At the southern coast of Haliç, the Golden Horn, at a refreshing remove from the hubbub in Eminonu and Beyoğlu, resides Turkey’s most sacred mosque, the Eyüp Sultan Mosque.
The mosque, nearly 560 years old, is not Turkey’s oldest, but has always been more than a beautiful place for worship. The Eyüp Sultan Mosque was the first mosque built by the Ottoman Turks after their conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Originally built in 1458, it was rebuilt in the baroque style in 1800 by Sultan Selim III, the 28th Ottoman ruler, after the ruinous effects of an earthquake. Yet, the significance of the mosque extends far beyond Turkish lands, reaching into the wider Islamic world as the next most important pilgrimage site after Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The reason for this bestows his name upon the mosque as well as the surrounding region — Ebu Eyyûb el-Ensarî.
In 622, when the Prophet Muhammad embarked on the hijra—the migration from Mecca to Medina—he lived with his close companion for seven months. That trusted friend was Ebu Eyyûb, one of the first to convert to Islam, and the one who fought alongside Muhammad in all his battles. Ebu Eyyûb served as the standard-bearer for the faith, a testament to how respected he was, since a standard-bearer was chosen for his noble traits to carry the flag at the forefront of battles as the most pious of Muslims. Before he died in the first Arab siege of Constantinople (674—678), Ebu Eyyûb made known his dying wish, a final rally for the Muslim army: “Abu Ayyub urges you to penetrate deep into enemy territory, as far as you can go. That you should carry him with you, and that you should bury him under your feet at the walls of Constantinople.” While the troops failed to breach those walls, they did manage to honor their revered martyr, erecting Ebu Eyyûb’s grave by the Golden Horn.
In the upcoming centuries of Constantinople’s history, that area became popular as burial grounds, with Christian cemeteries across the rolling hillsides outside the city walls. Following the Muslim conquest of the city, Muslim cemeteries joined their Christian counterpart in standing solemn guard over each sunrise and sunset that spread across the heart-stopping panorama.
The conquest, which arrived in 1453 under the aegis of 21 year-old Sultan Mehmet II, saw the Ottomans convert Byzantine churches like Hagia Sophia into great mosques. But how the first Ottoman mosque came to be built began with a fortuitous dream. It is said that after a week spent searching for Ebu Eyyûb’s fabled gravesite, Sultan Mehmet II’s spiritual advisor, the şeyh ül-Islam, Akshemsuddin, halts mid-sentence, collapsing into prayer and a trance-like sleep. Upon waking, fever-browed Akshemsuddin exclaims, “Eyyub’s tomb is on the very spot where I spread the carpet for prayer!” With that, the Sultan, Akşemsettin, and three attendants burrow three yards deep to uncover the grave. They find a square stone of verde antique, deep green and white-mottled, declaring in Sufic letters: ‘This is the tomb of Ebu Eyyub.’ As if to put to rest any residual doubt, the legend continues with the discovery of Ebu Eyyub’s body, well-preserved in a saffron shroud.
To commemorate the gravesite of this important figure in Islamic history, Sultan Mehmet II commissioned a grand tomb and a massive complex, the Eyüp Sultan Mosque and Mausoleum. Thereafter, the Mosque stood watch as the Turks transformed Byzantine Constantinople into Ottoman Istanbul, and as they extended the Ottoman empire from present-day Algiers to Azerbaijan.
The importance of the Eyüp Sultan Mosque and Mausoleum has only increased with the passage of time. It is at Eyüp Sultan Mosque where succeeding Ottoman princes would have their coronation and the “Sword of Osman” ceremony, in which their power as the king of kings would be inaugurated. Many important figures—such as Sokollu Mehmet Paşa, Ziya Osman Saba, and Fevzi Çakmak—also requested their own burial in the graveyards near Ebu Eyyûb’s, and the Eyüp Sultan Mosque is possibly the only mosque around which a dense cluster of graveyards and mausoleums lie.
Today, the sprawling mosque complex features beautiful crystal chandeliers, 16th-century Iznik tiles, and a mesmerizing host of implements from various time periods. Its holiest site is the tomb, and the tile-adorned shrine stands elegantly in the courtyard, inviting the respect and attentions of the visiting crowds. Another famous relic which draws pilgrims from across Turkey and the world includes the Prophet Muhammed’s footprint in marble stone, protected and framed in silver.
Together, the ancient sycamores, droves of pigeons, packs of cats, and prayerful believers create the mystical and vibrant atmosphere which surrounds the Eyüp Sultan Mosque and mausoleum. The compelling atmosphere of this ethereal complex continues to entrance visitors, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, as it has for the past half-millenium. Five times a day, the call to prayer issues and carries itself over land and sea. 365 days a year, the majesty of the mosque commands thousands.
Visiting to the Eyüp Sultan Mosque
A visit to the mosque on Friday, the holy day for Islam, would prove the busiest. The tomb itself is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 9.30am — 4.30pm, and while admission is not ticketed, donations are welcome.
Visitors to Eyüp can also enjoy a teleferik ride up Pierre Loti Hill, eponymously named after a French novelist and Turkophile. Its sloping terraces are home to gravestones and verdant vegetation which enjoy the same expansive panorama of the Golden Horn that takes away the awe-struck breath of the living. At the end of a bustling day to a most sacred site, the glorious view enjoyed with a steaming cup of Turkish coffee, cooked in the traditional method over charcoal embers, will rejuvenate and exhilarate.
Getting to the Eyüp Sultan Mosque
From Taksim: Take the funicular railway line inside the Taksim Metro station for Kabataş stop. From Kabataş, take the T1 Zeytinburnu – Kabataş train for Eminönü. From there, shuttle buses 99 and 99A will take you to the Eyüp Sultan Mosque.
From Atatürk Airport: Take the Aksaray – Havaalanı metro line to Zeytinburnu, then transfer to the T1 Zeytinburnu – Kabataş tramline to Eminönü. From there, shuttle buses 99 and 99A will take you to the Eyüp Sultan Mosque.
From the Blue Mosque Area: Go to Eminönü using the T1 Zeytinburnu – Kabataş tramline. From there, shuttle buses 99 and 99A will take you to the Eyüp Sultan Mosque.
From Üsküdar, Karaköy, or Eminönü: take the Haliç Hattı ferry line to Eyüp and walk along the Golden Horn.
Singaporean born in late April ’93, studying in Boston and now beautiful Istanbul. Loves food and stories, reading and rock climbing.
Photo Credits: Shadid Sarker