A Seljuk Mosque

We had to pass through the town of Selçuk on our way to the ruins of the Roman town of Ephesus. A quick look at Wikipedia confirmed a vague memory of reading Ibn Batuta’s account of this town, and of it having an impressive mosque. A look at the map indicated that the most important mosque here was the Isa Bey mosque, situated on the slope between a Byzantine era fortress and the site of the ancient Artemision. This would be the only example of Seljuk architecture that we would see on this trip.

Several tour buses had arrived before us and parked next to the mosque. There was a blank stone wall, three stories high, facing the road. I was taken aback. Where was the “poetry in stone” which is supposed to be the hallmark of Seljuk architecture? I took a close look at the carved stone lattice work in the upper windows. Nice, but I’ve seen more intricate work before.

It was only when I walked over to the other side, where the entrance was, that things began to make sense. The main gate was an imposing portal, topped by a beautiful design in two colours of stone, above a beautiful arch with the stalactite vault called muqarnas. This was no less elaborate than the examples I remembered from the Alhambra of Granada. The windows next to the main entrance were beautiful, and each one was decorated differently. You can see two of them in the photo of the entrance. The photo below shows details from a third.

Seljuk Turks won Anatolia from the Byzantine empire in the 11th century, and a succession of Seljuk principalities held it until the Ottoman invasion of the 14th century. Herrin writes about the gradual decay of the Byzantine empire during this time, most enduringly captured in the gradual debasement of their gold coins through the addition of increasing amounts of silver. Towards the end of this period, Isa Bey, a sultan of the Aydin dynasty, caused this mosque to be built. A little plaque in the courtyard told us that the architect was Mushaimish Dımışklıoğlu, and the church was completed in 1375 CE. Since Ibn Batuta had passed through here a generation before, this wasn’t the mosque he wrote about. Our visit was completely serendipitious!

We passed through the door into the courtyard. Otto-Dorn writes that this is the first mosque in Turkey to have an enclosed courtyard and a colonnade. We could see the its remnants in the columns around the courtyard. The plaque told us that the colonnade was destroyed in two earthquakes that occurred in 1653 and 1668. We saw a single minaret above the entrance, covered in a wooden frame for restoration. Apparently the mosque was built with two minarets, and the other had collapsed after these earthquakes. Extensive restorations were done and the mosque was reopened in 1975.

I walked into the cool interior of the church mosque. The wooden minbar looked small and ordinary; apparently the original grand minbar has been taken away to a museum. Looking up at the octagonal base of one of the domes, I saw the tile work which is supposed to be special to Seljuk mosques. Some of it had fallen off, perhaps the work on the minaret will eventually extend here. There was a round of restoration work in 2005. I wonder whether it reached the interior of the mosque. This wall shows other characteristics of the Seljuk style: the use of bricks, the use of rubble as filling in the walls, and its decoration with a layer of finely prepared stone. A closer look at the tiles (featured photo) showed the painted work, known today as Iznik tiles, from before it developed the current repertoire of Ottoman motifs. We left the carpeted and cool interior, back through the courtyard and its fountain, through the arch of the entrance and the scaffolding enclosing the minaret, to our car.

Talking Turkey on World Book Day

April 23 seems to be the International Book Day, designated by UNESCO to be the World Book and Copyright Day. I understand that it commemorates the dates on which Cervantes and Shakespeare died (in the same year, but on different days, the blame for this strange happenstance belongs to Pope Gregory XII). The sheer number of writers across the world means that this is also the birthday of other famous writers. Vladimir Nabokov happens to be one of them.

That’s a good reason to sit down and make a list of the books I’ve been working my way through as I get ready for a trip to Turkey. This part of the world has an amazing history. So many different civilizations washed across this antique land. There are neolithic sites from before the invention of agriculture, the Greek ruins of Ephesus, Troy, Aphrodisias, Miletus (birthplace of Thales, famous for saying things like “The past is certain, the future obscure” and for being the town through which the Maeander river, well, meanders), Persian ruins dotted across Antalya, remnants of the Byzantine empire across the country, and finally, the great constructions of the Ottomans.

I knew too little about the Byzantine empire. So I decided to read the Chronographia written by Michael Psellos in the 11th century CE. This is a series of biographies of the Byzantine emperors in the century before Psellos’ own time, although some of the most interesting parts are the author’s own memoirs. Judith Herrin’s book Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire surprises the Western reader with the contention that the medieval era was not the dark ages, and me by being a good tourist guide as well. I understand that the book The World of Late Antiquity by Peter Brown has a similar thesis. I haven’t started on it yet. The first book I did finish was the extremely informative Byzantium: a Very Short Introduction by Peter Sarris.

Except for little factoids such as that Cervantes took part in the naval Battle of Lepanto against them, I knew very little about the Ottoman empire. I have started to remedy this lack of education through a short reading list which started with Giancarlo Casale’s book The Ottoman Age of Exploration, which throws surprising light on the Zeroth World War centered on the Indian Ocean. While this is highly educative, it is somewhat peripheral to our forthcoming trip to Turkey. For that I have reserved Halil Inalcik’s magisterial survey The Ottoman Empire: 1300-1600, and Sukru Hanioglu’s book A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire.

I’m afraid that I no longer have the time to finish my reading list before the trip, so I’ll take these books along on my ereader and enjoy them as I travel during the month of Ramadan through the land they describe. The Family is pretty sure that this won’t be our last trip through Turkey. “Its history is quite as interesting as those of China and India,” she said. Not to mention that samosas and koftas originated in Turkey.