Mimar Sinan, Rüstem Pasha Mosque, Istanbul

Mimar Sinan, Rüstem Pasha Mosque, Istanbul, 1561–63


[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re standing inside of the Rüstem Pasha Mosque here in Istanbul. It’s really different than so many of the mosques that we’ve looked at because the inside is covered with beautiful ceramic tile, which is also on the exterior of the building.

Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis: [0:18] It’s kind of extraordinary because it’s also built by Sinan, the great Ottoman architect, but it has a totally different aesthetic and interior feel because there are tiles covering most of the lower part of the mosque, as well as the squinches that the dome is resting on.

Dr. Harris: [0:33] It’s called the Rüstem Pasha Mosque after its patron, Rüstem Pasha. We could wonder whether it was Rüstem Pasha who asked Sinan to cover the interior and much of the exterior with tile or whether it was Sinan himself who wanted to do that.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [0:47] There are a lot of things we don’t fully understand about this mosque. There’s speculation whether it was built by Rüstem Pasha or by his wife, who was one of Suleyman the Magnificent’s daughters.

Dr. Harris: [0:56] We should say that Suleyman is the sultan at this point of the Ottoman Empire, and Rüstem Pasha is his prime minister, his grand vizier.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [1:05] Exactly, and Rüstem Pasha was not a popular character. First of all, he had been a janissary, he was born in Bosnia, seems to have been Croatian, moved up in the ranks, but he was a very good person for Suleyman the Magnificent to have because he created a very effective tax policy, which meant that the empire was solvent.

[1:21] Generally, if you’re good at taxing people, people don’t like you. He also seems to have been involved in political intrigue and was exiled for a couple of years.

Dr. Harris: [1:28] He was not only a very successful politician, but also amassed a considerable amount of wealth and commissioned this mosque, along with an endowment to continue its existence. The way that that happens is by the shops that are underneath.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [1:43] It’s an interesting mosque. You have a totally different way of coming in here. Normally, there’s a court in front of many of the other imperial mosques. Instead, in this one you walk up a winding staircase and come out to the double portico, which is very atypical.

[1:55] It’s a totally different effect and feeling for getting here, as opposed to the mosque that Sinan had built for Suleyman and for his wives and other family members.

Dr. Harris: [2:05] The shops below helped to support the existence of the mosque.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [2:10] Almost all mosques had some type of endowment. In a lot of the imperial cases, the mosques might have been funded by taxes. Having enough money to make sure your mosque was maintained was a really important consideration.

Dr. Harris: [2:21] Let’s talk about the plan, because in some ways it looks very familiar and in some ways it looks very unfamiliar. We have centrally planned space, an octagon, and we can think of lots of buildings, including Byzantine buildings, that are based on the octagon.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [2:36] Like Sergius and Bacchus, for example.

Dr. Harris: [2:37] Right here in Istanbul. On top of that octagon, a lovely dome with a ringlet of light that might remind us of Hagia Sophia here in Istanbul. We could say that the architect is using squinches to move from the octagon shape of the space to the circular form of the dome itself.

Dr. Harris: [2:55] Squinches are really important in Islamic architecture because they are used to transition from octagonal bases up to domes. It’s a quintessential feature. A lot of times in these squinches you have muqarnas and these stalactite types of designs that help create an interesting zone of transition.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [3:12] Which we see here and actually many places. The space feels very lateral to me. There’s a lot of room for prayer facing the mihrab, facing the direction of Mecca.

Dr. Harris: [3:23] When you look at the plan, it looks a lot like a lot of the other plans that we’ve seen. It looks square, maybe slightly rectangular. When you’re looking up at the dome, you start to realize that the semi-domes are not where they are in a lot of other places. They’re not on the cardinal points, they’re in the corners.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [3:37] You don’t get a sense of an extension of the space longitudinally as much as you do width-wise.

Dr. Harris: [3:43] Exactly. It ends up having, again, a very different type of feel.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [3:47] Let’s talk about the tiles.

Dr. Harris: [3:48] These tiles are really special. They’re from a place that is probably most strongly associated with tiles in Turkey, in the Ottoman Empire, and that’s Iznik. It’s not very far from Istanbul.

[3:58] It’s about 50 miles southeast of here, and it was on major trade routes. It was always an important center for ceramic production, but something seems to have happened in around 1480, 1490.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [4:08] It seems like that must have to do with the patronage of the Ottoman court.

Dr. Harris: [4:12] There seems to be a lot of evidence that they’re starting to want more ceramics. There was a huge ceramic tradition in Iran and Central Asia.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis:[4:18] We know that when the early Ottomans were expanding — for example, Selim I, Suleyman’s father, won a big battle at Tabriz — one of the things he brought back with him were master craftsmen that he needed to help build his empire and build the physical manifestations of it.

