Religion in Istanbul: Mosques, Churches, Cemeteries, Cats

In the comments section of my post on the Georgian Catholic church in Istanbul, a reader requested “a series of posts on some of the odder churches of Istanbul“. As far as I know, the Georgian church I wrote about is the only one in Istanbul, and so a whole series of posts about Istanbul churches would be too far afield from the main focus of this blog. But one post about churches in Istanbul is still somewhat related to Georgia, and so that’s what this post is. Of course, a post about churches in Istanbul would not be even remotely similar to a post about religion in Istanbul, since the modern city is overwhelmingly Islamic. So in the interest of comprehensiveness, this post will also cover some mosques of interest.  Religious life also deals with cemeteries, so I’ve included those too.

Still, as a post dealing with the general topic of “Religion in Istanbul”, this discussion will be woefully incomplete. For one thing, I won’t talk about big, flashy tourist spots like the Hagia Sophia or the New Mosque. There’s plenty of information and pictures of that stuff out there already, and the world really doesn’t need any more. For another thing, in several cases I wasn’t able to enter the church or cemetery or whatever, and even if I could, I wasn’t allowed to take pictures. So this post will be more uneven than I would have liked. On the other hand, there will be a lot of nice pictures (all taken by me).

This post is really long, so for your convenience, here’s a clickable table of contents (seriously, click the links to go straight to what interests you the most!):

Again, this is a long post. But the photos really are cool, so I recommend taking some time to look at them. Maybe look at the different sections over the course of a few days.

And as a special treat for my loyal readers…cat pictures!

istanbul mosque cat


First, let me explain how I will present mosques.

This blog is not written from a neutral standpoint. I generally assume that readers have some familiarity with Christianity, and so I don’t, for example, feel that I have to explain who Mary is. In contrast, I assume almost no knowledge of Islam. (This may be because I had almost none myself until fairly recently.) And to such a person, mosques look boring. So instead of throwing out a bunch of pictures that most readers won’t care about, I’ll explain a few points about Islam itself. Inshallah (God willing), these points will help to illuminate the mosque pictures.

The first thing a visitor to a mosque will notice is how much Arabic writing there is. One of the most prominent things written is, obviously, Allah. The name Allah is a contraction of the Arabic al-‘ilah, “the god”. The latter is written  الإله, but the contracted name has its own special ligature in Arabic, الله. The next most prominent name is, obviously again, Muhammad. In normal Arabic this is written as محمد, but in calligraphic form it’s usually written compressed in such a way that the first م m sits on top of the ح h and the second م m slips down between the ح h and the د d.

Here are the Allah and Muhammad name disks (roundels? medallions?) from the Kilich Ali Pasha Mosque (Kılıç Ali Paşa Camii).

kilich pasha mosque

You might have noticed in this picture that the names Allah and Muhammad are the same size and are placed at the same height. Although it would seem that the disk for Allah should be larger and centered (since God is God and Muhammad is merely the Messenger of God), if you didn’t know Arabic, you wouldn’t be able to tell which one was which. Someone who knew absolutely nothing Islam might even think two co-equal gods were being worshiped. If this situation strikes you as idolatrous, you aren’t alone. In the opinion of some Muslims, this situation is unacceptable, since Allah alone is to be worshiped (see below).

However, a Muslim friend of mine told me that placing name disks in this fashion is not a normal Muslim practice, and is in fact a unique feature of Ottoman mosques. (Other names often included in Ottoman mosques are those of the Rashidun Caliphs, Abu Bakr أبو بكر‎, Umar عمر, Uthman عثمان, and Ali علي, and Muhammad’s grandsons, Hasan حسن and Husayn حسين.) I’ve never been to a mosque outside of Istanbul, and I find it surprisingly hard to research this topic, so I can’t say for sure. If anyone has information about this, I would love to hear it.

