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Art of the Islamic world 640 to now

Sinan, Süleymaniye Mosque

Sinan, Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul, completed 1558

Speakers: Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis and Dr. Steven Zucker

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(soft piano music) - [Voiceover] We're in Istanbul at the enormous complex Sulymaniye in the mosque. - [Voiceover] Now this was the mosque in the complex of Suleiman the Magnificent. Suleiman the law giver as he is known. He ruled for most of the first part of the 16th century. - [Voiceover] So this is in terms of European history, the time when Francois Premier was ruling. This was the time of Charles the fifth. The time of enormously powerful rulers. - [Voiceover] And Suleiman certainly was in that fame and this building which was built 36 years into his reign, is a testament to that greatness and the greatness of the Ottoman Empire. - [Voiceover] So this is interesting because so many sultans built their major mosque's early in their careers and he was well into his reign, really knew what he was doing and had had tremendous military success. - [Voiceover] So this was the time to build something that would be his legacy. - [Voiceover] There is a grandeur here and there's a sense of sureness. - [Voiceover] In really some ways, we shouldn't find that surprising because it was designed and built by Sinan, Suleiman's great architect. This is viewed as his crowning achievement where Ottoman architecture reaches it's peak. - [Voiceover] And of course the Ottoman Empire was of an enormous scale. It was an empire that ruled far to the east, south to Egypt, across North Africa and into the Balkans, well into Europe. - [Voiceover] But all of modern day Iraq, Syria, basically the pilgrimage routes to Mecca all of that was under control of the Ottoman's. It's a huge empire. - [Voiceover] Sinan (mumbles) materials from all over the empire and so this building functions as a trophy of imperial grandeur. - [Voiceover] You have granite columns, granite comes from Egypt. - [Voiceover] But hold on, those granite columns are enormous and look, there isn't a single cut. These are (mumbles) they're a single piece of stone. Can you imagine what it would have taken to just transport those? To get them upright? - [Voiceover] And of course, one of the other things that's so amazing about many of the stone columns, they're taken from across the empire whether it's Egypt or some are taken from Baalbek, that's exactly what Justinian had done in building Hagia Sophia. - [Voiceover] There's no question that this building is an attempt to take that ancient building and to remake it, to better it, to show that Suleiman was superior even to Justinian. - [Voiceover] This plan goes back to the plan of Hagia Sophia with a big centralized dome on pendentives and two semi-dome's which is not what was being used in a lot of mosques built between 1520 and 1530. And so that change is a very specific decision. - [Voiceover] When I enter the building, my eyes immediately go upward. There's something that feels as if the heavens are contained within this space. - [Voiceover] Well and that's interesting because a lot of 16th century source is contemporary sources. They made that comment. They felt like they were in a cosmological space that was partially helped by the hanging mosque lamps that create a sense of the heavens but also reflective metal balls were hung. So things like that which would reflect light and create a shimmering effect. So that theory of space is not only happening because you have light coming in from the outside but also the way the space is lit. - [Voiceover] And like Hagia Sophia, the walls and the dome are pierced with an enormous number of windows so light enters in and illuminates the space in so many different complex ways. - [Voiceover] If you think about the pillars and columns in Hagia Sophia, they're much more solid. They're more columns, the light has to fight to get through where here, Sinan allows even more light in. So in a sense, that's an improvement on the interior. - [Voiceover] Well Hagia Sophia was in every way an experiment and here Sinan knew exactly what he was doing. - [Voiceover] You can see all of those years of experience where's he's been chief architect for 12 years before he starts on this. - [Voiceover] Now we have to be careful because much of what we see is not original. A lot of the painting especially the red and white is just paint and likely was not there in the original building. - [Voiceover] There was a big fire in 1660 and then a massive earthquake in 1766, both of which damaged the interior and then it was heavily restored in the 19th century but there were renovations and restorations done in the middle of the 20th century which attempted to take this back. - [Voiceover] What is original is the building itself and then a few other elements for instance, the stain glassed windows that are just to either side of the Mihrab. - [Voiceover] They were created by (mumbles) who's name was Abraham the Drunkard. Clearly he must have been good at what he was doing despite his drinking issues. And what they do is they quote the light verse from the Quar'an. And that also give us feeling of the mosque being illuminated by divine light. - [Voiceover] Light is almost an architectural element in this building. Not just something that passes through it. It is the substance of this space. - [Voiceover] Istanbul gets cold and dark and gray in the winter. To have wonderful light that comes in from many different angles, makes the interior far more effective. If you think about the Pantheon, it has an occulus that let's in light in and then the door. Those are two sources. This has light coming from all angles and directions. - [Voiceover] It reflects and refracts. It's almost as if we're in a gem of extraordinary size. - [Voiceover] For you to say gem is really appropriate because some of the blue pigments that were used in the original decoration were made of lapis lazuli. This extraordinary expensive material. - [Voiceover] The way ancient forms are reused and rethought can be seen throughout. Take for example, the capitals at the top of the massive granite columns. Those are not classical columns. Those are not Doric or ionic or Corinthian columns and they're not the Byzantine columns that we see in Hagia Sophia. These are muqarnas that is, these stalagmite like forms that create a series of convex as these units that get multiplied that are used in so many different ways in Islamic architecture and here, are being reinvented in the capital of the column. - [Voiceover] It's interesting how light these feel. - [Voiceover] That column is so dense and so powerful but it's supporting something that feels so light and almost feathery. There is this miraculous quality as the weight of this massive building seems to literally dissipate before our eyes. - [Voiceover] You almost feel like you're in the presence of something other worldly and does make one feel very humble. It also is a great reminder of the power of God and the power of the Sultan as his divinely appointed ruler. If we can imagine ourselves back into the 16th century. The pomp and circumstance that would have gone with the Sultan arriving here on Friday for the prayers. He would parade through the city with thousands of Janissaries in front of him and behind him. You couldn't help but be awed by the power of the Sultan so not only is the building overwhelming but the ceremony that goes with it is overwhelming. (soft piano music)