed out early, prepared to walk through the Grand Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı in Turkish). Nothing can prepare you (or us) for the Grand Bazaar. After passing through a single metal detector, we were inside the semi-controlled chaos of vendors selling everything one could ask for including Turkish delight and baklava, spices that permeate the air with their fragrances, fine rugs and multi-colored lanterns, knock-off high end name brands, clothing for everyone, and so much more. There are also people everywhere, tourists and locals and vendors enticing visitors to view their shops’ wares, all the while men selling piping hot tea weave through the crowds with their trays full of glass cups.

Turkish Lamps for Sale at the Grand Bazaar (c/o Smithsonian Mag)

It is also quite easy to get lost once inside; there are so many pathways, narrow and narrower, that lead to more shops. We were only inside for an hour, and since we were not shopping, it was a bit simpler to make our way through. But friends of ours said they got really lost and spent five hours wandering around inside. It is intense and wonderful all at the same time. We finally found an exit, and saw the Suleymaniye Mosque nearby.

Suleymaniye Mosque (after we left the Grand Bazaar)

We were planning to eat after the visit, but on the way passed a line of Turks waiting in line for sandwiches made of döner meat, that were being prepared right in front of us, a man was slicing off strips that went right into the sandwich, and after adding some peppers, were handed to the customers. We felt if locals were waiting, it must be good. So we bought our two sandwiches, then headed to the mosque to eat them. We found a sitting area near the mosque in the shade, ate our sandwiches, then headed inside the complex.

The tomb on the left, in front of the Suleymaniye Mosque

We first encountered the Mausoleum and tomb of Kanuni Sultan Suleyman Khan, who was Sultan for 46 years, from 1520 until his death in battle in 1566. Kanuni means “lawgiver,” and he was behind the building of the mosque that bears his name, as well as many buildings around the Arab world. His mother and daughter are also buried here. It is a stunning building, especially from the inside.

Next to his tomb is the Mausoleum and tomb of Hurrem Sultan, who was the favorite wife of Kanuni Sultan Suleyman Khan. Originally her name was Alexandra Lisowska, born in today’s Ukraine, and was sent to Suleyman by Crimean Tartars. She gained his favor, bore him five children, and they were very much in love, as he even wrote poems about her. She was given the name Hurrem, which means “lively, smiling, cheerful.” Though she died in 1558, Suleyman built her a beautiful tomb building next to his.

Next, we entered the the grassy area in front of the mosque, which provided a great place to take pictures of the city.

The stone courtyard in front of the mosque entrance was grand as well.

We took our shoes off, left them outside the mosque, and entered. Immediately we were taken aback by the grand openness of the mosque (the picture at the top of this post is taken just inside). Very high white ceilings with beautiful white and orange striped archways, gold leaf dome, the hanging light fixtures in the circular patterns of varying size, just about ten feet off the ground, and the peacefulness and awe of the other visitors, along with some Muslims praying. A very relaxed, yet lively, vibe.

As we stood awestruck (after taking our pictures) a man approached us, introduced himself (Ahmet, a volunteer, who was a doctor in Istanbul), and asked if he could tell us about Islam. We said sure, and over the next hour he told us many things we did not know (and some we did) about the religion. One big one was there were no paintings or pictures of people in mosques, and that, in this mosque, above the altar at the front, was a writing, in Arabic, about the Virgin Mary. It was very interesting and Ahmet even gave us his email if we had any further questions. We took one last look at the Suleymaniye Mosque, and then walked back to our hotel.

In Sultanahmet Square, near the Blue Mosque is the Mausoleum of Sultan Ahmed the first. He is famous for ending the practice of royal fratricide; where, once the sultan ascended to the throne, his brothers were killed. Thus, he, along with two other Sultans and 33 others, are buried here. The ceiling and walls are beautiful as well as the shrouds covering the caskets.

