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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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.