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.

Sober cold stone

You enter the Hagia Sophia from the narthex on the west, so that the first thing you see when you step into the square naos is the immense apse right in front of you. It is difficult to tear your eyes away from it, but it is worthwhile later to come back to this place and look at what was behind you. The beautiful west gallery above you is fabulously decorated with mosaics and a carved stone railing between elegant pillars (featured photo). The gallery had collapsed in an earthquake in 989 CE, and the portion which was rebuilt has painted plaster instead of the mosaics of the rest of the interior. You can tell this easily by the fact that the paint is beginning to peel.

The details on the pillars are amazing. I brought my camera down to the pillars that hold up this curved gallery simply because it is there. Time and invaders have been kind to this part of the structure. The details are as razor sharp as they would have been 1500 years ago when they were freshly chiseled out. It is hard to remember that the use of regular geometric floral motifs was deliberate: it would be faster to do this repeatedly.

Above the Imperial Door in the middle of the western wall is this small stone inlay panel. I’m fairly certain that this must have symbolic meaning, but neither my audio guide, nor any references throw any light on it. I could remain ignorant for ever, or I could toss this question out to you (o gentle reader). What is the symbolism in this panel?

In the south eastern corner of the naos the light was much better. The carved capitals of the pillars were as breathtaking as the black, white, and red inlay work in the wall next to it. But all this was outshone by the mosaic above the pillar, with its large fields of gold. This is stone on fire, heady, breathtaking; quite the opposite of stone cold sober.

On another wall we came across panels of marble: Afyon marble, white with purple patches, alternating with Carian marble, red with white flakes. Between the panels ran a band of Tunisian marble with its dark veins running through reddish white. The light from the large windows lit up this wall and the gold tesserae of mosaic above it.

The cubicle that you can see in the photo above is the library of Sultan Mahmud I. We looked through the golden grille in the southern vestibule which separated it from the rest of the space. My audioguide did not warn me to spend time looking at the railing above it, which you can see in this photo. This railing is decorated with a repeating pattern of regular nonagons (nine-sided polygons). Constructing regular nonagons with compass and ruler is an ancient problem, and its solution presented in this railing was a statement about the mathematical prowess of the architect, Mimar Sinan. I must remember to take a close look at it the next time I visit this museum.

Let me end this post with a photo taken in the south gallery, one level above this. Again you see the wonderful carved capitals of the pillars similar to those in the featured photo. The complexity of the mosaic above the pillars is astounding for something made in the 6th century CE. Beyond it you can see part of the central dome, with the some of the forty windows which run around its base, and the forty ribs which support it. This was the main innovation of Isidore the Younger when the dome was re-erected in 563 CE, five years after the earthquake which destroyed the original dome.

Stress and buttress

I was trying to get a close look at the western turrets added to the Hagia Sophia in the 16th century CE by Mimar Sinan (featured photo) when I realized that I was looking at four buttresses to the church. I stepped back a little to photograph them in their entirety (below) and realized that they were actually flying buttresses. I’d thought that they were invented in the 12th century in France, so this surprised me.

Hagia Sophia is remarkably stable, given the frequency of earthquakes in Istanbul. Over 1500 years, the dome has had to be rebuilt only twice. A large part of this stability is due to the geometric design of the dome, with its supporting half domes built atop a central square section. However, recent studies found that the improperly cured bricks and mortar miraculously make the structure stronger than properly cured bricks of the 6th century would have. This is likely to be an accident of the hurried construction of the church, rather than deliberate materials science, especially since this technique was not used in any other Byzantine structure. Even with this fortunate accident, the pressure of the huge dome would have caused the structure to collapse if it were not for buttresses added over the years.

The four flying buttresses on the western facade, which you see in the photo above, are remarkable. They look like they are, at least in part, made of the same material as the rest of the western facade. This was rebuilt in 994 CE, within five years of its collapse during the earthquake of 989 CE. So I wondered whether the flying buttress was invented by the Byzantines before the French. The older view is stated clearly in this paper from 1935, “… we can at once discard any hypothesis which would date these buttresses to the ninth century, for the simple reason that flying buttresses were unknown before the twelfth century”. This paper buttresses this erroneous reasoning with an aesthetic judgement that these four are different from “ungainly masses” which were erected by Byzantine and Turkish architects, and so must have been made by French engineers who arrived here during the Venetian occupation.

