Architecture in Istanbul: the embodiments of change and nostalgia
While it’s nearly impossible to talk about Istanbul’s architecture in brief, here we will talk about structures (one old with one new together) that characterize this sentiment which pervades the city’s mystique; the visible elements that embody and perpetuate the feeling, and that both are the cause and cure of it.

by Nicole O’Rourke

Hüzün is one of those characteristically Turkish and almost untranslatable words. It means a sort of melancholy caused by a feeling of loss mixed with hopefulness. Orhan Pamuk talks about it at length in his memoir, ‘Istanbul.’ The feeling is something palpable, something that both visitors and locals feel when here, and it is part of the alchemic mixture of moods and sentiments and intangibles that makes Istanbul the mythic mystery it has been for thousands of years. Part of this is due to its being anchored on two continents, part is due to its long history and its rises and falls from grace and grandeur. And, there’s nothing better to perpetuate this emotion than constant reminders of the things Istanbulites cannot escape: our cityscape, and the buildings, new and old, that form the backdrop to our daily life. The structures in Istanbul are the bearers of hüzün, the grounded proclamations of what Istanbul once was, and what Istanbul is, the embodiments of change and nostalgia.

Old City Walls and the Bosphorus Bridge

The Bosphorus Bridge

Hugging Istanbul’s old city, the city’s land walls were constructed in the beginning of the fifth century, meant to demarcate and protect the then-capital of the Holy Roman Empire, Constantinople. The walls had gone through several iterations before Emperor Theodosius II, under threat from Atilla the Hun, and fresh from the devastating earthquake of 447 AD, gave Constantine, Prefect of the East, orders to rebuild them. In less than two months the walls were rebuilt – an impressive feat in terms of construction time and fortification. They were the most advanced military walls of their time, and probably would have kept the city safe indefinitely, had cannons and modern warfare not become a reality; Atilla the Hun himself and his army could not enter the city, and went on to pillage and destroy much of the western Holy Roman Empire instead. 

Years went by, and attacks, earthquakes, floods, fires and pomp and circumstance decorate the story of Istanbul’s city walls  until, in 1453, Byzantium saw its end, and the Ottoman Turks took their turn. Their conquest was, not surprisingly, because of a weak point found in the walls protecting the city. Afterwards, Sultan Mehmet II took reign, and the Ottoman Era began with Constantinople at its center. Although in relative ruins today, parts of the ancient city walls are still visible and some are even walkable, hundreds of years after they were built, still proudly declaring this history.

Possessiveness, fear, strength and loss are annunciated from these walls, and it’s not hard to see why: no army in history, having made it past them, could bring themselves to leave. The beauty and importance of Istanbul, throughout time, is made evident by such a structure, and acts as a constant (although crumbling) reminder of how lucky its people are to live in such a place. So, with loss is hopefulness, and with the Ottoman Turks’ destruction of the wall began the reign of Constantinople as the capital of the Ottoman Empire.

As the walls became less militarily important over time it simply became part of the landscape, acting as a sort of literal sign of the Ottoman Era’s gradual demise. The walls, like the memories of Ottoman past, and the Bosphorus, are an essential part of Istanbul and its history. The Ottoman Empire officially saw its end in 1923.

Fast forward to 1973, when, to celebrate the 50th year of the founding of the Republic of Turkey, the Boğaziçi Köprüsü, (also called the First Bridge or the Bosphorus Bridge), opened for public use, connecting Ortaköy and Beylerbeyi. While the remaining pieces of the ancient walls are reminders of the preciousness of Istanbul, its history, its formidable past, how it was once the political and cultural center of world, and how it was once the city to be taken, the Bosphorus Bridge represents the hopeful side of Istanbul’s hüzün. A suspension bridge, and the first bridge in the world connecting continents, it also represents the expansion of the city. No more are walls necessary or wanted to enclose and protect the city of Istanbul. Instead, the openness and accessibility of the bridge reflect a new norm in terms of reaching relevance as a world capital yet again, just as it had been at the time of Sultan Mehmet II.

