"IMPERIAL MOSQUES OF ISTANBUL" Istanbul Travelogue by mtncorg

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The mosques of Istanbul definitely punctuate the skyline and serve to let the traveler know where they are in lieu of their cell phone. Serving as the most magnificent examples are the imperial mosques of which can be noted by the number of minarets outside - two or more depending upon the person commissioning the mosque. Here are eight of the imperial mosques ranging in date from the earliest - Eyüp Camii - to one of the last - Ortaköy Camii.

Built in 1458, the Eyüp Camii is built next to the tomb of Abu Ayyub al-Mansari. Abu Ayyub was a close companion of Muhammed and the standard bearer of the faith. When Muhammed left Mecca for Medina in the hijra – 622 – he lived with Abu Ayyub for seven months. Abu Ayyub went on to a long military career In the service of the new faith. Old age caught up with him on a raid led by Muawiajh’s son Yazid against Constantinople in 674. Falling ill he was visited by Yazid who asked him if he needed anything. Abu Ayyub replied, “ Convey my salaams (farewells) to the Muslim armies and tell them Abu Ayyub urges you to penetrate deeply into the territory of the enemy as far as you can go, that you should carry him with you and that you should bury him under your feet at the walls of Constantinople.” With Abu Ayyub’s death, the army of Yazid carried out his wishes burying him at the walls of Constantinople. They were unable to breach the walls however. That event would have to wait another 778 years. Lying outside the city walls, the Eyüp district was long used as a burial area – Christian cemeteries predating the vast Muslim cemetery spread out on the hillside above the Golden Horn. The tomb of Abu Ayyub - said to have been rediscovered by the spiritual advisor of Mehmet II, which is another interesting story in of itself – is an important pilgrimage site and it was important for the Ottoman regime because the tomb linked the Ottomans to a Companion of the Prophet.

Beyazid Camii was the second Imperial mosque to be built within Istanbul. Completed in 1506 by the order of Sultan Beyazid II, it is now the oldest surviving imperial complex since the oldest , Faith, built by his father Mehmet II, was destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt in a completely different style.

The mosque was constructed of stone and marble taken from nearby Byzantine ruins and is found next to the main entrance to Istanbul University . Next to the mosque is a garden where the tomb of Bayzid II can be found. The Sahaflar Çarshisi/Old Book Bazaar is located on the southeast side of the mosque – rents from the shops were originally intended to support the mosque. On the west side of the mosque is Beyazid Meydani/Square which was formerly the Forum of Theodosius, the traditional center of Constantinople.

Bayezid may have played a role in the death of his father though some of Mehmet’s doctors were also implicated. Beyazid is remembered for sending his navy to Spain in 1492 to rescue Arabs and Sephardic Jews who were being expelled as a result of the Spanish Inquistion. He let the refugees settle in the Empire and made them Ottoman citizens. Chiding some of his advisers who spoke well of the Spanish monarchs, “You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler, he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!”

Shehzade Camii was the first large commission of the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. The mosque is built atop the Third Hill on the south side of the Valens Aqueduct in memory of Süleyman I’s eldest son Mehmet – who had died at he age of 22. Sinan is considered the greatest Ottoman architect and is responsible for over 300 major projects during his long tenure. He honed his skills as a military engineer on numerous campaigns with the Janissaries. At the age of 50, he became the Imperial Architect, a position he would hold until his death at age 98.

For the Shehzade Mosque – completed in 1548 – Sinan was influenced by mosques he had come across in campaigns he had been involved with against the Persians. He used a large central dome supported by four half domes and four massive free-standing columns and four piers that are incorporated into each lateral wall. At each corner at the roof he used four turrets to further anchor the structure. The isolated free-standing columns were an idea later used by Sinan’s protégé Sedefkar Mehmed Aga in the design of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque/Blue Mosque but Sinan would improve on the idea in his later mosques. The mosque complex included the mausoleum of Prince Mehmet, two medrese – religious schools, a caravanserai and a public kitchen – imaret – which served food to the poor. There is a restaurant today in one of the former medrese – Shehzade Mehmed Sofrasi.

Because it is in Istanbul, many think that this mosque is the greatest work of the famous architect Mimar Sinan – they have not been to Edirne. That said, this is his greatest work in Stamboul and probably the most architecturally magnificent mosque in the city, as well. Süleyman I was the longest reigning Ottoman emperor and his period represents the high point of the long run the empire enjoyed. He came to power in 1520 and by 1550, he had accomplished enough that he decided it was time for his own imperial mosque to be built. Seven years later the Süleymaniye complex was complete – four medrese, a kitchen for the poor, a hospital, a hamam, a caravanserai and a hospice for travelers in addition to the mosque and the eventual tombs for Süleyman and his wife Roxelana, daughter Mihrimah, mother, sister and two other sultans – Süleyman II and Ahmed II.

Instead of isolated pillars supporting the massive dome, Sinan incorporated them into the walls of the building – half inside and half outside – hiding them behind colonnaded galleries. Unlike inside other imperial mosques – the interior is more restrained; no excess of Iznik tiles as in the Blue Mosque.

