The art of the mosque

No two modes of architecture could be more different from one another than the Muslim and the West Christian. West Christian architecture in its early phase is filled with the craving for weight and massiveness; and in its second phase, the Gothic, in that for a spectacular liberation from that weight in a skyward ascent ... Moslem architecture is quite the opposite. A mosque is to be a court, a square, a market-place, lightly built to hold a large concourse of people. Allah is so great that nothing human can vie with Him in strength or endurance ... Even the Moslem castles, large though they are, give the effect of being light and insubstantial. But a Mosque is also a place for the contemplation of the Oneness of Allah. How can this better be done than by giving the eyes a maze of geometric patterns to brood over? The state aimed at is a sort of semi-trance. (Pliable - See my reference to the Mevelevi Order below). The mind contemplates the patterns, knows that they can be unravelled and yet does not unravel them. It rests therefore on what it sees, and the delicate colour, the variations of light and shade add a sensuous tinge to the pleasure of cetainty made visible.

Gerald Brenan writes above in his 1950 book The Face of Spain about the art of the Mosque. This photo essay celebrates a sublime example of that art, the Rüstem Pasa Camii in Istanbul.

The mosque was built by Rüstem Pasa, son-in-law and grand vezir of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566). Although Rüstem Pasa was one of the wealthiest nobles in the Ottoman Empire at the peak of its power he had to reflect his role as a servant of the Sultan by building a mosque that was subordinate in size, if not in beauty, to the sultan’s great mosque.

Mimar Sinan was the architect of the Rüstem Pasa Camii. Born a Christian in Anatolia, from either a Greek or Armenian background, Sinan was conscripted into Ottoman service in 1511, and converted to Islam. He was the chief Ottoman architect to four sultans, and his most famous buildings are the great Süleyman Mosque in Istanbul, and the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne. Sinan worked in seismic, as well as political, fault zones, and his buildings are famous for their earthquake resistance. His extraordinary output included 146 mosques and 57 universities, a track record that even Norman Foster can’t beat, although Mimar Sinan doesn’t have any airports in his portfolio

Rüstem Pasa chose a site alongside the Golden Horn in the Eminönü district of Constantinople, and at the foot of the hill crowned by Süleyman’s great mosque. Compact in size, but beautifully proportioned, Rüstem Pasa Camii is decorated with exquisite Iznik faience tiles which are notable for the use of red pigments, seen in my photo above, as well as the famous blue. Although in the popular spice bazaar area the mosque is not on the main tourist routes, and it takes some determination to find the entrance.

Rüstem Pasa Camii is one of the finest examples of the art of the mosque, and it was built at the peak of the Ottoman Empire. But sadly Rüstem Pasa was involved in the political intrique and murder that resulted in Selim the Sot - or drunkard (1566-1574) ascending to the throne on Sultan Süleyman’s death in 1566. Selim’s priorities were carnal rather than cultural, and his reign was the start of the long decline of the Ottoman Empire. We are very fortunate that many fine examples of the work of Mimar Sinan and other great Ottoman visionaries survive to remind us of this glorious period of Islamic art.

Now playing - Mevlevi Müzigi, the music of whirling dervishes. Mimar Sinan’s design for Rüstem Pasa Mosque follows the Ahaadith, and makes no provision for figurative art or the performance of music. But the exact position of the Qu’ran on this is not precise, and there are many fine examples of the creative arts from Ottoman culture. The Mevlevi is a Sufi Order founded by the followers of Mevlana Celalleddin-i Rum (left) in 1273 in the Konya province of Turkey. The Mevlevi Order is also known as the Whirling Dervishes due to their practice of whirling to celebrate Allah. During the peak of the Ottoman Empire the Mevlevi Order produced many musicians and poets, and much of the stereotypical “oriental” Turkish music heard in the West originated from the order. Islam is usually perceived to be repressive of women’s rights, but this period saw the emergence of women in the creative sector, with Ayat Sweid identified as the first female artist.

In 1925 the Mevlevi Order was outlawed at the start of the secular revolution in Turkey. But in the 1950s the government realised the cultural and tourist value of the Whirling Dervishes, and performances in Turkey and overseas were reintated. The Istanbul Music and Sema (Whirling Ceremony) Group was founded to bring traditional music and spiritual ceremonies to a wider audience. They perform Turkish classical music, Tasavvuf (mystical) music, and Sema ceremonies (Whirling Dervish rituals) in historically authentic performances. In striking contrast to the doctrines of Islamic fundamentalism these Mevlevi rituals are centred on "human love", "brotherhood" and "tolerance" as advocated by their founder 750 ago. Follow this link link for music and video samples from the Istanbul Music and Sema Group. Also recommended is Laleh Bakhtiar's book Sufi, Expressions of the Mystic Quest (Thames and Hudson ISBN 050081015).

Now read how music and books reflect the crisis in Islam
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Giorgia said…
Uhm, I don't agree very much. I reckon is's not a matter of Muslim and Christina architecture - think, for example, of byzantine architecture, in particular of Santa Sofia in Costantinople (sp? sorry, I know the names of these places in Italian, not in English): it was thought and built as a church, then converted into a mosque, and now is neither of both, just a "neutral" architecture masterpiece for tourists to visit and shoot pictures to (it is even forbidden to pray if one goes there).
You can find a lot of recurrencies between romanic architecture and "muslim" architecture, or I'd suggest even the similar chromatic use of black and white stone in romanic/gothic architecture in Florence and Siena and, again, muslim architecture.
Or even think of the Palatine Chapel in Aachen...
I don't know, really, I only seem to find more points in common rather than differences.
Pliable said…
Giorgia, many thanks for that comment, please don't worry about the English, comments are welcome here in any language.

It is an interesting point you make. But Hagia Sophia (which we also visited) is certainly not a typical mosque. In fact we found it impressive as architecture, but vacuous as a sacred building - as you imply.

Your views are a valuable contribution to the debate which will continue next week when I will have a photo feature on the Church of St Saviour in Chora, Istanbul. This, like Hagia Sophia, was built as a church, and was later converted to a mosque while retaining the divine Byzantine decorations.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

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