Rustem Pasha Mosque

Rustem Pasha Mosque; The Lord of the Tiles

Rustem Pasha,  one of the most well-known grand viziers of the Ottoman Empire, owes his reputation to the power and fortune he gained in his own right as he rose through the ranks of the imperial service as much as his marriage to the only daughter of Suleiman the Magnificent in the heyday of the Ottoman Empire.

Although some sources portray Rustem Pasha as being extremely frugal and almost stingy, we all know for a fact that he, willingly, spent his massive wealth on establishing many charitable institutions in different parts of the Empire.  Even the travelers visiting the empire couldn’t help but speak of this prestigious Pasha.

Rustem Pasha is also responsible for leaving an indelible mark on the Istanbul skyline.  To say the least, one of the two mosques dominating Eminonu Square is a prominent reminder of his legacy.  Rustem Pasha also played a pivotal role in the development of the Eminonu area as a principal commercial and business center and home for shopping arcades.   Let’s get to know our Rustem Pasha, who was referred to by the nickname “louse of fortune” (“kahle-i ikbal”), a little more closely.

Ancestry of Rustem Pasha, one of the most eminent grand viziers in the history of the Ottoman Empire is controversial.   Sources claim that he may be of Croatian, Bosnian or Albanian origin.  Also some sources indicate that his father was born in a small village near Sarajevo and used to tend pigs belonged to a Serbian peasant.  The story behind Rustem Pasha’s introduction to the Palace as a page is quite intriguing.  Imperial Officials seize young Rustem when his first master fails to pay tribute and send him first to the Galata Palace to receive education and then to the Imperial Palace as a page.    An incident at the Palace puts him among the Sultan’s favorite pages.  One day the Sultan, while looking out the window, drops something down.  All pages, except one, race down the stairs to be the first to grab what the Sultan dropped. Young Rustem, instead, jumps out the window and gets it.

It didn’t take Rustem long to get in Sultan Suleiman’s good books.  After his training at Has Oda (the Sultan’s Residence) he was appointed as master of imperial guards.  Subsequently he served as the first master of the horses.  In the meanwhile, he, apparently, gained the Sultan’s utmost trust that caught the Grand Vizier Pargalı İbrahim Pasha’s attention.  Soon Rustem was appointed to a Sanjak (administrative district) in Anatolia, as part of the plot to distance him from Istanbul.   Subsequently, Rustem Pasha served as Commander of Commanders of Dulkadir and Diyarbakir provinces and also as Governor of Karaman. Rustem Pasha’s fortune would turn around by a twist of fate during his tenure in Anatolia.  In search of a suitable groom to marry his beloved daughter Princess Mihrumah, Suleiman the Magnificent chooses Rustem Pasha as the most eligible candidate.

Yet, dreadful of Rustem Pasha’s imminent rise to power, his rivals start spreading a rumor that he suffers from leprosy   Mehmet Celebi, the Palace doctor, while examining Rustem Pasha, coincidently, spots a louse in his clothing and reports to the Sultan that the rumor to be false or unfounded, based on ,then, established medical belief that lice never infest lepers.   That’s how Rustem Pasha acquires the nickname of “Louse of luck” for a louse opened up the doors for him to lead a prosperous life.  Thus, Rustem Pasha and Princess Mihrumah got engaged to be married shortly after.  An unprecedented event in the entire history of the Ottoman Empire soon after their wedding clearly proves that Rustem Pasha was on a lucky streak.    In December of 1544, during an Imperial Council’s (Divan) meeting Deli Husrev Pasha, one of the viziers, gets into an argument with the Grand Vizier Hadim Suleiman Pasha and, as if trying to do a justice to his nickname, which means crazy, draws his dagger against the Grand Vizier.   Upon witnessing this audacious behavior in his presence, Suleiman the Magnificent dismisses his both viziers and names Rustem Pasha as his new grand vizier.  Some sources claim that Rustem Pasha plotted the whole thing, however it doesn’t make much sense on account of the fact that Husrev Pasha went on a hunger strike following this incident and died shortly after.