Topkapı Palace and Dolmabahçe Palace

Topkapı Palace

As the walls succumbed to Sultan Mehmet II, Constantinople got a new breath of life from its new leaders, and in 1459, perched atop one of Istanbul’s seven hills, Topkapı Palace (originally called the New Palace), began to be constructed. Home to Ottoman Era sultans and courts, harems and courtyards, educational facilities and a beautiful park for almost four centuries, Topkapı Palace was, and still is, the living representation of Ottoman opulence and power. While the Palace is now designated as a museum (with a rich collection of paintings, porcelains, miniatures, holy relics, antique weaponry, and clothing) it’s more than just that; Topkapı Palace’s silhouette from the shores of the Bosphorus, and from within its own walls, are a reminder of the city’s Ottoman past. Parts of the palace bear a resemblance to Ottoman Era circular tents, which in the past were a necessary shelter for the empire’s more nomadic times, before it settled finally in Istanbul and into greatness. Now the tent-like structures are sturdy and lasting, and declare the end of movement, and the beginning of the longest-lasting and most powerful of the Turkish empires.

A little bit gothic, part arabesque, but really just simply and distinctly Ottoman, Topkapı Palace represents both loss and hope for the future, even in its construction; in its prime, the palace was a bearer of hüzün because, despite several devastating fires and earthquakes, it was rebuilt, bigger and better. Then, in 1856, the government moved to Dolmabahçe Palace (which literally translates to ‘stuffed garden’), still the biggest palace in Turkey today.

Harem room, Topkapı Palace

Dolmabahçe Palace was designed by architect Garibet Balyan, member of the Armenian dynasty of Ottoman era imperial architects. The Balyan family served under nine sultans, and is known to have designed some of the most important buildings of their respective times. The move to the shores of the Bosphorus, outside of the old city walls, and into this Baroque and grand European-style palace, is a bitter-sweet, hüzün-filled reality.

The move was the beginning of the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, but it also represents the steps towards Europeanization, both figuratively and literally in its architectural elements, as well as the move towards modernization which ultimately fed the founding of the Republic of Turkey. Now Dolmabahçe Palace sits nestled next to the Bosphorus, a reminder to Istanbul’s people of the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (the Republic’s founder), mixed with the foggy feeling associated with the modernization of Turkey, and the good and bad sentiments that come with that.

Süleymaniye Mosque and Şakirin Mosque

Süleymaniye Mosque

Of all the great people in Turkey’s history, Mimar Sinan (Sinan the Architect) is one of our heroes. A true genius of engineering and style, Sinan was born the son of a stonemason and died the greatest architect of the Ottoman era, revered in his life as greatly as he is now. Sinan is buried beside Sultan Süleyman, (Süleyman the Magnificent), for whom he built the Süleymaniye Mosque, his greatest achievement and the largest mosque complex in Istanbul, even today. 

To rival the long-standing and imposing Hagia Sophia, which was originally a Byzantine church and later converted to a mosque, Sinan’s Süleymaniye Mosque saw its first stone laid in 1550 and was finished by 1558. Taking notes from the incredible architectural advancements of the Hagia Sophia and from Renaissance architectects working out of the West, Sinan, in order to legitimize himself, the Sultan, and the mosque itself, aimed to build a taller, bigger, and more impressive structure than its neighbor, the Hagia Sophia. And that’s just what he did. 

For Istanbulites, the Süleymaniye Mosque is the true gem of the old city skyline. More so than Hagia Sophia, and the ‘Blue Mosque,’ it is Süleymaniye that truly represents Istanbul’s favorite architect, and the height of Ottoman greatness in the city. Sinan is the Michelangelo of the East, (he even helped design the Taj Mahal), and was the court’s resident architect and civil engineer for the span of three different Sultan’s reigning periods. A true story of bottom to top success, Sinan’s life’s work and legacy reek of possibilities.

Then there is the fact that the building is made for God and the worship of God. This beautiful, massive, architecturally stunning structure is one of many from which emanate the haunting call of the müezzin. No matter your native tongue or your religion, no matter if local or visitor, these are the embodying sounds of hüzün… nothing is more simultaneously melancholy and hopeful than a communal call to prayer. Nowhere in Istanbul will you be out of earshot of the call, and no building is more synonymous with this city’s beautiful and fervent religiosity, and the Ottomans’ role in that, than the Süleymaniye Mosque.  

Şakirin Mosque

Jump to 2009 when Şakirin Mosque opened in Üsküdar, nearly 500 years after Süleymaniye. A mosque, still, with all the necessary elements to make it so: minarets, minbar, mihrab, domes, prayer halls, etc., but Şakirin Camii is modern, and it’s more representative of today’s Istanbul.