Our next visit was to the Mısır Çarşısı, or Spice Bazaar (dating back to 1664), wear one can buy a variety of spices (duh), from oregano, cumin, paprika, sesame seeds, anise, cinnamon, mint, allspice to lesser sumac and nigella seeds, the spices are piled high, and the aromas are enticing. One can also buy Baklava, Turkish delight, and many other tasty treats (and we did). It is slightly less hectic than the Grand Bazaar and the pathways are in a cross shape, so harder to get lost. Samples are readily available, and it is great place to go to get the feel for the Bazaar but without getting lost for five hours (as friends of ours did).

In front of the Spice Bazaar (with Suleymaniye Mosque on the far right)

On the way back from the Spice Bazaar, near the Grand Bazaar, is the Hatice Turhan Sultan Türbesi, which is another Mausoleum and Grave complex built in 1663, and similar to the Mausoleum of Ahmet the first. It is a significant building in Ottoman architecture, and another impressive Mausoleum. The stained glass was especially intricate and beautiful with the sun shining through.

Our coolest Mosque experience happened by accident (as the coolest things often do). We were eating at a rooftop restaurant (there are tons, and I mean tons, of rooftop restaurants, and they call them terraces. Every restaurateur calls you in as you walk by, to come sit on their lovely terrace). We saw the mosque from our open air dining terrace, and thought, “it’s close, so let’s go check it out.”

Dinner spot and top of the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Mosque

We found the entrance, which was under an old stone archway, with beautiful bougainvilleas growing on the stone wall, and entered the courtyard of the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Mosque, where some kids were playing soccer. There an older gentleman met us, and said he spoke some English, and asked if would we like to see the Mosque. We said, of course, and he led us inside. We were the only people inside this stunning, albeit smaller mosque, which was one of the oldest in the city (pre-dating the Blue Mosque and Suleymaniye Mosque), built in 1572 by its namesake.

The interior (kibla) is decorated with marvelous Iznik tiles, and there were still some wood inlays from when it was built. There are also three tiny pieces of the Kaaba that the Ottomans took from it in Mecca, and below if you look really close you can see one of them. The old man was kind enough to also take our picture (correcting us a we put our arms around one another to pose,”not in a mosque”). It was a unique, informative, and supercool experience.

On a solo trip, on the way back from the 1453 Panoramic Museum (which is absolutely worth a visit), I made a stop at a couple other mosques that were on the southern end of the Grand Bazaar, the first being Beyazit Mosque, which was built in the early 1500s. The courtyard and water station in front of the mosque are white/gray stone and a good place to cool off under the shade before entering the mosque. Inside, the plentiful stained glass, while simpler in design, shone brightly, and the domed ceiling was especially detailed and impressive.

Just outside the courtyard was the entrance gates to the University of Istanbul, flanked by two giant Turkish flags.

There are many entrances to the Grand Bazaar (and all have a guard a metal detector), and here are just two, of many; one has the Ottoman crest above.

The Nuruosmaniye Mosque is part of the Nuruosmaniye Social Complex; built in the mid 1700s, it is the first baroque style mosque. There is also a fountain, soup kitchen, tomb, library, and large courtyard. Walk around the whole mosque as I took the above left picture of the Grand Bazaar entrance while looking down from just outside the mosque. The inside of the mosque is smaller area-wise than the Beyazit and Suleymaniye mosques, but no less impressive. The stained glass and columned second level were especially cool.

Another mosque, but this one we only saw from the outside, is Vilayet Mosque.

We also saw the inside of Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque, which is quite stunning.

The art, architecture, windows, altars, and designs of all the mosques we saw were impressive and so different from the churches we had seen over our past year living in Spain and Italy and it was a so interesting to see and absorb. I highly recommend visiting as many as you can when in Istanbul, as well as the mausoleums I mentioned, as they are beautiful and unique. Of course, the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar’s need to be experienced with one’s own senses to truly grasp their essence; just remember, if you plan on buying anything, research the cost, be prepared to negotiate, and have fun!

Published by Phil Barrington

Currently living in Spain, Accountant by Day, Writer by Night. Lover of baseball, travel ,and spreadsheets. Check out my blog:

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