On the trail of the Sultans burial places

October 11, 2009, Sunday/ 12:04:00
For many months now, we have been eagerly waiting for the new Archaeological Park in Sultanahmet Square to open its gates.

Disappointingly, nothing has happened. However, in the meantime another gate has opened, and that is the back one into Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia), the huge church-mosque that dominates the square. That gate leads through to a courtyard containing the tombs of several of the Ottoman sultans who were buried here after the church was converted into a mosque in 1453. What this means is that it's now possible to visit the tombs of virtually all the sultans, something that has not been an option since the advent of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

Keen Ottoman enthusiasts will know that Bursa preceded İstanbul as the capital of the empire, and it's there that any pursuit of the sultans' burial places will have to start. Osman and Orhan, the father and son who established the dynasty in the 13th and 14th centuries, were laid to rest in tombs high up on a hill in what is now the Tophane part of town near the remains of the citadel. The original tombs fell foul of an earthquake in 1855, but replacements were provided by Sultan Abdülaziz in 1868. Orhan's son Murad I, victor at the momentous Battle of Kosovo in 1389, was buried a little further out of the town center in the Murad I (Hüdavendigar) Camii. His son was the unlucky Sultan Beyazıd I who was captured by Timurlane after the Battle of Ankara in 1402. Thought to have been kept locked up in a cage, he may have killed himself in despair; his remains were buried in the Yıldırım Beyazıd Camii in the Emir Sultan part of town across the valley from the sultans who had founded his line.

Beyazıd's son Sultan Mehmed I was buried in the exquisite Yeşil (Green) Camii that has become an icon of Bursa. But perhaps the loveliest of all the early imperial tombs in Bursa belongs to Sultan Murad II, the father of Mehmed the Conqueror, who was laid to rest in the exquisite Muradiye complex, whose garden, dotted with the tombs of long-forgotten Ottoman princes, smells sweetly of box hedges.

Of course with the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the focus of the Ottoman Empire shifted dramatically. Although the sultans continued to hold a soft spot for Bursa and for Edirne, the second Ottoman capital, the hub of things was now the city on the Bosporus that they had seized from the Byzantine emperors. Not surprisingly, Fatih (“the Conqueror”) Sultan Mehmed II was buried with great fanfare when he died prematurely in 1481; 25,000 Janissaries are believed to have attended his funeral in the first courtyard of Topkapı Sarayı, and his tomb, on the grounds behind Fatih Camii, the mosque he had built over the site of the old Church of the Holy Apostles, was suitably large and imposing. Every year on May 29, prayers are said there at the start of the celebrations commemorating the conquest.

Fatih's successors emulated him in building huge mosque complexes that would serve as their burial places. His son Sultan Beyazıd II is buried in the grounds of Beyazıt Camii near İstanbul University and Kapalı Çarşı (the Grand Bazaar), while Selim I (“the Grim”) is buried beside the mosque named after himself on the hill above Fener, and Sultan Süleyman (“the Magnificent”) was laid to rest behind Mimar Sinan's great masterpiece, the Süleymaniye Mosque, just steps away from the separate tomb of his much-loved wife, Haseki Hürrem (better known to history as “Roxelana”).

After that things started to change, and Sultans Selim II, Murad III, Mehmed III and Mustafa I are buried in the grounds of Aya Sofya rather than in purpose-built complexes of their own; Selim, Murad and Mehmed's tombs are now open to the public, although we will need to wait a little longer to see Mustafa's, which is still under restoration. Mehmed III's son Sultan Ahmed I reverted to the extravagant habits of his ancestors and took responsibility for what must be İstanbul's most famous mosque, the six-minareted Sultanahmet Camii, better known to visitors as the Blue Mosque. He was buried at the edge of the complex in a domed tomb the size of a small mosque together with his two sons by different wives, Sultans Osman II and Murad IV.

Ahmed I was succeeded by his frail brother Sultan Mustafa I, who had endured 14 years as a prisoner in the kafes (cage) inside Topkapı Sarayı, a system initiated to rein in the ambitions of potential rivals to the throne. When he died of typhus after a second brief and unhappy reign as sultan following the assassination of Osman II, he was buried inside the old baptistery in the grounds of Aya Sofya. Beside him was laid to rest Sultan İbrahim, known as “the Mad.”

İbrahim's son Mehmed IV (“the Hunter”) succeeded to the throne when aged only 7, which meant that his mother, Hatice Turhan Sultan, became the power behind the throne. When he died, he was buried beside her in the large mausoleum now separated from Yeni Camii (New Mosque) of which it was apart by a road. Throughout the 17th century, this served as an important burial place for the sultans, although Süleyman II and Ahmed II were interred beside Süleyman the Magnificent in the grounds of the Süleymaniye Camii. Today the tombs of ultans Mustafa II, Ahmed III, Mahmud I and Osman III can all be found lined up beside that of Mehmed IV in a faded building that must surely be next in line for renovation.

Sultan Ahmed III's son Mustafa III employed the architect Mehmed Tahir Ağa to build one of the last great mosque complexes for him in Laleli, where he was buried with his son Sultan Selim III. Mustafa was initially succeeded by Sultan Abdülhamid I, for whom a tomb was built in Sirkeci just up the road from the one containing so many of his ancestors opposite Yeni Camii. This has just been beautifully restored and reopened to the public, which will find the grave of Sultan Mustafa IV there, too. The calligraphic tiles ringing the walls are especially beautiful, and the holy relics encased in the wall ensure a steady throughput of pilgrims.

When he died in 1839, Abdülhamid I's son, the reforming sultan Mahmud II, who finally broke the power of the Janissaries in 1826, was buried in a completely new tomb complex that juts out onto the pavement on Divan Yolu. There he was later joined by Sultans Abdülaziz and Abdülhamid II. With the Ottoman era drawing to its close, Sultan Abdülmecid I was interred in the Selim I Camii, and Sultan Murad V in the overcrowded mausoleum opposite the Yeni Camii. In a sharp break with convention, when Mehmed V (Reşad) died in 1918, he was buried far away from his predecessors in Eyüp on the Golden Horn. He was the last Ottoman sultan to be buried on Turkish soil.

In 1922, as the empire breathed its last, Mehmed VI (Vahdettin), the 36th and final sultan, was sent into exile, dying in Italy four years later; he was buried in the Tekkiye as-Sulaymaniyye Mosque in Damascus. With the coming of the republic, Abdülmecid Efendi, the son of Sultan Abdülaziz, was briefly granted the title of caliph, although not of sultan, in 1922, but in 1924 even this was taken away from him and he too was sent into exile. He died in Paris in 1944. Ten years later his body was re-interred in Medina in Saudi Arabia.

The tomb of Süleyman the Magnificient

The tomb of Süleyman the Magnificient

The tomb of Fatih Sultan Mehmet

The tomb of Mahmut II

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