"White Palace"

akist1For most visitors to İstanbul Aksaray is the messy transport interchange that they whiz through on the tram on their way to the bus station or airport. The sheer quantity of traffic swilling around here is offputting as is the messy junction between the tram line and the Metro.

It's here, too, that the road from Laleli divides just beyond the Valide Sultan Cami, with Vatan Caddesi carving out a busy path towards the City Walls at Topkapı while Millet Caddesi heads west towards the walls at Yedikule. 

The chaotic traffic set-up makes it impossible to recognize that this was once the Forum Bovis, an immensely important square in old Byzantium where the Mese, the main road that had run all the way from the site of the imperial palace, split in two just as modern Ordu Caddesi does. 

Later the square was the site of a Janissary barracks and since the Janissaries were partly paid in food it was the scene of a great deal of meat distribution so that it became knownn as the Meydan-ı Lahm (Et Meydanı, Meat Square). The square became associated with the regular rebellions of the Janissaries so Sultan Mahmud II scrapped the name shortly after abolishing the battalion.

There are a couple of reasons why you might want to pause here.

The first is the imposing Valide Sultan Cami, newly restored and well worth a quick look. The second is the "Little Urfa" collection of restaurants where it's possible to sample many of the tasty, spicy dishes from distant south-east Turkey. 

A quick word on the rather confusing name. Aksaray? Isn't that a town in Cappadocia in Central Anatolia? Indeed it is except that in the 15th century Sultan Mehmed II's grand vizier İşhak Paşa resettled immigrants from Cappadocia here, hence the name.

akist2Along Ordu Caddesi

It could hardly have a less impressive setting but the Valide Sultan Cami designed in 1871 for Sultan Abdülaziz's mother, Pertevnyal Valide Sultan, is nonetheless a striking and impressive building provided you are not the sort of person for whom "real" Ottoman architecture came to a halt in the early 18th century.

By the time it was built the idea of enormous complexes to sort a mosque had gone out of fashion although there is still a school in the queen mother's name just round the corner on Atatürk Bulvarı that was built just one year later.

There is some uncertainty about the architect behind the mosque; some credit it to Sarkis and Agop Balyan, others to an Italian architect called Montani.

The mosque was built in a baroque style with much frilly decoration around the windows, a smallish dome and two thin minarets. Recent restoration has added grey carpeting to the interior so that at first glance it looks as if the entire inside is made out of marble, a stunning sight.

Externally, the most striking feature is the long wall incorporating four fountains and a gateway that sits in a dip beneath the main pavement. This is currently under renovation.

Just a little further west a much older mosque tends to go almost completely unnoticed because it's squeezed onto a triangle of lane across which people transferring from the tramway to the Metro tend to rush with their thoughts set on making their connection. Built in 1473, just 20 years after the Conquest, the Murat Paşa Cami boasts an attractive brick-and-stone-striped facade and turns out to be much bigger inside than its exterior might suggest. 

Along Vatan Caddesi

The open area immediately behind the Valide Sultan Cami was once the Roman Forum Bovis (Bull Square) but today is just a messy transport intersection that will probably one day be dug up to make a direct connection between the tram and the Metro. Along its eastern side behind an imposing triple fountain one of the old dervish lodges that were closed down by Atatürk has recently been rebuilt provdiing the only piece of architectural interest in the area.akist3

As for busy Vatan Caddesi itself, it follows the course of the Lykos stream, long since covered over.

Should you decide to walk west along Vatan Caddesi, you will see the wonderful Byzantine Church of Constantine Lips that became the Fenarı İsa Cami on the northern side of the road. It is one of the oldest religious structures to survive in the city dating back in part to the 10th century.

The original section was built in 907 for a statesman called Constantine Lips and was dedicated to the Immaculate Mother of God (Theotokos Panachrantos). With four chapels on the roof and five apses, it must have been hugely impressive even before a second church, dedicated to St John the Baptist, was built right beside it in the 13th century, adding another three apses, one of which has since been lost. 

In the 15th century the churches were converted into a dervish lodge. Today they serve as a mosque. 

On the southern side of the road is the many-chimneyed Yavuz Sultan Selim Medresesi, designed by Sinan in 1549 and now used as a medical facility.

It was Sinan, too, who designed the tomb of Yavuz Sultan Selim's daughter Şah Huban Kadın in 1572. Today it stands ignored beside the car park of the Migros supermarket along with a contemporary school building. 

Towards Fatih

If you want to walk north to Fatih from Aksaray the best road to take is Horhor Caddesi which will take you past a turning leading to a seven-storey antiques emporium misleadingly called the Horhor Flea Market. A fountain on a street corner on the right should serve as a pointer.

As you cross the mess of Aksaray Meydanı (Square) look out for a triple fountain set into the outer wall of the newly restored Kızıl Minare Cami, said to be the only mosque in İstanbul whose minaret rises from right inside it.


Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası

Renowned for a menu featuring 121 different choices for Sunday brunch, this corner restaurant is a great place to taste chicken or lamb baked in salt although if you want to do so you will need to make a reservation a day ahead. Show up early for the brunch - it really is a banquet that requires plenty of time for appreciation.

Tel: 0212-531 3333, Ahmediye Caddesi No. 44A

Has Kral Sofrası

A little harder to find that the Akdeniz, the Has Kral also majors on salt-baked chicken and lamb that must be ordered in advance.

Tel: 0212-534 9707, Ragıp Bey Sokak No. 25

Kaburgacı Selim Amca

Handy branch of “Uncle Selim’s”, a Diyarbakır-born restaurant that serves up delicious stuffed ribs and all sorts of other obscure south-east Turkish treats.

Tel: 0212-525 1178, Vatan Caddesi No. 61

Dergah Cafe 

Advertising itself as a café for language lovers, Dergah is a great and stylish place to chill out over a nargile in a busy part of town.

Tel: 0212-533 9735, Vatan Caddesi No. 55

Transport info

There are both tram and Metro stops at Aksaray as well as a tram stop at Yusufpaşa for the Murad Paşa Cami. 

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