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The Skyline of Istanbul

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The peninsula that is the site of the old section of Istanbul, Turkey, has a distinctive skyline. Seen from a high elevation on the opposite side, such as the Galata Tower located in the Beyoğlu district, it is punctuated by the domes and minarets of Ottoman imperial mosques commissioned between the fifteenth and the nineteenth centuries. The skyline view has been in the making for centuries, an open air canvas on which powerful groups have left their marks in the form of looming buildings visible from afar.

Debate over rights of representation and advertisement on this canvas continue to the present, including a controversy about a metro bridge over the estuary known as the Golden Horn. An international report warned in 2011 that, based on the original plan for the bridge, “from some views the pylons compete with the Suleimaniye Mosque minaret on the skyline, and that the deck of the bridge adds a new element to the city’s silhouette that ‘has to be classified as a grave impact on the city skyline’” (UNESCO, “Historic Areas of Istanbul”).

Like many other cities of its age and significance, the history and space of Istanbul have been the subject of an immense literature. However, my current concern is not the city itself but the way its skyline has been seen and represented over the past five hundred years. I explore how the sight of this great city transmits impressions regarding the past. Assessing this issue requires recourse to texts, but I intend to keep the visual realm at the forefront.

The city’s skyline pertains to how physical forms containing Islam’s signature retain potency over time. I attend to how, in a place like Istanbul, visual encounter signifies the past’s solidity. I focus on the Süleymaniye mosque, which was built as the modification of an existing form and, in centuries since its creation, has acted as a model for thousands of other structures. Reading about the Süleymaniye, and observing its representation in paintings, sketches, and photographs, shows how a form is asserted as the valued past. Attending to form highlights a history beyond the written record.

Aerial view of the city of Istanbul with the Golden Horn running through the middle. A lone seagull in the foreground lends perspective to the shot.

Panoramic view of Istanbul taken from Galata Tower, 2018.


Photo 163883133 © Anton Aleksenko |


The Skyline of Istanbul

Time Travel

The Süleymaniye mosque and its architect, Sinan, are the stuff of legend. To appreciate their wide significance for Turkish identity, I will discuss a children’s picture book entitled A Day with the Architect Sinan (Mimar Sinan’la Bir Gün) by Mustafa Orakçı that was first published in 2009. The book is part of a series of ten books by the same author (ten more were published in 2015) entitled A Day with Famous People (Ünlülerle Bir Gün). Meant for children seven years and older, the series contains self-described adventures of a boy named Murat who is especially interested in history and wishes to meet famous people from the past.

In the frame narrative that is repeated in each book in the series, Murat says that one day as he was looking out from a window at home, a pigeon landed on his hand, with a key in its beak and a note tied to its claw. The note stated “Where do you want to go? To the past? Then take the key in your hand, close your eyes and imagine.” From then on, upon following the instructions, Murat was magically transported to the time of people about whom he was learning in school. His conversations with luminaries are narrated in words and depicted in pictures, allowing him to convey his special access to the past to other children. The time travel ruse turns the abstract past given in textbooks into relatable experience seen and felt by children.

The cover of the book that describes the encounter between Murat and Sinan has the two pictured in front of a silhouette of the Süleymaniye’s facade and minarets. The boy decides to activate his special key upon visiting the mosque complex on a school trip. The mosque as experienced in the twenty-first century thus becomes a time machine for transport to the situation in which it originally took shape.

Upon arrival in Sinan’s time, Murat encounters some laborers who direct him to the architect sitting inside the mosque. The temporal point of entry in the past is a moment when the mosque already exists in the form in which it would remain for centuries hence. Murat’s time with Sinan works as a conspectus orienting us to matters such as the architect’s life history, his close identification with the Ottoman ruler Süleyman (d. 1566) who commissioned the great mosque, and some of the mosque’s physical features.

Murat finds Sinan sitting in the mosque’s sanctuary with a water pipe. He thinks to himself that this does not seem proper for a religious building. His thought is ratified when Sultan Süleyman appears unexpectedly and berates Sinan. The architect responds that the water pipe has no tobacco and he is just blowing through water to create sound to check the building’s acoustics. Upon hearing this clever trick, Süleyman compliments the architect and compares his greatness to that of the building and the empire (Orakçı, Mimar Sinan’la Bir Gün, 13–18).

Most of the book consists of Sinan answering Murat’s questions regarding how buildings are made and Sinan’s path to becoming an architect. Recalling his travels as an Ottoman soldier before being appointed the chief architect in Istanbul, Sinan states that it was when he saw the pyramids of Egypt that he said to himself, “The buildings I will build will also last until the day of Resurrection!” (33).