The modern view is different. Flying buttresses have been discovered in buildings in Cyprus which were buried in the 8th century CE, well before its reinvention in France. So these buttresses which puzzled me could have been a Byzantine construction from the 10th century CE. In a structure as old as the Hagia Sophia, one seldom has a clear answer to questions of provenance unless there is contemporary documentation. For these four there is none, although the circumstantial evidence is that the buttresses are about a thousand years old. This raises the inverse question, could the egineering idea of flying buttresses, which began to be used from the 12th century in western Europe, have been carried there from Byzantium?

Let it be

Imagine that it is the winter of that terrible year of 537 CE. The sun has been a wan disk in the sky, giving some light but no warmth. It is six years since the riots in which the center of Constantinople was burnt down by a mob, and the terrible massacre of the unarmed rioters thereafter. Belisarius has defeated the Vandals, but his army revolted the previous year. The revolt was put down, but the capital city of half a million people is desperate for food. For two years crops have failed because of the strange sun. It would be one and a half thousand years before anyone realized that the awful weather was due to an immense volcanic eruption whose ashes took time to settle out of the stratosphere, causing widespread crop failure across the globe. Two days after Christmas of that year, the people of Constantinople would enter the Great Church, six years in the making, and gaze in awe around the biggest building in the world. Your imagination doesn’t have to go into overdrive, because even today that space is awesome.

The narthex had seemed crowded, but in the naos the same crowd was diluted to homeopathic proportions. Your eye is constantly drawn up. It took be a while to realize why: light came in through tall windows above us, and the openings in the dome, the lower part of the vast space is relatively dim. The golden mosaics that the Hagia Sophia is known for are far away in the upper regions of the structure. The clever ancient architects still direct our eyes exactly where they wanted it to land. Eight great circular calligraphic panels were made by Mustafa Izzet during the restoration of 1847. The panel on the right (photo above) reads “Allah” and the partly obscured pane on the left says “Muhammad”. The emperor Justinian I wanted this to be a statement about his political power. The statement is clearly visible even today, and was hacked perfectly in 1453 by sultan Mehmet II.

In this profusion of abstract floral patterns, and a few six-winged archangels scattered around the naos, the figure of the Madonna and Child in the apse is very prominent. This was revealed by Patriarch Photius in 867 CE. Revealed is perhaps the right word to use here, because this was newly made, plastered over an older cross which was part of the original artwork from the time of Justinian I. But Photius claimed that it was original, and that the recently defeated iconoclasts had plastered the cross over it. This was another hack of the Great Church for political power. During the iconoclast century the skill required for such a work had been lost. It suffers from comparison with older (or later) works.

I turned around slowly, to take in the upper galleries. The photo above shows the southwestern gallery, where the empress Theodora, wife of Justinian I, and one of the first of the powerful Byzantine empresses, is said to have sat during service. Next to her gallery is the panel inscribed with the name of the third caliph, Uthman. The eight circular panels each have diameters of 7.5 meters, and are said to be the largest pieces of Arabic calligraphy in the world. You can see in these photos how the central dome is supported by half-domes to the east and west (above the apse and the narthex). These supporting domes, and the square ground plan of the naos are important to the stability of a structure which has lasted for 1500 years in an earthquake-prone region.

The entire north side of the naos was taken up by a scaffolding which was being used for restoration work. The Family said “We will have to come back to see this place without those iron bars.” We stepped forward towards the apse. This is a busy place, with people taking selfies. We clicked a few, and then turned our attention to the minbar, the pulpit. This is the work of the 16th century architectural master, Mimar Sinan, who also designed two of the four minarets outside Hagia Sophia.

Right in front of us was the only human-sized element in the whole place, the mihrab, or the prayer niche. It is noticeably off-center, because it has to indicate the qiblah, ie, the direction of Mecca. I haven’t been able to discover whether this is the original mihrab ordered to be constructed by sultan Mehmet II. The two gigantic candle stands that you see here were brought from the cathedral of Buda by Suleyman the Magnificent. The symbolism was hacked again in 1935 by Ataturk, who declared that this place should become a museum, a perfect solution for a secular state.

