Friday, 23 August 2013

Preview: The Blue Mosque

Living between around 1490 and 1588 was an architect called Mimar Sinan. This was the genius that effectively defined the grand domed Ottoman style of religious architecture, using the Hagia Sophia as inspiration. Istanbul was completely transformed, with almost a hundred large mosques, over 50 smaller ones, and countless other buildings being credited to him. It could be said that Sinan effectively built Istanbul. But one thing he did not build was this:

In a perfect world, the Mosque of Sultan Ahmed I - better known as the Blue Mosque - would have been built by Sinan. It is the most famous, the most visited, and the grandest among the mosques of Istanbul, and by extension, the world. With a main dome 43 metres high surrounded by a cascade of smaller domes and half-domes, it has been a dominant feature of the Istanbul skyline ever since its creation, aided by its central position not far from the Hagia Sophia. It would seem only appropriate that the man behind its construction was a suitably grand genius. But it's not the case. By the time the Blue Mosque forever changed the look of central Istanbul, Sinan was long dead. Its builder was instead an old student of his, a man called Sedefkar Mehmed Aga. While not the towering genius of his age, Mehmed Aga was at least talented; the true ignominy of the Blue Mosque is the sultan behind it. Sinan's greatest constructions were backed by one of the Ottoman Empire's greatest ever rulers, Suleyman the Magnificient, who oversaw great military triumphs as well as a flourishing age of arts and culture. Mehmed Aga's moment in the sun was backed, not by a ruler whose name would live on centuries later, but by an arrogant and insignificant young upstart. The Blue Mosque was built by the Ottoman sultan equivalent of One Direction's Harry Styles.

This was Sultan Ahmed I, the great-great-grandson of Suleyman the Magnificent. But magnificent minus two greats and a grand don't equal all that much, and the best that can really be said about Ahmed I's reign is that he started fairly well and didn't live long enough to become disastrous. He came to power in 1603 at just 13 years old and, to his credit, immediately broke with one of the Ottoman Empire's most appalling traditions: fratricide, that is the killing of brothers. It was actual Ottoman policy, upon attaining power, to have all your brothers, and often their children, killed - usually by strangulation. This was to prevent rival claims to power, and was seen as being a stabilising force for the empire. Ahmed I's father, Mehmed III, had nineteen of his brothers and half-brothers killed upon taking power, which was the all-time Ottoman fratricide high score. As his piece de resistance, he had six of his brothers' pregnant slaves sewn up in sacks and chucked in the sea. But Ahmed I chose not to continue the tradition. He only had one brother so couldn't possibly beat his father's record, and instead chose to simply imprison his brother, Mustafa, in a room for the duration of his reign, in a building known as the Seraglio - or the Cage. From the age of 12 to 26 Mustafa was kept in one room, and though it's suggested he had mental problems before the imprisonment, there's no doubt that fourteen years of imprisonment did little for his condition, and he was entirely insane upon his eventual release (and brief rule).

As well this uncharacteristic Ottoman clemency, Ahmed I showed promising signs of leadership in his first few years, still just in his middle teens. But I guess that puberty didn't help his decision making, and by the age of 16 it was going wrong. Under his leadership, some dreadful military errors were made, chiefly through lack of support and funding. Some vassal states stopped paying monetary tribute. His rule became corrupt, with the harem and chief eunuch accused of having far too much influence, effectively being in control. One Italian contemporary remarked "One knows not in truth who is the sovereign." Just as the modern day Harry Styles and his One Direction boyband are shaped by a posse of stylists, advisors, and agents, Sultan Ahmed I was surrounded by a team of eunuch yes-men, who relied upon him for their existence while subtly controlling his every move.

So where the exact motive behind the building of a giant mosque in his honour came from it can't be certain, but I rather suspect it was from Ahmed I himself, and enthusiastically supported by his harem. Construction began in 1609, with Ahmed by now 19 years old, and finished in 1616. It appears that in the absence of the usual military victory and the booty money that lay behind the building of such mosques, Ahmed I simply decided to use his own cash in order to please God. But like a pumped-up egotistical boyband member, he got a little carried away with his own importance. As well as the Blue Mosque being massive, he had it built with six minarets. This may not seem like a controversial move now, but in the 17th Century Muslim world it was treated with a degree of horror. The only mosque in the world to have six minarets at the time was the one in the Muslim holy city of Mecca - who the hell did Ahmed think he was to assume equal status? Not only that, but this young sultan was building the mosque at the heart of the city, very near the Hagia Sophia (then a revered mosque called the Ayasofya), requiring some very costly buying up of old land and palaces.

But it just goes to show that you don't always needs greatness and glory to be behind some of the greatest and most glorious of structures. Sure, the grandeur of the Blue Mosque might be more befitting of someone of the status of Suleyman the Magnificent using his master architect Sinan, but Ahmed I the Upstart (my title) managed the same effect. Because the Blue Mosque is a truly grand and impressive creation. Ahmed's architect, Aga, didn't go for originality, his was a close study of Sinan's greatest works synthesised into one building. But it wasn't cheap knock-off either. Sinan did the legwork and nailed the style - huge domes, spaciousness, tall minarets - and Aga took the best from this to claim all the glory. Completed in 1616, Ahmed I died in 1617 of typhus, but he'd done enough to ensure his name lived on by building a truly monumental mosque glorifying God and himself, even though he didn't have much glory to shout about.

Except, of course, in the West, we don't call the mosque after his name, we call it the Blue Mosque (the Turkish still call it after him). Early 19th Century Europeans first coined the name, and it's stuck. Upon first view, the name might seem strange - the Blue Mosque doesn't seem particularly blue. That's because the name refers to the interior, decorated with around 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles, bluish tinted. The architectural excellence of the Blue Mosque is not in its structural ingenuity or originality, or its size, but in the tiled decoration. Through 260 windows carefully placed by Aga, daylight streams through creating a bluish haze, and a mystical atmosphere.

I've been to the Blue Mosque before, during my 2001 travels, and its this atmosphere I recall the most. I wrote: "It was the first time I've ever been into a mosque and I have to say, I was hugely impressed. Not what I expected at all. After various churches and cathedrals I was expecting a similar sense of awe and grandeur, but the huge open interior of the mosque instead felt very serene and relaxing. Giant chandelier type things hung from long ropes from the roof, suspended just above your head, and a calm feeling enveloped the whole building. It was really pleasant, very serene. " Since then, I've been to a handful more but it remains the outstanding one. Here's a blurry photo of the occasion, featuring Varwell and a couple of Canadian girls called something like Bambi and Barbie.

The Blue Mosque is far from the only grand mosque in Istanbul, but it does seem to be the one that draws in the tourists, partly due to its location, and partly due to it looking pretty damn great. Others, such as Suleymaniye Mosque, by Sinan, look to be worth a visit too, but my Wonder quest likes the headline grabbers and the Blue Mosque successfully manages to do that. The (former) pope, Benedict XVI agrees with me - in 2006 he visited, making it only the second papal visit in history to a Muslim place of worship (John Paul II's 2001 visit to Umayyad Mosque in Damasus was the first). Who am I to argue with the papacy? While I'm not sure the Blue Mosque is going to be a big hitter in my overall Wonder hunt, during my 2001 travels I also visited the Hagia Sophia, perhaps just a day apart, and very clearly remember being more impressed with the Blue Mosque. Nobody would argue with the Hagia Sophia being on my candidate list, and for that reason I think the Blue Mosque deserves to be there too.

I'll be visiting the Blue Mosque at the start of next year, and will give a fuller account of it and its history, as well as my own impressions, then.

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