Arabic and Islamic
The Suleymaniye Mosque: Beyond Inspiration
The Hagia Sophia church and the Suleymaniye mosque: a thousand years apart but tied together eternally. One representing the achievement of the Christian-Byzantine empire and the other representing the ability of the Islamic-Ottoman empire and its architect Sinan. Two empires that had very little in common other than their architecture and region. In earlier history the Dome of the Rock represented the Islamic empire’s attempt to rival the newly defeated Byzantine empire and its architectural achievements such as the Holy Sepulchre. As history often repeats itself, with similar political motives the Suleymaniye mosque became the Ottoman’s answer to the Byzantine’s great achievement in their area- the Hagia Sophia. The result is that one finds in the Suleymaniye mosque the inspiration of the Hagia Sophia as well as the distinctive Islamic qualities that Sinan brought to it.
BACKGROUND: the Hagia Sophia, the Suleymaniye, and Sinan
By most accounts the Hagia Sophia was first built between 532 and 537 by Isodorus of Miletus and Anthemis of Tralles for the Emperor Justinian during the Byzantine Empire’s control over the region and its capital Constantinopole.The present Hagia Sophia is the result of six building periods, the first two being the periods in which its basic structure was formed. A thousand years after the Hagia Sophia was first constructed, when Constantinopole became Istanbul and the Ottomans gained control, Sinan designed the Suleymaniye Complex for the Sultan Suleyman the Lawgiver. The socioreligious complex, called a kulliye, was built over seven years between 1550-57 with the mosque being the focus of the complex. Sinan, who created over 400 works in his own time, was the royal architect under Suleyman and as such was also in charge of the Hagia Sophia’s restoration.
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Because Sinan worked on the Hagia Sophia he became intimately familiar with its form and structure so its not surprising that it had an influence on much of his work. Of all his buildings,conceptually the Suleymaniye is probably the most similar to the Hagia Sophia with the basic concept of the central domed space made larger with attached semidomed spaces which in turn have smaller spaces attached topped by smaller domes. Because the dome of the Hagia Sophia was considered to be a great feat for the Christians Sinan designed the dome of the Suleymaniye to send the message that not only were Muslims just as capable but, with an even larger and higher dome, that they were superior.
More similarities can be drawn with the forms and structures of the two buildings. In addition to the dome and semidomes, the main arches, piers, buttresses, and galleries were adopted by the Suleymaniye. These were all part of the basic structural system in both buildings of a dome on four supports. Sinan also used pendentives as the structural system under the main dome and squinches as a transitional element between semidomes and the rest of the structure. Additionally Sinan used similar wide arches in the Suleymaniye although they were not needed structurally and were probably used for their formal appearance. The piers of the Suleymaniye are also similar with their projections used to support the bracing arches. These are the basic formal and structural similarities between the Hagia Sophia and the Suleymaniye Mosque which make them strikingly unique and intertwined.
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Noting these similarities might incline one to believe that the Suleymaniye was merely a successful imitation of the Hagia Sophia. This assumption would be incorrect and by noting the numerable dissimilarities its apparent that the Suleymaniye stands on its own. There is first and foremost the religious conceptual differences between the two buildings. The Hagia Sophia was originally a church with its arrangement dictated by a Christian tradition. The Suleymaniye Mosque is a place of worship for Muslims and its arrangement and forms are dictated by the Islamic religion. Some of the forms of the Suleymaniye are as mentioned found on the Hagia Sophia however there are certain basic elements in the mosque which would never be found in any church. The Suleymaniye Mosque contained such elements as the short and tall minarets, the courtyard with the central ritual fountain, the kibla wall, and the mihrab and minbar. Some of the shared formal elements are imbued with Islamic symbolism which demonstrate the conceptual differences between the two buildings even further. For example, the four massive granite columns are considered to symbolize the four caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali who are the four pillars of Sunni theology. And the dome and four minarets represent the prophet and the four caliphs. Other differences can be found in the details like the Islamic tile decoration and stained glass windows on the kibla wall which had inscribed on them the attributes of God and phrases from the Light Verse. This calligraphy decoration, in addition to the other elements, is unique to Islamic architecture and makes the Suleymaniye mosque distinct from the Hagia Sophia.
One other important distinction between the Hagia Sophia and the Suleymaniye mosque is that of experience. The contrasting experience of the two sites are based mainly on the disparities between the designers’ conceptual intentions. The Hagia Sophia is known for its mystical and mysterious quality. The designers achieved this formally particularly with the use of lighting by having shafts of light placed rhythmically at different heights. This was not Sinan1s intention in designing the Suleymaniye Complex. The description of the entry into the complex found in “Sinan: An Interpretation” by Hans G. Egli reflects clarity rather than mystery: “Twenty steps through the dark passage, the well-lit expanse of the mosque unfolds: the space is felt as unified upon entry and all parts are clearly seen and understood”(p34).
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Despite the many similarities between the Hagia Sophia and the Suleymaniye both have their separate places in architectural history. By taking the accomplishments of the church and fusing them with the well established Islamic architectural traditions the Suleymaniye Mosque went beyond being a product of inspiration and became an inspiration itself.