Sultanahmet prison and its environs: a brief background

During the final decades of Ottoman sovereignty, Sultanahmet Square and its environs underwent considerable change. In 1863 the Ottoman royal family moved from Topkapi Palace, which had, for four centuries, served as the imperial residence and the administrative seat of the Empire, to Dolmabahge Palace, located further north, along the Bosphorus shore. The historic peninsula retained most of the administrative functions, but its fabric changed with the addition of new buildings assigned to the new governmental and institutional services, which had been conceived as part of the wide-ranging nineteenth-century bureaucratic reforms to modernize the Empire.

One such new building was the College of Sciences (DarQlfQnun) wedged between the Hagia Sophia Mosque and the Topkapi Palace, a block away from Sultanahmet Square. The massive three-storey neoclassical structure, designed by the Swiss architect, Gaspare T. Fossati, consisted of two large square-shaped blocks, each with a courtyard in its middle. The building, completed in 1854, however, was never used for its original purpose, rather it served variously as the French Army Hospital during the Crimean War (1854-1856) and as the seat of the short-lived Ottoman Parliament (1876-1878). The building remained vacant for almost 30 years after Sultan AbdQlhamit II dissolved that parliament and restored his absolutist rule. Finally, after the Constitutional Revolution of 1908, it was converted into the Ministry of Justice and began also to be used as Istanbul’s Main Courthouse. The Sultanahmet Prison was built in 1917, as an annex to the newly dedicated Ministry-Courthouse complex, primarily to hold indictees awaiting trial. Designed according to the dictates of the Ordinance Regarding the Management of Jails and Penitentiaries, which was issued in 1880, as part of the modernization efforts, the Prison was the first modern purpose-built detention facility in the Ottoman Empire and was generally seen as a model to be emulated in similar facilities to be built in the future. The Sultanahmet Prison was a stately, handsome building, executed in the Ottoman Revivalist style, which, at the time was extensively used, both in Istanbul and the provinces, in a variety of public buildings, including banks, offices, schools as well as small utilitarian structures such as ferry stations.14 Although dwarfed in size by the more imposing Courthouse, with its carefully executed fagade, featuring custom manufactured blue tiles and handcut stone details, the Sultanahmet Prison held its own in the company of some of the most prestigious buildings of the Ottoman capital.

The Sultanahmet Prison building consists of three three-storey blocks wrapped around a central courtyard (Figure 10.3). Initially, male inmates were assigned to Blocks 1 and 2 which conjoined to form an L-shaped mass enclosing the northeast and northwest sides of the courtyard. Each floor was designated as a self-contained unit and in order to monitor circulation between them, checkpoints were placed on each level at the entrance to the hallway from the stairwells. Beneath Block 1 and Block 2, half sunken underground, were ten solitary confinement cells, where prisoners deemed particularly dangerous or those being punished for rebellious behaviour were locked up. Facing the courtyard on the lower level, there were also a few dormitories designed to hold approximately 40 juveniles, who were often incarcerated for
minor infractions and many of whom were destitute and without known relations. Across the courtyard, facing Tevkifhane Street. was Block 3, which contained administrative offices, the warden’s residence, and an infirmary. It also housed a small library with an eclectic collection, which had been formed over time, thanks to book donations from departing inmates. Along KutlugQn Street, the courtyard was defined by a high wall, with a guard tower over the prisoner release gate. The inward facing elevations of the blocks, unlike their tile-clad elaborate exteriors, were unadorned. The only exception was the small masjid, which was built off-centre toward the south side of the courtyard. The diminutive free-standing building resembled a jewelbox, set off from the rest of the austere looking courtyard with its rich tile decorations in green, turquoise and deep cobalt blue covering its surface.