For practice in identifying these important names, take a look at the picture below and see how many instances of Allah and Muhammad you can find (click the picture to zoom in). Note their size and location relative to each other.

fethiye mosque mihrab

That picture comes from the Fethiye Mosque. Fethiye comes from fetih, a Turkish word of Arabic origin meaning conquest. Conquest of what, you ask? A placard outside the mosque explains that Sultan Murad III named the mosque thus after the Ottoman conquest of Azerbaijan and…Georgia (Gürcistan)! Great, now this post pertains to Georgia, and it isn’t off-topic from the blog.

fethiye mosque sign

Anyway, the photo with all the names shows the mihrab, a niche in a wall of the mosque that indicates the direction of Mecca. Mosques are normally oriented in this direction, and so the mihrab can be placed dead center in the building and it lines up nicely with the rest of the building. Fethiye Mosque, however, was manifestly not built to accommodate a mihrab. This is because the mosque is a converted church (conquest, remember?), originally named Pammakaristos Church. The building was retrofitted with a mihrab upon conversion, and to get the direction right, it had to be tucked away in an awkward corner.

The same is true of the minbar, a kind of pulpit with stairs. Fethiye provides an extreme example of a comical minbar placement in a converted church, but it’s true in general that if a minbar looks like it’s in a weird place, the building probably used to be a church.

fethiye mosque minbar

Take a close look at the minbar in the above picture. Can you find Allah and Muhammad? (Again, click the picture to zoom in.) If not, go back and study harder. If so, we can move on to the two phrases below the names.

The first is the basmala (besmele, بسملة), a prayer recited at the beginning of every chapter of the Quran, and also at the start of many other things. The full phrase is Bismillah al-Rahman al-RahimBismillahirrahmanirrahim, بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم“In the name of God the most Compassionate and Merciful”. The basmala is the most widely used phrase in Islamic calligraphy. If you see Arabic written with what looks like a little scribble followed by a long, smooth horizontal line followed by dense writing, that’s probably the basmala. The long horizontal line comes between the س s and the م m. I don’t know why it’s always written like that.

Here’s the basmala written on the sign of the Kalenderhane Mosque, another converted church. (Notice the three dots abve the first E from the left. I don’t know why those are there. Does anyone else?)

kalenderhane mosque sign

Can you find the bismillah (without the rest of the prayer) on this sign?

bismillah sign

Okay, now go back to the picture of Fethiye minbar and look at the phrase below the basmala. That’s a pair of sentences known as the shahada (şehadet, شَهادة) and it’s the defining creed of Islam. It reads لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله, la ʾilaha ʾilla-llah, muḥammadur rasulu-llah, There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God. Whereas the basmala is a common motif in art, the shahada is more common in politics. It can be seen, for example, on many Islamic flags, including those of Saudia Arabia and ISIS.

Here’s the shahada on display at Sulemaniye Mosque (Süleymaniye Camii), my favorite of the grand Ottoman mosques in Istanbul.

sulemaniye mosque sign

Exercise for the reader: Find every instance of the shahada in the picture below. (Hint: I count three.)

little hagia sophia interior

If you look close, you can see that the mihrab in that mosque is not aligned with the windows, and indeed this is another converted church, the Little Hagia Sophia (Küçük Ayasofya Camii). Unlike the big Hagia Sophia (a church converted into a mosque and then converted again into a museum), the Little Hagia Sophia is still a functioning mosque. The conversion process there seems to have gone better than it did at other churches, as aside from mihrab, it’s not easy to tell that the building was once a church. Unlike the church’s paintings and mosaics, however, the Greek letters chiseled along the walls evidently couldn’t be plastered over.

little hagia sophia greek letters

That’s about it for mosques. While we’re at it, we might as well take the opportunity to look at some other Islamic stuff.