Assassination of Prince Mustafa and the Sultan’s Involvement  


Assassination of Prince Mustafa happens to be the turning point of Rustem Pasha’s life and political career.   According to the widespread belief held by the general public, Rustem Pasha played a key role behind the scenes in assassination of Prince Mustafa and he cast a spell on the Sultan and also started a smear campaign against the young prince.   Rustem Pasha managed to discredit the Prince and turn the Sultan against his son by telling him that the Prince was in contact with the Persian Shah.  In the end, during the military campaign to Persia in 1553, Prince Mustafa was invited to the military camp to be strangled to death by the order of his father.

The Janissaries were outraged by such cruel assassination of their great Prince whom they loved dearly, so much so that even the private soldiers began to refer to the Sultan as the “senile old man”.   An anonymous letter sent by the Janissaries to Suleiman the Magnificent contained the same disrespectful language, condemning Rustem Pasha and current Master of the Janissaries; “We only say the true words, we are fed up with you, with your son and with your pashas.  If only Prince Mustafa was alive we wouldn’t mind to be destroyed.”  In the letter there were frequent references to Prince Mustafa; “We have such miserable lives because Prince Mustafa is gone and we are still alive”, “Had he been alive, everything would be different”.  The real object of their rage was actually the Grand Vizier Rustem Pasha, not the “Veteran Sultan”.  Some of the sources from that period state that Rustem Pasha had to leave the military headquarters out of fear for his life.

The Sultan had to dismiss the Grand Vizier Rustem Pasha, in order to protect his son in law and the husband of his beloved daughter, and name the second vizier Kara Ahmet Pasha, the Tamesvar hero and also the husband of his sister Princess Fatma, as his new grand vizier.  Kara Ahmet Pasha’s appointment would first lead him to prosperity and then eventually to his death.  The cliques in the Imperial Palace took action to reinstate Rustem Pasha as the grand vizier once the turmoil subsided, causing the death of Kara Ahmet Pasha.   Unfortunately, historical sources don’t provide a plausible reason for the killing of Ahmet Pasha.   It seems that Hurrem Sultan and her daughter Princess Mihrumah worked behind the scenes to bring the son in law to power and had Kara Ahmet Pasha killed based on unfounded allegations.  As a matter of fact the inscribed tablet placed at the entrance of Kara Ahmet Pasha Mosque, situated in Topkapi area, reads that the Pasha’s honor was re-established in the years following his death.

It seems that Rustem Pasha maintained his prestigious position even after he was dismissed as the grand vizier.  According to Busbecg’s notes on his visit to İstanbul, he specifically mentions that even though the Sultan delegated his authority to Grand Vizier Hadım İbrahim Pasha while he was away commanding his army on the Asian side, Busbecg made a point of visiting with both the grand vizier and Rustem Pasha.

Moreover, he elaborates on the reason for his meeting with Rustem Pasha, who, at the time, was living at Princess Mihrumah’s Palace located in Uskudar, saying “Pasha may be dismissed as a grand vizier but stands a chance to be reinstated.”


Rustem Pasha and Corruption Allegations


Rustem Pasha was vastly criticized for building his fortune by allegedly accepting bribes.   During his tenure, it became customary for civil servants to send gifts to the grand vizier following their appointment.   After him the gift giving custom had completely gotten out of hand.   After all, some sources give credit to Rustem Pasha for being merciful and tolerant with respect to the gifts presented to him.  Rustem Pasha was a shrewd financier and well aware of the fact that, no matter what, ordinary citizens wound up bearing the cost of those gifts.   This is why  he returned two thirds of the 5000 gold coins sent by the Erzurum Commander of Commanders and accepted only 2000, saying that “Erzurum can’t afford to pay that much”.   On the other hand, Koci Bey accuses Rustem Pasha with widespread implementation of tax farming and establishing land trusts for the benefit his children by acquiring public lands and converting them into private estates.

