Suleyman’s magnificent mosque

Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent commissioned a mosque in 1550 CE, and Mimar Sinan built it on the third hill of Contantinople by 1557. We walked up a steep sloping path from the street gate into a large courtyard, green with grass, shaded by trees, overlooking the Halic (Golden Horn). It is a beautiful view. From below, the skyline is dominated by the domes and minarets of this mosque, and I should have expected this breahtaking view. What I could not have anticipated is the calm of the complex.

It is hard to get a good view of the totality of the mosque from nearby; you have to be at the Golden Horn (Halic) to get a good photo. Perhaps the best view from inside it in the fore-court, with its fountain and peristyle. The taller pair of minarets, 76 meters high, are then visible (photo above) flanking the 26.5 meters wide main dome. You can see two wires strung between the minarets. Between them they carry bulbs which spell out messages for the month of Ramazan. The extreme foreshortening in this view prevents you from seeing the supporting semi-domes on the east and west, and the tympanum arches on the north and south.

The inside was full of light from the windows on the qiblah wall, in the domes and in the tympanum arches. It is here that I understoood the smart design involved in moving the tympanum out to the exterior; it can then be pierced by windows which let in light. The large crowds inside produced a hushed sound, indicating that the acoustics of the place is deliberately designed. Apparently part of the clever architecture is the carving of resonant cavities into the stone blocks used in the main dome. I understand that water reservoirs were cut into the hill below the mosque to supply the neighbourhood, and to provide climate control inside by recirculating hot water from the hamam under the floor of the mosque. When I visit it again, this is something I would love to see. One of Sinan’s innovations was to incorporate the buttresses into the interior, to preserve the harmonious external appearance of the mosque. You can see them on the edges of the photo above. The minbar is pushed towards the central mihrab to accommodate this, and the back wall pushed outwards by a meter.

The interior decoration is not as overwhelming as in the Sultanahmet mosque. There use of handpainted Iznik tiles is muted. In the photo above you see one of the largest areas covered with tiles. Apparently the red colour was an innovation made for the use of this mosque. I could not see any way of getting up the upper baclonies. Perhaps you need to take special permission to go up there. Looking up from near the chimney over the central door I took the featured photo. You can see the many different sizes of domes used in this structure.

The stained glass in the windows on the qibla wall glowed with light. Although the sun had already moved west past the zenith, it was a bright and clear day outside. The Ottoman state had a ministry called the Nakshane whose job it was to promote the fine arts. The continuous development of new hues in Iznik pottery is partly due to its investments. Little has been written about Ottoman stained glass, except for a description of the windows installed in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem during Suleyman’s time.

Archaeological evidence has been obtained for the extensive use of coloured glass in Umayyad palaces in the 8th century CE. A glass lamp is apparently mentioned in the Quran, and there is extensive writing about coloured glass in the court of Haroun al-Rashid in Baghdad in the 10th century CE. In any case, this window glass is unlikely to be from the 16th century, because of several large fires and earthquakes. The inscription above the main gate to the courtyard (photo above), however, is likely to be original and gas coloured glass embedded into the stone.

The Family and I could tear ourselves away from the mosque with great difficulty. I was sure that there was much we had missed because of the lack of writing about the structure. Since this is a working mosque, there are no tickets, and no one has bothered to put together an audio guide. It is also impossible for tourists to come here during prayers, and therefore it is impossible to experience the acoustics. The Family was lost in admiration of the decorations on the facade. I had not noticed earlier the maqrana vault that you can see in the photo above, or the round glass pieces in the windows which, through lensing, served to control the amount of light available inside the mosque. We were not the only tourists lost in admiration of Sinan’s masterpiece.

The outer courtyard is also magnificent, with an incredible view of the Halic and the Bosphorus. We did not have the time to explore the whole complex, with its hospital, the hamam, the medrese, and the public kitchen which is now a restaurant. However, we did want to see the mausoleum to sultan Suleyman and his family. Unfortunately the tombs were closed. We peered in through a window to get a restricted view of an incredibly decorative interior, which we have to go back to see.

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Tulip and turban

In the late afternoon we sat down for a quiet time and looked at the crowded road outside Sirkeci station: the lines of taxis, people crossing the road, trams coming and going. It looked so calm and unhurried, compared to the tempo of Mumbai, that I wondered about the inflamed imagination of writers who passed through here in the nineteenth century. Could this really be the colourful East of their imagination: debauchery, glamour, exotica?

A hint of that exotica arrived at our table in the form of güllaç (pronounced guellash). This traditional sweet is made only for Ramazan: thin layers of pastry oozing milk, filled with nuts and pomegranate. Perfect with çay. We’d run into güllaç before, and had put off our first experience of it. Now that we had only a couple of days before we left Turkey, we were rushing through our list like the last episode of the Game of Thrones. The result would be some hard-to-shed holiday weight.

That plate looked nice. We took a closer look at the design. Swirling bands of green and gold looked like the “awful turbans” which Mark Twain took such a dislike to. The tulips recalled the heady days of the Ottoman-era tulip craze. This shop was certainly standing when Twain’s ship pulled into Halic to dock. We’d had a wonderful reception at the counter of the sweet shop. We didn’t see a place to sit in, and were gently led upstairs to their cafe. I’d carried my library of books about Turkey on my phone. When I opened Mark Twain’s diatribe about Istanbul (“Everybody lies and cheats”) we had a hearty laugh at the depressive comic who might as well not have left home.

The delightful doors of Topkapi

We bought our tickets to the Topkapi palace inside the first courtyard, and entered the second courtyard through an imposing gateway (featured photo) called Orta Kapi. This is Turkish for a very prosaic name: middle gate. The gate is as impressive as it looks here, with the two Byzantine-looking towers standing over it. The calligraphy on either side of the doorway is the ornate calligraphic seal (tughra) of sultan Mehmet II, who conquered Constantinople in 1452 CE and started building the Topkapi palace in 1459.

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Topkapi is not a single palace, but a complex of palaces built over the next three centuries. I found it slow going, because it is so ornate that you pause to take in the details of various rooms and pavilions you pass through. Like most Islamic art, the colourful tiles, the beautiful geometric designs of inlaid wood or lattice work, and the variations on domes and arches, are what catch the eye. But here one can see a succession of building materials, and discoveries in geometry. One example was the use of a fivefold symmetry on some doors. It seemed to have been invented in the mid-17th century, and retro-fitted into several doors. The more common three, four, and six-fold symmetries can be seen everywhere.

I end with a view of the Bosphorus from the fourth courtyard of the palace. This was my first view of the doorway between the Mediterranean and Black seas, and between Europe and Asia. The overcast sky was very dramatic. As I took photos, the mournful bass hoots of ferries was counterpointed by the mewing of gulls as they flew over us. This must be the most memorable part of the soundscape of Istanbul.