Dark Tourism in Turkey: Visiting The Tombs of Istanbul

Turkey is one of the world’s most popular travel destinations. In 2011 the country attracted more than 31 million foreign tourists; but despite these vast numbers, a commonly held (and perhaps, carefully managed) image of Turkey is one of UNESCO-approved ruins, breathtaking architecture, food, music, beaches and spa resorts.

Despite its popularity, and seemingly, in spite of its notably bloody history, this is not a country that most would readily associate with dark tourism.

Turkey certainly isn’t lacking for dark tourism sites, however; from the ruined city of Ani, a former capital of the Kingdom of Armenia that lies abandoned near the Turkish-Armenian border, to Anıtkabir, the grand mausoleum of President Atatürk in Ankara.

Then of course, there’s Gallipoli. On 25th April 1915, this peninsula served as the landing point for Allied forces as they entered Turkey with the hope of taking Constantinople. The invasion marked the first independent military action of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), both nations suffering heavy losses in the process. In Australasia, the name “Gallipoli” has long since been synonymous with dark tourism, and many make the pilgrimage to the 21 ANZAC cemeteries scattered around modern-day Gallipoli.

Turkey’s real crowd-pleaser though, is Istanbul – with more than 7 million tourists per year recorded since 2008 and onwards. Stripped now of the title “capital,” Istanbul is nevertheless older and more richly storied than almost any other city in the world. Beneath its streets, its markets and mosques lie the old stones and complex, layered ruins of Constantinople; beneath those, Byzantium. But in this living, breathing – and utterly chaotic – metropolis, the call of the city’s darker destinations can often be drowned out. The dead speak quietly, their voices a murmur that is soon lost under the clamour of market vendors, spice merchants, shoe shiners and the warbling cries that echo at regular intervals from one minaret to the next.

In an effort to give voice to the sleeping dead of Istanbul, I left the tourist district of Sultanahmet behind me… and instead went hunting for memento mori at some of the city’s less celebrated cemeteries.


Eyüp Cemetery

The Eyüp Sultan district lies in the northwest portion of Istanbul, stretching from the Golden Horn as far north as the Black Sea coast. It takes its name from Abu Ayyub al-Ansari – known to the Turks as Eyüp Sultan – a 7th century military commander and close personal friend to the prophet Muhammad himself.

Eyüp was killed when the Arabs laid siege to Constantinople in the 670s, and it was his wish to be buried beneath the city walls. In the wake of the 1453 Conquest of Constantinople, the invading Ottoman Turks built a tomb for Abu Ayyub as well as raising the Eyüp Sultan Mosque in his honour. That mosque soon became the default location for the coronation of Ottoman Sultans, and it is even said to contain a collection of Muhammad’s own personal belongings. Pilgrimages to the site became increasingly popular over the years, and many Ottoman citizens aspired to the honour of being buried close to the tomb of Abu Ayyub.

And so the Eyüp Cemetery was born. One of the city’s largest and oldest Muslim cemeteries, the thousands of tombs at Eyüp spread from the river to Karyağdı Slope, and on as far as Edirnekapı. It features the graves of sultans and grand viziers, imams, courtiers and civil servants; poets and scientists, statesmen, sociologists, playwrights, pilots and political activists. Today, with the cemetery fast reaching its maximum capacity – each layered terrace of gravestones appearing almost to spill over and into the next – the price to reserve a plot in the Eyüp Cemetery has risen to a princely sum of $50,000.

In the early 20th century, one of the Ottoman rulers reserved his own resting place right at the heart of the Eyüp Sultan district, beside the mosque itself.

Sultan Mehmed V reigned for nine years, as Ottoman Sultan and Caliph. Like many other sultans-in-waiting, he was born in Topkapı Palace; where he spent 30 years confined to the harems as he studied books of history, law, poetry and religion. Nine of those years were passed in solitary confinement.