Professor Tayyib Gökbilgin published a long article on Rustem Pasha’s corruptive practices.   The article provides excerpts from mostly anonymous letters especially sent to Suleiman the Magnificent.  For instance, one letter states that Prince of Ulaha, Mirce became exempt from paying 3 million silver coins in taxes by sending 1 million silver coins to the grand vizier.   Another letter tells about the corrupt acts committed by the Thessaloniki Justice and how he bribed the grand vizier to whitewash his corrupt acts.  Allegedly, Rustem Pasha was an extremely greedy man, so much so that he refused to accept the gift of 25 Gulams (troop of guards) presented to him by Ulama Pasha, the Commander of Commanders of Bosnia as he didn’t need it, but instead, he asked to be paid the cash equivalent of the gift.

Upon his death Pasha left behind a mind blowing fortune, estimated at 15 million ducats.  Here’s the list of some of his possessions:  1.700 slaves, 2.900 war horses, 815 farms in Thrace and Anatolia, 76 water mills, more than 5.000 volumes of hand written books, etc.

That being said, researchers emphasize Pasha’s resourcefulness in generating funds for the treasury.  He would order the flowers and some surplus vegetables grown in the imperial gardens to be harvested and sold and use the proceeds to generate revenue for the treasury. Not only that, Pasha, according to some sources, invented new ways of collecting revenue such as levying tax on lawns, and some flowers such as roses and violets grown on private properties.  One way or another, the state treasury was replenished and reloaded during his tenure.  Even the Sultan, who disliked his frugality, appreciated his financial genius.  Rustem Pasha wouldn’t mind clashing with high-ranking state dignitaries regarding practices that would hurt the state’s treasury.  As a matter of fact he forewarned the Sultan when the fourth vizier Haydar Pasha exported the grains from his fields in the Black Sea region to overseas with the permission of the Sultan.  The grand vizier reminded the Sultan the role of the grains harvested in the Black Sea region in country’s crucial grains policy and said that widespread practice of such acts  would jeopardize the grain supply to the capital’s and Anatolia, leading to series of riots.  Again, Pasha asked the Sultan to prohibit that practice, saying that other state dignitaries would attempt to exploit the permission granted to Haydar Pasha and want to follow the suit.   Rustem Pasha, quite rightly, explained that they couldn’t prevent high priced grain exports in the Mediterranean and Aegean regions, but they were able to enforce a ban on grain exports in the Black Sea region through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits and concluded that they needed to take necessary measures.   In his attempt to prevent grain exports for all the right reasons, Pasha’s motive to hinder economic advancement of the rival viziers may also have played a role.


Rustem Pasha Mosque



Rustem Pasha Mosque
Rustem Pasha Mosque


Rustem Pasha is known to be responsible for architectural structures dedicated to charitable causes in Istanbul.  Almost all of them were constructed by Architect Sinan.  Rustem Pasha’s real estate development projects were mainly concentrated in Eminonu area and had an impact on religious-commercial and academic life in the city.  The most important building commissioned by Rustem Pasha was the social complex that bears his name.    The social complex was erected in an extremely vibrant commercial area where there was a shortage of available land.  Due to that shortage Rustem Pasha had to build his madrasa (college equivalent Islamic educational institution), which was originally designed to be built inside his social complex, in Cagaloglu area.  It may also be why his shrine, a sea of tiles, had to be built in the courtyard of Sehzade Mosque, outside of his social complex.  Rustem Pasha Mosque is one of the three major mosques that were constructed by Architect Sinan on the waterfront that shape the city skyline.  Both of the other two are in Uskudar – Mihrumah Mosque and Semsi Pasha (Kuskonmaz) Mosque-.  Rustem Pasha Mosque was built in elevated architectural style as it is situated in the commercial center.  That means, the mosque sits above the ground level, showing its grandeur more visibly and blending well with the texture of the area with shops on the ground level.  The mosque  surrounded by shopping arcades, partially built by Archıtect Sinan for  Rustem Pasha – primarily Grand Cukur Han  and Small Cukur Han and others.

