To paraphrase Monty Python, what has Islam ever done for us? You know, apart from the algebra, the trigonometry, the optics, the astronomy and the many other scientific advances and inventions of the Golden Age of Arabic Science.
Well, if you like art and interiors, there’s always the stunning patterns that grace mosques, madrasas and palaces around the world.
Muslim societies produced art of tremendous vitality and diversity for around 1500 years in centres from Spain and West Africa to South-East Asia and China. Their artistic production includes architectural monuments such as mosques, palaces, and civic centres to textiles, manuscripts, and portable objects in ceramic, gold, silver, metal alloys, ivory, and rock crystal.
Islamic craftsmen and artists – who were prohibited from making representations of people in holy sites – developed an instantly recognizable aesthetic based on repeated geometrical shapes. The mathematical elegance of these designs is that no matter how elaborate they are, they are always based on grids constructed using only a ruler and a pair of compasses. Islamic patterns provide a visual confirmation of the complexity that can be achieved with such simple tools.
Robert Byron, in The Road to Oxiana, wrote about Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan:
I know of no finer example of the Persian Islamic genius than the interior of the dome. The dome is inset with a network of lemon-shaped compartments, which decrease in size as they ascend towards the formalised peacock at the apex… The mihrāb in the west wall is enamelled with tiny flowers on a deep blue meadow. Each part of the design, each plane, each repetition, each separate branch or blossom has its own sombre beauty. But the beauty of the whole comes as you move. Again, the highlights are broken by the play of glazed and unglazed surfaces; so that with every step they rearrange themselves in countless shining patterns… I have never encountered splendour of this kind before.
Little Puffles and Honey haven’t been to Isfahan, but they have been to Istanbul, home to an incredible wealth of historical sites, Byzantine and Ottoman.
In selecting a building site for his most magnificent foundation, Süleyman decided against a site located directly on the triumphal axis. Instead he cut into the grounds of the Old Palace, on the north side. At the time, there were already four magnificent buildings along the triumphal axis – Haghia Sophia, and Beyazıt II, Şehzade and Fatih Mosques, as well as some more modest mosques. Süleyman used the opportunity to emphasize the skyline above the Golden Horn seen form the north of the city by placing his complex on a small peninsula.
Süleyman had just reached the height of his power: Western Europe had acknowledged the Ottoman Empire as the supreme world power. The Habsburg Empire had become his vassal. Once again he tried to challenge the imperial church, Haghia Sophia. Like Mehmet II with the Fatih Mosque, he tried to achieve a unification of teaching and religion in one large complex. Like Justinian, he wanted to legitimize his power through religion. One of Justinian’s specific goals has been overcoming the dogmatic rift between the East and West Christian churches. The aging Süleyman understood himself to be the guarantor of the Sunni faith who tried to counterbalance Shiite heterodoxy, which had begun to spread among the Turkomen tribes in Anatolia to the antinomian brotherhoods, even though they had once helped consolidate his power base and that of the young Ottoman Empire.
Süleyman’s mosque had to be able to stand up to the comparison with Haghia Sophia. At the same time, it had to meet strict rules and regulations of orthodox Islam and evolve as a new centre for religious teaching. The foundation deed of the Süleymaniye complex addresses these issues in detail: “If decorating the temple with silver and gold would agree with the religion of Islam and the laws of his excellency, the Prophet, we would certainly have adorned it with gold and silver; its walls and doors would have been studded with rubies and pearls to honour the temple and God in gratitude for his benevolence. But for the said reasons we have decided against it, focusing instead on a solid architectural construction.”
With these specifications in mind, Sinan went to work, adapting features from Haghia Sophia: the central plan, two semidomes above the central axis and the side rooms. Wisely, he chose more modest dimensions. The prayer hall of the Süleymaniye is 58.5 by 57.5 metres, almost a perfect square, while the main nave of Haghia Sophia is a rectangle, measuring 73.5 by 69.5 metres. The diameter of the Süleymaniye dome is 26.65 metres (making it larger than the dome of Fatih Mosque but smaller than the dome of Haghia Sophia) and the height of its calotte above the floor is 49.5 meters.
