Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district

by Anabright Hay / 31 March, 2012
Rich lives can be found among the gravestones of Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district.
In Istanbul, the dead and living enjoy a surprisingly peaceful coexistence. Whether neglected or cherished, the gravestones and tombs of the common and the great quietly compete for space in this ever-expanding metropolis. Just metres from where tour buses daily disgorge thousands of animated tourists who file through the 400-year-old Blue Mosque lies the grand tomb of the sultan who commissioned it.

Part of the mosque’s outer complex, the Tomb of Sultan Ahmed is like a mini Blue Mosque, as its 17th century interior is adorned with spectacular blue Iznik tiles. I join the small group of visitors blinking away the midday sun to peer into its majestic interior where stained glass windows and low-hanging lights illuminate large caskets covered  in green fabric. Each is topped with a lavishly stuffed white turban.

The tomb also contains the caskets of other, mainly 17th century, sultans. Removing our shoes we pad around the tiled walls and gaze at the shoulder-to-shoulder caskets in reverent silence. No strangers to this neck of the woods when they were alive, the sultans now lie just a short walk from their old home, the Topkapi Palace. The palace was built by their ancestor, Mehmed II, between 1459 and 1465, shortly after his conquest of Constantinople.

The tomb is maintained by Turcek, an organisation with equally lofty aims. It seeks to preserve, perpetuate and promote movable and immovable assets, tombs, fountains and sacred relics. Meanwhile, in Sultan Ahmet Square, the ebb and flow of commerce goes on. Carpet sellers politely try to entice lunchtime visitors into their shops and a man selling horse chestnuts from his cart enjoys a steady flow of customers.

Before leaving the tomb for my next appointment with the dead, I scan the brochure I picked up at the entrance. In their prime these sultans were busy men who did a lot more than laze around on the soft furnishings of the Topkapi Palace waiting for the next cooling breeze from the Bosphorus. They not only commissioned buildings but were highly educated, implemented radical policy reforms and commanded armies and navies that brought new territory into the empire.

So where did this 700-year-old empire end and the present Turkish republic begin? Everyone has their own story but I think it ended just around the corner in the Çemberlitaş district at the new marble grave of Ertuğrul Osman, who died in 2009. The last heir to the throne to have been born in Istanbul, he was banished from Turkey in 1924. Though only a child, he was seen as a threat to the legitimacy of the young republic.

After years working in the US mining industry, he was allowed to return to Turkey in 1992, and spent the rest of his life living quietly in Istanbul. A friendly young university student, whose directions I had sought on the street, guides me to the cemetery where Osman is buried. We soon find the grave I am looking for nestled beside a large octagonal mausoleum housing the tomb of Sultan Mahmud II and other 19th century sultans.

My youthful guide is anxious to find out what I believe and launches into a deep theological discussion about the difference between believers and non-believers. I am anxious to avoid such heavy topics and am more interested in enjoying the beauty of the many old gravestones pointing skywards at rakish angles. “You have to be careful in this city where an angel can actually be a devil in disguise,” my new friend tells me, as he shoos away a scruffy man who my protector believes is hoping I will give him money. I am feeling increasingly mellow.

My guidebook tells me the Ottoman cemetery is a garden of the dead where the living can happily stroll among the graves. The decorations on the gravestones can reveal a lot about the deceased. A woman’s headstone has a fl ower carved on it for each child; a turban carved in stone atop a man’s grave may refl ect his high status; and a stone fez can denote a public servant.

I notice that the flowers planted on Ertugrul Osman’s grave are freshly weeded. Born in Istanbul in 1912, Osman was the last surviving grandson of any serving Ottoman emperor. Before being exiled, he roamed the corridors of the 285-room 19th-century Dolmabahçe Palace, which lines an impressive expanse of the European side of the Bosphorus. As an old man, Osman visited the palace as an ordinary member of the public on a guided tour. Istanbul’s many cemeteries, tombs and graves don’t just tell the story of a cityand its generations of inhabitants.

They tell a tale of a vast empire that peaked in 1683 when it got as far as the gates of Vienna. After the failure of that siege, Ottoman power declined. The clean and tidy grave of Osman, a modern man with imperial blood who never ascended the throne of one of the world’s greatest empires, is a poignant reminder of what might have been.

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