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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Turkish Street Furniture

You might not be surprised by Istanbul’s charm. A little square between buildings in Fatih with a swing and a teeter-totter makes a decent playground for the neighbourhood’s children. A few benches are scattered around for parents who are too tired to stand. And someone has painted a cheerful canary on the blue wall of one of the buildings which encloses the area. Charming? Sure. Surprising? No.

But in Galatasaray, two dolphins rearing up on their tails holding telephones in their plastic bellies is a touch of whimsy that one does not anticipate. We’d watched dolphins fishing in the Golden Horn. Here, a kilometer or two away, a telephone company had decided to use them as a symbol. Nice thinking.

Between the two, in the Eminönü district, a tap at the German fountain still works. Tourists and locals drink the water it dispenses. There is no sign saying which sultan had it placed here, but supplying potable water to citizens was a task that the Roman empire took very seriously, where in its first capital, or in the successor capital, Constantinople. We asked the locals about the tap water. They do not recommend it to tourists, but they drink it themselves. So we followed their example now and then, without getting into trouble.

On our drive through the town of Selçuk we saw an avenue lined with lions. This was quite surprising, and I hopped off the car to take a quick photo. I haven’t come across a description of this before, nor an explanation. Is it recent? Not recent enough for it to be made of concrete poured into moulds. The columns were made of stone. Sometime, somewhere I suppose I will eventually find the history of these lions standing on two paws.

Seats and water fountains are probably as ancient as the very notion of a city. Telephones have had their day, and phone booths are now quaint reminders of the twentieth century. It was comforting to walk by the Halic and see a line of ATMs waiting patiently. I didn’t have to use them, but after spending a week wandering through Anatolia, it was nice to be reminded that one was back in a city.

Aimless wandering

Between spells of rain, we walked aimlessly through the streets of the Eminönü and Fatih districts of Istanbul. Only Rome may come close in the juxtaposition of many different styles of architecture spanning a couple of millennia. Only Kolkata comes close in terms of the astoundingly capable sweet shops at every corner. Nothing matches Istanbul in how laid back businesses are. During a brief rainstorm, when a large number of people rushed into cafes, the service shut down until people left. In other cities cafes might make a windfall (really!) profit serving coffee to cold and damp people.

There are parts of Istanbul where people on the streets are so relaxed and friendly that you are reminded of Porto. Other parts are lined with carpet shops where you might not want to stop to chat with every friendly shopkeeper (although we enjoyed the chat every time we stopped). I have a very small bucket list of places which I want to go back to, and Istanbul is on it.

The Little Hagia Sophia

In the 6th century CE, the Byzantine chronicler Procopius wrote that the little Hagia Sophia (then called the Church of Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus) was second only to the Hagia Sophia in beauty. The construction of this church was started in 527 CE, after Justinian I became emperor, and just five years before the center of Constantinople was burnt down in the Nika riots. It was completed just before the Hagia Sophia, and the architects are said to be the same Anthenius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus who are known as the architects of the Hagia Sophia.

Looking at the structure from outside it was clear that it was not quite like the Hagia Sophia. The dome here is not supported by semi-domes (although there are two), but instead rests on an octagonal base, with large windows on alternate sides. Around this central octagonal column there are other structures whose ground plan, taken together, looks roughly like a rectangle. The church was built out of brick and mortar like most Byzantine buildings of its time.

We entered from a little gate in the north-west. The complex has been used as a mosque since the early 16th century. Right in front of us, on the western end of the rectangle, was a little portico and minaret which were clearly later additions. You can see from the photo above, that they are made of stone and not brick. The main prayer was over, and we were free to enter the mosque. A couple of people washed they hands and faces and said a quick prayer without going in.

As I took off my shoes I happened to glance up, and found a glowing painting on the inner curve of the dome atop the portico. The whole inner surface is plastered and painted white, and the colourful design with its three-fold symmetry was quite stunning. When I looked more carefully I saw an interesting play of numbers here: after the three-fold symmetry of the innermost circle was an eleven-fold symmetry of the next. I wonder whether the ratio 11/3 has some mystic significance.

As soon as you enter, your eye is drawn up to dome. This is where the main similarity with the Hagia Sophia is visible: the dome is ribbed and windows are cut into its base. Apparently this reduces the weight of the dome, and is important to making it light enough to span a large space. This was the first Byzantine building we entered after the Hagia Sophia, and the contrast was immense.

Here the multiple windows in this smaller structure gave it a sense of light and airiness, as opposed to the grandeur of Hagia Sophia’s upper reaches rising out of a deep gloom. As you can see from both the featured photo and the one above, the gallery admits as much light as the dome, and the windows at the lowest level also serve to illuminate the interior. I looked at the stone work of the capitals of the pillars, and the bands running around the gallery and they looked almost identical to that in the Hagia Sophia. Not surprising really, since the two were completed almost simultaneously. The same stone masons must have worked on both.

The Family was mesmerized by the blue carpet. Almost all the mosques that we visited had really deep piles, much better than the carpets we’d been shown in shops. The marble columns were very special; the pair that you see in the photo above were made of Synnara marble brought from Anatolia. Behind the minbar you can see an antechamber; below one of the semi-domes. The stairs up to the gallery were barred; perhaps it would open later. But here, I could admire the wonderful woodwork above my head. I think this is Ottoman, like the painted designs on the wall.

There was no one else around; certainly no other tourists. It was amazingly peaceful and calm. I wondered whether at any time in the future it would be possible to strip away at least part of the plaster to reveal the mosaics which had been praised by Procopius. The train line which runs south of here apparently put the structure under great stress; enough that it was put on the list of the hundred most endangered structures. After extensive repairs a few years ago, it was reopened to the public in 2015. I didn’t know that; lucky we didn’t come here four years before!