Evliya Celebi, the great Ottoman traveller, was an Istanbul boy: a true Istanbullu, as the locals describe themselves. It’s no surprise then, that the first book of his travels, and the longest and most detailed, is the book covering Istanbul. The book is packed full of lively, sometimes risqué and irreverent stories as well as social and cultural gems. He had a keen eye for detail as well as a keen eye for the ridiculous and fantastical, often interwoven into entertaining and illuminating stories as well as drier factual observations.

One, of particular interest to the modern visitor to Istanbul is his description of the Suleymaniye Camii, both with regard to its construction and architecture as well the reactions of foreign visitors. It’s particularly interesting as, for Celebi, it was a relatively new building and many of the more obscure details missed in modern guide books were commonly known and the subject of conversation around him.

In Celebi’s own words:

“It was begun in the year 951 (1543) and finished in the year 963 (1557), and is an exemplary mosque beyond description. The learned men who compose histories, and thus strike the die on marble, have confessed the inability and failure of the best chroniclers to celebrate this unequalled mosque. Now, this humble Evliya ventures to write down its praises as much as I am able.”

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Since writing his account in the mid 17th century, nothing has changed. The Süleymaniye remains Istanbul’s finest mosque and is a joy to visit. Celebi runs through the aspects of the mosque’s design, description and an explanation of the various decorative and design elements just as a modern guide book would do. However, he has additional information and insights not shared by modern guidebooks because he was writing within 50 years of its completion.

Suleymaniye Mosque

The Suleymaniye is built on one of the hills of Constantinople commanding fine views of the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the hills of Asia beyond. Likewise, it can be seen from pretty much anywhere. The people frequenting the mosque certainly enjoyed the stunning aspect:

He observes “And on the east side is the Hammam Gate, with steps leading down to the public bath. On this side, the courtyard is not enclosed by a wall but by a low parapet so that one can view Istanbul. The entire congregation stops here to enjoy a panoramic view of the imperial palace, Üsküdar, Boğazhisarı (Rumeli Kavağı), Beşiktaş, Tophane, Galata, Kasımpaşa, and Okmeydanı. And there are fine views of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus, with thousands of ferries and caiques plying the waters and other boats unfurling their sails.” It’s exactly the same today with the additional sight of the modern Istanbul skyline on the horizon behind Galata.

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Its prominent location at the crest of a steep hill presented very particular problems with the issue of rainwater runoff and subsidence: the city can experience very severe rainstorms and the run-off across such a built-up area is considerable. Foundations had to be carefully planned and constructed and hall without the aid of modern construction machines; it was all done by hand. Guidebooks today don’t cover this.

Celebi describes the process thus:

“First, this mosque divides in half the ground of the old palace that the Conqueror had earlier built. On top of the high hill, Süleyman Khan built a unique mosque overlooking the sea. How many thousands of master architects, builders, labourers, stonecutters and marble cutters from all the Ottoman dominions had he gathered! And for three whole years 3000 galley slaves, foot-bound in chains, would lay the foundation deep into the ground, so deep that the world-bearing bull at the bottom of the earth could hear the sound of their pickaxes. They dug until they had reached the deepest part, and in three years, by erecting a platform, the foundation was built up to the surface. In the following year construction was halted while workmen cut stones for the buildings above the foundation. A year later, the prayer-niche was installed to the same measurement as that of the mosque of Sultan Bayezid II the Saint. In three years, they completed the walls as far as the vaults of the dome on all four sides. After that, they constructed the lofty dome on top of the solid square pier base.”

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There are four large square piers supporting this incomparable dome that were brought from Baalbek in the Bekka Valley of Lebanon. In addition, there are there are four porphyry columns on the right and left sides of the mosque interior, “each one worth ten Egyptian treasures” brought from Luxor in Egypt. They were “transported along the Nile to Alexandria. From there Karınca Kapudan (‘Admiral Ant’) loaded them onto rafts” and shipped them to Constantinople. Each one would weigh about 500 tons.

Celebi describes the mystical numerology tied to the Koran and to the reign of Suleyman that was designed to invoke energy and power to both mosque and the Sultan. These are varied and numerous but the most obvious would be the classic, Ottoman style minarets four of them, elegant and slender, each one used for the Muhammadan call to prayer and since “Sultan Süleyman Khan was the tenth Padishah of the Ottoman dynasty, ten galleries were built on the four minarets.”


This great Imperial Mosque served not just the city as a place for worship, education and charity but also as a node connecting many points across the Empire. It was a symbolic city in and of itself, as well as a real building. As Celebi says “Seen from Galata, the Süleymaniye complex seems like a vast city covered with dark blue lead.

