David Apthorp praises the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Mosque in Istanbul
The Sokullu Mehmet Pasha Mosque is one of the masterpieces of Islamic architecture. Built at the highpoint of the Ottoman Empire, it was designed by the great architect, Mimar Sinan, using an intricate six-fold geometry imbued with spiritual significance. The interior decoration is one of the best examples of Iznik tile work, produced just before the secret of the fabulous coloured glazes began to be lost. Visiting 500 years after its inauguration, geometer and artist David Apthorp finds that it still has the power to enthral us.
This small jewel of a mosque in Kadırga, the part of Istanbul that nestles between the foot of the first of the seven hills of old Constantinople and the sea of Marmara, looking towards the shores of Asia, was designed in the late 1560s by Mimar Sinan, the greatest of the Ottoman architects. It beautifully encapsulates the profound spiritual and artistic vision which underpinned the earthly rule of the Ottoman Empire.
The mosque was built for the daughter of Sultan Selim II (r.1566–74), Esmahan Sultan, who was married to his Grand Vizier, but it very soon became known by the name of her illustrious husband. Sokollu Mehmet Pasha served three sultans between 1565 and 1579. He was made Vizier under Suleyman I Kanuni – the Lawmaker, known in the west as Suleyman the Magnificent (r.1520–66) – and his political acumen and skill in controlling the rivalry between the two surviving contenders for the throne of the ageing Sultan, and his role in ensuring that his father-in-law, Selim, could safely accede, gave him pre-eminence in the Ottoman court. He became enormously wealthy and powerful, and during the rule of Selim – who was reputedly more interested in wine, poetry and his beloved Venetian wife, Nurbanu – he was de facto ruler of the empire.
His friend Marcantonio Barbaro, the Venetian ambassador – who was also a patron of Palladio – described his motivation for building the mosque in glowing terms, praising his character, his piety, graciousness and lack of ‘rapacity’…
And for the group of dervishes, who divest themselves from the contamination of the gilded wheel of fortune by retiring like a spider to the corner of contentment and who substitute litanies in praise of God for worldly quarrels, he built behind that light filled Friday mosque a convent with thirty defectless rooms embodying beautiful characteristics.
The Sokollu Mehmet Pasha was built on a sloping site below the Vizier’s own palace – which is no longer standing, as the land was sold by his son for the construction of the so-called Blue Mosque, built by Sultan Ahmet (r.1603–17) in the early 17th century. Behind it, as Barbaro indicates, was constructed a dervish convent for the Halveti Shaykh Nureddinzade, the Shaykh of the Küçuk Ayasofia convent, whose enthusiastic adherents included not only Sokollu Mehmet but also Sultan Suleyman and Princess Mihrimah, his wife’s royal aunt.
Drawing of the whole Sokollu Mehmet complex: https://www.studyblue.com/notes/note/n/second-half/deck/1679638
The Experience of the mosque
If you want to visit this jewel, I suggest you leave it till last on your itinerary. First witness the grandeur of the mighty buildings on top of the seven hills – the great Church of Justinian, the Hagia Sofia, dedicated to the Holy Wisdom; the mosques of Suleyman, Bayazid and Sultan Ahmed; the Topkapı Palace. Sense the strength and power that gave rise to them and then walk back down the hill, as a pilgrim might, bringing with you an awareness of the thousand years of history that the city’s architecture embodies. As you walk towards the sea, round the corner of a building, at eye level you will suddenly see the curve of a dome, and – whether by accident or design, we do not know – an optical illusion that has the single, twelve-sided, minaret soaring straight out of its centre. The half domes and turrets tumble down in perfect harmony into the trees, like tresses.
