Pride. It comes up a lot in architecture. We see it often when looking at buildings commissioned by kings and emperors; but don’t rule out the pride that goes into your neighbor’s renovations either. In a large part, the built environment stands because someone wanted to show off. And in that sense, the Blue Mosque (officially called Sultan Ahmed Mosque) is no different.
In fact, it’s that very concept on steroids.
Take your average teenager, put him in charge of a kingdom spanning three continents but stuck in a losing war for a few years, and then guess what he wants to build. Obviously, the best, most important mosque to ever be created, and let’s place it right next to the old, best and most important structure in Istanbul so you can always tell how much better his is.
And just in case you aren’t up to date on architectural masterpieces – the Hagia Sophia (that old, best, most important structure in Istanbul) is readily known as one of the greatest architectural monuments in the world, and for good reason. Sultan Ahmed had a lot to compete with. The Sultan’s placement of the Mosque next to the converted Christian Church of Hagia Sophia signified Islamic domination over Islam, it also signified that he thought a lot of himself.
The Blue Mosque, like the ones before it, continued a tradition that had been established long ago. It was normal for a pious and benevolent ruler to construct mosques after winning wars or establishing prestige. But Sultan Ahmed had done neither. Also, most other Ottoman imperial mosques were located on the city periphery to encourage urban development. They were not placed smack dab on top of the established palaces of the Ottoman ministers. The Sultan choose to ignore the heavy financial cost and build in the middle of the city anyways.
This was partly subtle manipulation. Stuck in a losing war, the empire’s people were not happy with their failing leader. They were suffering under high taxation and had nothing to show for it. The Ottoman Empire was starting to flag.
But you couldn’t tell from the new construction going up in their midst. Not only was this a decadent mosque going up during wartime, but it was also the first to be built in more than forty years. The Sultan borrowed heavily from treasury funds, unlike his predecessors who had used victory spoils. This did not endear him to people in the know. But for the many (that were outside of the know), the construction of the most magnificent mosque in decades could convince them that maybe the Empire wasn’t doing so bad after all. It promotes the idea of ultimate excess, and most Sultans wouldn’t build in absolute excess if there wasn’t any, would they?
Construction began in 1609 and was impressively finished within seven years. Mehmed Agha, the architect, received the commission after his predecessor was executed for not being good enough. Mehmed Agha was the last student of the Master Sinan. Sinan is famous for constructing many different mosques across Istanbul, like the Suleymaniye. In a way, he established a style for all mosques to come. In the Blue Mosque, Mehmed Agha would take the normal style and make it brighter and more colorful.
There was a lot of pressure on this architect’s shoulders and he had to deal with an exacting client. And just like I would, if faced with a client who could forcibly remove my head, he listened to exactly what the Sultan decreed. One rather scandalous example occurred with the minarets. Minarets are used mainly as an beacon, but also to sound the call to prayer. The word minaret is derived from the word lighthouse, and the two are similar in function. Most mosques have two or four minarets. When the Sultan and architect discussed this some confusion ensued. The architect heard the word ‘alti’ meaning six minarets, while the Sultan may have asked for ‘altin’ or gold minarets. We don’t know what the Sultan truly desired at the point, but six minarets was a scandal. Only the most holy mosque in the world, the Haram Mosque in Mecca, had six minarets. So either the Sultan was saying his mosque was equivalent or he just wanted them coated in gold. Either way, the people were not that happy challenging the Mosque in Mecca when they saw the six minarets go up. So he sent someone to Mecca to add a seventh minaret.
The actual form of the mosque follows the Great Sinan’s teachings and a very traditional Ottoman style. It relies on the dome as a symbol of assembly. At the Blue Mosque, a central high dome is surrounded by smaller and semi domes that bring down the loads to pendentives (those things that transition a round dome to a square shaped bay) and four large pillars. Dome to dome the load and structure trickle down. Slightly wider than it is own long, it feels grand and open. Only the four large columns mentioned before break the wide open area. Functionally, a muezzin platform, elevated on columns, a wooden pulpit, and the royal lodge and its screened platform are the only things that break up the space.
But the Blue Mosque of yesteryear must have been even better. Tales of gold chandeliers dripping with gems, ostrich eggs (used to repel spiders), and crystals, leave me imagining. Once, the mihrab was covered in jade rose and gilt. Imagine, praying kneeled on the floor. Imagine, looking up towards heaven and being inundated with the glories of such jewels. Imagine, the extensiveness of the complex that surrounds you. Not unlike its other counterparts, this mosque would have served as a mini-town center in the 17th century. Within it’s walls you could find a madrasa, hospital, a theological school, imperial lodge, soup kitchen, bazaar shops, primary school, and small library.
Nowadays, the mosque is still captivating even if it has lost some of its original splendor. It still reaches to the heavens and cascades. The size of the space still feels overwhelming. The work of the greatest calligrapher of the time, Seyyid Kasim Gubari, graces the walls. The mihrab, the semi-circular recess that marks the direction to Mecca, is covered in carved and sculptured marble with a stalactite niche and inscriptive panel above. The minbar or pulpit where the imam speaks to the right is also richly decorated (you can make these out in the photo above along the far wall). As your eye reaches towards the ceiling, the decoration becomes more extreme and flamboyant. Tulip designs change to other flowers, fruits and cypresses. The natural decorations harken back to the garden of paradise. And outside, you can still find a fountain bubbling with water in the forecourt. In Islam, the water also calls back the garden of Eden and the idea of purification.
Sultan Ahmed wanted to show his prestige, his power, and his success, despite not having much. That’s why his mosque is so massive it can fit 10,000 people during prayer. Although he would only live to enjoy it for a year, I think he would be happy to know what a destination it has become. Some stats have come out that say 95% of people visiting Istanbul enter Sultan Ahmet Mosque, while only 70% visit the Hagia Sophia. And while I think that figure is based more on the fact that the Hagia Sophia charges an entrance fee, no one has to tell Sultan Ahmed.