Ladies returning from prayer in the Suleymaniye rose garden

There is a total of 3000 servants attached to it. They are maintained by secure endowments from Süleyman Khan, including the revenues of several islands in the Aegean – such as Sönbeki (Symi), Istanköy (Kos), Sakız (Chios) and Rhodes – that are governed by the endowment’s administrator and his 500 agents. Because Süleyman Khan is the conqueror of the seven climes, his name is mentioned not only here but in Friday sermons. And in all the lands of Islam, there is no building stronger and more solid than the Süleymaniye. All architectural experts agree on this, and also that nowhere on earth has such an enamel dome been seen. Within and outside this mosque the foundation is firm, the buildings elegant, and every piece of ornamentation the work of wondrous magic of extreme perfection. When the construction ended, the Grand Architect Sinan said, ‘My Padishah, I have built for you a mosque so solid that on Judgement Day, when the mountains of the world are carded like cotton, the dome of this mosque will roll like a polo ball before the carder’s bow string of Hallaj Mansur.’

But what of visitors? Then, like now, Istanbul drew visitors from across the World. It’s when describing people, that Celebi shows us is droll sense of humour and his eye for a wry observation…. especially with those from strange, foreign places:

“Once, this humble one observed ten Frankish infidels with expert knowledge of geometry and architecture who were touring this light-filled mosque. The gatekeepers had let them in, and the caretakers had given them special shoes so they could walk around and see it. Wherever they looked, they put finger to mouth and bit it in astonishment. But when they saw the doors inlaid with Indian mother-of-pearl, they shook their head and bit two fingers each. And when they saw the enamel dome, they threw off their Frankish hats and cried out in awe, ‘Maria, Maria!’ Then they saw the four vaults at the skirt of the dome, resembling the Vault of Chosroes. They are like the rainbow, in accordance with the verse: Like the milky way, with head raised high He threw the lasso to the vault of the sky. – each one as it were a vault created by the hand of God.

They gazed at these arches and at the rest of the mosque’s interior for an entire hour, with finger in mouth, then went outside into the courtyard. When they saw the four minarets, the four pedestals, the six lofty gates, the delightful courtyard and surrounding arches and domes, the columns and row on row of well-proportioned cupolas topped by gilded Muhammadan finials, their eyes were dazzled from the splendour. Once again, they threw off their hats and walked all around this noble mosque bareheaded. Now in their awe they bit all ten fingers, that being their way of expressing extreme astonishment. This humble one requested their interpreter to ask them how they liked this building. One of them turned out to be capable of speech. He said, ‘All things, whether created beings or man-made structures, are beautiful either on the inside or on the outside. Rarely are the two beauties found together. But both the interior and the exterior of this mosque were constructed with such grace and refinement. In all of Frengistan we have not seen an edifice built to such perfection as this.’ ‘How does this mosque compare with Aya Sofya?’ I asked. ‘To be sure,’ they answered, ‘that is a larger building, constructed with brick, and an ancient work, solid and well-built for its time. But this is a finer construction in terms of grace, elegance, and beauty. It also required greater expenditure than Aya Sofya.’ In fact, they say that every ten miskals of stone used in this mosque cost one gold piece.”

Celebi’s Frankish acquaintances were obviously impressed, but it’s certain that he was not exaggerating for pride’s sake. The Süleymaniye as a wondrous and astonishing creation, but what of its impact on the modern visitor? There is the physical beauty of the place, of course, but there’s also tranquillity to be found here. In a hectic, bustling city of 20 million people, there is peace here and here there is “refreshment.” There is one last word to be said, Suleyman the Magnificent, or the Law Giver as Turks remember him, lies at rest in a beautiful cemetery garden. It’s appropriate since his word made it all happen. The mausoleum is modest but, as one would expect, a creation of serenity and grace. 

Celebi’s description of the “bower” just a bow-shot distance from the prayer niche in the mosque itself, speaks of the mausoleum “in the midst of a rose garden,” where Süleyman Khan, “may his earth be sweet,” lies under a “lofty dome that has no match beneath this celestial dome. For the master builder has put a larger dome on top of a smaller dome. Such a well-wrought dome, with such a strange and wonderful design, and such artful and intricate carvings of marble, is not to be seen in any other country.” Also buried here is Haseki Hurrem, the beloved wife of the Sultan.

Nearby, is the resting place of Sinan himself, appropriately in a tomb of his own design. He died in 1588, just short of his 100th year.

Süleyman Khan, “may his earth be sweet,”

Thank you very much for taking the time to read our latest travel journal. Turkey has so many fascinating sites and sights and it has taken us nigh on 18 years to collect together our wonderful memories and photos. Sally and Nick