The magnificent dome of the mosque is another component contributing to this splendor. It seems that Rustem Pasha meticulously searched for a suitable location for the mosque.  He chose the area right next to the Tahtakale Turkish bath from the Fatih era and purchased most of the surrounding buildings in the area.  Rustem Pasha also set his eyes on Attar Halil Ağa Mescidi, a small mosque –masjid- nearby, which, he noticed that, attracted crowded congregation.  He had that small mosque demolished with the Sultan’s permission and incorporated the land with that of his mosque.  The remnants of the small mosque were transferred to Yenibahçe quarter near Aksaray area and the masjid was reconstructed there to be completely destroyed in 1956 during the construction of Vatan Boulevard by the municipal authority.



Construction of the mosque is generally presumed to be completed in 1561, the year Rustem Pasha died.    Moreover, Dogan Kuban, states that some equipment and materials required to finalize the construction might have been supplied by Princess Mihrumah, his wıfe, after Pasha’s death.  There are four different stairways leading to the mosque’s courtyard.    Two of those overlook Uzuncarsı Street and each of which lead to the offices dedicated for muezzins and trustees.  The mosque’s sadirivan (a structure for housing a water tank multiple fountains) are placed on the waterfront facade, instead of the mosque’s courtyard.

The mosque rose to fame primarily for its İznik tiles.  Architect Sinan used tile only when necessary to emphasize certain spots in the mosques he constructed, as it was too costly for random use.    However, Rustem Pasha Mosque is different.  Pasha had the interior of the mosque covered with Iznik tiles wall to wall as if he was trying to defy the remarks about his frugality by some sources.  The school of Iznik tile was at its zenith in terms of technical and artistic quality.  When the tile shops in Iznik couldn’t supply enough tiles to meet the demand, Pasha went ahead to establish an exclusive tile shop in Kutahya, devoted to supply tiles required for his mosque.  Tile patterns are mostly inspired by nature.   Tulip, willow, pomegranate flower and hyacinth patterns are dominantly used.    However, the tiles of the mosque would be instrumental in its fame and misfortune.  In the past, prominent guests came to Istanbul were usually taken to visit this mosque.  For instance, Prince of Monaco and his wife, actress, Grace Kelly visited the mosque when they came to Istanbul in 1978 and were fascinated by it.  Also, in 1981, “Chloe”, a world famous French fashion house, announced that it would use the tile patterns of the mosque in its upcoming collections.

But unfortunately, more often than not, the mosque made the news for tile theft. While some incidents fell under “petty larceny” category, the others happened during restoration works. Recently, numerous articles about the fate of the Rustem Pasha Mosque appeared on newspapers.  Of those articles, the most intriguing was probably the one published in 1992.    A panel of 16 tiles dismounted from Rustem Pasha Mosque was put up for auction by Druot, a French auction house.   But later on, the company removed the item from their auction listing.   The company announced that that they delisted the item because they decided that the tiles should be returned to where they belong.  The panel, expected to sell for around TL 800 -1000 million, (former Turkish Lira), was later sold to Sadberk Hanim Museum in Istanbul.  How those tiles ended up in Paris is quite curious.  The tiles belonged to Mr. F. from the Provence region, who purchased them in Egypt in 1940 from an Armenian art collector, J. O. Matosyan.   The panels may have been smuggled out of the country during the Ottoman era.

Rustem Pasha Mosque
Rustem Pasha Mosque


According to a more recent newspaper article published in 1995, thieves broke into the mosque and stole the tiles in the section designated for the Sultan, not once but twice in one month.  In the early 2000’s,  articles criticizing authorities for using primitive locks to guard a mosque like Rustem Pasha.  Recently a security booth and permanent security guards are situated in the mosque’s courtyard for 24/7 surveillance.

The mosque suffered major damage during the fire in 1660, a century after its construction.   Presumably the tiles placed in the outer narthex of the mosque were seriously damaged.  A century later, in the 1766 earthquake, the mosque’s minaret was collapsed and its dome sank.  The mosque underwent another conservation and restoration work in the 90’s, and ironically some panels in the mosque were stolen during that restoration work as well.  The tile theft is most visible in the mosque’s outer narthex overlooking Bayezid.

Rustem Pasha Mosque continues, to date, to be a popular tourist site. The mosque sits in the busiest commercial area of Istanbul as it did back then. My heartfelt wish is that this colorful and refreshing Ottoman heritage remains intact for many centuries to come.


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