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Sinan, Süleyman and the Süleymaniye

Three stars in the Ottoman firmament

suleymaniye_s.jpg (13239 bytes)The reign of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent marks the zenith of the Ottoman Empire not only in the political arena, but in scholarship and the arts. During this time, between 1520 and 1566, great numbers of mosques, bridges, hans (urban kervansarays), hamams (baths), medreses (colleges) and other structures were built all over the empire. Early in this century a man named Sinan from the village of Ağırnas in Kayseri was recruited into the janissaries and arrived in Istanbul. This tall, heavily built man with a bushy beard and kindly face came to be known as Koca or Big Sinan.

Koca Sinan’s architectural career began as a janissary engineer building bridges and other military structures, and he went on to join the corps of imperial architects. By the 1540s his fame had reached the ears of Süleyman the Magnificent, who first appointed him to design and build a mosque in memory of his favourite son Şehzade Mehmed. When he saw this superb building, which was completed in 1548, Süleyman was so impressed that he decided to appoint Sinan to build a mosque in his own name which would symbolise the greatness of the Ottoman state. Sinan himself longed for the opportunity to create a building which would surpass the Byzantine Haghia Sophia, and this was his chance. An edict was issued for the project to go ahead, and Sinan was invited to the palace to show Süleyman his design. It was during this audience the sultan told Sinan of his appointment as chief imperial architect.

Celalzâde Mustafa Çelebi wrote in his work entitled Tabakat ül-memalik ve derecat ül-mesalik, that the site selected for the Süleymaniye Mosque was inside the grounds of the Old Imperial Palace. It was an airy and spacious hilltop site overlooking the sea, open to the north winds, and Mimar Sinan prepared the plans for the mosque so as to take best advantage of its site. After levelling, digging of the foundations began. Three thousand galley slaves from the naval arsenal worked for three years on this task, and finally construction began between 7 and 17 June 1550 according to the inscription over the courtyard gate.The day that construction of the foundations began, Sultan Süleyman arrived at the site on horseback, accompanied by leading statesman, scholars and clerics of the time. He distributed alms to the poor, animals were sacrificed, and Şeyhülislam Ebussuud Efendi laid the first foundation stone. After readings from the Koran, ending with the Fatiha sura, work began.

Over the three years spent digging the foundations, Sinan had arranged for building stone to be brought to the site from the four corners of the empire: white marble from Marmara Island, and other types of stone from Davutpaşa, Haznedar, İzmit and Karacabey. One of the four great pillars was brought from Alexandria, one from Baalbek in Lebanon, one from the former Byzantine Great Palace, and the fourth from Kıztaşı in Fatih.

When the foundations were built, construction was halted to give them time to settle, which gave rise to malicious gossip spread by Sinan’s rivals that the task was beyond his capabilities, or in an alternative version that the sultan had run out of money. These rumours came to the ear of Shah Tahmasb Han of Persia, who sent an envoy to Süleyman with a chest of large rubies and emeralds and a message that they should be sold as his contribution to the construction of the mosque. Sultan Süleyman was as offended as his fellow ruler had no doubt intended, and calling Sinan to him told him to take the jewels and incorporate them in the mosque as the shah had requested. Sinan took the hint and carried them off to the building site, where before everyone’s eyes he poured the gems into a great stone mortar, crushed them to powder and stirred them into the building mortar.

suleymaniye2.jpg (12882 bytes)Years past but the mosque was still not finished. Sultan Süleyman was growing impatient. Sinan was simultaneously engaged on other projects, and his enemies complained to the sultan that Sinan was not supervising the project properly. Angry, Süleyman hurried off to his new mosque where he found Sinan seated in the centre of the unfinished building smoking a water pipe. The sultan was enraged both at this display of idleness and at the sacrilege of smoking in that holy place. But Sinan hastened to explain that he was testing the ventilation system by which the currents of air inside the building were drawn through a vent over the main entrance into a small chamber. The object of this clever piece of engineering was twofold: both to prevent the smoke from the hundreds of oil lamps from soiling the interior decoration and to deposit the lampblack in the chamber where it could be collected to make ink (lampblack was the principal ingredient of the ink used by Turkish calligraphers). When he heard this Süleyman softened, but nonetheless demanded to know exactly when the building would be completed. Sinan replied that it would be ready in two months, to the astonishment of everyone else present. But it was indeed completed on time. The building’s inscription tells us that it was completed around the middle of October 1557, and the Flemish painter Melchior Lorichs who was in Istanbul at this time gives the exact date as 4 October 1557.

