Restoring the executioner’s mosque

Restoring the executioner’s mosque

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
Restoring the executioner’s mosque

Photos provided by Eyüp Municipality.

Was Zal Mahmud Pasha a murderer or an executioner? This little known employee of Kanuni Sultan Süleyman (r. 1520–1566) was thrust onto the stage of Ottoman history when it fell to his lot to execute Crown Prince Mustafa, the sultan’s first born son, in 1553. The famous (or sometimes infamous) Hürrem Sultan was likely behind the plot to persuade Süleyman that his talented, intelligent son was plotting to take over his throne. Letters were forged, and Süleyman ordered some of the eunuchs in the palace to lure the young man to Konya and strangle him. Strangling was the preferred choice because the Ottoman dynasty had put it about that their blood could not be spilled. The crown prince however did not go without a struggle, and it was Zal Mahmud who was credited with (or blamed for) having completed the job.

Certainly, Zal Mahmud, born in Bosnia and educated in the Topkapı Palace School, benefited from his action. He performed various bureaucratic positions and acquired the name Zal (Hero) because of his involvement in the death of the crown prince. He was appointed Beylerbeyi Governor General) of Anatolia in 1564 and was raised to the rank of vizier in 1567, although he never became a grand vizier.

He was given the famous Ibrahim Pasha Palace in the Atmeydanı, which had been built by Pargalı Ibrahim Pasha, one of Sultan Süleyman’s grand viziers and his brother-in-law by marriage. Following the execution of Pargalı Ibrahim Pasha, the palace had reverted to the sultan and was used as a guest house for the sultan, the sultan’s family and state officials whenever entertainments and parades were held.

Zal Mahmud was also rewarded with the hand of Sultan Selim II’s (r. 1566–1574) daughter, Sah Sultan in 1574. It was a second marriage for the 30-year-old woman who gave birth to a boy and a girl. Zal Mahmud and his wife were reportedly deeply in love with each other and died on the same day and hour in 1580, but not before they had commissioned a mosque and külliye (mosque complex) in Eyüp.

The finest example of a külliye

Some, including 17th century travel writer Evliya Çelebi, consider the Zal Mahmud complex the finest example of a külliye built by an Ottoman vizier. Sah Sultan’s father assigned the revenue from 12 villages for the construction and upkeep. Generally it is considered a work of the famous Mimar Sinan, although the manner in which it is built suggests that it was either an experiment or possibly was constructed by another architect. The actual date when construction began is no longer known but it is thought probable that it was finished in 1577. The older parts of Eyüp have shady boulevards that lead one straight to the main mosque in the city and Zal Mahmud is between two of these avenues. It is distinguished by its alternating gray cut stone and red brick walls. Built on a slope, the buildings on the upper side of the complex include the mosque and tomb while those on the lower side were the medreses or schools in which religious subjects were taught.

The mosque is large but not gigantic. Its dome is a mere 12.5 meters (slightly over 41 feet) in diameter.

Unlike earlier, Sinan-designed mosques, it is set on a rectangular box rather than on half domes, and the box which rests on huge “elephant” piers has openings to provide light to the interior. The exterior portico has five bays with the central one containing the opening to the interior of the mosque. The mosque is entered through a wooden door. The galleries within the mosque also contain windows so the overall effect is one of light and spaciousness. It has only one minaret, made entirely of one piece of stone, with a single balcony for the muezzin.

Beneath the mosque on the lower side is a basement floor that supports the mosque with two elephant pillars and rows of smaller pillars. This area opens onto a courtyard ringed by one of the medreses, referred to as the lower medrese. The upper medrese, which is on the same level as the mosque portico, forms a delightful courtyard with a fountain. The medrese itself has 13 cells of varying sizes and shapes, a classroom and a fountain. The lower medrese is L-shaped with 11 cells and a classroom. Both medreses have porticos running in front of them.

The türbe (mausoleum) in which Zal Mahmud and his wife are buried stands in the lower courtyard. From the outside the building looks like a hexagon but inside it’s cross-planned. A third person is buried here as well, although their identity is not known.

The complex has from time to time suffered from earthquakes and neglect. Some restoration was carried out in the 19th century and again in the middle of
the 20th century.

Ottoman restorations

Today, the Zal Mahmud complex is in the process of being restored by the Eyüp Municipality, which has been acquiring quite a reputation for restoring works from the Ottoman period. This restoration should be finished in 2013. Often these “new” buildings, including houses and the lodges of mystic sects, have been put to new uses as culture centers, libraries, archives, etc.

This activity that has grown in importance over the past 30 years parallels the increasing interest among the Turks in their Ottoman past and the recognition that this interest attracts tourists and tourist money. Nor is the Eyüp Municipality alone. The majority of Ottoman monuments and structures are in the Fatih-Eminönü Municipality area, and practically every week a newly renovated building is opened or a tender announced, the most recent one of which seems to be the tender for the restoration of the medrese complex at Fatih Mosque. If it hadn’t been for the late President Turgut Özal - whose death was commemorated this week, and who initiated a policy of assigning large amounts of money to municipalities - such work would not have been adopted. And we would be all the poorer for it.

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