Situated across the street from the south end of the Galata Bridge in the heart of the Eminönü district, the Yenii Camii was begun in 1597 at the bequest of the Safiye Sultan, the wife of Murad III. The district was predominately Jewish at that time and it was hoped a new Imperial mosque established in the heart of the district would spread the spirit of Islam. The vast costs involved – the Turkish armies were losing wars with the Persians and the Hapsburgs during Murad III’s reign – and political intrigue on the part of the Janissaries who resented the power of the Valide Sultan. Murad III died in 1595 but as the Valid Sultan – Mother of the Sultan, Safiye became a de facto co-regent of the empire for some eight years. That son, Mehmed III, died in 1603 and Ahmed I gained the throne. Along with came another Valide – Handan Sultana who had Safiye sent back to the general harem. Ahmed had no interest in finishing the Yenii Camii spending his architectural tendencies on the creation of the Blue Mosque instead.

The uncompleted mosque fell into ruin and was partially destroyed by a fire in 1660. Now, Turhan Hatice - the new Valide Sultan - turned her attention from politics to building and at the suggestion of the Imperial Architect Mustafa Aga, the mosque was finally completed in 1665. The mosque plan was based upon the designs of the Shehzade and Sultan Ahmed mosques. Part of the mosque complex was a large market which survives today as the Egyptian Bazaar or better known as the Spice Market. The mausoleum of the Yenii Camii holds the graves of Turhan Hatice, her son Mehmed IV and five later sultans – Mustafa II, Ahmet II, Mahmut I and Murat V. The Yenii Camii is the only Imperial mosque instigated and completed at a woman’s bequest.

The Blue Mosque stands across parks to the south as a counterpoint to the Aya Sofya. Built in 1616 for Sultan Ahmed I, who died but one year later at the young age of 27 – his tomb/türbe is close by. The Blue Mosque is one of the most magnificent buildings in the Islamic world. The six minarets were controversial at the time of construction since that equaled the number surrounding the El Haram Mosque which encloses the Ka’aba in Mecca. The architect of the Blue Mosque, Mehmet Aga, was dispatched to Arabia subsequently so he could add a seventh minaret to El Haram. One story relating to why there were six is that the sultan actually said he wanted ‘golden’ minarets (altun in turkish), but Mehmet Aga heard ‘six’ (altuh) instead.

Four massive columns support a dome that is almost as big as that of Aya Sofya – 22m/70 feet diameter and 43 m/142 feet high. More than 20,000 turquoise Iznik tiles glow inside the mosque from light filtering through some 260 windows. As are the other former Imperial mosques – with the exception of Ay Sofya – the Blue Mosque is a functioning worship center so tourists can only enter when services are not ongoing.

Dolmabahçe Camii is another imperial palace commissioned by a Valide Sultan – Bezini Alem, the mother of Abdülmecit I who actually died before the mosque was completed - it was finished by her son. This is probably the best known of a series of 19th century imperial mosques that were built. Built as a part of the new Dolmabahçe Palace complex that was built during Abdülmecit’s reign to replace the aging Topkapi, this mosque gave the Sultan an appropriate place to go on Fridays. The mosque shows European influences impinging upon the old imperial themes – neorocco and baroque meets the empire.

Abdülmecit I ruled from 1839 until 1861. He attempted to make the idea of an empire all-encompassing, to try and make other nationalities gain a stake in maintaining the empire. Much like the Hapsburgs and the Romanovs, he would fail as nationalism would win the day. He tried to modernize the empire as well as the army – something that had been fatal to some of his predecessors – and he is known also for introducing the fez as more modern headgear to replace the turban. The fez would go the way of the empire in 1923 when nationalism won the day. Abdülmecit is also know for replacing the Topkapi Palace with the
magnificent Dolmabahçe Palace. The cost of this, as well as some of his other programs and palaces, would lead to Turkey needing to seek a series of foreign loans which would lead to his successor’s – Abdülazziz – deposition and “suicide” – somehow in prison he managed to get a hold of scissors and cut both wrists at the same time.

Ortaköy Camii is another neobaroque/imperial mixture much like Dolmabahçe Camii. Both, being along the Bosphorus shoreline have very dramatic settings though here you also have the mosque sitting directly at the feet of the First Bosphorus Bridge to contrast the old and the new. The mosque was built to replace an earlier 18th century mosque to give Abdülmecit an appropriate imperial mosque to pray at when he happened to be at his nearby Çýragan Palace, which is now an expensive five-star hotel. Some of the calligraphy inside are from the sultan himself who was not only the caliph and man in charge but also a hattat – a master calligrapher. The mosque is presently undergoing a 3 million TL renovation to repair the damages of time including a roof collapse in 2009.

By the way, the Turkish tradition of putting up lights during Ramazan between the minaret towers is known as mahya. You can find out about the tradition at the last weblink or this one.

  • Page Updated May 9, 2016
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