Walk with the dead in Istanbul

by Andrea.Kirkby

Istanbul's graveyards and mausoleums create little havens of peace in this bustling city

In the middle of Istanbul, there are little havens of peace. Beautiful gardens, which embody the Muslim idea of heaven; places of greenery, where the wind whispers in the trees.
They're graveyards.
One of my favourites is the little Hamidiye graveyard and türbe (mausoleum) near Yeni Cami in Eminonu. The graveyard is tucked in behind the street wall – it's hardly more than a tiny yard – but in this busy commercial area, right next to a row of kokorec (tripe sausage) restaurants, it's an oasis.
Nearby is the türbe of the queen mother, Turhan Hadice, who was responsible for the entire Yeni Cami (New Mosque) complex. Everyone visits the mosque and the Egyptian spice bazaar, which generated rental income for the mosque, but far fewer people come to see this little building where she is buried along with her son Mehmet IV. That's a pity – because the panels of Iznik tiles that cover the walls of the türbe are some of the most lovely in the city, showing carpets of flowers in pretty turquoise and ochre.
The most splendid mausoleums in Istanbul are those of Suleyman the Magnificent and his beloved wife Roxelana, in the grounds of the Suleymaniye mosque. Around them cluster the tombs of pashas, their white marble grave markers covered in fine calligraphy, and topped by turbans. (If you want to see a modernist take on the traditional gravestones, take a trip to the Beyazit mosque, where you can see the tomb of the architect Kemaleddin, with an abstract shape instead of the turban, and Roman lettering. Ataturk's reforms had changed many things, including the way the language was written, but you can still feel continuity with the Ottoman past.)
Suleyman's mausoleum is topped by a dome in which jewels once sparkled, recalling the starry vault of heaven. It's perhaps the most splendid of the Istanbul türbes; and Roxelana's, with its lovely tiles and stalactite-work niches, is a delightful allusion to the gardens of paradise. The two tombs are by the great Ottoman architect Sinan – whose own small monument was placed not in the graveyard, but in his own garden, just on the outskirts of the mosque complex.
Inside any türbe, you'll see the coffins, covered with green cloth, and often surrounded by inlaid wooden railings. A sultan's coffin is distinguished by the huge turban at its head, with smaller headdresses for royal sons and brothers, and in the türbes of civil servants and holy men, and no headdress at all for wives and daughters. A particular delight of the royal türbe is reading the eulogies of the sultans – fortunately, an English translation is provided. Even the most feckless of the sultans was either a scholar-poet, a holy saint, or a champion archer or wrestler, according to the inscriptions.
The türbes are holy ground – you'll need to leave your shoes at the door, as you do in a mosque. Often, you'll see women's lips moving as they say a prayer almost silently in front of one of the tombs; who knows what they're asking for?
The sheer prominence of graveyards in the old city is intriguing. Divan Yolu, the main east-west street of European Istanbul, is flanked by graveyards on both sides. Some are associated with libraries or mosques, the donation of generous civil servants; they are divided from the street not by solid walls, but by wrought iron screens.
One in particular is worth visiting, since it holds the türbe of the thirtieth Ottoman emperor, Mahmud II – a strange mausoleum in the French Empire style, very un-Turkish in some ways. Inside, you can see the green cloth-covered coffins of sultans and their families, including that of the last emperor of all, Abdulhamid II. But one thing has changed; instead of turbans, the coffins are covered with fezzes.
In the gardens outside are the tombs of statesmen, admirals, and civil servants – the term 'pasha' could cover a multitude of jobs. One has a sailing ship on his grave, others proudly display globes, set squares, and compasses. This graveyard even has a tea house tucked away under the trees. For a Turk, after all, paradise would not be paradise without a tulip-shaped glass of black tea waiting on its tray.
One of the most surprising türbes I know is in a little courtyard just outside the Grand Bazaar, by the Mercan exit. It looks like a house window – but look through, and you can see the coffin of Mercan Dede. Apparently he was a holy man; but when I asked around, no one seemed to know who he was.
The most touching memorial that I found, though, was the simplest. Just north of Ataturk boulevard, on the way to the Zeyrek Cami, I found a little cage of railings around a tree, with two green-painted boulders laid on the bare earth. No inscription told who was buried there, and there was no one around to ask.


Andrea Kirkby is a writer and photographer with a passion for travel. So far, she's hiked the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela, climbed Oman's highest mountain, and walked around St Petersburg's canals at two in the morning during the White Nights. It's still not enough... Favourite places: the island of Torcello and the Venetian lagoon; the ice cream parlour by the pier on Buyuk Ada, Turkey; Laon, the first and most lovely of the Gothic cathedrals; Lubeck, with its Hanseatic warehouses and fantastic marzipan; Ruestempasha mosque and the Tahtakale market, Istanbul; the shipyards of Sur, Oman; the Fens with their huge skies and black earth; the Silver Tiger bar in Prague with Pilsner Urquell on draught; the front bar of the King's Head, Norwich.