The book ends on an incident in which children become a major part of the mosque’s story. As Sinan and Murat are talking, they are called outside where a boy is claiming that one of the mosque’s minarets is tilting. Rather than simply telling the boy that the claim is manifestly false, Sinan goes along with the criticism and asks for a rope to be tied to the top of the minaret and pulled from the ground. This procedure continues until the boy agrees that the minaret has been straightened. When asked why he played along, Sinan replies that what the boy was saying could have caught on and the mosque may have become known as the one with the tilting minaret. By acquiescing, he had satisfied the boy while also saving the mosque’s future reputation (45). Following this incident, Murat leaves the company to go to a quiet place and asks the key to take him to his own time.

Back in modern Istanbul, Murat joins his schoolmates as the group makes its way out of the Süleymaniye complex. They pass by a small building, and their teacher tells him that this is where Sinan is buried. The book ends on a sentence left unfinished: “The modest mausoleum of Koca Sinan, the builder of enormous buildings.” (47).

In Istanbul, where Murat lives, Sinan’s marks on the landscape are inescapable. They range between Sinan’s own work, such as the Süleymaniye, and hundreds of other mosques that resemble it and have been constructed over half a millennium. The children’s books on Sinan and the other mostly Ottoman-era characters covered in the series A Day with Famous People are a sophisticated attempt at rendering a highly valued past “real” for citizens of modern Turkey. The story pertaining to Sinan builds a narrative around a material form present pervasively in expected readers’ field of vision. The form is primary, encountered daily irrespective of a narrative attached to it. The children’s book provides stories that give it a particular coloring based on twenty-first century pedagogical objectives.

Old German panorama of Istanbul with a list of important buildings visible in the bottom right of the illustration.

Skyline of Istanbul from an atlas published in 1788.


Johann Baptist Homann, Constantinopel (Nuremberg: Homann, 1788), David Rumsey Map Collection, David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford Libraries, 9753.084


The Skyline of Istanbul

Sinan’s Mosques

Although articulated in a way to be understood by children, the series A Day with Famous People has much in common with the work of academic historians. Murat’s time travel has a counterpart in the contexualist method we use to situate forms and narratives in points of time where we think they emerged. Especially when dealing with surviving built environments, the sense of “being there” is enhanced because our bodies can experience the structuration of space into forms, which persists despite the transformation of the surrounding field.

Murat’s fictional encounter portrays Sinan as someone who self-consciously sought monumentality for his projects. This pertains to both the physical structures, as in the comment attributed to him upon seeing the pyramids, and his own and his buildings’ reputation, as in the story of the tilting minaret. Using our equivalent of Murat’s magic key—namely old texts and images that help us create the past—we have good reasons to regard Sinan and his Ottoman patrons as people who cared deeply about their relationship to the past and future.

Among professionals of his time, Sinan is unusual for having left multiple versions of an autobiographical narrative composed at the end of his eventful life. This fact alone speaks to both his celebrity while alive and his ambition to memorialize himself for the future. In the most extensive version, entitled Tezkiretü’l-bünyan (The Record of Construction), we hear his voice mediated through the pen of an associate named Mustafa Sa’i.

We are told that Sinan began his career in Kayseri as a devşirme. That is, he was born to a Christian family in the Ottoman empire and then was conscripted to the state as a child, converted to Islam, and given training to become a part of the state bureaucratic apparatus. Rising through the famed Janissary corps, he came to specialize in building and was eventually appointed the chief architect in the capital city circa 1540.

Sinan’s specialization in mosque architecture began with the Şehzade mosque in the Fatih district of Istanbul, commissioned by Süleyman as a commemoration of his son and heir Mehmed who had died in 1543. Like existing Ottoman imperial mosques to this point, the Şehzade mosque was patterned on the great Byzantine Church in Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia, which was originally completed in 537 and had been turned into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453. Introducing design and engineering modifications, Sinan worked so that “the building gradually emerged from the ground and its domes raised up their heads like bubbles of the sea of elegance. And the many-hued arches reached the heavens like rainbows. Couplet: Think not that the marbles erected in its courtyard are columns! They are numberless jasmine-faced cypresses standing to watch” (Sinan’s Autobiographies, 117).

Soon after the Şehzade mosque was completed, Sinan was commissioned to design and build the much grander Süleymaniye complex that took shape between 1548 and 1560. This was a building meant to be a true rival to the Hagia Sophia. Its placement on a hill, the great volume of its main sanctuary, and the tall minarets made it a mark on both the city’s skyline and people’s consciousness regarding architecture sponsored by the Ottoman dynasty.

Sinan’s account of the Süleymaniye’s construction (told via Sa’i) portrays the building as made with materials gathered from all over the empire. It was, then, in its physical constitution a representation of the dynasty’s power over vast domains. Especially significant were the four marble pillars that supported the grand dome and gave the mosque’s interior space a sense of vast openness: “It seems as if that column of pure marble/Became the pivot of heaven’s wheel” (Sinan’s Autobiographies, 123).