Muslims, as part of their prayer ritual, are required to perform ablutions (Turkish: abdest, Arabic: وضو, wudu). This cleansing process involves washing the hands, feet, and face, and in the courtyard of every mosque there is an area where it can be performed. Here, a cat sits in the washing area. This raises the question: are cats required to perform ablution, or does their usual self-cleaning suffice to purify them?

mosque cat

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned before, but Istanbul is filled with cats. I’ve heard that this is because Muhammad loved cats, and so Muslims in turn love cats. I’ve also heard that that explanation is Orientalist nonsense, but in any case there certainly are some widely-known stories about the Prophet’s love for cats and his reprimands against those who mistreated them. This cat returns that love by supporting Turkey’s conservative Islamist Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi).

islamist cat

A common exclamation among Muslims is mashallah, from the Arabic ما شاء الله, “God has willed it”. It’s used somewhat similarly to thank God. Someone might say, for example, “What a nice day, mashallah!” For another example, I knew a beautiful American woman in Istanbul who frequently heard men mutter “Mashallah!” to themselves as she walked by. You get the idea. In Turkish it’s normally written maşallah, but occasionally maşaallah, as on the house mosaic below. I suspect the double-a spelling is more used by religious people, since it better matches the Arabic.

mashaallah house

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, is known as much for his secularism as for his nationalism, and he is generally hated by Islamists for his (real or imagined) attacks on Islam in Turkey. Thus this statue, found at a school in one of Istanbul’s most religiously conservative neighborhoods, must be understood at least somewhat ironically. The text reads: Her fert dinini, diyanetini, imanını öğrenmek için bir yere muhtaçtır. Orası da mekteptir. The first part is a little confusing to me, but I think it means “The faithful of every religion need a place to learn the faith. That place is school.”

Note that the statue names him only as Mustafa Kemal, without the surname he adopted in 1934. This is also how Turkey’s current Islamist president refers to him.

ataturk religion statue


Church-wise, let’s start with something that’s somewhat related to the Caucasus, namely the Armenian Evangelical Church. I wasn’t able to enter this one because I was never there on a Sunday. According to the relevant Wikipedia article, it was built in 1846 as a result of the belated spread of Protestant ideas to Armenians. Because of its position on a slanted street, it’s a difficult building to photograph, especially in the morning.

armenian evangelical church istanbul

A sign out front declares it “the first Armenian Avangelical [sic] church of the world”.

armenian evangelical church istanbul sign

I have to apologize to my Armenian readers for not being diligent about seeing Armenian churches. I tried to visit a few others, but I was always told to come back on some other day. I regret not having persisted. On the other hand, I was somewhat successful when it came to graveyards.

While we’re on the topic of peoples that endured genocide under the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul is also home to an Assyrian church, the Ancient Mother Mary Church (Turkish: Süryani Kadim Meryem Ana Kilisesi), built in 1963. This is another church into which I was refused access when I visited. I was told that I had to fax the priest and ask permission, and they gave me his fax number. Unfortunately they forgot to give me his time machine coordinates, so I wasn’t able to contact him.

istanbul assyrian  church syriac sign

The Assyrian church is located in the middle of a squalid shithole called Tarlabashi (Tarlabaşı), a slum that borders the ritzy Taksim district. The neighborhood’s poverty is the result of a one-two punch of violent Turkish nationalism. Up until the twentieth century, Tarlabashi was populated mostly by fairly affluent Christians, especially Greeks, but most of them were forced out by the 1960s. Over the following decades the neighborhood came to be filled with poor Kurdish refugees who were displaced by the Turkish army’s wanton destruction of Kurdish villages in the country’s southeast.

Since the mid-2000s, Tarlabashi has been undergoing forceful urban renewal. At the time I saw it, the Assyrian church was the last in a row of buildings leading up to an enormous hole in the ground. Will the church be destroyed in the near future? I wouldn’t be surprised.

istanbul assyrian church panorama

Speaking of Turkish nationalism, our next church is a direct result thereof. The Turkish Orthodox Church was founded in the 1920s by a Karamanli priest named Pavlos Karahisarithis (Παύλος Καραχισαρίδης). Karamanlis (Καραμανλήδες, Karamanlılar) were Turkish-speaking Greek Orthodox Christians living in Anatolia. It’s not known whether Karamanlis were Turks who adopted Christianity or Greeks who adopted Turkish, but in any case they were claimed by both Turks and Greeks in the early part of the twentieth century.

