Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Julian Bregstone: The impact of Mimar Sinan and Ottoman Architecture

On the 29th of May, 1453, Mehmed the Conqueror succeeded in capturing Constantinople from the Byzantine Empire. This event marked a new chapter of prosperity and expansion for the Ottoman Empire. During the next 100 years, the Ottomans transformed Constantinople into a center for cultural and economic progress. Suleyman I (1520–1566), the tenth sultan of the Ottoman empire, continued to expand the borders pushing the empire into three continents. The city’s geographical position made it central to overland trade routes between Europe and Asia which along with the empire’s territorial acquisitions contributed to the city’s economy. Suleyman I or Suleyman the Magnificent, as branded by the west, was not only a successful commander, he was a great patron to the arts. Suleyman’s chief imperial architect, Mimar Sinan completed some of the most magnificent works of the time period, many of them being great mosques. The Suleymaniye Mosque in Constantinople (now called Istanbul) is possibly Sinan’s greatest work and was commissioned by Suleyman I to be his imperial mosque and tomb. Built on a hill, the Mosque’s minarets and dome are visible from the city’s surrounding streets and waterways. The mosque is representative of Suleyman’s belief in the divine rule of the caliph and it’s architecturla impact would eminate around the Muslim world.
Suleymaniye Mosque, finished in 1559, is named after the sultan Suleiman and is encompassed by a complex of buildings and a large courtyards. The surrounding buildings include residences, housing quarters for guests, kitchens, classrooms, a bathhouse, a hospital, six madrasas and two mausoleums [1]. There was ample space dedicated to learning as well as praying, showing the emphasis on gaining knowledge. Five of the madrasas were dedicated to theological and legal studies. The sixth was a medical school. Suleyman saw the Mosque as an investment for the afterlife and entrusted Sinan to surpass any previous mosque. Materials for the mosque were sourced from all around the empire, many of the columns coming from Egypt [2]. The Suleymaniye mosque was built as a testament to his greatness as a ruler.
Sinan’s architectural taste was influenced by the great works left behind by the Byzantine empire, most notably Hagia Sophia (532-7), originally a Christian cathedral that was converted into a Mosque. Sinan’s ground plan for his Suleymaniye Mosque(1552-9) has similarities to the plan of Hagia Sophia but was built to surpass its beauty. The architectural practice of central domed buildings was revived by Ottoman architects. Hagia Sophia was built a millenium before the age of Sinan and the building style had faded in relevance before being used in the building of Ottoman Mosques [3]. Both buildings have a large central dome, pendentives and semi domes. The central dome could be a symbol for the oneness of God. Like Hagia Sophia, there are windows along the dome that let light in and illuminate the dome, giving it a heavenly, lofted look. Unlike some earlier Mosque’s, the mosques of the Ottaman Empire are very vertical, giving them a larger facade on the outside and grander profiles. The mosque also features incredible stain glass windows. Suleymaniye has the customary four minarets of two differing heights. The facade of the mosque, when viewed from the main courtyard, has a layered, curvilinear form. Along the foremost wall are columns and pointed arches. There are seven arches and the central one is slightly wider drawing the eye to the center then upwards. One of the half domes and central dome are in full view as the buttresses are pushed off to the sides and the others are hidden within the structure. In the center of the courtyard is an ornate water drinking fountain. The interior of the mosque features elaborate geometric and calligraphic designs. Stained glass windows surrounded with Iznik tile separate wall of the qibla from adjacent walls [1]. The mihrab, made simply of white marble, looks like a gate and invites a visitor through its gates into the garden containing the mausoleums. The interior of the Suleymaniye Mosque is much brighter than Hahia Sophia’s interior due to all of it’s windows. Suleymaniye’s interior walls are sparsely decorated, bringing more attention to its structure. One must marvel at the central dome which reaches 53 meters high [2].
In Islam, the mosque is the primary religiuos building. It is very important to the communal aspect of prayer. Quran, Surah 2, Verse 142-152 is about the qibla. Verse 143 reads, “And thus we have made you a just community that you will be witnesses over the people and the Messenger will be a witness over you. And We did not make the qiblah which you used to face except that We might make evident who would follow the Messenger from who would turn back on his heels. And indeed, it is difficult except for those whom Allah has guided. And never would Allah have caused you to lose your faith. Indeed Allah is, to the people, Kind and Merciful” [5]. The qibla is the direction of Kaaba, marked by a niche in the wall of a mosque. Verse 143 is direct in its message on the qibla but can be interpreted as a more general statement on the importance of Mosque’s. Mosque’s are a testament to the greatness of Allah. They are the house of Allah and should transcend all other buildings. Suleyman became more concerned with his impact as an orthodox Muslim as he grew older, possibly a motivating factor in the commissioning of the Suleymaniye mosque [1].
The Suleymaniye Mosque is one of Sinan’s great works which include the Sehzade Mosque (1548) in Istanbul and Selimiye Mosque (1574) in Erdine. The Suleymaniye Mosque shows both the architectural prowess of the Ottoman Empire and its religious affiliation. The architecture of the building rivals any architecture from the 16th century. Every aspect of the mosque was carefully planned and carried out.

Work Cited

[1] Necipoğlu, Gülru. The Age of Sinan: Architectural Culture in the Ottoman Empire. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2005.

[2] Ettinghausen, Richard, Oleg Grabar, and Marilyn Jenkins. Islamic Art and Architecture, 650-1250. Yale University Press, New Haven [Conn.], 2001.

[3] Necipoğlu, Gülru. “Challenging the Past: Sinan and the Competitive Discourse of Early Modern Islamic Architecture.” Muqarnas, vol. 10, 1993, pp. 169–180. JSTOR,

[4] Surah al-Baqrah [2;142-152].,

Architectural drawing of Suleymaniye Mosque [1]

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