The most significant political act in the reign of Mehmed V was his declaration of jihad against the Allied forces in 1914. The move launched the Ottoman Empire into World War One: a conflict that Mehmed himself would never see resolved. He died aged 73, in July 1918 – just four months before the end of the war.

The cemetery itself rests on the side of a steep hill, where winding, tree-shadowed paths meander up, down, or fork away beneath the vegetation on either side. Many of the stones were written in Ottoman Turkish, although it’s often possible to determine the occupation of the deceased simply by glancing at the grave; imams’ tombs were topped by stone turbans, for example, while the gravestone of a solider would typically be shaped as a sword.

Many of the tombs were inscribed with quotations. I assumed, at first, that these might be passages of scripture, lines from the Quran. A friend translated some of the text for me though, and it seems that graves in the Eyüp Cemetery are labelled as often with humour as they are with religious quotes.

O passers by, spare me your prayers, But please don’t steal my tombstone.

Walking through the cemetery that afternoon, I began to notice tombs with inconsistent dates – such as one woman who had supposedly lived from 1341 until 1990, a ripe old age of 649 years.

Such seemingly mismatched dates were the result of reforms introduced by Turkey’s President Atatürk; who in 1925 adopted the Gregorian calendar over the former Islamic Hijri system. The latter starts its count from 622 AD, the year in which Muhammad travelled from Mecca to Medina (an event known as the “Hijra”). Birth dates here labelled 1341 simply reflected a continued use of the Hijri system, corresponding to the year 1963 AD.

By the time we left Eyüp Cemetery the sun was going down, and the hillside labyrinth began to take on new dimensions with the lengthening shadows. Its twists and turns, its steep, terraced steps, became increasingly treacherous after dark – creating a feeling of intangible dis-ease that was only heightened by the presence of silhouetted figures drifting by in the twilight, criss-crossing one another as they ascended or descended the necropolis.

While the cemetery didn’t strike me as a dangerous place, I later wondered if perhaps I should have paid more attention to those shades that passed me by amongst the tombstones. Reading more about the district after my visit, I would learn that in recent decades a surge in violent crimes has haunted the cemetery at Eyüp Sultan.

The most notorious of these attacks took place in November 1994 – when an Austrian professor, passing through the cemetery in the early evening, was robbed and murdered by a teenager. In a 2001 incident, it was still daylight when a prominent Turkish-Jewish businessman was stabbed 10 times for his wallet and mobile phone.

In the wake of the second case, the prosecutor for Eyüp district described the cemetery as, “a place of prostitution and drug use”; an observation which in turn has rallied local community efforts to reclaim this city of the dead. In an article for Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News in January 2015, a researcher of the city’s historic burial grounds spoke of a duty to preserve the Eyüp Cemetery.

“Renovating and cleaning the cemeteries is not a hard job and in some ways it is the duty of each citizen to protect them,” said Nidayi Sevim, talking on behalf of a campaign group formed of writers, imams and researchers. “The municipality … don’t give priority to the protection of the cemeteries, yet there have to be topics in their agenda other than politics.”

Whilst the Islamic cemetery of Eyüp Sultan lies at the heart of an ongoing debate over decay and renovation, there was another, more secular cemetery that I wanted to visit in Istanbul: a site whose history is closely tied to the Crimean War, and the celebrated work of Florence Nightingale. Located in the southeast corner of the city however, we would have to cross the Bosphorus from Europe into Asia as we went searching for the cemetery at Haydarpaşa.


Haydarpaşa Cemetery

The Haydarpaşa Cemetery is located in Üsküdar, on the eastern side of the Bosphorus Strait. Our ferry landed in Kadiköy – an upbeat, colourful corner of Istanbul’s Asian quarter – from where we walked along the waterfront, up the hill and through the sleepy green terraces towards the cemetery.

This well-kept burial ground lies beside the Haydarpaşa military hospital; a facility which had once been its chief client. It was opened at the time of the Crimean War, when the British and Ottoman Empires waged war against the Tsar along the northern shores of the Black Sea.