While most Karamanlis were deported to Greece in 1923, Karahisarithis and his family were able to stay in Turkey as a result of his relationship with Ataturk, who thought it useful to have a hardline Turkish nationalist who was also a member of the church. Using his government connections, Karahisarithis declared himself Papa Eftim and seized the Mother Mary Church (Meryem Ana Kilisesi), which is the current headquarters of the church.

The Turkish Orthodox Church, which is frequently referred to as the so-called Turkish Orthodox “Church”, is generally considered to be completely fraudulent, a travesty of a mockery of a sham. It was long assumed to be a front for Turkish nationalist organizations, and in 2008 this was proven to be correct when police discovered Papa Eftim’s granddaughter meeting with an underground nationalist terrorist group known as Ergenekon. The Mother Mary Church was supposedly being used by the group to house ammunition and bombs, among other things.

turkish orthodox church istanbul

I actually managed to go inside the narthex of the church and look around. It looked like a museum, or maybe more like some kind of religious junkyard. The hallways were packed with gaudy Orthodox relics (is there any other kind?) which I assume were looted from other churches. I have pictures of this stuff if anyone is interested. In the courtyard of the church was a long row of Greek (or maybe Karamanli?) tombstones. I don’t know where they came from.

turkish orthodox greek graves

After the 1955 Istanbul Pogrom drove out most of the city’s Greeks, Papa Eftim was able to seize two more churches. The first is the Church of Saint Nicholas (Aziz Nikola Kilisesi). The front gate and the front door were both chained shut when I visited. It didn’t look to me like there was much inside.

turkish orthodox st nicholas aziz nikola

The rear of the church is now home to a soup shop.

turkish orthodox church soup shop

The other church seized after the pogrom was the Church of Saint John (Aziz Yahya Kilisesi).

turkish orthodox st john aziz yahya

The front gate was locked at this church too, but I was able to look past the plywood that had been nailed up and into the courtyard. There I saw a dog, a doghouse, and a lot of dogshit. I gather that the courtyard doesn’t get a lot of use.

turkish orthodox church dog

I really don’t feel I can do justice to sheer weirdness of the story of the Turkish Orthodox Church / “Church”. I recommend the following readings:

turkish orthodox sign


Our first cemetery will be a Muslim one, the Bulbulderesi Cemetery (Bülbülderesi Mezarlığı) in Uskudar. I was spurred to visit this cemetery when I heard that Ataturk’s teacher was buried there. Sure enough, there is a tombstone reading Muallim Şemsi Ef. Atatürkün Hocası — “Mr. Shemsi, Educator, Ataturk’s Teacher”. Apparently this is true. Shemsi ran a progressive school in Thessaloniki, the Ottoman-ruled Greek city where Ataturk was born. Rumor has it that Shemsi, like many in Thessaloniki at the time, was a dönme, a (descendant of a) Jewish convert to Islam who still maybe harbored some weird Messianic Jewish beliefs. For decades, Ataturk’s association with Shemsi and Thessaloniki has fueled rumors that he was himself a Jew.

semsi ef grave ataturk

Here’s a pop quiz to see if you remember anything from earlier in this post: what is the meaning of the Arabic on the following tombstone?

bulbulderesi grave bismillah

[Click here for the answer]

This next tombstone features a great example of Turkish vowel harmony. The second line reads yeri doldurulamayacak, “her place is not going to be able to be filled”. The stem of the verb is dol-, “fill”. Because o is a low rounded back vowel, the vowels that follow it must be either u or a. If the stem were *döl, then the word would instead be *döldürülemeyecek.

bulbulderesi grave vowel harmony

What would a cemetery photo essay be without some poignant focal B&W?

bulbulderesi grave rose

And…graveyard cats! I don’t quite understand what the tombstone says. And who is H. Sherif? Can anyone help?