On the Asian side, far from the center of the old city, Şakirin is the first mosque in the world in which the interior was designed by a woman: Zeynep Fadıllıoğlu. A modern masterpiece, the exterior of the mosque also speaks to Istanbul’s modernization. Designed by architect Hüsrev Tayla, the shell of the mosque has metal elements with minimal, dark stoneware and acts as a sort of see-saw to the airiness created by Fadıllıoğlu in the interior. 

With a beautiful turquoise and gold mihrab, inspired by Seljuk patterns, (which are also reflected in the wrought-iron grills on the windows), and a large and breathtaking asymmetrical chandelier, the subtle details of Şakirin mosque, when compared to most other mosques in the city, are what makes it stand out.  The prayer space for women, typically closed off, is a beautiful balcony only separated by design details that do not read as exclusive, but rather give women worshippers a beautiful and unique perspective on the mosque. Şakirin also only has two minarets (mosques with four minarets are mosques that were built for or in the name of a Sultan). So, even in its birth and in its reason to be, it is far from the Istanbul of Sultans and Ottoman rule; instead, it is a representation of contemporary Istanbul and contemporary worship.

Grand Bazaar and Kanyon 

Grand Bazaar

Kapalıçarşı (or the Grand Bazaar) was just named the most-visited tourist attraction in the world by Time Magazine. It’s the oldest and biggest marketplace in the world, first formed during Ottoman times, and astonishingly still as active today, over 500 years later. Just like Topkapı Palace, the Grand Bazaar came to be during Sultan Mehmet II’s reign. It was the hub for Mediterranean trade for years, and was also an essential place for Istanbulites to socialize. It was one of few places where women could go easily and unchaperoned, and the only place where one could catch a glimpse of the members of the Sultans harem or court, and was therefore a major center for the city’s trade in goods and ideas. 

With a mosque, inns, shops selling textiles, gems, shoes, spices and really all kinds of goods that one could imagine, the Grand Bazaar exists today in much the same way it did all those years ago. With designated areas for certain products, the Grand Bazaar is a beautiful nightmare in today’s competitors’ and advertisers’ eyes. One store after the other is selling the same thing. It is here, because of this fact, pazarlık ediyoruz, we bargain, we threaten to move next door to buy that very same scarf. The impressive thing about the Grand Bazaar is of course its age, and its size, but mostly what makes it so magnificent is the non-architectural elements, the cultural, sociological things that make it truly one of a kind, and make you feel like you’re time travelling. It’s rare to find a place so commercial that feels so indescribably natural, that unquestionably makes sense. The labyrinth that is the Grand Bazaar is a walking tour of hüzün, it is the tit-for-tat, banter-full, ancient-with-brand new, maze-like mess that is Istanbul, made microcosmic.


A half hour metro ride to Levent from the Old City on the M2 will bring you to Kanyon. An open air mall, with residential and commercial towers attached, Kanyon is a representation of the social, commercial, and cultural Istanbul of today, just as the Grand Bazaar once was. Beautifully designed, with many architectural elements that seem to directly reference bazaar-like structures, Kanyon is modern luxury and contemporary appeal. 

If you speak to locals here, you’ll be hard-pressed to meet any native Istanbulite that didn’t use shopping malls as their social watering hole growing up. This is what you’ll see in a mall like Kanyon, one of the city’s most beautiful and most preferred -with the social structures of the city all in one place and all at once, in the same way that the Grand Bazaar would have been before the throngs of visitors made it the world’s most visited place. The modernization and commercialization of Turkey, and of Istanbul more accurately, is also seen here. So, yet again, hüzün creeps in, unwittingly or not. Advertisements, few competitors, strict price tags, and food courts are a far cry from the Grand Bazaar’s charm, yet convenience, luxury, and modernization are afoot.

Dear Readers,

Our publication witnessed a lot of ups and downs in the last 29 years, but in 2020 we have faced truly unprecedented times.

Despite our best efforts, as of August 2020 we are pressing pause on our overall activity, thanking all of our readers, followers, and partners for their ongoing support and words of encouragement.

We will miss you, just like we miss the city’s uplifting energy that kept us motivated throughout the years.

Stay safe!