Skopje has been the capital of an independent republic for just over twenty years. Before that, it had been a part of Yugoslavia for around eighty years. But during the 520 years before that, Skopje belonged to the Ottoman Empire, who had given it the name of Üsküb. Five centuries are apparently enough to leave a lasting impression; north of the Vardar River, the city has retained much of its Turkish identity.
Mosques, Turkish baths, tea gardens, nargile cafes, and even some old guys sitting around playing backgammon? After crossing the Stone Bridge into the northern half of the city, I felt as though we were back in Istanbul. The 1963 earthquake which devastated Skopje left this area relatively unscathed, so the architecture and city planning of the Ottomans has remained intact. The Old Bazaar, or Čaršija, feels nothing like the rest of the city.
The first mosque one encounters upon entering the Old Bazaar is the Murat Pasha, most conspicuous for the water fountains outside its entrance. Nearly every local passing by will pause here to wash their hands or take a drink. The mosque was rebuilt in 1802 after having fallen victim to the Great Fire of 1689, which had been started by Austrian General Silvio Piccolomini. He purportedly set the city ablaze to help fight the spread of the plague, but it was more likely an act of vengeance for the Ottoman siege of Vienna. The fire destroyed nearly every building in Skopje. [Location | More Pictures]
High on a hill adjacent to the Kale Fortress sits one of the 1689 fire’s few survivors: the Mustafa Pasha Mosque. Built in 1492 by a vizier to Sultan Selim I, this grand mosque has a single minaret and a 22-meter diameter dome, and is among the largest mosques in Macedonia. The interior is simple, with intricate blue patterns decorating the dome, and a few windows letting in light. There was a single man praying during our visit, but the mosque was otherwise empty. [Location | More Pictures]
The raucous market of the Bit Pazar is bordered to the north by the Ishak Bey, or Aladza Mosque. Ishak Bey was the Ottoman-appointed leader of Üsküb in the early 15th century, and is buried here. The mosque’s alternative name, Aladza, means “colorful” and references the tiles which once decorated the walls. Unfortunately, the tiles didn’t survive the earthquake of 1963, but this is still a beautiful mosque both inside and out, and usually busy thanks to its proximity to the Bit Pazar. [Location | More Pictures]
After crossing Boulevard Krste Misirkov, we came to Skopje’s oldest surviving mosque, and in fact the oldest in all the Balkans. The Sultan Murat Mosque was constructed in 1436 by the sultan himself after successful wars and territorial gains in the Balkans. In the mosque’s courtyard is the red-brick Saat Kula, the city’s clock tower. The tower is normally locked, but we saw a couple guys go inside to do some maintenance work, and we followed them in. They were nice, but wouldn’t let us climb the tower… and after seeing the rickety wooden stairs, I was totally fine with that. [Location | More Pictures]
Just north of the Sultan Murat is yet another extremely old mosque. The Gazi Isa-Bey dates from 1475, and features two large domes over its main prayer hall. We arrived as the afternoon prayer session was ending, and most of the guys filing out of the mosque were taking seats underneath an enormous 500-year-old plane tree in the courtyard. We chatted with a kid who (correctly) guessed we were tourists, and sat back on a bench in the shade to enjoy a well-deserved rest. It had been a long day. [Location | More Pictures]
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