All that you need to know about Hagia Sofia

“Just crowds of tourists.” I was told. “Needs about 20 minutes.” The Family reported being told. “The sense of the sacred has long fled this place.” A famous travel writer would be the first to know. Take the advise, and don’t spend the couple of hours inside that we did. All you will get is a view from the inside of an engineering marvel from 537 CE, which was the center of the Christian church for a thousand years, before it became an Ottoman mosque in 1453, and eventually, in 1935, a museum.

Instead, take up position between the Sultan Ahmet Mosque and the Hagia Sofia, and take a photo. Pay special attention to the 32 meter main dome, it was designed by Anthemius of Trelles and Isidorus of Miletus. You don’t really need to know that the dome was too grand for its time, and that it collapsed in an earthquake in 558 CE, was rebuilt in 562, collapsed again twice, and was eventually rebuilt on a smaller and more manageable scale in the 14th century CE. Ignore the fact that the present structure was sacked several times before the arrival of the Turks: once by Vikings in the 8th century, and more famously by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 CE. Definitely ignore the minarets; they were added by the Turks (the two that you see on the left in the featured photo were designed by Mimar Sinan, an architectural genius in the time of Suleyman the Magnificent, and the red brick one on the right is the oldest, possibly from the 15th century).

If you really have an urge to go in then briefly take up a position in front of the central door. You have a clear view of two mosaics, one of Christ Pantocrator in the narthex, and the other of the Madonna over the altar. The mosaic of the Pantocrator stands above the 7 meters high Emperor Door, with a bronze frame and wood said to have been salvaged from Noah’s Ark (oh how I Want to Believe), so this is a great place to stand. Another advantage is that you will hear every language in the world as people stream past you.

The library of the inner palace

The early 18th century was called the Tulip Period in the Ottoman empire. This era was the rule of sultan Ahmed III, a peaceful time where many changes began to take place. Printing presses, art, culture, trade, and a turn towards Europe are now not as easily remembered as the craze for tulips which gives the era its name. The Library of Sultan Ahmed (Enderûn library) in the third courtyard of Topkapi palace is said to be one of the outstanding examples of the architecture of this time. When I entered, my first impression was of light and openness, perfect for sitting down and reading (featured photo).

The number of shelves was not very large. This probably means that printing was not yet a major industry. In England at that time, the Bodelian library had entered into an agreement with printers by which a copy of every printed book came to the library, resulting in a rapid increase in its holdings. My audio guide told me that the sultan collected all the books in the Topkapi palace and brought them here to safeguard them, while making also making them easy to access.

The dome stood on an octagonal base, and was beautifully decorated. The large expanse of white and the gold paint was part of what made the library look so full of light. Apparently the extensive use of flowers in the painted patterns is a hallmark of the Tulip Period (1718 CE to 1730). It is not impossible that the library, built in 1718, influenced the art and architecture of this era fairly strongly. The light fixture that you see in the photo above was also very distinctive.

Taking books out of the library was forbidden. So a major purpose of the library seemed to be to bring together, and maintain, an imperial collection of books. To this end manuscripts were brought here from the harem, the inner treasury, and the privy room treasury. The large number of windows and doors ensured rapid circulation of air, and controlled damp. One has to climb a short flight of stairs to get to the library. If you step back to look at the building then you notice that the lower floor also has many windows. This well-ventilated basement is another technique for keeping the library dry in order to preserve the holding. Subsequent sultans kept adding to the collection, and all of it was removed to the Palace Museum Library in 1966.

I was surprised to find that sultan Ahmed erected the library over a structure called the Pool Pavilion. This had been designed and built almost a hundred and fifty years earlier by the Ottoman genius of an architect: Mimar Sinan. Istanbul is studded with buildings ascribed to him, so this was not a disaster. Nevertheless I had a faint twinge of disappointment when I read this.

In front of Enderûn library is a drinking fountain. This was built at the same time as the library. The elaborate blue and orange decorations are also said to be typical of the Tulip Period. Unfortunately it was blocked off for tourists. I needed some water, and it turned out The Family had not forgotten to carry a bottle.