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Tiles of Rüstem Paşa Mosque

Rüstem Paşa Mosque stands in Tahtakale, one of the traditional commercial areas of Istanbul. From the outside this 16th century mosque makes little impact, hemmed in as it is by commercial buildings from various dates. To increase its visibility in this crowded district it was built above a ground storey consisting of shops and depots. A flight of steps leads up into the courtyard from the street, and there the shops and narrow streets are forgotten as you confront one of Mimar Sinan's greatest masterpieces.

The mosque was built in the 1560s by Mimar Koca Sinan for Grand Vezir Rüstem Paşa, one of the most renowned statesman of the period, yet it is of medium size and has a single minaret. Strict protocol prevailed at the time and only the royal mosques built by the sultans could have more than one minaret or minarets with multiple balconies. Since Rüstem Paşa was almost as rich and powerful as the sultan himself, how was he to reflect this in the mosque he founded? The answer to this question lay in the mosque’s decoration. Mimar Sinan was an architect who avoided extravagant decoration in his buildings. Even the Süleymaniye Mosque which he built for Süleyman the Magnificent made restrained, indeed minimal, use of tiles. In Rüstem Paşa Mosque, however, the walls and pillars are entirely covered with tiles up to the level of the great arches. So many tiles were required that the celebrated tile potteries of İznik could not produce them in sufficient quantities, and some had to be made at the potteries of Kütahya.

Rüstem Paşa Mosque has been damaged several times over the centuries by fires and earthquakes, but each time the tiles have been carefully replaced. The mosque was last restored in the 1990s, when measures were taken to strengthen the bonds of the tile panels, and errors made during previous repairs were corrected.In the golden age of Ottoman tile making, a bright coral red and emerald green were added to the traditional palette of turquoise and cobalt blue. The tiles of this period are also characterized by the use of white paste and a high quality transparent glaze, so producing a clear white ground against which the brilliant colors glow vividly. The interior of this mosque is therefore a dazzling riot of color and pattern.

Most of the tiles have infinitely repeating patterns, combining the highly stylized motifs of earlier centuries with the more naturalistic floriate designs which emerged in the mid-16th century. The loveliest examples of this new style of decoration are to be seen on the tiles of Rüstem Paşa Mosque. The traditional motifs, too, are used in new compositions, such as spiraling rumî scrolls sometimes, or several combined together to form larger motifs. 

One tile panel unique to this building is decorated in the so-called saz style of the transitional period leading up to the naturalistic movement. This is characterized by feathery lanceolate leaves which seem to waft in the breeze as you look at the panel.

The borders which frame both the infinitely repeating designs and the large panels have a fascinating array of designs. Some combine tulips and carnations with traditional motifs. Others have designs otherwise seen only on textiles, consisting of large rumî scrolls highlighted by stylized flowers.

Rüstem Paşa Mosque’s tiles include the finest examples of naturalistic floriate decoration, with tulips, carnations and roses arranged in repeating patterns. Above all they are celebrated for the unprecedented diversity of tulip motifs, with over forty different variations occurring in the mosque.The most exquisite tile panels have designs of trees in blossom or blossoming branches. Each surface of the polygonal prayer niche is adorned with identical panels with a design of blossoming stems in vases against a ground of traditional stylized motifs.

Despite the new trends in decoration of the time, tradition has been maintained in the form of blossoming branches inside oval medallions.

The relatively simple blossom motif of the niche panels is repeated in a far more ornate composition in the colonnaded portico. This panel is a masterpiece of the art of tiling. The fairly thick tree branches are realistic in both color and form. Even the knots on the branches can be seen, and the blossom is drawn in detail, with shading that lends a sense of depth. In the lower section of the panel are numerous spring flowers, principally tulips and roses, which are set in the spaces between the tree branches. Opium seed pods are another fascinating motif which is repeated several times in this panel. This representation of spring is framed at the top by an arched knotted band, so forming a small prayer niche for those praying in the portico to turn towards. Again tradition has not been neglected, and the area above the arch is filled with rumî scrolls.

The beauties of Rüstem Paşa Mosque, which is one of the most spectacular monuments of the period when Ottoman architecture and tiling were at their zenith, must be seen for their full impact to be appreciated.

Source: Skylife
By Prof. Dr Yıldız Demiriz, historian.