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.

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.