In all other matters, Sinan focused strictly on the functional and aesthetic requirements of the Ottoman mosque, as he did in the design of the Şehzade Mosque. The side rooms are not separated from the main hall, and the exedras have their correspondence in the floor plan. To east and west the dome is flanked by semidomes and to the north and south by arches with tympanums filled with windows. The dome arches rise from four great irregularly shaped piers. The side rooms that reach to the arches and tympanums, because there are no galleries, have no vaults, which are not an element of classical Ottoman architecture, but domes. Unlike the side domes in earlier imperial mosques, these side domes vary in size. Those in the middle have a diameter of 10 meters, corresponding to the corner domes, and are flanked by smaller domes with a diameter of 7 meters. On each side there are five domes, and three large supporting buttresses alternate with two smaller ones.
Haghia Sophia was the creation of two architects and mathematicians of genius who had been provided with the necessary means by a generous and enthusiastic ruler. Many generations had been involved in trying to maintain this monument, the symbolic meaning of which had increased over the centuries. A millennium later, another ingenious architect, who had been granted similar means and was driven by the same obsession, found a solution to the engineering problems that Haghia Sophia had formulated. The Süleymaniye was his solution.
In Haghia Sophia, exedras are used to give the plan its particular form. Sinan used them as a vital element in the dome construction, to help absorb and distribute the weight of the central dome. The same concept had entirely different functions. In Byzantine architecture, the exedras connected the roof construction to the floor, thus symbolically connecting Heaven and Earth. In Ottoman architecture, the unified interior space symbolized the community of the faithful and was therefore designed to be as open as possible.
Entering the mosque, the visitor is immediately taken by its severely simple grandeur. The marble sheathing of the walls that reaches up to the arches is reminiscent of Haghia Sophia. The frescoes, which have been restored to the original designs, are surely far from providing the original impression, but other elements prove that this is indeed an imperial mosque. On the prayer wall (qibla), interspaced with verses and quotations from the Koran, as well as descriptions of paradise, have been executed in two new materials. The ceramic tiles that used to frame the mihrab are the earliest known examples of the new techniques of the Iznik kilns. The lovely stained-glass windows, by the glazier known as Sarhoş İbrahim, are framed in Ottoman tradition with rich stucco decoration. Similar windows are found in the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque, which was built in 1548 in Üsküdar, on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus.
According to contemporary admirers, the Süleymaniye surpassed by far the mosques of earlier rulers of the world, at least partly because of the meaning given to the four massive columns in the central hall from which the arches that hold the side tympanums rise. Sinan’s autobiography and the records of the imperial architects organization reveal that the first column came from Alexandria and represented Alexander the Great; the second from Baalbek, which in Islamic literature is the Temple of Solomon; and the third and fourth from Byzantium, from the Augusteion and the Hippodrome. The columns, like other precious marble such as the round porphyry plates of the courtyard, symbolized the claim of the Ottoman Empire to imperial power.
The entrance portal, flanked by two buildings on three different levels, is another such manifestation of power. It is possible that the entrance area was fashioned after the Topkapı Sarayı and “Gate” and “Courtyard” are the sacred correspondents of the secular models.
In order to achieve the size, Sinan returned to a rectangular courtyard with nine niches instead of seven. The exterior of the portico and the three niches on both sides of the entrance portal on the central axes are higher than the others, so that one column has to carry arches of varying height, a problem that is solved through half-capitals with corbels in the middle of the column shaft.
The entire complex was completed in the year 1558. The mosque surrounded by additional building complexes, all covered with domes. They contained four medreses and the Dar-ül-Hadis, a medical college that remained unique in Istanbul, a hospital, a charity kitchen for the poor, an inn for travellers and Dervishes, a hamam and shops. The two medreses sloping toward the Golden Horn have special features. Because they are built on terraced terrain, each niche of the portico is six steps lower than the preceding one. The domes over the porticos and the adjoining rooms cascade from top to bottom. The classroom is on the upper floor. The mausoleums of Süleyman and his wife Hürrem, better known in the West as Roxelane, are located in the walled garden behind the mosque. The plan of the tomb of Süleyman, which lies directly behind the prayer wall of the mosque, is almost identical to that of the prayer hall.