The bright August sun winked at me every time it caught Lutfi’s large, tinted sunglasses.
He gave me a toothless grin, before lifting his walking stick to tap the brown tourist sign above our heads.
“Go to Mangalia, which is the Ka‘bah- Makkah of the wandering poor people”, read the words.
Wow, I thought, quite a claim for an obscure town in a non-Muslim country.
A Ka‘bah – Makkah? Really? Here?… The linguistic folly of combining Islam’s holiest sanctuary with its holiest city was doing the claim no favours.
The quote was attributed to the celebrated medieval Ottoman traveller, Evliya Celebi.
Lutfi – a Romanian Turk – was also an Ottoman product. His ancestors would have arrived in these parts when the Muslim empire began expanding beyond its native Turkey.
Lutfi and I had just prayed Jum’a inside the rather modest Esmahan Sultan Mosque – Lutfi’s local – and though we had no common language, the elderly gentleman knew why I was here. I was looking for Romanian Muslim heritage.
We were now both stood outside the green fence that surrounded the mosque and its unkempt cemetery.
Inside, a dozen or so slim tombstones were in different stages of decay. Many had legible Persian script and unmistakable Ottoman stone headdresses. Turbans and Fezzes peered over untidy foliage like proud soldiers refusing to wane. Celebi’s claim wasn’t the reason I had made my way to Mangalia. It was the claim by Mangalia’s mosque that had brought me here.
“During the 16th century, the princess Esma, daughter of Selim II and wife of the high vizier Sokollu-Mehmet Pasha, took refuge in Mangalia,” continued the sign.
“Moscheeea! Gooood!” encouraged Lutfi.
I peered over at the modest, whitewashed building with its awkward minaret and terracotta tiled roof. All the elderly worshippers were now in the courtyard. Some stood under the veranda engaged in gentle conversation. The others shuffled towards the exit, where the kindly Tatar woman sat in her small tea-tent, bowed respectfully as they passed her. The sign went on to claim Princess Esma had personally commissioned the mosque in 1575. Lutfi’s mosque was a royal Ottoman mosque.
Princess Esma had been the granddaughter of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent – arguably the greatest Ottoman Sultan of all time. It was he who had appointed Esma’s husband, Mehmet, as Grand Vizier. After Sultan Suleiman died in September of 1566, Mehmet oversaw the next two royal ascensions of Selim II and Murad III – Esma’s father and brother. Both of these Sultans were far less capable than their illustrious predecessor. Selim II was known as ‘Selim the Drunkard’ and Murad III was very reclusive, hardly leaving the royal palace. Increasingly, state affairs were left to the Grand Vizier. From 1566 to 1579, it was the Grand Vizier and not the Sultans that ran the Ottoman Empire. Combined with Esma’s growing influence in the royal harem, Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmet and Princess Esma were the Ottoman equivalent of a ‘superpower couple’. There was a problem though; Sokollu was not an ‘Ottoman’.
A classic devsirme story; Mehmet was 10-year-old Bajica, a Bosnian-Serb Christian boy when he was taken by the Ottomans from Sokolovici, a village in eastern Bosnia. Like most devsirme, he was enlisted in the Janissaries where ‘Mehmet’ rose steadily through the ranks before his burgeoning talent was spotted by Sultan Suleiman, who made him Grand Vizier in 1565.
The fact that a non-Ottoman yielded such power and sway in the royal courts did not go down well and in 1579 Mehmet was murdered by a ‘mad dervish’.
I stared at the unkempt graves and imagined a tired and weary Grand Vizier walking up the pathway to enter the mosque. Towards the end of his life, the knives were out for the Ottoman power couple – especially the devsirme Grand Vizier. Most likely the busy streets of the Ottoman capital no longer felt safe for them. Here, in the relative obscurity of Mangalia, yards from the gentle lapping of the Black Sea, Mehmet and his royal wife may have indeed sought peaceful refuge.
Lutfi was now standing surrounded by several friends. All of them were about the same age as Mehmet had been when he came here. As each one of them, dressed in a smart shirt, pastel trousers and flat cap, bid others farewell and began shuffling home, I couldn’t help but notice that they were also very much at peace here in Mangalia.
Where in the world: Mangalia is at the very southern tip of Romania’s Dobrogea region on the Black Sea, close to the Bulgarian border. The mosque is in the east of the city, on Strada Oituz, near the pleasure beach and marina.
In and out: Mangalia is a 45-minute drive south of the nearest major city, Constanta. Regular ‘shared taxis’ run between them and cost just a few Romanian Lei. Constanta is also very well connected by train to the capital city of Romania Bucharest, where international flights arrive daily.
Top tips: Use Constanta as a gateway to visit the Esmahan Sultan Mosque and you can also appreciate two other important historic Romanian mosques. Close to the city’s port, looking out across the Black Sea is the Grand Mosque of Constanta, formerly known as the Carol I Mosque. It was commissioned in 1910 by the Romanian King Carol I. A few minutes’ walk towards the old town from there is one of the last mosques built by the Ottomans in 1869, the Gemea Hunchiar. Both are worth a visit.