Thursday, October 2, 2008
Sultan Ahmet Mosque
The deeply religious Ottoman sultan of Istanbul Ahmet I (reigned a.d. 1603–1617) was enthroned at the age of fourteen. Six years later he commissioned his architect Sedefkar Mehmet Agha to build a mosque that would compete for size and splendor with the sixth-century Byzantine church of Hagia Sofia. A site was chosen facing the church across what is now Sultanahmet Square, and Ayse Sultan, whose palace stood on it, was duly compensated for its demolition. Construction started in 1609 on the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, probably the greatest achievement of Ottoman architecture.
Its architect had been a pupil of Sinan, considered by many to be the best architect of the early Ottoman Empire. Mehmet Agha worked in the tradition of his former master, and one of the precedents for his design was Sinan’s Suleymaniye Mosque (1550—1557) on the west bank of the Golden Horn. The other was Hagia Sofia itself, on which the Suleymaniye Mosque was based anyway. All, Islamic or Christian, grew around the same major element: an almost square, vast central space crowned with a dome. The Sultan Ahmet Mosque occupies an area of 209 by 235 feet (64 by 72 meters). Its central dome, 77 feet (23.5 meters) in diameter and reaching a height of 140 feet (43 meters), is carried on pendentives above four pointed arches, themselves supported on round, fluted piers. The central structure is stiffened by a hemidome on each of its four sides and by cupola-covered piers at the corners; then, in the manner of much Byzantine and Ottoman architecture, the loads and thrusts are transmitted to the ground by a cascade of flanking ancillary structures.
In front of the mosque stands a wide courtyard, enclosed by an openwork wall and entered on three sides through any of eight monumental gateways with bronze doors. The marble-paved inner court, with a central domed fountain for ritual ablutions, is surrounded by an arcade of slender columns of pink granite, marble, and porphyry, each bay-roofed with a cupola. Four marble minarets with pointed spires rise from the corners of the mosque; and two others, not as tall, at the outer corners of the court make the building, with six minarets, unique in Istanbul. They have a total of sixteen balconies, from which the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer, honoring the sixteen Ottoman sultans.
Around the mosque was the extensive kulliye, a collection of buildings and functions including the Imperial Lodge (hunkar) on its north side, a hospital, a caravansary, a primary school, public kitchen and service kiosk, a bazaar for the trades guilds, two-storied shops, and a college (medrese).
The architectural excellence of the Blue Mosque lies not in its structural ingenuity, because it was in fact highly derivative, nor in its challenge to the grandeur of Hagia Sofia, because it was much smaller than the ancient church. Rather, Sultan Ahmet’s building is remarkable for the splendor of its extraordinary decoration, especially the beautiful blue tiles that give the mosque its alternative name. Daylight is admitted through no fewer than 260 carefully placed windows, once glazed with stained glass, and when conditions are right the interior of the mosque is endowed with an ethereal blue haze. These tiles—there are more than 21,000 of them—were produced in nearby Iznik just when the industry was enjoying its highest level of achievement. There is an unsubstantiated tradition that the production of so many hand-decorated tiles completely exhausted the ceramicists, and the Iznik workshops began to decline. The tiles are painted with traditional floral and plant motifs, including roses, carnations, tulips, lilies, and cypresses, all in soft shades of green and blue on a white ground, and they cover the interior walls and piers to about a third of their height. The stunning effect of tiles and light is enhanced by other decorative details, including painted floral and geometrical arabesques on the domes and upper parts of the walls, although these are now for the most part modern replicas of traditional seventeenth-century designs. The graceful calligraphy everywhere is the work of Ameti Kasim Gubari. The wooden doors and window shutters, designed by Mehmet Agha, are inlaid with shell, mother-of-pearl, and ivory, and the pulpit (mimbar) as well as the niche indicating the direction of Mecca (mihrab) are both made of white Proconnesian marble, fine examples of Ottoman stone carving.
Sultan Ahmet I died of typhus only a year after his mosque was finished, and his nearby tomb and that of his wife Kosem Sultan was completed by his son Osman II.