Saturday, January 15, 2011

Bubbles on a sea of elegance

My friend Clint just made it to Istanbul earlier this week, so even though I know my last post was about architecture, I had continue the theme. So, to contrast the Christian building of last post, today I want to look at another Islamic monument!

Doesn't hurt that I once again have my Islamic Art class notes to reference. :)

The Süleyman Mosque at the Süleymaniye Complex - Istanbul, Turkey
From afar, the first think you might notice is that...Hey! Wait a second! That looks like the Hagia Sofia, which is ALSO in Istanbul. What's with that?

Well, inquisitive readers, thank you for asking. This mosque, built between 1550 and 1557 under patronage of the Ottoman Sultan Süleyman ("Solomon") and under the design of the masterful architect Sinan, was a to compete, like a mirror, with the Hagia Sofia (Dedicated in 360 A.D. by the Emperor Justinian originally as an Orthodox basilica, converted to a mosque in 1453). The main dome is 53 m x 27.5 m, and at the time of its construction, it was the largest in the Ottoman empire, when measured from sea level to top of the dome. However, it is still smaller than the Hagia Sofia when the dome is measured from base of building to top.

The site for the mosque (and it's socioreligious complex complete with school, baths, a hostel, a hospital, a library, tombs, shops, etc.) are built on the 3rd hill of the Imperial palatine ("made of many hills") city. The location is advantageous because it's encircled by water, it's the place of the old Istanbul palace ( a place of reverence), and the Sultan can see the entirety of the city landscape from that particular hill.

The exterior codifies the Ottoman architecture style - Bubble domes (I love them!), flying buttresses, a monumental courtyard, and four spear-like minarets (Only the Sultan could grant 4 minarets. Princes could only commission 2).

But the interior is really the most fascinating part.

Ahhh, isn't it just gorgeous???

The structure of the interior is based on those four main pillars ("elephants feet"). I'll get back to them later. The only tile work in the room is around the mihrab, or prayer niche along the qibla (Direction of prayer, toward Mecca) wall. In Islamic tradition, worshippers always know where to face when praying due to the presence of the mihrab. It's supposed to act as a "sit in space" for the spirit of Muhammad.

The walls are otherwise unadorned, emphasizing the structural solidity of the building. Stained glass windows let in colored light and there's a ring of hanging lights, known as the "cosmic sphere" of lights, both of which give the inside a really ethereal, other-worldly presence.

Everything in the Süleymaniye mosque has a symbolic meaning as well as a literal function. The main dome is flanked by other smaller domes, meant to represent Gemini and other celestial orbits. The fountain in the courtyard is based on Kawthar, the mythical water basin in paradise. The mosque itself was to be a symbol of paradise. Lights from the stained glass windows were thought to be divine, on the wings of Gabriel. The oil lamps hanging in the "cosmic sphere" were "stars." Those four "elephant foot" monoliths holding up the mosque interior actually are meant to represent the Sunni "Four Pillars" of Islam...the Four Companions of the Prophet Muhammad: Bakr, 'Uman, 'Uthman, and 'Ali. This metaphor is also applied to the four minarets.

Fun Facts!

1. The mosque actually had a religious, social, AND political importance. The religious part is obvious. Socially, it provides the epicenter for the rest of the thriving complex. For the political aspect, readers in the Mosque praise both Islam AND the Sultan, as his power was thought to be God given. Large processionals mark his attendance/importance and after his visits, he would distribute alms to the poor (Emphasizing his power AND charity).

2.Only Sultans that had conquered Christian lands had the right to build a royal mosque in the capital, meant to be built with the spoils of conquest. This complex has marble pillars taken from all over the conquered parts of the empire, including four large columns taken from the Baalbek Temple in Lebanon, which supposedly also held connection to Solomon.

3. The Founding Inscription of the mosque is one of the very few in Islamic tradition that is NOT Qu'ranic (deriving from the Quran/Koran). Instead, it emphasizes Süleyman's divine right as ruler, promulgation of law, and announcing that this mosque was built as a public service, deemed by God.

"The people think of wealth and power as the greatest fate,
But in this world a spell of health is the best state.
What men call sovereignty is a worldly strife and constant war;
Worship of God is the highest throne, the happiest of all estates." - Sultan Süleyman

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