Eyüp Sultan mosque (Eyüp Sultan Camii) is perhaps Istanbul’s holiest spot, outstripping even Hagia Sophia in sanctity. The standard bearer of the Prophet Muhammad, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, who  took part in a failed siege of Constantinople in 674 – and after whom the mosque is named –  is buried here. On top of the grave stands a nineteenth century mosque, an historical outgrowth of a much older one, that served as the Ottoman coronation site for centuries, until the late 19th century off limits to non-Muslims. To this day it is a popular place of pilgrimage for Muslims – and mostly off the radar to Western visitors to Istanbul.

Jihad – “striving in the path of God” –  was how the early Arabic warriors of the faith conceived their exalted plan of seizing Constantinople, a city described variously as “New Rome”, “The Queen of Cities”, the “Reigning City”, Byzantium, Konstantiyye, Islambol and Istanbul.

To quote Essad Bey, “Islam is the desert”. Now, however, the Byzantine Empire was seen as the great stumbling block of Islam and water-girt, European Constantinople the  legitimate prize of the umma (Muslim people). 

The Prophet Muhammad had brought up the subject of Constantinople on various occasions during his lifetime, firing up successive generations of Muslims with dreams of holy war.  Furthermore, the Rum – the citizens of  the Byzantine Empire and/or the Eastern Romans – appear twenty-eight times in hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad – Constantinople twelve times.

“You will liberate Constantinople, blessed is the Amir who is its Amir, and blessed is that army,” the Prophet Muhammad is quoted as saying.

“Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will he be, and what a wonderful army shall that army be!” asserts a traditional hadith – the famous “conquest hadith”.

By 632 Arab forces had conquered Byzantine Syria; in 640 they captured Heliopolis, thus penetrating into Byzantine Egypt, a year later they had taken Alexandria. Tripoli was the next domino to fall in 642/3. And so, just a few years after the Prophet’s death in AD 632 (year 10/11 in the Islamic calendar) Muslims now seemed for the first time, poised to take Constantinople.

Prior to their siege of Constantinople, the Arabs had harried Byzantine defenses relentlessly, wearing them down by successive skirmishes, eventually paving the way for the full-scale attack on Constantinople in 674.

According to Evliya Çelebi, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, “the standard-bearer of the Prophet…proceeding with some thousands of the illustrious companions of the Prophet, and 50,000 brave men, in two hundred ships, followed by reinforcements…laid siege to Islambol by sea and land. Thus, for six months, did this host, which had the fragrance of Paradise, contend day and night with the infidels.”

In the end, the Arabs failed to breach the famous walls of Constantinople. The reasons were various. For one, the Byzantines had closed off the mouth of the Golden Horn with thick chains, baring entry to the city by sea. Additionally, the Arab forces were averse to waging war in severe winter conditions, which led to soldiers coming down with smallpox and fever.

The first Muslim siege resulted in significant losses. Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, became ill and died “of a disorder of the bowels” (Çelebi), after arriving in tow with the auxiliary forces, a prosaic end which didn’t keep him from dying a martyr’s death in the eyes of later generations.

It wasn’t until 1453 that Muslims, led by the Ottoman army under Fatih Sultan Mehmed II, took  Constantinople, ultimately cementing the legitimacy of its conquest in the context of the greater Islamic narrative, by discovering on the banks of the Golden Horn the burial place of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari. The Ottomans thus had their first site of pilgrimage, which they crowned with the building of the Eyüp Sultan Mosque – or Mosque of Job – over the grave in 1458, just outside the city walls, Ottoman Istanbul’s holiest spot.

The Eyüp Sultan mosque would become the place of coronation for successive generations of Ottoman Sultans, whose ceremonial high-point was the traditional girding of the ancient sword of Osman. In 1909 a  New York Times journalist reported on the coronation of Sultan Mehmed V, the first ever coronation to be attended my non-Muslims.

