Evliya Çelebi’s Route Through Istanbul

Evliya Çelebi’s route starts at Yavuzer Sinan Mosque In Unkapanı. The Ottoman sultans were known for disguising themselves and making inspection tours of their capital city. Rumor has it that after he conquered Istanbul and had the city rebuilt, Sultan Mehmet II, ‘the Conqueror’, made such inspections.

On one of those tours, he went outside the city walls. Upon completing his inspection, he wanted to re-enter the city through one of the gates, which were kept closed at night, but was forced to disclose his identity when the guard refused to let him in. Instantly earning the sultan’s praise, this man is remembered as the ‘yavuz er’, or ‘resolute soldier’. Although this part of the story is apocryphal, the truth is that Yavuzer Sinan was the Conqueror’s standard-bearer, who, with the ruler’s permission, had a mosque built in his own name in the quarter where he lived.

Aka Sağırcılar Mosque and standing in a small neighborhood between Eminönü and Unkapanı today, Yavuzer Sinan Mosque and the quarter surrounding it have produced a number of prominent individuals with many an interesting story to tell. One of them was a grandson of Yavuzer Sinan, Derviş Mehmed Zillî Efendi, the Chief Jeweler of Topkapı Palace, a figure we know not for his own accomplishments but for those of his son, none other than Evliya Çelebi.

Evliya Çelebi was born on March 26, 1611, in a house near the mosque built by his great-grandfather, Yavuzer Sinan. Consequently, the first stop on the journey that would take him a lifetime is Yavuzer Sinan Mosque and its environs. Remembering that Evliya Çelebi also walked these streets and spent his childhood here will bring you closer to him as you tour the mosque and the streets around it.

The scene of the incident that would give rise to Evliya Çelebi’s 10-volume Book of Travels is the Ahi Çelebi Camii, a charming little mosque with a single minaret on the shore as you go from Yavuzer Sinan Mosque towards Eminönü.

Evliya Çelebi attributes his travels to a dream he had at the Ali Çelebi Mosque on the night of August 19, 1630, a dream in which he met the Prophet Muhammed and, in a slip of the tongue, asked him not for ‘şefaat’ (mercy) but ‘seyahat’ (travel).  So began Evliya Çelebi’s great journey. Consequently his second stop is the Ahi Çelebi Mosque.

Deciding to travel upon waking from this dream, our renowned traveler begins by scouring Istanbul inch by inch in a tour that would take him ten years to complete. Next he would go to Bursa in 1640.

The description of Istanbul, which fills the first volume of the book, begins with the founding of the city and continues with the sieges it withstood during its history. But we will skip those sections and continue our Evliya Tour at his second stop, the so-called New Palace, which Evliya characterizes as ‘the abode of bliss’ and ‘iron castle’. It was only named Topkapı Palace in the 19th century since the Ottomans tended to call it the Imperial Palace or New Palace.

He has this to say about it: “A master by the name of Ferhad built a delightful palace such as the architects and engineers of the world had not built since the time of Adam.  World travelers have never seen its like on earth, because it is on the seashore surrounded by water on two sides, the Black Sea to the north, the Mediterranean to the East, and by the Hagia Sophia Mosque to the south in a city lying between two seas…

Inside the Gate of Felicity (third gate of Topkapı Palace) he built an Audience Chamber which is a pavilion of Babylonian splendor consisting of a large courtyard the size of the Hippodrome, with a pleasant bath on the east side, adjacent to that the imperial treasury, adjacent to that an aviary, and adjacent to that a cellar, a treasury chamber, the privy chamber, an imperial mosque, a falconers’ chamber, a small chamber, a large chamber, and rooms for travelers, as well as private apartments (he is speaking here of the ‘Enderun’ or Inner Palace), which however included no ‘harem’, or women’s quarters.

Suleiman the Magnificent would later have women’s quarters built. This great palace was surrounded by a sturdy castle with 366 towers and 12,000 walls, a fortress so strong that its like was not built in any other land. Forty thousand persons are employed in this New Palace, which is a virtual Garden of Eden that language is inadequate to describe…”

Evliya Çelebi’s third stop is the Hagia Sophia, which stood right next to the palace and served as a ceremonial mosque for the highest ranking officials of the Empire. Again, Evliya describes the Hagia Sophia in his own inimitable style:

“The Hagia Sophia is a lofty dome set against the sky on a high hill 1,000 paces from the sea at Sarayburnu on the east side of the Istanbul Castle, a dome so high that its like has not been built even today. Inside it a master painter… made gold-gilded paintings of bizarre shapes and strange magical angels and human figures that still stare so fixedly that one is struck with awe and thinks they are alive.

In addition to these shapes, there are also images of angels in each of the four corners of this large dome, at the upper level of its great supports. These are the faces of the Four Archangels, Gabriel, Michael, Raphael and Azrael, strange images 50 arşıns tall and with wings of 50 arşıns each that hover there with spread wings.

Over the Hagia Sophia’s leaden foundation they built arched and vaulted domes on 3,000 tall columns with a water cistern below to protect it from earthquakes, and thus they completed the original foundation. They filled the cistern with the water of forty springs. Right in the middle of the Hagia Sophia (immediately in front of the main entrance) is a well with a copper cover. The congregation would quench their thirst by drawing water from this well in buckets.

Evliya Çelebi’s route of course, doesn’t end here, but to discover it one has to begin with Istanbul, the starting point of his journey that would last half a century.