Serving as a place of worship for Sultans, the working class and celebrities - Tesvikiye mosque has seen it all.

In Istanbul's upmarket district of Nisantasi, the Tesvikiye mosque, which, despite its age, can still make its surroundings appear drab, has re-opened after an extensive three-year renovation costing more than $2 million.

Initially commissioned in 1854 by Sultan Abdulmecid I, the stoic grand structure stands aloof from the high-end boutique shops and eateries that jostle for pedestrian attention.

While Nisantasi is nowadays perhaps better known as the destination of Turkey's old moneyed elite, fashionistas and some of the country's biggest celebrities, the area owes its existence to Tesvikiye mosque and a decision more than 170 years ago to develop the region and its surrounding areas.

And as with most notable attractions in Istanbul, it all started with an edict to erect an imperial mosque that reflected the Ottoman caliphate's changing winds. It's also how the area got its name 'Teşvik', meaning incentive in Turkish.

The entrance to Tesvikiye mosque in Nisantasi, Istanbul.
The entrance to Tesvikiye mosque in Nisantasi, Istanbul. (Elis Gjevori / TRTWorld)

The Tesvikiye mosque boasts an Ottoman baroque style blended with European baroque designs that emerged in the 18th and 19th century while staying true to its local roots based in the beating heart of the Islamic caliphate spanning three continents.

Tesvikiye mosque after a three year renovation.
Tesvikiye mosque after a three year renovation. (Elis Gjevori / TRTWorld)

Modern historians have often been quick to mark the period of Mimar Sinan, one of the greatest architects in Ottoman history who did more than anyone to chisel the Istanbul skyline we know today as the highwater mark of innovation and architecture.

Yet, the style of the Tesvikiye mosque suggests something altogether different. An empire that was restless and seeking to define and create new contemporary styles.

During this late Ottoman period, several other Ottoman baroque places of worship were built in Istanbul, including Ortakoy mosque, Dolmabahce Palace and the charming Nuruosmaniye Mosque.

The mihrab, a semicircular niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the qibla, that is the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca and where the imam leads prayers.
The mihrab, a semicircular niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the qibla, that is the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca and where the imam leads prayers. (Elis Gjevori / TRTWorld)

In his book Ottoman Baroque: The Architectural Refashioning of Eighteenth-Century Istanbul, the historian Unver Rustem took issue with prolific orientalist Bernard Lewis who questioned the authenticity of such mosques in the Ottoman capital.

"Denigrated by later commentators as decadent and foreign, the style was in its own time a remarkable success, dominating the architectural output of Istanbul between the 1740s and early 1800s and earning the appreciation of locals and foreigners alike," said Rustem.

Turning his ire to Lewis, the art historian Rustem asserted that "it is precisely because the new style was employed—and, moreover, applauded—in the most esteemed of contexts that it cannot be understood as an index of insecurity, nor as a loosening of architectural decorum."

A compartment in the mosque that would have been reserved for royalty.
A compartment in the mosque that would have been reserved for royalty. (Elis Gjevori / TRTWorld)

The Tesvikiye mosque in Nisantasi is the most unique of expressions of comfortable power wrapped in marble elegance.

Its huge white columns constructed in front of its wooden entrance give the mosque a unique appearance and feel. And the Ottomans were all too cognizant of innovating new yet practical styles for places of worship.

The Ottoman sultan would been seated behind these handcrafted wooden curtains.
The Ottoman sultan would been seated behind these handcrafted wooden curtains. (Elis Gjevori / TRTWorld)

As the fortunes of the Ottoman state faded and the Turkish Republic was born, the area changed. The faith of the state was no longer Islam.

The novelist Orhan Pamuk in his memoir, Istanbul, described the Tesvikiye mosque as frequented mainly by the "owners of the small shops in the back streets or maids, cooks and janitors who worked for the rich families of Nisantasi."

Recounting his childhood on the odd visit to the mosque that his parents would take him on, he described the faithful as "less like a congregation of worshippers than a group of friends."

"As I wandered amongst them during prayers, running off to the far corners of the mosque to play my games, none of them stopped to scold me; instead, they smiled at me in the same sweet way most adults smiled at me when I was a young child. Religion may have been the province of the poor, but now I saw that – contrary to the caricatures in newspapers and my republican household – religious people were harmless," he added.

The unique Ottoman baroque design of Tesvikiye mosque after renovation.
The unique Ottoman baroque design of Tesvikiye mosque after renovation. (Elis Gjevori / TRTWorld)

In recent decades the mosque has become a focal point of funerals for the rich and famous living in and around Nisantasi. 

When the famous Turkish arabesque singer and actor Muslum Gurses passed away in 2013, his funeral was attended by thousands.

Who, after all, wouldn't want the backdrop to their send-off in an imperial setting?

The minbar, where the imam will often deliver sermons to the congregation.
The minbar, where the imam will often deliver sermons to the congregation. (Elis Gjevori / TRTWorld)

The mosque also bellies one last fascinating story.

There are accounts that the Tesvikiye mosque was used by Sabbatean Jews who converted to Islam. They were considered by some to be crypto-Jews living in the Ottoman Empire. Outwardly they had professed allegiance to Islam while in secret retaining their Jewish faith. The community settled in Tesvikiye and the surrounding areas.

It is said that the mosque basement was used for special funeral prayers for the Sabbatean community, a practice that continued until the 1980s.

The mosque's most recent renovation marks a new chapter in a story that began in the 19th century and is still unfolding in an ever growing city that carries its imperial past effortlessly. 

Tesvikiye mosque from the outside, with a water fountain in the foreground.
Tesvikiye mosque from the outside, with a water fountain in the foreground. (Elis Gjevori / TRTWorld)
Source: TRT World