The war was bloody, and those injured soldiers carried back to Istanbul often fared no better than their comrades on the battlefield. The Selimiye Barracks at Haydarpaşa were converted into a military hospital to treat the sick. Under the care of Florence Nightingale it became the first dedicated military hospital in modern history; although for all her hard work, cholera was rife and as many as 6,000 soldiers died on site between 1854 and 1856.

In many cases Nightingale and her team were unable to offer treatment, instead working simply to alleviate the final suffering of those who could not be saved. The Ottoman Empire donated land to the British, so that they might bury their mounting dead… and so the cemetery was formed in 1855, with the donation of a grassy plot beside the Sea of Marmara, which had once belonged to the 16th century Sultan Suleiman “the Magnificent.”

Arriving at the wrought iron gates, the cemetery appeared as though closed – there was nobody in sight, just row upon row of clean white stones poking out of a well-manicured plot of grass. The gate swung open though, and we stepped inside… to be met almost immediately by a barking guard dog that launched itself at us from nowhere. It was a jarring experience, this sudden commotion in the midst of solemn stones and those who slept beneath.

Fortunately the dog was on a chain and its attack fell short. An attendant appeared, rake over his shoulder, and he smiled at us as he dragged the creature back whimpering to its kennel.

We proceeded through the empty cemetery, past white pillars and carefully pruned hedges. The almost unnatural beauty of the place, its perfect lawns and whitewashed stones, the deep greens and clear blue sky, created a strange sensation of otherness; as if growth, decay, and all those other symptoms of time itself had here been frozen in their work. It could have been anywhere – could have been, that is, were it not for the four minarets that rose beyond the tree line at the far side of the cemetery lawn, shapes that echoed the memorial columns of the cemetery at the same time as providing their own sense of place and context.

I found myself drawn immediately to an obelisk that rose stark and square ahead, with all the understated power of a Hawksmoor spire. The structure was set about with angelic figures, heavenly scribes with quills and wings and wreathes.

After the war, Queen Victoria had raised this obelisk in memory of those who fell in the Crimea. In 1954, a century after the event, an additional plaque was added to the monument by the British community in Istanbul. It read:

To Florence Nightingale, whose work near this Cemetery a century ago relieved much human suffering and laid the foundations for the nursing profession.

My initial reading of this cemetery, and of its role as a repository for those soldiers who could not be saved by medicine, had been to view each stone as a failure; but then I realised that it was exactly this kind of polarising narrative that Nightingale had worked so hard to overcome. Her work here in Haydarpaşa had not been to count off the living against the dead, but rather to demonstrate a more qualitative approach to improving every lived moment – and not least those last moments of an otherwise expiring life.

Originally the cemetery had been two separate plots of land, until the Ottomans made a second donation two years later; thereby allowing the British to connect their twin grave sites with a narrow intermediary path.

We followed this ribbon of grass to the far side of the cemetery, a larger and more densely populated space where many of the graves appeared to be more recent. Whereas the former area had been largely occupied by Crimean War graves, this side was more diverse – there were Commonwealth soldiers fallen in both World Wars, and there were memorials to the victims of concentration camps.

In one corner of the plot, row upon row of stones had been dedicated as memorials to the Gurkha regiments who had fought – and fallen – with the British. There were stones for airmen and ships’ crews, military recruits from every corner of the Empire.

It wasn’t just soldiers buried here though, their graves arranged in rank and file as formal as a parade ground; the Haydarpaşa Cemetery also featured civilian graves, and those of civil servants. In fact, more than 700 of the burials here are civilian – dating from Sir Edward Barton, Elizabeth I’s ambassador to Turkey whose remains were transported to Haydarpaşa in the 19th century, through to one contemporary British tourist who died on his holiday in Istanbul.

When I recently wrote about London’s Brompton Cemetery, I described it not as a city of the dead but rather a “library of lives.”

