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Üsküdar: The Exit to Asia


1914 Map of Üsküdar (Source: Wagner & Debes)

The Battle of Chrysopolis 324 AD (Source: Giulio Romano)

Founded in 686 BC as a Greek colony, Üsküdar traces its roots to the Byzantine city of Chrysopolis, meaning the City of Gold. On the outskirts of Constantinople and neighboring Chalcedon - modern day Kadıköy - Chrysopolis played a vital role in the region. Under the Romans, it was the starting point for all Roman roads leading to Asia and thus it was the departure point for any Roman legion heading to Persia, Armenia, or Mesopotamia. Though well placed for trade in peace times, its position as a harbor made it incredibly vulnerable to invasion.


Port of Üsküdar (Source: Travelogues Traveler’s Views)

It was seized by Persian leader Darius in the 6th century BC, retaken by the Spartans in the 5th century BC, and seized by the Romans in 79 AD. In 782, Abbasid armies took the city, with the Crusaders following 4 centuries later. Its final invasion culminated with the Turks occupying Chrysopolis in 1339, placing it under Ottoman rule for over 100 years before they took Constantinople. The name change from Chrysopolis to Scutari occurred in the 12th century under the Byzantines which then became “Üsküdar” with Ottoman rule. Üsküdar retained its role as a gateway to Asian trade and pilgrimage as described by poet Ömer Erdem as he writes, “Üsküdar is Asia, from here to China''. The neighborhood and surrounding area was densely cosmopolitan with, “11 caravansarays, a 2,600-shop indoor market, and dozens of yalı, or wooden mansions, along its southern coast”.

Surre-i Hümâyûn in the early 19th century (Source: Georg Emanuel Opiz)

Üsküdar was the ceremonial departure point for all religious pilgrims to Jerusalem and those embarking on Hajj to Mecca and Medina and was where the Sacred Caravan (Surre-i Hümâyûn), an envoy bearing gifts for the Sharif of Mecca, left from until 1918. A unique characteristic of the neighborhood is its perception as overwhelmingly Muslim with 70 Muslim quarters, 11 Greek and Armenian ones, and one Jewish one. For these reasons, and others, Üsküdar is considered one of Istanbul’s holiest districts.


Yahya Kemal (Source: Album of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey)

The neighborhood itself has been uplifted as a model of urban Istanbul with poet and author Yahya Kemal lamenting that out of all of Istanbul, only the people of Üsküdar (specifically alluding to its Muslims nature) were “peaceful, generous, modest, pious, courteous, and caring”. Continuing this theme of Üsküdar as a cosmopolitan and modern yet still humble neighborhood is its motto: “delisi de velisi de bol” which translates to “full of saints and screwballs”.



The Streets of Üsküdar (Source: Travelogues Traveler’s Views)

The modern conception of Üsküdar as a uniquely Muslim and Turkish neighborhood is an interesting one that carries both truths - the higher proportion of Muslims due to the movement of Anatolian Turks into the neighborhood after conquest - and fiction. Yahya Kemal writes of the neighborhood, “Look at Üsküdar and then look at Kadıköy. Next to Üsküdar, Kadıköy reminds one of Tatavla” and contrasts it to the historically Greek neighborhood of Kadıköy (formerly Tatavla).

The Özel Surp Haç Tıbrevank High School (Source: Surp Haç Tibrevank Armenian High School)

This view of Üsküdar, though not entirely fiction, does still ignore centuries of minority presence. The neighborhood’s historic Armenian community was considered one of the most important in the city. The Özel Surp Haç Tıbrevank High School, established in 1706, was responsible for many of the city's leading Armenian intellectuals including journalist Hrant Dink and Yetvart Tomasyan founder of the premier Turkish-Armenian publishing house, Aras. Among Üsküdar’s historic cemeteries, including the largest Muslim cemetery, is the Surp Haç Cemetery which is the Armenian


Kuzguncuk Greek Orthodox Church (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

community’s oldest graveyard, established in 1555. Beyond Üsküdar, nearby neighborhoods of Bağlarbaşı and Altunizade were home to an urban mix of Greeks, Jews, Turks, and Armenians. The Armenian church, Surp Garabed built in 1844, continues to run to this day. Kuzguncuk, another bordering neighborhood, is home to the Hagios Panteleimonas Greek Orthodox Church and the Kandilli Khristos Rum Ortodoks Church. Üsküdar has two synagogues, the Bet Yaakov (built in

Zabel Yesayan (Source: AGBU Nubarian Library)

1878) and Bet Nissim (built in the 1840s) synagogues. Some significant figures hailing from the neighborhood include Xenophon Sideridis, a Greek historian, writer, and researcher and Zabel Yesayan, one of the most prolific Armenian writers of the 20th century.



Mihrimah Sultan Mosque in Üsküdar (Source: Travelogues Traveler’s Views)

Even a few of the neighborhood's famous mosques were patronized by elite Ottomans with Greek connections (though these were renounced upon their entrance into the palace system). The Yeni Valide Camii Mosque was commissioned for Gülnuş Sultan, mother of Sultan Ahmed III, in 1710. Gülnuş Sultan was a Greek-born concubine and the legal wife and chief consort of Sultan Mehmed IV. The Rum Mehmed Pasha Mosque was built by its name sake Rum Mehmed Pasha who was Grand Vizier under Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror from 1466-1470. He, like Gülnuş Sultan, was born Greek. Some argue that the mosque's strong Byzantine feature can be attributed to this Greek heritage though this is disputable.


 

References

Akay, Hasan. 1997. Fatih'ten günümüze şairlerin gözüyle İstanbul. Edited by Hasan Akay.

N.p.: İşaret.

Dünden bugüne İstanbul ansiklopedisi. 1993. N.p.: Kültür Bakanlığı.

Hanson, Matt. 2022. “Like an idyl of many: On the pluralism of Kuzguncuk.” Daily Sabah.

https://www.dailysabah.com/life/travel/like-an-idyl-of-many-on-the-pluralism-of-

kuzguncuk.

Pheiffer, Evan. n.d. “A Tale of Üsküdar, Turkey's Gateway to the East.” Reset DOC. Accessed

2023. https://www.resetdoc.org/story/a-tale-of-uskudar-turkeys-gateway-to-the-east/.

Pheiffer, Evan. n.d. “A Tale of Üsküdar, Turkey's Gateway to the East (p. II).” Reset DOC.

Accessed 2023. https://www.resetdoc.org/story/a-tale-of-uskudar-turkeys-gateway-to-

the-east-p-ii/.

“Üsküdar.” n.d. Wikipedia. Accessed 2023.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%9Csk%C3%BCdar.

“Yahya Kemal'in İstanbul'u.” n.d. Üsküdar Belediyesi. Accessed 2023.

https://www.uskudar.bel.tr/tr/main/pages/yahya-kemalin-istanbulu/507.



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