Stories of devotion, pride, and artistry live within the walls of Istanbul’s mosques. There are more than 3,000 of these places of worship in Turkey’s largest city, ranging from grand edifices on sprawling grounds to unassuming wooden buildings just off the city street.
Some were originally constructed as Byzantine churches, dating back to the fourth century A.D., and new mosques continue to be erected regularly. Whether contemporary or ancient, Istanbul’s mosques demonstrate tremendous variety: some feature soaring domes and are filled with patterned tile and calligraphy, while others are sleek, minimal, and modern.
The city’s mosques nurture their communities, exhibit art and craftsmanship, and many of them honor the longstanding tradition of welcoming outsiders to witness the practices of Islam’s faithful. This article draws on a conversation with Ünver Rüstem, a historian of Islamic art and architecture who has written extensively on Istanbul’s mosques.
Mosques in the seat of empires
Stepping into mosques can transport travelers to ages past and tell stories of the rise and fall of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires.
Before electricity, many mosques were illuminated by low-hanging lamps with flickering oil-fed flames that blanketed the rooms in golden light. The spacious prayer hall would have been covered with handwoven carpets in a variety of colors, mainly red. Regardless of the size of the space, worshippers would pray shoulder-to-shoulder. Before the advent of deodorants, the smell of burning incense sweetened the air. Unlike some sects of Christianity, incense was never required for liturgy.
(How to unearth the glories of Byzantium in Istanbul.)
Today, mosques are lit with electric bulbs, and often feature a machine-made baby blue carpet. Incense is no longer burned. Yet the prayers of the devoted that fill these halls follow long-established rituals.
Muezzins, chanters who perform the centuries-old tradition of calling worshippers to prayer, create one of the most ubiquitous sounds of the city. Before each of the five daily prayers, the voices of muezzins can be heard layering and intertwining with each other.
Nowadays, the calls to prayer (ezan in Turkish, adhan in Arabic) are broadcast through loudspeakers mounted on the minarets, towers that can reach hundreds of feet in height. In the past, you’d hear only what a muezzin’s voice could carry on the wind. The chanters would climb to balconies atop the minarets and cup their hands around their mouths to better broadcast their calls.
Famously straddling Europe and Asia, Istanbul was host to different powerful cultures and religions. Roman Emperor Constantine founded the city in A.D. 330; the city was christened “Constantinople” in his honor and known as such until 1930 when it was officially renamed Istanbul, the city’s historic Turkish name. When the Roman Empire split in 395, the city became the capital of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire and a hub of Christianity—until Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II captured the city in 1453. The Muslim Turks of the Ottoman empire proceeded to convert churches to mosques around the city and build mosques of their own.
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Mosques were often named after the patron who funded them, and the structure’s grand presence became a physical expression of the patron’s political power or social status. There were unwritten rules about how grand a mosque could be— for example, only members of the Ottoman royal family were permitted to build more than one minaret.
In the early 1600s, Sultan Ahmed I caused something of a scandal by breaking another rule, which was that only sultans who were successful in war should build grand mosques.
He proposed building a new mosque just across from the most famous mosque in the city, the converted cathedral of Hagia Sophia, without a conquest to justify it. His counselors advised against it, but he built it anyway. Today, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or “Blue Mosque,” is one of the most iconic buildings in the world, with an astounding total of six minarets. Four centuries later, it remains Ahmed’s most notable legacy.
Displays of art and craftsmanship
In addition to gathering the faithful, Istanbul’s mosques showcase works of beauty and feats of engineering to people from around the world.
Domes on the grandest mosques in Istanbul could symbolize the heavens and the realm of God, but like the minarets, their size was also a way to assert power. The main dome of the Süleymaniye Mosque, built in the mid-16th century by Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, is 86 feet in diameter and reaches a height of 174 feet, taller than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris by 12 feet.
The architect behind the Süleymaniye Mosque was the renowned Mimar Sinan, who went on to serve a further two sultans after Süleyman. Responsible for dozens of Istanbul’s mosques and other buildings, Sinan is one of the most notable figures in the city’s architectural history.
(‘Gothic’ architecture’s true inspiration may surprise you.)
With strict rules in the past about how a patron could build their mosques, tilework became a way to bypass codes of decorum. A small, humble mosque that couldn’t use enormous domes and minarets could dazzle worshippers with intricate craftsmanship. One such building is the late 16th-century mosque of the cap maker Takkeci İbrahim Agha, whose otherwise modest mosque is filled with magnificent multicolor tiles brought from İznik.
The town of İznik, 85 miles southeast of Istanbul, became famous in the 1500s for its tile industry. The glazed ceramic tiles made there featured botanical motifs such as tulips, carnations, and vines, some of which were influenced by the Chinese porcelain treasured along the Silk Road.
Passages from the Quran adorn the buildings both inside and out in both painted and carved calligraphic script. They didn’t need to be read to be meaningful—even those worshippers unable to decipher the Arabic would have admired these inscriptions as beautiful renderings of God’s holy word.
Mosques were meant to leave visitors with a memory of a patron’s greatness, the magnificence of the city of Istanbul, and the glory of the religion of Islam. Historically, non-Muslim visitors could gain access to the city’s main mosques without much difficulty; today, tourists are freely welcomed.
Mosques used to be the center of complexes that contained baths, schools, hospitals, libraries, and kitchens to feed the poor. Today, baths and drinking fountains in some mosques still function. Other structures have been converted for modern needs, including cafés and offices.
The patrons who funded these complexes were sometimes laid to rest in a separate tomb building within the complex. Visitors could pay their respects, and the investors netted dividends in the afterlife.
One might assume these mosques would be quiet and reserved, but in reality, they are lived-in spaces—their doors very rarely shut. You may be surprised to hear the squeals of children and see people snapping selfies, but that’s exactly what a mosque is meant to do—bring people together in a beautiful space that honors God.
Alba Cambeiro is a photojournalist based in Istanbul. You can find her on Instagram.
Ünver Rüstem is the Second Decade Society assistant professor of Islamic art and architecture at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of Ottoman Baroque: The Architectural Refashioning of Eighteenth-Century Istanbul.
Allie Yang is a travel editor for National Geographic. She spoke with Ünver Rüstem to learn about Istanbul’s history as an imperial capital and center of Islamic art and culture. You can find her on Twitter.
The patrons who funded these complexes were sometimes laid to rest in a separate tomb building within the complex