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Geometrically, the mosque is designed as a hexagon inscribed in a rectangle, topped by a dome with four small semi-domes in the corners. Its structure represents a high point of Ottoman architecture, which developed over several centuries from a template originally based on the form of the Hagia (Aya) Sophia. This great church, built by Justinian in 537, had long been the object of wonder to the Muslims. There is a famous saying of the Prophet Muhammad that it would become a mosque and that whoever prayed in it would go to Paradise. During the first Muslim attack on the city in 674–8, Mohammad’s standard-bearer, Abu Ayyūb al-Anṣārī, made an agreement with the Byzantine Emperor to raise his siege of the city if he could pray in the Hagia Sophia. He was thus held to be the first Muslim to worship there, and his tomb (he died during a later campaign and was buried outside the city walls) was discovered and rebuilt by Mehmet II when he conquered the city in 1453. All the Ottoman sultans were girded with the ‘sword of Uthmān’ at the Eyüp Sultan Mosque upon their accession, and to this day, it is regarded as a sacred place by the people of the city.
Just round the corner from the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha is the 6th-century Church of SS Sergius and Bacchus, one of the most beautiful and historic of the surviving Byzantine churches in the city. This is deemed by many to be a prototype of the Hagia Sophia – indeed it is still known as Küçuk Aya Sofya (the little Aya Sophia). Begun by Justinian in 527, the first year of his reign, it was built by the same architect, and the metaphysical themes expressed with such superlative skill and majesty, ten years later, in the Hagia Sophia itself, are here present in miniature and can be seen clearly.
This architectural form was adopted and further developed to an extraordinarily refined degree by the Ottomans, and by Sinan in particular. A study of the elements of the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha reveals that the spaces within the mosque itself are arranged according to a hierarchy of proportions, like notes in a scale. The prayer hall between the balconies to the top of the windows in the half-domes is a perfect cube. The overall proportion is 2:3, with the hemisphere of the dome topping the cube of the body of the building. The top of the dome marks the height of the start of the corbling of the balcony of the twelve-sided minaret from where the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. The faces of the side pillars give you a 5:4 ratio, as does the cornice at the base of the dome. From the side walls to the pillars by the doorway and mihrab wall is 3:2 again, and the overall floor space is 6:5…
The Geometry of the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha. Drawing: David Apthorp.
One could say much more: of Sinan’s perfect resolution of the hexagonal form; of the meaning of the number six itself, the first ‘perfect number’ which is the sum of its dividers (1 x 2 x 3 = 6 ; 1 + 2 + 3 = 6); of the Üç Serefeli mosque which is another very lovely, earlier (15th-century) mosque in Edirne where the dome is supported by a hexagon; and of all the paths that cross and recross during the thousand year journey – both metaphysical and physical – that started with the church of SS Sergius and Bacchus and culminated in this beautiful little mosque.
But standing here, before the plain, unadorned mihrab, it as if one has been brought to some ultimate secret – as if there is an opening, as it were, in the centre of Paradise. In physical orientation, one is facing back across the water to the origin of it all – to the prophetic message that inspired both Christianity and Islam. In the interior, one faces the unity – the intersection between the visible and the invisible, beauty and ineffability.
And in history, one is facing a peak moment in art and spiritual culture, a glint of light on the topmost drop of water in a fountain before it falls. For after the death of Selim II in 1574, Sokollu Mehmet found himself disliked by the new Sultan, Murad III (r.1574–95), a weak and untrustworthy monarch who found the great plans of the Grand Vizier (including one for a Suez canal!) an unwelcome interference with his begetting of 102 children from the countless wives and concubines supplied by his mother and his Venetian wife. In 1579, Sokollu was murdered in the Topkapı by a beggar dervish of the persecuted Hamzawi order, at the behest of a ‘foreign agent’, and the Empire entered upon its long period of decline.
First inset: Portrait of Sokollu Mehmet Pasha: artist not known.
Quote from Romano Burelli in John Freely, Augusto Romano Burelli & Ara Guler in Sinan: Architect of Suleyman the Magnificent and the Ottoman Golden Age (Thames and Hudson, 1992).
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