“The scene was a strange admixture of historical Eastern observance and modern Western civilization,” The New York Times wrote. “Mehmed V, the first sultan in four centuries who has had blue eyes and fair hair, was dressed in a Western uniform of olive green khaki. His Majesty, chosen by the Constitutionalists to rule the empire, stood upright in an open carriage fresh from the most fashionable manufacturer  in Paris, and held up with dignified gesture the ancient sword worn by thirty-four of his ancestors and carried by twenty-eight of his forebearers  since the conquest of Constantinople. It was remarked, also that Mehmet V was the first beardless ruler of his line; he wore only a pointed moustache.”

***

I had lived in Istanbul for a year, from 2011-2012, but, despite my  tireless attempts at getting to know the city, never actually made it to Eyüp, and, strangely, never heard mention of it either in English literature, except in Orhan Pamuk’s memoires, Istanbul, and his description didn’t make it seem worth visiting, anyway. This was before I learned how jaundiced Byzantine ruin-bibber Pamuk’s take on Istanbul really was.

“The  trouble with Eyüp,” writes Pamuk, “was that this perfect little village at the end of the Golden Horn did not seem real at all. As an image of the inward-looking, mysterious, religious, picturesque and mystical ‘East’ it was so perfect as to seem like someone else’s dream, a sort of Turkish Eastern Muslim Disneyland planted on the edge of the city. Was this because it was outside the old city walls, and therefore without the Byzantine influence or the many-layered confusions you saw elsewhere in the city? Did the high hills bring night earlier to this place? Or had Eyüp decided out of religious and mystic humility to keep its buildings small, to keep a distance from the greatness of Istanbul and its complex power – the power it derived from its dirt, its rust, its smoke, its wrecks, its cracks, its remains, its ruins, its filth? What makes Eyüp so close to Western dreams of the East, and makes everyone love it so, is its continuing ability to derive full benefit from the West and Westernising Istanbul, while still keeping itself distant from the centre, the bureaucracy, the state institutions and buildings. This was why Pierre Loti loved the place, finally buying a house and moving here – because it was unspoiled, a beautiful image of the East, and perfect – and for the same reasons, I found it irksome. When I arrived in Eyüp, the delicious melancholy that had come to me from the view of the Golden Horn with its ruins and its history, vanished into thin air. I was slowly coming to understand that I loved Istanbul for its ruins, for its hüzün, for the glories once possessed and later lost. And so, to cheer myself up, I left Eyüp to wander around other neighbourhoods in search of ruins.”

***

It was only in 2013, after having embraced Islam the year before, that Eyüp entered my ken. The summer of 2013, a couple months into the long drawn-out conflict at Gezi Park, I made it to Istanbul, the first time a Muslim, bound for Eyüp.

I arrived in Istanbul in the early morning hours, and got off the airport bus at Taksim square, the scene of so many tv images in the last months. Some demonstrators were asleep on the grass under the Ataturk statue; a bottle smashed,  groups of youths sang and whistled as they headed home from another raucous night on the town, city sanitation services at their heels. It was just another late Saturday night in Taksim.

New was that the eighties-era mall and bus ticket kiosks fringing Gezi park had been torn down and there were police everywhere. The government’s plans were evidently gathering pace, unphased by resistance.

But at Eyüp there was nothing to suggest the country was undergoing upheavals.  Life went on in the usual hectic, frenzied way, as is the fashion in Istanbul.

Men sat in an old school nargile cafe, drinking tiny glasses of tea and smoking, watching the news, where the talk was of Gezi park and the latest football match-fixing scandal. Some of the men wore Turkish flag T-shirts, presumably out of sympathy with the government.

Ah, to be in Istanbul again! The familiar sights and sounds coming at me  once more. The sound of Istanbul: the cry of the gulls and cats mating and mewling, the muezzin, ferry horns, car horns, the clang of the street cars on Istiklal Caddesi, street hawkers, wedding cavalcades, street brawlers, the staccato rattle of metal spoons of the ice cream seller in ballooning şalvar pants and  embroidered vest and fez. Everything is public, out in the open in Istanbul.  

