Luckily, there’s no shortage of places to explore in this city known as Istanbul, so when I arrived at the Grand Bazaar yesterday morning only to discover that it is closed on Sundays, I knew that my day would by no means be a failure. In fact, given that the sun was actually shining for the first time in a while, it suddenly seemed to be the perfect day to visit two different mosques that had been recommended to me.
This mosque is perhaps the most elusive in all of Istanbul. Despite several locals informing me that a visit to Hirka-i Serif was a must (in order to view the Holy Cloak of the Prophet Mohammed), nobody could tell me where it was actually located.
Time and time again, all I kept hearing was that it could be found “somewhere in the Fatih section of the city.” Well, yesterday, that was good enough for me, so upon leaving the Grand Bazaar, I began walking west.
The journey to Fatih proved to be extraordinarily long in the end, taking almost an hour and a half. However, the reason it took so much time actually had nothing to do with it’s location, which I later discovered was a mere 3 km from where I had started. But since I was not carrying a map with me, the route I chose to follow was based upon my vague memory of glancing at a map the day before. As a result, I walked about 4 kms past Fatih without even knowing it. When I finally stopped to ask someone where I could find Hirka-i Serif, I’d say that it was his non-stop laughter and shaking of his head that made me realize I had lost my way.
Eventually, I did reach Fatih, although, after asking several more people for directions, I was still unable to locate Hirka-i Serif. Of course, this was most likely due to the obvious fact that I don’t speak Turkish and therefore didn’t understand the directions, but it was fun to walk around thinking that even the residents of Fatih had no idea where this mosque is located.
Despite asking the fruit vendor, cigarette smoker, kebab maker, businessman and water delivery boy for help, I came up empty each and every time. However, I did get a chance to explore Fatih quite thoroughly, perhaps more thoroughly than any other foreigner before me! It turned out to be a great area to wander around with its hilly cobblestone roads, well-kept parks, abundance of interesting cafes and bakeries and a peaceful atmosphere that almost felt out of place in the middle of this massive city. I will admit that nothing really stood out as overly memorable nor did I have any life-changing experiences, but it was undeniably a most pleasant section of the city to explore.
And I did end up stumbling upon a handful of interesting sights, such as the Bazi Mosque, Roman column of Marcian, a couple of former Byzantine churches and the Fatih Mosque, all of which I found without even trying (literally). I somehow even managed to discover an excellent vegetarian restaurant, where I proceeded to enjoy a wonderful feast of lentil soup and baked potato stuffed with vegetables. And while the waiter inside this restaurant was as friendly and helpful as could be, even he couldn’t lead me to Hirka-i Serif.
What he did end up leading me to was a dead end and a dumpster, at which point I began to think about abandoning my search altogether. Then, about five minutes later, after walking up a random and very steep street, I suddenly found myself standing in front of a mosque. Amazingly, it turned out to be Hirka-i Serif.
Unfortunately, though, it was closed.
The courtyard was open, but the mosque itself was not. And so after exactly 4 hours and 20 minutes of searching, I just took a seat on a bench and let my exhaustion overcome me. Thirty minutes later I woke up with drool dripping down the side of my chin and a family of nine staring at me from only a few feet away.
Worth it? From the outside, Hirka-i Serif appeared quite basic but of course, I have no idea what it’s like inside. Regardless, I highly recommend trying to find this place, especially by walking, as it’s an opportunity to explore several unique neighborhoods far from the main tourist areas of the city.
Location: Karagümrük neighborhood of the Fatih district of Istanbul
RUSTEM PASHA MOSQUE
A friend of mine sent me an email the other day that mentioned the following:
“Someone I know highly recommended the Rustem Pasha Mosque, behind an almost-hidden flight of stairs near the spice bazaar. And he described it in such loving detail and awe that now I’m aching to go.”
After reading that email I immediately put this mosque at the top of my to-do list!
So as soon as I woke up from my nap at Hirka-i Serif, I started walking in what I believed to be the general direction I needed to go. Thirty minutes later I found myself in the thick of an intense market near the main university, a market that had infiltrated a never-ending cluster of narrow, impossible-to-navigate lanes and alleys, all of which were now packed with the Sunday shopping crowd. As you can imagine, it was quite exhausting trying to make my way through the mass of people, so after being pushed around for a while, I decided to take a break in the tiny shop of a random orange juice vendor.
While drinking my two glasses of freshly squeezed juice, I asked the young guy if he happened to know where I could find the Rustem Pasha Mosque. He quickly smiled and started pointing to the left. I then spread my hands wide apart, attempting to ask if it was far away from where we were. “No, no, no,” he said and continued pointing towards the left. I turned around, looked where he was pointing and sure enough, the Rustem Pasha Mosque was right in front of us.
Entering through a barely visible cave-like opening set into what appeared to be an incredibly ancient structure, I was utterly shocked to discover such a magnificent, yet tiny, mosque wedged into the middle of this market. I quickly took off my shoes and entered the building and after a mere five minutes of sitting on the floor, it became official. This was my favorite place in all of Istanbul.
Peaceful, beautiful and hypnotic are the first three words that come to mind, but I’m quite sure that there are hundreds of powerfully positive words out there that could easily be used to describe this mosque.
A few minutes after my arrival, the mosque’s security guard entered the main room and out of courtesy, I simply asked if it was okay for me to sit down for a while.
“You stay as long as you want,” was his reply.
And so I did. I remained inside for what proved to be the most enjoyable afternoon I’ve spent in Istanbul thus far.
Worth it? Without a doubt! This mosque isn’t even on many of the maps that I’ve looked at but it’s actually located near, and is quite visible from, the main entrance to the popular Spice Bazaar. And while the Blue Mosque is insanely impressive, Rustem Pasha Mosque allows you to have a much more intimate and personal cultural experience.
Location: Hasırcılar Çarşısı (Strawmat Weavers Market) in the Eminönü section of Istanbul