Tharik Hussain (@_TharikHussain) is a freelance journalist, travel writer, photographer and blogger specialising in the Islamic stories of Europe and Muslim ('Halal') travel.
“Go to Mangalia, which is the Kaaba Mecca of the wandering poor people!”
I had expected many things from the little Esmahan Sultan Mosque in Mangalia, south east Romania, but a comparison to Islam’s holiest city was not one of them.
“The Esmahan Sultan Mosque was built in 1573 … in memory of Solyman II, one of the greatest rulers of the Ottoman Empire of that time…” the sign continued.
This was clearly no ‘official’ tourist sign; 1573 was written in blue over an original date and it had the wrong Suleiman. Suleiman II came to the throne in 1643 – a whole 70 years after the mosque would’ve been built.
I had arrived in Mangalia in search of Romania’s forgotten Islamic history expecting more questions than answers, and whilst the brown sign’s inconsistencies were obliging in this regard, my new friend Lutfi was clearly offering some answers.
His back slightly bent with age, Lutfi stood grinning as the bright sunlight winked at me off his large brown-tint glasses. He wore a flat cap and neatly creased beige trousers. The picture of a Mediterranean elder. All he was missing was a checkers set and a park bench.
Lutfi was a Romanian-Turk; a real life Ottoman descendant. He was the Muslim story I had been looking for. Earlier we had stood side by side for dhuhr (midday) prayer inside the Esmehan, Lutfi’s local.
In the mosque’s garden, hidden among overgrown foliage, a dozen or so slim tombstones stood in varying stages of decay, topped by stone Ottoman headdresses.
Many had clearly legible Arab script engravings. Some, ravaged by time, had fallen away and been neatly piled by the mosque doorway.
The Esmahan’s restoration work was a private undertaking by a wealthy Turkish businessman called Seyyid Ismail Hakki Bey, explained the mosque’s Imam in his limited English.
It was Seyyid who had authorised the sign at the front.
“During the 16th century, the princess Esma, daughter of Selim II and wife of the High Vizier Sokollu-Mehmet Pasha, took refuge in Mangalia …” it read.
Sokollu had been the most powerful Grand Vizier in Ottoman history, starting his tenure under Suleiman the Magnificent, when the empire was at its height. Sokollu’s story and reign as Grand Vizier makes for one of the empire’s most intriguing chapters.
Born ‘Bajica’ to a Christian Serb shepherd in the tiny village of Sokolovici (‘lu’ in Turkish means ‘from’) in modern day Bosnia. Sokollu was taken from his family aged 10 by the Ottomans as part of the devsirme system, and trained as an elite Janissery soldier and converted to Islam.
Over the next 50 years, Sokollu rose steadily through the military ranks before, just short of his 60th birthday, Sultan Suleiman - The Magnificent - appointed him Grand Vizier in 1565, making him the second most powerful person in the world.
A year later, the Sultan died on a military campaign with Sokollu by his side. The Grand Vizier immediately took hold of the empire’s reins to oversee the smooth ascension of Suleiman’s son Selim II to the imperial throne.
‘Christian’ ruler of the Muslim world
Selim was very different to his father. Softened by palace life, he had no interest in ruling the world or heading out on military campaigns. Instead, the ‘playboy’ Sultan, preferred to stay at the palace and indulge in orgies and debauchery, leaving the running of the empire to his Grand Vizier.
Thus began a 13 year period during which most historians agree Sokollu was the de facto ruler of the world’s most powerful empire.
The Christian boy from Bosnia had grown up to rule the Muslim world.
Not everyone liked this arrangement, least of all the Ottoman Sultanas, whose power was on the rise, especially once Murad III succeeded Selim II, a handover also overseen by Sokollu.
Some believe it was the Sultanas that were behind Sokollu’s murder four years later when he was killed by a ‘mad’ dervish.
The death signalled the dawn of a period known as the ‘Sultanate of Women’, when Ottoman power was firmly in the hands of the imperial Sultanas, the mothers of the Sultans.
The story of the outsider
As I stood alone in the mid-afternoon sun staring at the cartoon-like stone turbans, I wondered if Sokollu had indeed sought refuge here in Mangalia, as the sign claimed. If he had, it would surely have been during those latter years when he knew the daggers were out for him in Istanbul, just a short trip south down the Black Sea coast.
I imagined a sad, disillusioned old man sitting in the mosque, far from the halls of power, and even further from the village of his birth, where he had recently asked his good friend, the brilliant architect Mimar Sinan, to build a bridge. Like him, Sinan was also the product of devsirme.
Sokollu would’ve been about Lutfi’s age by then.
There is no Kaaba or Mecca in Mangalia, there isn’t even a stunning Islamic monument. There’s just a whitewashed old mosque with a terracotta roof that has the most fabulous story to tell.
Author: Tharik Hussain
Checkout Thariks latest work HERE or read his blog about Europe's Muslim Heritage..