Istanbul is a pure city which has been renowned, among other things, for the magnificence of its houses of prayer for centuries. Built throughout Istanbul after the conquest, the sultans' mosques are the heirlooms and the gift of sultans and their mothers who made the city “Islambol” (filled with Islam) and left the mark of Muslim Turks all around it. There is no doubt that these mosques are the highlight of the religious architecture of Istanbul. Built by sultans or sultans' mothers for young princes, “selâtin” mosques are known for having more than one minarets and have been closely associated with Istanbul. These mosques, which have been instilling spirit and meaning into the city for centuries, are displays of both the glory of the Ottoman state and the artistic and aesthetic aspects our ancestors brought into religious centers.
In this story, we visit Süleymaniye and Nuruosmaniye on the European side and Vâlide-i Atik and Big Selimiye on the Anatolian side among the "selatin" mosques.
If we were to use one adjective to describe Süleymaniye Kulliyyah -a complex comprising a mosque, a madrasa, a library, a soup kitchen, a hospice, an inn, a bathhouse, and a primary school- in the district of Fatih, it would definitely be “splendid.”
Süleymaniye is one of the seven hills of Istanbul. During the mosque’s construction, Süleymaniye was an important center of Istanbul. We need to start from the exterior to the interior -like all other buildings and venues- in order to better understand it. We roll up our sleeves and head for the fountain where history flows with water. This is the first station in history to prepare drinking water by collecting the water from the rivers of Strandzha and purifying it with oxygen by way of creating air flow based on the principle of natural tower. Each of the pipes (made by hammered brass with the contemporary technology) was meticulously designed. The fountain is also a wonder of calculation with iron wrought façades that enable air flow.
We give way to contemplation and enter the mosque. We stand in the gathering place of the muezzin, put our hands on our knees, and, in reverence, travel back 470 years when the foundation of this grand sanctuary was laid. Art, aesthetics, ability, splendor, tranquility, justice, peacefulness, modesty, commitment, and the golden ratio are only some of the concepts that characterize the Süleymaniye Mosque. Although there’s a lot to write and discuss regarding the magnificent Süleymaniye in relation to its dome, fume chamber, sound system, engineering, and wondrous design, it takes us a long time to take our eyes off of the Fatir Surah that decorates the main dome with sülüs calligraphy.
After reading Al Fatihah many times by the foot of the humble mausoleums of Suleiman the Magnificent and architect Sinan who built Yavuz Sultan Selim and Şehzadebaşı Mosques in a collaboration of efforts and hearts, we stroll along the marble, stone, and soil pathways and cobblestoned pavements towards Nuruosmaniye Mosque.
If we were to say one thing about Nuruosmaniye Mosque, it’s enough to say, “a venue that invites us to preserve the balance of the world and afterlife within the vibrancy of trade.” This mosque is located in one of the most energetic locations in Istanbul, in front of the gate of the Grand Bazaar that opens up to Cağaloğlu and Çemberlitaş. We feel a sense of expansion as we walk from Süleymaniye surrounded by narrow wooden houses towards Nuruosmaniye.
The kulliyyah whose construction began during the reign of Sultan Mahmud I comprises a mosque, a sultan’s pavilion, a library, a soup kitchen, a public fountain, a mausoleum, a water fountain, and shops. When the sultan passed away before its completion, the mosque was completed by Sultan Osman III. Adorning the second hill of Istanbul, Nuruosmaniye Kulliyyah stands out with its modern architecture and Baroque decorations added to the heritage of classical architectural.
Since Nuruosmaniye Mosque is the first example of western style mosque ornamentations which were frequently seen in the mosques built in the 18th and 19th centuries in the Ottoman state, it serves as a successful representation of the architectural decoration that led to the birth of a new style called Turkish Rococo blending Baroque, Imperial, and Rococo styles with local characteristics.
Situated right beside the Grand Bazaar in the heart of commerce, the mosque reminds us of the balance between the world and the afterlife as a place where cypress trees converse with minarets around its hazire (burial area reserved for special people especially in mosques or sufi lodges).
Big Selimiye Mosque
We leave the European side behind and head for the Anatolian side of the city by taking the City Line ferry which offers a view of the immense Bosphorus. Located in the district of Üsküdar, Big Selimiye Mosque brings together grandeur and modesty with Karacaahmet cemetery on one side as the sign of the afterlife and the cold waters and never-ending winds of the Bosphorus on the other. The complex includes a sultan’s pavilion, a primary school, a muvakkıthane (time-keeping house), a public fountain, a water fountain, and a mausoleum. Unfortunately, Sultan Selim III, the father of the mosque, could not be buried here.
Until the construction of Şakirin Mosque, Big Selimiye Mosque, which used to be mostly frequented by the residents of the Selimiye quarters, also had the honor of being the venue for the funeral prayers of those who would be buried at Karacaahmet.
Featuring ample space with lots of light, this peaceful and heartwarming mosque awaits you in Üsküdar to tell you its 214-year-old story, dating back to the Ottoman times.
Vâlide-i Atik Mosque
Vâlide-i Atik Mosque (formerly known as Eski Vâlide Mosque) was meticulously built by architect Sinan on the loveliest of Istanbul’s seven hills. This historic, sacred and ethereal beauty, hidden heaven is also located in Üsküdar. Built between 1570 and 1579 by Afife Nur-Bânû Vâlide Sultan who was the mother of Sultan Murad III and the wife of Sultan Selim II, the mosque is one of the spiritual chambers of Istanbul.
Comprising a mosque, a dervish lodge, a soup kitchen, a hospital, a caravanserai, a primary school, a darülhadis (hadith room), and darülkurra (Qur’an room), the kulliyyah is away from the hustle and bustle of the city, living in its own divine atmosphere. You cannot see other buildings from inside the kulliyyah and watching the sky above Üsküdar from its garden really takes you to another place.
If you have met Uncle Haydar of Dersim, who has the spirit of a dervish and managed the teahouse in the kulliyyah until recently, you know that he not only made tea but also had a deep knowledge of Ahi culture and fütüvvet (Turkish-Islamic guild) ethics, offering great conversation.
During the month of fasting when the houses of our hearts are as thin as paper, sultans' mosques invite Istanbulites to peacefulness under their domes with their fountains, minarets, balconies, lanterns, mahyas, takbirs, and azans.