Although the prison was originally designed to hold approximately 1,000 inmates in 50 large communal wards, the total number of prisoners is known to have approached 2,000 at peak times. Over the years, the building underwent several modifications. Block 3 was remodelled to make room for 65 female inmates and the courtyard was subsequently partitioned to create

separate outdoor spaces for the daily outings of the male and female inmates. The most important change came with the subdivision of the large wards to smaller clusters of cells designed – officially – to accommodate 6 to 12 inmates, although overcrowding was a chronic problem. The need to provide individual restrooms to each of these new clusters entailed a major reworking of the plumbing system, and the original mosaic-tiled floors, which had rather attractive patterns, were raised and re-slabbed in concrete to accommodate the pipes. Except for those facing the courtyard, the cells variously had views of the Sultanahmet Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, or the Marmara Sea. Although the windows were too high to enjoy these sights comfortably, the prison administration, suspicious of the intentions of the inmates, eventually had them covered with iron sheets cutting off not just any visual connections the prisoners could make with the street outside, but also the light. In protest or out of frustration the prisoners tried to puncture these iron curtains which enveloped their quarters since their dark and dank cells became all the more inhospitable for inhabitation with only a sliver of sunshine. Henceforth, contin­gent on the weather, the two one-hour outings in the morning and the afternoon became the inmates’ only opportunity to get fresh air and sunlight. And even this was regarded by the prison administration as a privilege that could be revoked anytime. Describing his unquenchable yearning for freedom, light, and air, Nazim Hikmet, arguably one of Turkey’s most gifted poets who spent several years in this prison wrote:

Today is Sunday,

They let me out in the sun for the first time today,

And I just stood there – awestruck,

Realizing, for the first time in my life just how far away the sky is, how blue, and how wide.

Then humbly I sat down on the soil.

I leaned back against the wall.

For a moment there, no trap to fall into, no struggle, no freedom, no wife.

Just earth, sun, and me… I am content.15

With the demise of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War and the subsequent relocation in 1923 of Turkey’s capital to Ankara, Istanbul’s fortunes were reversed. The building of a new capital in Ankara diverted resources and attention from Istanbul, which lost its focal position in the country and its elite bureaucratic population. Along with other central govern­ment agencies, the Ministry of Justice also migrated to the new capital, leaving the Ministry-Courthouse complex to serve merely as the Istanbul

Courthouse and Detention Center. Then in December 1933, a fire ravaged through the complex. While, the Courthouse was reduced to little more than ashes and rubble overnight, the Prison building escaped the disaster unscathed.16 After the blaze, the Courthouse was rebuilt on another lot bordering the northwest side of the At Meydani (Byzantine Hippodrome), not far from the site of the original. Meanwhile, once the debris of the former Courthouse was cleared, the Sultanahmet Prison remained as the only building on the entire block, standing in stark contrast to the dense fabric of its surroundings.

The Sultanahmet Prison remained in service until 1969, when a larger and more modern prison was built in Sagmalcilar. Following the closure, a proposal to convert the building into the Istanbul Coroner’s Office met with fierce resistance from the neighbourhood residents, who complained: ‘For years we had to put up with the prison: Convicts escaping, guards firing, and uprisings constantly disturbing our peace and quiet. And now they want us to live with cadavers in our midst! We will do anything in our power to stop that from happening!’17 The project was eventually tabled and the building remained vacant. In 1975, the Ministry of Justice, which still owned the property, began to use it as a warehouse to store old files and surplus furniture. But without maintenance, the building became a rather eerie presence ‘housing only the detritus of its former life’ and in which ‘the homeless took refuge and thieves broke in to steal whatever could be carried away and sold’.18 In July 1980, during a period of martial law declared amidst violent political unrest, the Prison was reopened and used specifically to house political prisoners. The building’s tenure as a detention centre finally came to an end in 1982 with the completion of the Metris Prison on the outskirts of the city.19 Thereafter, the old Sultanahmet Prison lay fallow for another ten years until the process of converting it into a hotel started in earnest in the early 1990s.

Updated: 3rd October 2014 — 1:37 pm