Thousands of people crowded to the new mosque for the inauguration ceremony. Sinan handed the golden keys of the Süleymaniye to its founder. The sultan took the keys, but then returned them to Sinan with the words, It is fit that you rather than I should open this house of God which you have built, with joy and prayers of thanksgiving. Sinan took the keys and opened the door. The completed interior was revealed, filled with light streaming in through 138 windows in the dome.

suleymaniye3_s.jpg (9134 bytes)The huge dome 48 m high at the summit and 26 m in diameter, built to rival Haghia Sophia, rests on four pillars, and its weight is dispersed by semidomes and exedra. But there the resemblance with Haghia Sophia ends. The heavy solidity of the massive pillars is concealed by the upsweeping of the arches between them, creating a sense of vast space. Celebrated calligrapher Ahmet Karahisari began executing the inscriptions inside the mosque, and upon his death on 16 August 1556 they were completed by his pupil Hasan Çelebi. Out of respect for his master, Hasan Çelebi put the signature Inscribed by Hasan son of Ahmet Çelebi to his work. The mihrap (prayer niche indicating the direction of Mecca) is remarkable for its intricate marble carving, İznik tiling panels and stained glass windows to either side, and the minber (pulpit) is surmounted by a gilded köşk and finial. The müezzin’s gallery has been referred to as like a gallery out of paradise by Evliya Çelebi, and facing it is an ebony preacher’s chair. The hünkar mahfili or private prayer gallery for the sultan, where Süleyman, dressed in white, performed his prayers here for the first time is unsurpassed, with its exquisite carved screens.

The rectangular forecourt is encircled on four sides by colonnades, that along the north wall being slightly higher than the others and forming the son cemaat yeri or portico. The four minarets are set at each corner of this courtyard, those adjoining the mosque having three balconies and the others two. The total of ten balconies symbolises the fact that Süleyman I was the tenth Ottoman sultan. In the centre of the courtyard is a şadırvan or fountain for ablutions covered by a pitched roof.

Süleymaniye Mosque is set in an outer courtyard measuring 144x216 m, described by Evliya Çelebi in the 17th century as being large enough to gallop a horse in.

Over the centuries foreign artists and writers who visited Istanbul have been impressed by the Süleymaniye Mosque and left pictures and detailed descriptions which are valuable contemporary records of the building. Melchior Lorichs, who was in Istanbul when the mosque was being built, has left us the earliest painting of the Süleymaniye in plate number 10 of his 21 plate Istanbul panorama. Among many others are those by the Swedish artist Cornelius Loos and the celebrated engraver Thomas Allom. Descriptions of the Süleymaniye between the 16th and 19th centuries include those by Pierre Gilles, Phillippe du Fresne Canaye, Pietro della Valle, Julia Pardoe, Edmondo di Amicis and Pierre Loti.

The Süleymaniye has been the subject of poetry, too, such as the 20th century Turkish poet Yahya Kemal Beyatlı’s poem, Bayram Morning at Süleymaniye:

That it might look out on infinity unsurpassed
It chose this sacred hill on Istanbul’s skyline
Its thousands of labourers and architects who defeated the stone
For my free and broad homeland by night and day
A spiritual door opens here into the heavens
Through which the spirit armies can pass into God’s grace
One of its soldiers the architect of this victorious temple.


Sinan Süleyman Süleymaniye - Three stars in the Ottoman firmament
By O.S.Serdar Aytöre
Skylife 08/99