The Christian boy who ruled the Muslim world

“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 outside the mosque continued.

SAMSUNGThis was clearly no ‘official’ tourist sign, the year 1573 was written in blue over the original 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 search of Romania’s forgotten Islamic history expecting more questions than answers, and the brown sign posed some of the most exciting yet.

“Moscheeea! Gooood!”

His back slightly bent with age, Lutfi stood grinning at me, the sun glinting off his large brown-tint glasses. His flat cap and neatly creased beige trousers with short sleeve shirt made him the picture of a Mediterranean elder. All he was missing was a checkers set and a park bench.

SAMSUNGLutfi 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 dhur (midday) prayer inside the Esmehan, Lutfi’s local, surrounded by his friends – all elderly Romanians like him.


Esmahan CemetryIn the mosque’s garden, amidst the overgrown foliage, a dozen or so slim tombstones stood in varying stages of decay, topped by stone Ottoman headdresses of differing rank. Many had clearly legible Persian inscriptions. Some, ravaged by time, had fallen away and were now neatly piled by the mosque doorway.

The restoration work was the private undertaking of 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.

SAMSUNG“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 tenor under Suleiman the Magnificent, when the empire was at it’s cultural zenith. Sokollu’s story and reign as Grand Vizier makes for one of the empire’s most intriguing chapters.

Esmahan CaretakerBorn ‘Bajica’ to a Christian Serb shepherd in the tiny little village of Sokolovici in modern day Bosnia. Sokollu (‘lu’ in Turkish means ‘from’) was taken from his family aged ten by the Ottomans as part of the cruel devsirme system, which involved effectively stealing talented Christian boys from their parents to train into elite Janissery soldiers. In the process, they were also converted to Islam.

Over the next 50 years, Sokollu rose steadily through the military ranks before, just short of his 60th birthday, Sultan Suleiman appointed him Grand Vizier in 1565, making him the second most powerful person on the planet.

A year later, the Sultan died on a military campaign with Sokollu by his side. The Grand Vizier took hold of the empire’s reins and ensured the smooth ascension of Suleiman’s son Selim II to the imperial throne.

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. He was the ‘playboy’ Sultan, and preferred to stay at the palace and indulge instead in orgies and debauchery. Having seen the trust his father had placed in the Grand Vizier, Selim II saw no reason the elderly statesman shouldn’t continue making the key state decisions.

Thus began a 13 year period during which most historians believe it was Sokollu that ran the Ottoman empire, as the de facto ruler and not the soft, uninterested Sultans.

The Christian boy from Bosnia had grown up to rule the Muslim world.

Not everyone liked this arrangement, least of all the Ottoman Sultanas (imperial women), whose powers were on the rise during this period.

Some believe the Sultana’s were behind Sokollu’s eventual murder at the hands of a ‘mad’ dervish in the autumn of 1579. What is certain is his death signalled the dawn of the period known as the Sultanate of Women, when power was firmly in the hands of the Ottoman women, namely the mothers of the Sultans.

After Lutfi had gone, I stood alone in the mid-afternoon sun staring at the stone turbans. I wondered if Sokollu had indeed sought refuge here in Mangalia. If he had, it would have been in those latter years of his life when the daggers were out for him in the imperial capital, less than a days journey from where I stood.

I saw 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 commissioned the building of a magnificent bridge, by his good friend and fellow devsirme, the brilliant Kocar Mimar Sinan.

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 the most fabulous story to tell.


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