A walk from the Sultanahmet Square, past the covered bazaar and the campus of the very ancient Istanbul University towards the commercial area of Aksaray takes us through the district of Laleli. Lale means “tulip” in Turkish and Laleli means “with tulips” which makes us think that this was probably a district of tulip gardens that dated to the grand “Tulip Era” of the Ottoman Empire, a time when tulips were more valuable and sought after than gold. The area was actually more important to the Romans and the Byzantines than it was to the later Ottomans as the main artery of the old Byzantine city ran from the walls at Yedikule through Laleli. The Turks changed the road thus changing Laleli’s destiny. There are two major Byzantine monuments still standing in Laleli: the Mirelaion Monastery Chapel (today functioning as the Bodrum Mosque) and the arched system of the rotunda. The Balaban Aga Mescidi which was used as a mescit (prayer room) by the Turks until its fire in 1911 i s thought to have been originally built as a cemetery structure in the late Roman period. All of the this area has been designated as a “First Class Preservation Area” by the Turkish ministry even though it was not of great significance during the Ottoman period. In 1763, however, Sultan Mustafa III built here the Laleli Kulliyah (complex of religious and charitable institutions) and this complex changed the urban appearance of the area. This is the second largest kulliyah (after that of Nuruosmaniye) that was commissioned by a sultan.
Until the last decade or two Laleli was considered to be an upper-class residential area and was the home of many leading Moslem Turkish families. Since the 1970s, however, its former residents have moved to newer sections of the city and Laleli quickly changed to a commercial area. Laleli gained a new identity with the breakdown of the former Soviet Union as people from the former soviets began to flock to the area to engage in trade, a trade termed “suitcase’ as that is how the goods are carried back and forth. With this new commercial activity came a new need for hotels, restaurants, and entertainment spots and so developed the “New Laleli,” a very cosmopolitan area with many different languages (mostly Eastern European and Slavic) spoken on every corner. Laleli is a phenomenon today, a phenomenon that is interesting, exciting and, perhaps, fleeting in character.
Tourists love to come here to see the historical monuments, to see the new ambience, and to enjoy the very economical and comfortable accommodations and eating places.