Islamic militaries surrounded the walls of the Byzantine capital several times in an effort to honor the following words ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad: “Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will he be, and what a wonderful army will that army be!”
Each time the armies laid siege, even though they were not successful in conquering the city, they set up compounds in many areas around the city, including what are now known as Galata, Haliç and Kadıköy, and left definite traces of themselves in the vicinity. These traces were sometimes a neighborhood, and other times it was a mosque or even a shrine.
Not many people are aware of these Muslims traces in the city that predate 1453.
Most of us have no idea where the first Muslim districts of Constantinople were formed, where the first call to prayer was heard in the area, or where the dervishes first spread out their arms. We therefore wanted to find out more about this little-known aspect of İstanbul -- something which most of us are not even aware of -- as we commemorate the 559th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of the city this year. We turned our attention towards pre-1453 İstanbul with the help of well-known city historian Süleyman Faruk Göncüoğlu.
One way to find out more about Muslims in İstanbul prior to 1453 is to simply go to some of the places that existed before then. These include the neighborhood of Cibali, Kocamustafapaşa, Gözcübaba Tekkesi (“tekke” is a dervish lodge), Arap Camii (Arab Mosque), Üsküdar, Anadolu Hisarı, Aydos Kalesi and places along the shoreline of the Golden Horn. All these are some of the spots where you can find the presence of Muslims before the Ottoman conquest of the city.
Of all of the above-mentioned spots, the Arab Mosque is certainly a significant one. The mosque is an important symbol -- like the Hagia Sophia -- of the conquest of the city. This is because it was the first mosque in İstanbul and prior to 1453, calls to prayer came from this mosque.
According to what we know based on mainstream Turkish history, in A.D. 722, Arab soldiers laid siege to the Byzantine city walls for the fifth time. The siege lasted for a full year, but the army was unable to take anything except for the district of Galata. The commander believed to be in charge at the time, Mesleme bin Abdülmelik, arrived at an accord with Byzantine leaders. The details of the accord allowed the Arab soldiers to settle in Galata. They did so and subsequently built a mosque for their prayers. According to some sources, the soldiers eventually returned to their hometown of Damascus after seven years, after which the mosque was converted into a church by the Byzantines.
According to city historian Göncüoğlu, however, events actually occurred a little differently. Göncüoğlu asserts that the Muslims who had settled in Galata were in fact killed by Byzantine soldiers and the mosque was later converted into a church. What’s more, Göncüoğlu even provides information about where these Muslims were buried -- in graves located in what is now known as Şişli. Göncüoğlu also touches on another significant point about the Arab Mosque which is related to the current debates about the mosque. Some groups in İstanbul are calling for the mosque, which is currently undergoing restoration, to be turned into a museum because of its Christian frescoes. But, as Göncüoğlu points out, these people are forgetting that the structure was in fact originally converted from a mosque into a church, and not from a church to a mosque.
Other places where deep traces were left by Muslim soldiers, who arrived with the intent of laying siege to the city but later wound up residing for some time, include the Golden Horn neighborhoods of Cibali and Kocamustafapaşa. Muslim soldiers who arrived for a sixth attempt on the city walls wound up creating three Muslim districts. By the time the eight siege took place in 869, the soldiers actually ended up residing in Kocamustafapaşa.
Turks first entered İstanbul from Cibalikapı
As for the pre-Ottoman Turks, their adventures in İstanbul predate the conquest of the city by at least a century. The Gözcübaba Tekkesi (dervish lodge) near what is now Bağdat Caddesi was really the first place in which Turks resided. After conquering Bursa, Orhan Bey dispatched Horasan dervishes to points where they would be able to better observe Byzantium. These dervishes took up residence in what is now known as Gözcübaba in the district of the Kadıköy. According to legend, the district derived its name Gözcübaba (which roughly translates into “observer father”) from the spot where the dervishes did their spying. Others, though, insist that Gözcübaba was simply the name of the man at the helm of this particular operation. The dervish lodge used by these Horasan dervishes still stands and is currently under restoration. It is, in fact, an important place for the Alevis.
In terms of the presence of Muslims in and around Constantinople before 1453, the Karacaahmet Cemetery is also significant in that it was the first cemetery for Muslims in the city. Subsequently, it was during the Turkish sieges on Constantinople that more and more neighborhoods where Turks eventually settled in began to pop up. The first such neighborhood inside the ancient city walls was Cibalikapı. After the third siege on the city led by Yıldırım Bayezit Han, the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos came to an agreement that allowed a Muslim neighborhood to be built within the city walls. Later, approval was also given for a mosque to be built for this neighborhood, for an imam to be appointed to this mosque and for sermons to be delivered from this mosque in the name of Yıldırım Bayezid. During the final siege of the city, the Muslims residing in Cibalikapı opened the city gates from here.
If one is talking about Muslims living in İstanbul prior to 1453, Üsküdar would also be a significant area. As city historian Göncüoğlu points out, “Üsküdar was both Muslim and Turkish before the city was conquered.” In fact, as he points out, pre-Ottoman Turks had captured Üsküdar and were even engaged in textile and foundry work there prior to 1453.