Hallmark Of Istanbul

Known in the Byzantine period as the Mese, the Divanyolu (literally, Court Road) is a special avenue where the pulse of Istanbul has beat for centuries. While it may no longer stretch all the way to Edirnekapı, it nevertheless preserves its character even today.

The last great poet of late Ottoman Turkish literature, Şeyh Galib, at the end of his verse narrative entitled ‘Hüsn ü Aşk’ (Beauty and Love) says that the path he has adopted in his poem is, like the Divanyolu, not a smooth avenue but a valley fraught with danger. Widened rather ruthlessly by the Young Turks, who found it narrow and gloomy after seeing the broad, spacious boulevards of the European cities, the Divanyolu was nevertheless commonly acknowledged to be Istanbul’s widest avenue up to the end of the 18th century.
Lined with mosques, madrasas, hans, baths, fountains, imperial palaces, mansions of the great, and coffeehouses with rustic stools tossed out in front, it is a colorful, humming thoroughfare that has witnessed Janissary uprisings, official ceremonies of every stripe, wedding and circumcision feasts, festivals, parades, in short the entire panoply of Ottoman life.

The broad avenue known in the Byzantine period as the Mese and lined with arcaded columns that stretched from Hagia Sophia square all the way to Edirnekapı was called Divanyolu. Named so because it was the road used by members of the high court, Divan-ı Hümayun, which convened every Tuesday at the Topkapı Palace after morning prayer since the reign of Fatih, it has been the city’s vital artery and ceremonial way since its founding. Retaining this identity even in the Turkish period, the Divanyolu has nonetheless undergone a significant transformation. No longer is it a straight avenue but rather a ‘way’ that narrows and widens by turns, full of surprises and giving the impression of having sprung into being spontaneously.

Modern Turks however crave the conveniently wide, straight avenues of the European cities. When a great conflagration in 1865 destroyed many buildings on the Divanyolu, one of the leading statesmen of the day, Keçecizade Fuad Paşa, seized the opportunity to redesign this avenue. Many prominent structures were leveled during the widening of the street, and others so willfully damaged as to make them unrecognizable.

Robbed of still more of its historical identity in subsequent reconstruction projects, the Divanyolu was divided in two when the 1934 City Report was compiled, and the stretch between Atik Ali Paşa Mosque and Beyazıt Square renamed Yeniçeriler Caddesi, or Avenue of the Janissaries, an official name in records and street signs that never actually caught on. It is important however to remember the link between the Janissaries and the Divanyolu. If you distance yourself for a moment from the hurly-burly of modern life and put your ear to the wall of one of the old buildings along the avenue, you will hear the cries of the Janissaries that still permeate the stones, angry Janissaries who had overturned their cauldrons and were marching from the Hippodrome to Sultanahmet to redress their grievances.

Despite the devastation wrought in the name of reconstruction as well as the damage caused by uprisings, fires and earthquakes, the Divanyolu and its surrounding area remain one of Istanbul’s richest areas in terms of historic monuments.

If you stroll from the Hagia Sophia to Beyazıt, you will come to the Million Column, which was regarded in the Byzantine period not only as the starting point of the Divanyolu but of all roads. Next you will come to the Water Tower, the Beşir Ağa Mosque, and two mad Judas trees growing in an area laid out like a mini-park with a pool. If you’re hungry - you have a way to go - and you have time, you can enjoy an excellent meal of Turkish meatballs (köfte), with bean and onion salad followed by semolina halvah at the historic Sultanahmet Köftecisi on your right. Immediately adjacent to it rises the Cevri Kalfa Primary School, commissioned by Sultan Mahmud II for the female slave who saved him from death. Not far ahead on the opposite side is the Firuzağa Mosque, one of the first mosques built by the Turks in Istanbul. Despite its diminutive size, this mosque, erected on the Mese in 1491, only 38 years after the Conquest, to symbolize a new beginning and urban aesthetics, is a flawless example of classical proportion.

Crossing back to the right side, not far ahead we step into Hoca Rüstem Sokak. The Madrasa of White Eunuch Mehmed Ağa on this street is a work by the Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. Still further ahead on the right an Ottoman ‘pantheon’ appears before us. We stand now in an impressive walled space surrounded by a mausoleum, fountain, public drinking fountain and school building. Although the mausoleum was built for Mahmud II, Sultans Abdülaziz and Abdülhamid II were later buried here together with members of their families. This Empire-style mausoleum, built by architect Sarkis Amira Balyan not flush with the street but set back slightly, marked the beginning of the modern period on the Divanyolu and determined how it would take shape from then on. Indeed, the next building, is also set back slightly from the street.  Although it was built in the 1860’s as the Darülfünun (university), it has always been used for other purposes and today houses the Museum of the Press.

A large han, an elegant, small mosque and the Köprülü Library once stood opposite the mausoleum. Today however concrete structures rise in the place of the first two.

The Çemberlitaş Bath immediately adjacent to the Press Museum is another work of Mimar Sinan’s. A fine example of classical ‘hamam’ architecture, it unfortunately looks like a bird today after its cooling section was lopped off when the street was widened in 1865. A section of the Köprülü Library opposite it was also destroyed in the same operation.

Intersecting the Babıâli Caddesi, the Divanyolu becomes Klodfarer Caddesi, a name derived from that of two French writers, Pierre Loti and Claude Farrère, who immortalized the avenue in their works. Known as a friend of the Turks, Loti lived briefly in a small house that still stands on the Divanyolu.

Continuing your stroll, you will come to Byzantium’s most famous square, the Forum of Constantine. A column was erected here, known as the Tavukpazarı (Chicken Market) in the Ottoman period, by the city’s founder, Constantine. Damaged by fire and earthquakes, the column has been reinforced with iron hoops today, hence its name, ‘hooped column’. Immediately opposite it stood a large, two-story han, once the residence of envoys to the Ottoman capital. A ruin after the fire of 1865, the han was actually a part of the Atik Ali Paşa mosque complex. The mosque in this complex, one of the first architectural complexes ever built in Istanbul, is a very important work. The madrasa directly opposite it meanwhile has had its facade shaved off.

We turn right again now as the Sinan Paşa and Çorlulu madrasas await us at Çarşıkapı. The public fountain at the corner of the Çorlulu Madrasa is one of the finest examples of its kind of the classical period, and European painters and photographers swooned at the view created by this madrasa and Bileyciler Sokak. The courtyard of the Çorlulu Madrasa is occupied today by carpet dealers and narghileh cafes. If you are weary, you can have a cup of Turkish coffee here, or, if you have time, even puff on a narghileh (Turkish water pipe). But you mustn’t overlook the madrasa which is directly opposite. Commissioned by Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Paşa of Merzifon, the famous commander of the siege of Vienna, this madrasa is a part of a complex which was never completed after the pasha was executed following the failed siege.
We said earlier that the Divanyolu extended all the way to Edirnekapı in the classical period. When we speak of the Divanyolu today, however, what is understood is the street that ends at the Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Paşa Madrasa, described briefly above. Almost all the madrasas on this avenue now house charitable foundations for the preservation of Ottoman-Turkish culture.

Still an extremely busy thoroughfare today even though closed to vehicle traffic, the Divanyolu is an exciting space alive with its historic structures and colorful crowds, its constant hum, its passing trams that sometimes shake the ground beneath your feet, its side streets and its ‘restaurants’ that spill over onto the sidewalk. In short, you can feel the pulse of Istanbul on the Divanyolu.