graveyard cats

Besides major graveyards like Bulbulderesi, Istanbul also has a lot of tiny little graveyards. Many are attached to mosques, and I take it that important imams or whatever are buried there. I can’t remember which mosque this next one is attached to, but it’s somewhere below Istiklal Avenue. Note the turban: Ottoman tombstones were topped with hats (turbans, fezzes, etc) appropriate to the status of the dead.

istanbul mosque graveyard

This unmarked graveyard is found in the trendy neighborhood of Cihangir. The graffiti reads Dua yeridir, “It’s a prayer place”.

cihangir cemetery

On to Christian cemeteries (or more generally, non-Muslim). The first four are located all right next to each other within the same huge walled complex. The complex is next to the Şişli (Shishli) metro stop, across the street from Cevahir Mall.

The map below is for those in Istanbul. Note where the cemetery complex is in relation to the Georgian Catholic Church.

istanbul cemetery map

I’ll list the four cemeteries in reverse order according to how successful I was at visiting.

The first is the Greek Orthodox Cemetery (Νεκροταφειον της Ρωμ Ορθοδοξου Κοινοτητοσ, Rum Ortodoks Mezarlığı). I rang the doorbell on several different occasions, but nobody ever answered. Supposedly the “popes” of the Turkish Orthodox Church / “Church” are buried there, which is definitely something I would have liked to have seen.

istanbul greek cemetery

Next is the Italian Jewish Cemetery (İtalyan Musevi Kabristanı). I don’t know what Italians have to do with Jews, but the cemetery gate is interesting for displaying four languages: Hebrew, Arabic (or Ottoman?), Latin, and Turkish. I talked to the caretaker, but was refused entry.

istanbul jewish cemetery

After that is the Armenian Cemetery (Գերեզմանտուն Հայոց, Ermeni Kabristanı). I was able to go into this cemetery and look around, but I was told not to take any pictures. Foolishly, I complied, and so now I have no pictures to show. It was picturesque and well-maintained.

I asked the caretaker if he was Armenian. He replied, “No, I’m Muslim.” I leave it to the reader to ponder the cross-purposes of that exchange.

istanbul armenian cemetery

Finally we have the Armenian Catholic Cemetery (Գերեզմանտուն Կաթոլիկե Հայոց, Ermeni Katolic Kabristanı). I took pictures at this one.

armenian catholic cemetery istanbul

I read somewhere that Armenian Catholics, like Georgian Catholics, spoke French. Thus many tombstones display French names, though with Turkish phonetic spellings (e.g. Piyer for Pierre, as on the tombstone below).

armenian catholic tombstone

Conversely, some Turkish names can be found with older French-based spelling. The mausoleum below belongs to the Kenarlekdji family (Քենարլիքճի). This is a Turkish word (kinda) that means something like “edge worker” (I don’t know, maybe they trim hedges or produce picture frames?). In modern Turkish spelling it would be rendered Kenarlıkçı.

Notice also the Western Armenian transliteration used: Bedros rather than Petros for Պետրոս.

armenian mausoleum istanbul

Like Luca Brasi, this Armenian Catholic sleeps with the fishes.

armenian fish grave

So those are the four Shishli cemeteries. A few blocks south are two cemeteries next to the Osmanbey metro stop. The first one is the Latin Catholic Cemetery (Latin Katolik Kabristanı). I was refused entry.

istanbul catholic cemetery

The other one is the Protestant Cemetery (Evangelicorum Commune Cœmeterium). Unlike all the other Christian cemeteries, this one conveniently has regular, posted visiting hours. I was told not to take pictures here, but I did anyway. I did so surreptitiously, however, and so most of my pictures came out blurry and off-center. Serves me right, I guess.

istanbul protestant cemetery

The Protestant Cemetery has different sections marked by nationality, so that there’s a German section, an English section, a Hungarian section, etc. As usual, the most relevant section for this blog is the Armenian Protestant section. The Armenian are buried in a separate walled-off area, since, according to the cemetery’s Wikipedia page, Armenians were Ottoman subjects, whereas the rest of the Protestants were not.

