Mimar Sinan, Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul

Mimar Sinan, Süleymaniye Mosque, completed 1558, Istanbul, Turkey


[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in Istanbul at the enormous complex, Süleymaniye, in the mosque.

Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis: [0:10] This was the mosque in the complex of Suleiman the Magnificent, Suleiman the Lawgiver, as he is known. He ruled for most of the first part of the 16th century.

Dr. Zucker: [0:20] This is, in terms of European history, the time when Francois I was ruling. This is the time of Charles V, the time of enormously powerful rulers.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [0:31] Suleiman certainly was in that vein, and this building which was built 36 years into his reign is a testament to that greatness and the greatness of the Ottoman Empire.

Dr. Zucker: [0:40] This is interesting, because so many sultans built their major mosques early in their careers, and he was well into his reign, really knew what he was doing and had had tremendous military success.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [0:53] This was a time to build something that would be his legacy.

Dr. Zucker: [0:55] There is a grandeur here, and there’s a sense of sureness.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [0:59] In really some ways we shouldn’t find that surprising, because it was designed and built by Sinan, Suleiman’s great architect. This is viewed as his crowning achievement, where Ottoman architecture reaches its peak.

Dr. Zucker: [1:11] Of course, the Ottoman Empire was of an enormous scale. It was an empire that ruled far to the east, south to Egypt, across North Africa and into the Balkans, well into Europe.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [1:23] All of modern-day Iraq, Syria, basically the pilgrimage routes to Mecca. All of that was under control of the Ottomans. It’s a huge empire.

Dr. Zucker: [1:32] Sinan specced materials from all over the empire, and so this building functions as a kind of trophy of imperial grandeur.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [1:39] You have granite columns. Granite comes from Egypt. You have…

Dr. Zucker: [1:42] Hold on. Those granite columns are enormous, and look, there isn’t a single cut. These are monoliths. They’re a single piece of stone. Can you imagine what it would have taken to just transport those? To get them upright?

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [1:54] Of course, one of the other things that’s so amazing about many of the stone columns, they are taken from across the empire, whether it’s Egypt or some are taken from Baalbek. That’s exactly what Justinian had done in building Hagia Sophia.

Dr. Zucker: [2:06] There’s no question that this building is an attempt to take that ancient building and to remake it, to better it, to show that Suleiman was superior even to Justinian.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [2:18] Its plan goes back to the plan of Hagia Sophia, with a big centralized dome on pendentives, and two semi-domes, which is not what was being used in a lot of mosques built between 1520 and 1530. That change is a very specific decision.

Dr. Zucker: [2:32] When I enter the building, my eyes immediately go upward. There’s something that feels as if the heavens are contained within this space.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [2:40] That’s interesting, because a lot of 16th century contemporary sources made that comment. They felt like they were in a cosmological space that was partially helped by the hanging mosque lamps that create a sense of the heavens.

[2:54] Also, reflective metal balls were hung, things like that which would reflect light create a shimmering effect. That ethereal space is not only happening just because you have light coming in from the outside but also the way the space is lit.

Dr. Zucker: [3:08] Like Hagia Sophia, the walls and the dome are pierced with an enormous number of windows, so light enters in and illuminates the space in so many different, complex ways.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [3:18] If you think about the pillars and columns in Hagia Sophia, they’re much more solid. There are more columns. The light has to fight more to get through, where here, Sinan allows even more light in. In a sense, that’s an improvement on the interior.

Dr. Zucker: [3:29] Hagia Sophia was in every way an experiment. Here, Sinan knew exactly what he was doing.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [3:35] You can see all these years of experience, where he’s been chief architect for 12 years before he starts on this.

Dr. Zucker: [3:40] We have to be careful, because much of what we see is not original. A lot the painting, especially the red and white, is just paint and likely was not there in the original building.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [3:51] There was a big fire in 1660 and then a massive earthquake in 1766, both which damaged the interior. It was heavily restored in the 19th century, but there were renovations and restorations done in the middle of the 20th century, which attempted to take this back.

Dr. Zucker: [4:05] What is original is the building itself and then a few other elements, for instance the stained glass windows that are just to either side of the mihrab.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [4:13] They were created by a glazier whose name was Ibrahim the Drunkard. Clearly, he must have been good at what he was doing despite his drinking issues. What they do is they quote the light verse from the Qu’ran, “God is the light of the heavens and earth.” That also gives this feeling of the mosque being illuminated by divine light.

Dr. Zucker: [4:30] Light is almost an architectural element in this building, not just something that passes through it. It is the substance this space.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [4:37] Istanbul gets cold, dark, and grey in the winter. To have wonderful light that comes in from many different angles makes the interior far more effective. If you think about the Pantheon, it has an oculus that lets light in, and the door. Those are two sources. This has light coming from all angles and directions.

Dr. Zucker: [4:53] It reflects and refracts. It’s almost as if we’re in a gem of extraordinary size.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [4:59] For you to say “gem” is really appropriate, because some of the blue pigments that were used in the original decoration were made of lapis lazuli, this extraordinarily expensive material.

Dr. Zucker: [5:08] The way ancient forms are re-used and re-thought can be seen throughout. Take, for example, the capitals at the top of the massive granite columns. Those are not classical columns. Those are not Doric, or Ionic, or Corinthian columns. They’re not the Byzantine columns that we see in Hagia Sophia.

[5:24] These are muqarnas, that is, these stalactite-like forms that create a series of convexes, these units that get multiplied, that are used in so many different ways in Islamic architecture and here are being reinvented in the capital of the column.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [5:39] It’s interesting how light these feel.

Dr. Zucker: [5:41] That column is so dense and so powerful, but it’s supporting something that feels so light and almost feathery. There is this miraculous quality as the weight of this massive building seems to literally dissipate before our eyes.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [5:54] You almost feel like you’re in the presence of something otherworldly, and it does make one feel very humble. It also is a great reminder of the power of God and the power of the sultan as his divinely appointed ruler.

[6:06] If we can imagine ourselves back into the 16th century, the pomp and circumstance that would have gone with the sultan arriving here on Friday for the prayers. He would parade through the city with thousands of janissaries in front of him and behind him.

[6:18] You couldn’t help but be awed by the power of the sultan. Not only is the building overwhelming, but the ceremony that goes with it is overwhelming.

[6:25] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Mimar Sinan, Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul," in Smarthistory, December 16, 2015, accessed May 19, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/mimar-sinan-suleymaniye-mosque-istanbul/.