Sunday evening in Eyüp. The square in front of the mosque and the surrounding streets blocked to car traffic is thronged with people, the men, many with beards and Muslim garb, the women most in headscarves.

I sit in the nargile cafe listening to Serbian music on my Mp3 player. How much I would like to hop on a train destined for  Belgrade. Just to get a feeling of Balkan geography unfolding, to make connections, going where my heart  desires. 

Sitting here in Eyüp, in a nargile cafe with Anatolian music in the background, I watch a hectoring speech by Erdoğan on the tv. I sit there and remark on the Turks,  how the teenagers and young men are thin as whippets in their “American” T-shirts, but look at them when they turn middle aged, how their bellies push out against their slim-fit shirts. 

An old man sits down next to me with a scale to weigh passerby for a couple lira. He recites the first lines of el fatiha and adjusts the scale, setting it down in front of him. A bus with pictures of Erdoğan and thumping techno folk, drives by a stand where AKP canvassers gather signatures. This is Erdoğan territory.

Then along comes a slim young man carrying a tray of simits. He touches the side of his head, blanches and then collapses all of a sudden on the sidewalk, his simits rolling out on the street. A street sweeper and a couple of men from the cafe rush up to him to take his pulse and splash water in his face. Another takes an onion, smashes it on the curb and sticks it to his nose. After a while the simit seller has regained his senses and on his feet, balancing himself unsteadily on a railing.

You see many characters in Istanbul, but, it occurs to me, none of the seriously mad which greet you on every corner and in every subway car in Berlin. You notice it after being a way for a while.  The atomized, lonely reality of Berlin, where everyone is unfettered, footloose.  Here, in Istanbul the mad are grounded in the city. They have their roles, are cared for and protected in the way that a Muslim society cares for and protects its poor and disenfranchised. It is amazing that in a city of 15-20 million, people still keep their social bonds. 

***

Evliya Çelebi begins the second part of the first volume of his epic Seyahatname travel narrative with a description of the cemeteries and mausoleums of Istanbul, the most famous in the city being then (as now) in Eyüp – in Çelebi’s day, a suburban village some distance up the Golden Horn.

Many of the great men of the Ottoman Empire are buried in the vicinity of Eyüp’s tomb. For instance, my personal favorite, Mehmed Pasha  Sokollu (1506-1579), Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire and a very important figure for Ottoman history in the Balkans. 

Born in Ottoman Herzegovina to an Orthodox Christian family, Sokollu was selected/abducted when he was very young as part of the Ottoman devşirme system which  forcibly recruited Christian boys, to be raised at the Ottoman court in Istanbul and to serve in the Janissary corps. Rising through the ranks of the Ottoman imperial system, he eventually attained the position of Grand Vizier (1565–1579), for a total of 14 years, under three sultans: Suleiman the Magnificent, Selim II, and Murad III.

Sokollu is remarkable for what he accomplished in the Balkans. Although a Muslim, he never forgot his Serbian Orthodox roots. In a “gesture of reconciliation” with the Serbian people – he persuaded the Sultan to restore the Serbian Patriarchate of Peć, which was allowed to fall into abeyance in 1463. He appointed members of his family (both Muslim and Christian) to important positions in Ottoman Empire, and is most famous today for figuring in Nobel Prize Winner Ivo Andrić’s seminal work of Balkan literature, “The Bridge over the Drina” as the founder of the famous sixteenth century Drina- spanning bridge at Višegrad, in east Bosnia. After reading Andrić’s masterpiece, I once biked from Berlin to Bosnia, crossing over Sokollu’s bridge. Well here I was at Sokollu’s türbe. It was with an agreeable sense of closure that I turned my back on Eyüp and hastened to my hotel.