armenian protestant grave

Scattered throughout the Armenian section are Greek graves. I guess these were Greek Protestants, and the “Armenian Protestant” graveyard was a catch-all for Ottoman Protestants of any ethnicity.

greek grave istanbul

A few graves exhibit Greek writing alonside Armenian writing.

greek tombstone armenian

Here we have an Armenian grave next to a Greek grave. Notice that the birth years on the Armenian tombstone are 1306 and 1302, while the death years are 1970 and 1971. This is because the Islamic calendar was used in Ottoman times, while modern Turkey uses the Gregorian calendar. It’s not uncommon to see dates from the Ottoman era given unconverted. I don’t know if it’s out of laziness or what.

Exercise for the reader: Figure out when, in Gregorian terms, these Armenians were born.

greek and armenian graves

There are a lot of other interesting graves in the Protestant Cemetery. Although it doesn’t relate to Georgia at all, my favorite is this one: a Korean girl’s grave, featuring the Korean alphabet as well as a Christian message written in Turkish. What was this girl’s story? Who designed this tombstone?

korean grave istanbul

And that’s that. I’m pretty sure this is my longest post ever. I hope someone reads it.

By the way, you may have noticed that I’ve used the past tense rather than present perfect to refer to many of these places (e.g. “I wasn’t able to see the church” instead of “I haven’t been able to see the church”). This is because I’m no longer living in Istanbul. I don’t think I’ll have any other posts dedicated solely to Istanbul, so take the time to savor this one.

russian church istanbul


7 thoughts on “Religion in Istanbul: Mosques, Churches, Cemeteries, Cats

  1. Another great post. I just finished reading the Thomas de Waal book on the Caucuses (have you read it? I’d be interested in your opinion) and feel that you should consider shaping these posts in to something similar. The de Waal book is good, but your historical/ linguistic/ very accessible perspective would be a valuable addition to literature on the region.

    Oddly, the Armenian churches and Patriarch were always open when I visited. I do not think you are missing much though. I could dig up pictures if you are interested. I will admit that I may have found them depressing due to my ethnic heritage.
    As for the French speaking Armenian Catholics, this may be true but most educated Western Armenians at the time (in my limited research) seemed to be able to speak French and had strong French cultural attachments. The first national anthem is a bilingual hymn in French and Western Armenian, for example.
    Perhaps this was true for all educated people in the region at the time.

    On a hopeful note, when I was in Istanbul last Winter, I saw a funny Turkish film- “Bana Masal Anlatma” ( whose plot centers on a neighborhood of Turks, immigrant Africans and old Christians banding together against capitalist developers. The church in the film was in the Tartar Catholic parish (in Galata?)- or so I was told.

    And of course, you missed the bulldozed Armenian graveyard that was part of Taksim square! (joking- kind of).
    Have you found more Georgian elements in Istanbul?

    I look forward to your next post. Thank you again, for helping me understand the region better.

  2. My ancestors came to Greece in 1922. I was so emotionally surprized by your article! You have done great work and well-documented! I am interested in the photos you have taken from the Saint Mary church, and I really thank for “I have pictures of this stuff if anyone is interested”! You ‘ve got my email.

  3. Well I found this blog while I was reading on the mosques in Istanbul. I am greatly appreciative of learning any history as that is what keeps any place alive. I had hoped to travel to Istanbul to see the Blue Mosque and the Green Mosque but with what is going on in the world I guess I will have to settle for very excellent descriptions of places I hope to withstand the corruption of Man. I was very amazed to see the disk of the Prophet Mohammad also. I go to an Islamic Learning Center and have been to our Mosque and the Muslims have told me there is nothing but Allah to be placed in the Mosque. Of course the tiles with description all over them are the words from the Quran. I will bookmark this so I can read all your other stories. I have to tell you you write with a paintbrush. I could understand and visualize what you were saying!

  4. Pingback: Kedi (2016 Turkish cat film) | georgiasomethingyouknowwhatever

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