Dr. Harris: [4:33] We think about this as a cultural renaissance across all of the arts. Here we are looking at the tiles, but the patterns that we see here appear in manuscript illumination.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [4:43] In metalware, there’s a lot of conversation between different media.

Dr. Harris: [4:47] When we look around the space, what we notice primarily is this cobalt blue, which might remind us of Chinese porcelain.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [4:54] It should, because it seems that a lot of the original colors and ideas when Iznik ware was starting to take off seemed to be influenced by Chinese ceramics.

Dr. Harris: [5:03] We have blues, and when we look around, we see turquoise and also reds and oranges.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [5:09] That’s interesting because the changing of colors and the addition of colors helps us to understand when something was made. Turquoises and cobalt blues seem to be the dominant colors up until about 1525. Then things start to get interesting and a little bit more innovative.

[5:24] They developed techniques of creating manganese purple, different types of greens, and so these colors enter the repertoire. But around 1550, we start to get red. Red is very difficult to produce technically, so when red is mastered, it is incorporated everywhere. It also provides this wonderful visual contrast between the blues and the whites.

Dr. Harris: [5:44] Primarily, we see floral patterns.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [5:47] Here, it’s like flowers gone crazy. But there are certain very distinctive flowers. Probably the most defining one is the tulip.

Dr. Harris: [5:53] Right, I see that pretty much everywhere.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [5:55] The tulip becomes one of the predominant motifs. There’s even a later period in Ottoman art called the Tulip Period. Tulips were introduced to Europe from the Ottoman Empire.

Dr. Harris: [6:04] Nothing looks really like a tulip. These flowers are so highly stylized that sometimes it’s impossible to recognize the original, natural form that it was based on. Something that art historians refer to a lot too is the saz style.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [6:20] It’s one of those things, again, that’s quintessentially Ottoman. It’s this serrated leaf. Now, what’s so interesting about it is it’s not really from here. It’s coming from China.

Dr. Harris: [6:28] It’s these serrated leaves that move in and out and form these lovely arabesques.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [6:33] You can see where the Ottoman designers have taken something that’s foreign [and] reinterpreted it to create an arabesque, which is one of these quintessential Islamic designs.

Dr. Harris: [6:43] There’s an artist who seems to have been the originator of this style.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [6:46] Shah Kulu. He was taken, again, from Tabriz, and he seemed to have been the head of the court workshop for about 30 years under Suleyman.

[6:55] It seems that many of his designs, he may have sketched them out and then sent them to Iznik, where potters had to then execute them, but because you have this well-organized administration and bureaucracy to do these things, maybe it’s not so different from somebody designing a product in California and then sending it to China to be made.

Dr. Harris: [7:10] Because of the beauty of the tiles, my eye moves around the space laterally and not up. Normally, in domed spaces, whether they’re Byzantine or Ottoman, I often leave with an aching neck. Here, my eye just spans the walls.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [7:27] I think so too. You’re almost more focused on what’s at eye level, which in some ways is important. You would focus on looking at the mihrab, which again has these very ornate tour-de-force designs that aren’t replicated anywhere else, by making one major change, which is adding these tiles. It’s a totally different effect, which makes this a truly unique mosque.

Dr. Harris: [7:49] Let’s go outside. We’re here in the portico of Rüstem Pasha mosque, and we’re noticing an unusual tile on the facade.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [7:56] The tile was certainly put in later, but it’s very interesting because it shows the Kaaba in Mecca in the center, with all these buildings around it. It reminds us that the Kaaba was very often represented in ceramics, but also, we know of it being in manuscripts as well.

Dr. Harris: [8:12] This tile is located on the wall that is the direction of Mecca.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [8:16] It’s a very good reminder of, again, orientation is the most important thing in terms of prayer. To look at the tile, you actually visually have to go around the Kaaba, which is, if you went on pilgrimage, what you would do.

Dr. Harris: [8:27] The tile work on the outside of Rüstem Pasha is just as amazing as the tiles inside.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [8:33] What’s so interesting about this part right here, aside from seeing the greens and the purples and the reds, is we also see certain motifs that again reflect Chinese influence, and those are the cloud scrolls. They look like this mass of thin clouds running into each other.

[8:47] That’s something that we can see in manuscripts of the same period, clearly reflecting the influence of a Chinese design. We find it on other ceramics. For example, we find them often in dishes and bowls.

Dr. Harris: [8:59] Let’s go look at the shops that are beneath the mosque.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [9:02] Yes, because that was the other thing that was fun. That everything was paid for by the workers downstairs.

[9:06] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay and Dr. Beth Harris, "Mimar Sinan, Rüstem Pasha Mosque, Istanbul," in Smarthistory, December 13, 2015, accessed May 20, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/mimar-sinan-rustem-pasha-mosque-istanbul/.