That idea came drifting back to me as I walked between the pearly rows of the Haydarpaşa Cemetery. Here, in an imperial military cemetery positioned on the fault line between two vast continents, the sentiment could not have been more true. I was surrounded on all sides by the graves of Hindus, Christians and Muslims, Russian generals and Australian riflemen; from 16th century court ambassadors, to late 20th century tourists.

I stopped beside a stone laid in memory of one Julius M. Van Millingen M.D. – who during the 19th century had supposedly “served five successive sultans as court physician.” The role of Ottoman sultan was more than president or king, it was caliph: a religious leader, Muhammad’s own representative on earth. Yet this Edinburgh graduate, an outsider, had served at the heart of the Ottoman court under five Sultans, and all the while been working to spread the Christian gospels.

During that same period, Ottoman janissaries in Bulgaria were executing men, women and children who declined to convert to Islam. I couldn’t imagine how this man had survived in the court of the caliph… not only as a practicing Christian, but as president of the “Evangelical Alliance.” Perhaps he had been lucky, and served under a particularly tolerant sultan; but for five consecutive sultans to have accepted a Christian evangelist in the midst of their Muslim caliphate seemed to go against all odds. I could only conclude that Millingen had been an extraordinarily talented physician.

Not far from the doctor, I found another tomb that gave me pause for thought.

The stone was named for one Julian Henry Layard, a British military attaché who had served with the Ottoman Army under Osman Pasha. Layard had died in 1877, at Shipka in Bulgaria – taken by typhoid between the third and fourth stages of the Battle of Shipka Pass. By the following January the Ottomans had been vanquished, Bulgaria was well on the way to liberation, and the conflict would later be commemorated with the construction of the House-Monument of the Bulgarian Communist Party on nearby Hadzhi Dimitar Peak. Having already spent a great deal of time researching this story from the Bulgarian perspective, I felt strangely uncomfortable here: stood beside the tomb of a British man who had fought on the side of the slavers.

It was interesting to note the widespread appearance of masonic symbolism throughout the Haydarpaşa Cemetery.

In theory, Freemasonry and Islam ought to be compatible. As dictated by the Ancient Charges of Freemasonry, “Let a man’s religion, or mode of worship, be what it may, he is not excluded from the Order, provided he believes in the Architect of heaven and earth, and practices the sacred duties of morality.”

In practice, however, many Muslim organisations hold a very negative view of masonic traditions and membership. For example, Mission Islam links Freemasonry with “Al-Masih ad-Dajjal”: a false prophet foretold by Muhammad and comparable to the Christian concept of the antichrist. In 1978, the College of Islamic Jurisprudence in Mecca placed a Fatwa on Freemasonry, declaring it, “one of the most dangerously destructive organisations to Islam and to Muslims.”

While secret masonic lodges might well have existed within the Ottoman Empire – and military lodges would certainly have operated inside the ranks of the sultan’s foreign allies stationed here – it was odd to discover the square and compass planted here so plain to see. Since the land beneath Haydarpaşa Cemetery had been gifted to the British Empire however, it seems likely that even if such symbols had been deemed distasteful by the rulers of an Islamic Caliphate, they were at least begrudgingly overlooked in favour of diplomacy.

In 1925 the cemetery changed hands, passing from the British Government to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It’s kept today in an immaculate condition; but despite the information panels, the inscriptions and the multilingual pamphlets, my visit to the Haydarpaşa Cemetery had left me with a great number of questions which would likely never be answered. And perhaps that was for the best – after all, it would have been a shame to rob these stones of all their hidden secrets.

As I left Haydarpaşa behind, walking through the iron gates and back down the hill towards the ferry ports at Kadiköy, I found myself remembering the words of a poem by Rupert Brooke;

If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.


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  1. Great article. Did you happen get any images of Lieutenant Julian Henry Layard’s marker? I am writing an article about him, and would love to see\use some of your images.

    Frank Jastrzembski

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