The ambitions of Sinan and his patron, Sultan Süleyman, were met handily upon the monument’s completion. The mosque was commented upon by locals and visitors alike and features prominently in the massive panorama of Istanbul (11.45 x 0.45 m) made by the Danish-German artist Melchior Lorichs in 1559, almost simultaneously with the mosque’s completion.

Süleymaniye’s symbolic capacity would soon extend beyond its ability to impress based on a visual encounter from the streets and waterways of Istanbul. An Ottoman manuscript painting from 1582 shows the guild of architects parading an elaborate wood and ivory model of the building in front of Sultan Murad III during a festival. This occurs within a lavish manuscript entitled Surname-i Hümayun (The Imperial Festival Book) that depicts the grand parade held as a part of a fifty-two-day festival celebrating the circumcision of a prince. It is possible that, in the painting, the older man shown to the left of the model (under the king’s canopy) is meant to be Sinan, who was still alive and active during the event shown.

When we look at the image of the parade in the Surname-i Hümayun, we are encountering four objects: 1) the image on the electronic screen that is meeting our eyes, 2) the original two-dimensional painting in the manuscript kept in Istanbul, 3) the three-dimensional model that was created by architects and paraded in the streets of Istanbul in 1582, and 4) the great mosque itself that can be seen directly by visiting Istanbul today. The building’s distinctive and highly recognizable form coalesces the four objects and allows us to say that what is on our screen is the mosque.

For those who saw the model in the parade, the real Süleymaniye mosque was located only a few hundred meters away. However, for a building as large as this, the miniaturization into, first, a replica, and second, a painting of the replica, allowed a close-up totalizing view of the form impossible to achieve with the naked eye. The appearance of the model in the 1582 parade was then an iconization of the building’s form. For Sinan, the Süleymaniye ended up working as a precursor to the Selimiye complex he would go on to build for Selim II, Süleyman’s son and successor, in Edirne between 1568–1575. The form would also proliferate through the Ottoman empire’s vast territories between the sixteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Form’s Meanings

Istanbul remained the Ottomans’ metropolitan center from the middle of the fifteenth century to the empire’s dissolution in 1923. Thousands of mosques would be built during this period. Although different in all sorts of ways, a vast number of these mosques contain references to the Süleymaniye’s form, whose own form references the much earlier Hagia Sophia. The form’s close connection to Ottoman power and identity gave it a symbolic weight that was deployed visually through prominent construction irrespective of a narrative explanation. While the connection between a particular form and a polity ended with the empire’s collapse, the form itself remains valued, and charged, as we have already seen in the children’s book discussed above.

The form’s postimperial history can be surmised by noting recent buildings. In the Turkish republic, the successor state to the Ottoman empire that includes Istanbul, the form has proven a model to both shun and embrace depending on competing tendencies within the polity. The republic’s emphasis on creating a modern identity for Turks has meant distancing from the Ottoman past, although this is a complicated relationship whose application to different aspects of the state has changed with time. The enactment of a break from the past can be seen vividly in the design of the mosque in the Grand National Assembly complex in Ankara that was completed in 1989. This building’s central dome is square, fashioned in a tiered, squat format that contrasts with the large hemisphere of the Süleymaniye. Similarly, the tall, thin minarets have been replaced by a short protrusion in the middle of the roof. This mosque refers to the Süleymaniye type as a deliberate inversion.

The political party and actors who have dominated the Turkish republic (and Istanbul in particular) since the 1990s see the break from the Ottoman past as an error. For this group, it is important to reestablish connections through form. Consequently, in 2019, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan finished constructing the Çamlıca mosque on Istanbul’s Asian side, on one of the last remaining high locations in the city. The Çamlıca mosque is a literal citation, and a rival, to the Süleymaniye on the Istanbul skyline in a city that has grown far beyond the old sections where the Ottoman sultans left their marks. This mosque is considered the largest in Turkey and sits at the center of a vast complex attuned to modern needs.

The Süleymaniye mosque’s form has been telegraphed far beyond Istanbul as well. This marked the empire’s prestige in Ottoman times but now reflects initiatives undertaken by Turkish religious, political, and commercial interests to indicate their presence. Especially prominent buildings include the Nizamiye mosque in Midrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. Completed in 2012, this is thought to be the largest mosque in the southern hemisphere. Similarly, Diyanet Center of America mosque in Lanham, near Washington, DC, in the United States, sits in the center of one of the largest Islamic communal spaces in North America.

Turkish mosques’ distinctive form symbolizes Islamic presence through reference to a particular past. Reading about Sinan’s life illuminates how imperial mosques in Istanbul came into being. But the form’s message does not require recourse to documents and histories. Most people, whether local or visitors, who encounter mosques such as the Süleymaniye in Istanbul sense the buildings’ significance without needing a verbal history. The form dwells in and progresses through a distinctive temporality of its own that runs from the Byzantine Hagia Sophia church to massive edifices constructed in recent years in Turkey, South Africa, the United States, and many other places. This temporality is indexed to visibility, a process that is not reducible to legibility.

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