Contemporary Mosque Design in Anatolia

Built on the highest hill of old Istanbul, the Suleymaniye presents a bold response to Istanbul’s other great house of worship, the Hagia Sophia. The sixth-century Byzantine basilica had stood for a millenium with the largest dome in the world. After nine hundred years as the largest cathedral in Christendom, the Seville Cathedral finally displaced it. Less than a half-century later, the fall of the Byzantines and the capital Constantinople to the Ottomans marked its transformation into one of the greatest mosques in Islamdom and its dominance over Turkish mosque design.

Ottoman sultans set out to best its grandeur immediately. Mehmed I, the sultan who conquered Constantinople, famously killed his architect when he failed to build a dome as high. It took another century and the development of the imperial Ottoman architectural bureaucracy before the Ottomans truly challenged the Hagia Sophia.

The Suleymaniye at once echoes the Hagia Sophia and departs from it. The central dome crowns both, but whereas the Hagia Sophia maintains the form of a dome basillica, the architect Sinan uses the dome as the base unit for the entire building. The building is completely composed of domed, square units, all a half, a quarter, an eight or a sixteenth of the center dome’s diameter. Supposedly, the interiors differ greatly as well with the Hagia Sophia offering occasional pierces of brilliant light into a gilded atmosphere and the Suleymaniye offering blankets of light.

I say supposedly because restorers have been working on the Suleymaniye since 2007. However, work finally finished on November 16th, and I plan on visiting as soon as possible. The day it reopened, I was heading to Üsküdar in order to visit the newest daring mosque design in Istanbul, the Şakırın Camii built outside the Karacaahmed Cemetery.

Commisioned by the Şakırın family, the mosque features architecture by Hüsrev Tayla and an interior design by Zeynep Fadıllıoğlu. Much has been made about Zeynep being the first woman to design a mosque’s interior, and I would be remiss not to say how spectacular the interior is.

Şakırın Camii Mosque Mihrab

More interesting to me though is the overall architecture. Since the domed square has been a mainstay of Ottoman architecture since its origins. There have been experiments in proportions and massing, but the typical community mosque uses a standard domed square, especially since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

For a brief period in the middle of the twentieth century, the government commissioned more daring mosques, domed octagons, pure domes, domeless. The pinnacle of this moment came with Vedat Dalokay’s victory in the 1957 competition to build a national mosque in Ankara.

In order to transition the weight of the round dome onto the square base, the Ottomans employed pendentives, triangular sections of a sphere. Dalokay used these structural elements typically hidden from the exterior as the basis of his mosque, continuing their arch into a full dome and allowing the underlying prayer hall to be an uninterrupted space. While identifiably Turkish, the design departed dramatically from Ottoman archetypes. Conservatives felt it departed too dramatically, and the Kocatepe project died just as the foundations were poured.

Kocatepe Dalokay Model

Dalokay eventually built his mosque in Islamabad under the sponsorship of Saudi Arabians. As a result Faisal Mosque resembles an Arab Bedouin tent instead of the domes of Turkey, and Pakistan owns one of the most admired pieces of modern mosque architecture.

Hüsrev Tayla won the next competition for the project in 1967 by which time Neo-Ottoman mosques held sway once more. His design drew extensively from the Şezade, Selimiye, and Sultanahmet mosques built during the classical Ottoman era, so much so that from a distance it would be easily confused with 16th century mosque. Four decades later, the Şakırın mosque’s resemblence to Dokalay’s Kocatepe has been noticed by a few sources.

I don’t know how to interpret the relationship between the abandoned Kocatepe project and the Şakırın Mosque. The sliced sphere is a very natural progression of the classical Ottoman domed square, and Tayla marries his dome to a courtyard ringed by domed square elegantly. Regardless, the design brings much-needed change to an architectural landscape that has cowered in the shadows of the Suleymaniye and Sinan for too long.


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