Ottoman Architecture: A Travel Through Time Essay

The Ottomans are among the great builders in history. Their architecture is basically focused on the building of mosques which were not only meant for religious purposes but also to undertake social functions. Among the architects who built a name in the Ottoman empire is Sinan, the imperial architect. As the head architect of the Ottoman empire during Sultan Suleyman’s reign, he designed mosques that exemplified beauty and grace. He derived his inspiration from the Byzantine Empire’s Hagia Sophia.

The paper contains a discussion of the development of Ottoman architecture. It traces the roots of the Ottoman craft from Iznik tiles and moves on to the classical period or the golden age Ottoman architecture, the period of Western influence, the revival of 14th and 15th century designs and the trends that affected 19th century Ottoman architecture. It also elaborates on the prevalent designs during these periods and how they were achieved. At the end of the paper, there is a short discussion of the Byzantine cistern, the Yerebatan Sarnici or the sinking palace.

Ottoman Architecture: A Travel Through Time The Ottoman Empire is considered as one of the greatest and most powerful civilizations that thrived in the modern period, encompassing the early fourteenth century lasting into the twentieth century. The empire’s moment of glory in the sixteenth century represents one of the heights of human optimism, artistry and creativity. They built the “largest and most influential Muslim empires of the modern world”,influencing the Muslim world as well and Europe in their military expansions (Hooker, 1996).

There are two sources of Ottoman architecture: the development of new architectural forms in Anatolia, particularly Manisa, Iznik, Bursa and Seeuk during the 14th and 15th centuries and Christian art (Telerama, n. d. ). The early Ottoman period which started in the 14th century was the peak of Turkish architecture. During this period Ottoman art was in search for new ideas to form a certain style it can call its own. In this quest for its own identity, single-domed, tiered and sublime-angled mosques were given birth (Sansal, 2008).

Many arts were also developed during this period such as the production of Iznik tiles, used in decorating mosques and other buildings. Artists from Tabriz introduced to the Ottoman empire the technique of creating the tiles. According to Goodwin (cited in Telerama, n. d. ), the floral motifs of Iznik tiles were utilized to symbolize a common motif of Islamic art—paradise garden. From Iznik tiles, Ottoman architecture gradually developed to give way to the classical architectural style or the of the “era of the domes”.

This period started when the Ottoman empire captured Constantinople, the seat of eastern Christendom and making it its capital. It is here where they introduced various innovations in the arts and architecture. The Ottoman rule in Constantinople led to the transformation of the great Byzantine church, the Hagia Sophia, to an imperial mosque. This architectural became the source of inspiration of the Ottoman architects (Yalman, n. d. ). The Great Mosque or the Ulu Cami which was built in Bursa is the first Seljuk mosque that was converted into a dome.

During this period, the building of Christian churches and the renovation of those in disrepair was prohibited by the Ottomans. The Ottoman rulers only tolerated the building of mosques for their Muslim faith. During this period, the plans of the mosques included inner and outward courtyards. The inner courtyard is inseparable from the mosque. More than just a place of worship, mosques during the Ottoman period were looked upon by society as an interconnection of city planning and communal life.

As evident in the pictures of structures during this period, beside the mosque were soup kitchens, hospitals, theological schools, Turkish baths and tombs (Sansal, 2008). The architectural style during the late 14th and 15th centuries illustrate mosques with a large dome on a drum over a prayer hall that has a rectangular shape. Others include mosques with two domes in a single line. Steirlin said that “the two main domes, set one behind the other, are the distinguishing feature of a form of mosque that prevailed in the Ottoman world (cited in Telerama, n. d. ).

Mehmed II, sixth successor to the Ottoman throne, ascended the Ottoman throne in 1444, ending his reign in 1481. During his rule, he introduced an ambitious rebuilding program for the empire. He tasked his architects to construct palaces and mosques, where the people could hold spiritual and social activities. Among the notable structures built during this period were the Old palace, the Topkapi palace and Fatih complex (Yalman, n. d. ). The Topkapi palace, built in 1478, served as the home of the sultans and the center of the Ottoman government for four hundred years.

Being the seat of power for a long time, the original design of the palace changed through time. The architects during this period drew inspiration from Byzantine, Turkic and Perso-Islamic artistic repertoires. Aside from these art forms, the Ottoman architects were also swayed by Renaissance art. Mehmed II was fascinated with the development of art in western Europe as well as Iranian art. As a result thereof, European and Iranian artists infiltrated the Ottoman court and affected the kind of art and structures that were built during this period (Yalman, n. d. ).

However, Mehmed II’s building programs only indicated the start of the flourishing of art and architecture in the Ottoman society. The Ottoman empire reached its zenith of splendor and power during the reign of Sultan Suleyman I, also known as “The Magnificent”. Being an avid fan of the arts and architecture, Ottoman architecture also began to take shape during his rule. Sinan, his architect, dominated Ottoman art. He patterned the structures that he built after Byzantine traditions and derived great influence from Hagia Sophia (MSN Encarta Online Encyclopedia, 2008).

Mosques and religious complexes were built by Sinan and hundreds of public buildings were erected throughout the Ottoman empire. These buildings contributed to the dissemination and flourishing of Ottoman culture to the world (Yalman, n. d. ). Sinan built more than 300 structures in the Ottoman empire. He constructed at least 120 buildings in Constantinople and another 200 widely scattered across the empire. As the imperial architect, he took Ottoman architecture to new heights of style and grace (Whiting, 2000).

Among the famous structures that he built were the following: the Sehzade kulliye (1548), and the Suleyman kulliye (after 1550) and his masterpiece, the Selim mosque at Edrine, Tur (1569-1575). These buildings reflect clarity and logic in plan and elevation. Every part was intended for a purpose and contributes to the whole structure, no unnecessary element was added. The central feature of architecture during the reign of Sinan is the dome; everything that was added to the building should complement and subordinate it.

A cascade of descending half domes buttresses and vaults as well as open spaces were the prevalent designs during this period. The masterpieces which Sinan created was “the final perfection of two great traditions: a stylistic and aesthetic tradition that had been indigenous to Istanbul since the construction of the Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia in the 6th century and the other Islamic tradition of domical construction dating to the 10th century” (The Ottomans, 2002). The simple yet aesthetic touch that Ottoman architects exhibited in their craft is due to their military training.

Sinan and other Ottoman architects were initially trained to be military engineers (The Ottomans, 2002). Sinan was the chief architect of the Ottoman empire. He drew his inspiration from the Hagia Sophia, a 1000 year old Christian Basilica of the Byzantine empire. In creating his masterpiece, the Suleymaniye Mosque (1550-57) in Istanbul, he achieved the effect of light through the use of 138 arched windows. He also used a rich marble sheathing and stalactite decorations. Sinan also adopted the design of Hagia Sophia, adding a little twist.

Instead of a central-domed square with two flanking half domes, he created a complete square and surmounted it with a big central dome which he set on a high drum and ringed it with smaller domes with minarets on the corners of the small domes (MSN Encarta online encyclopedia, 2008). The mosque which Sinan built was more than just a mosque—it was a complex of buildings housing baths, soup kitchens, schools and shops. The innovation that he introduced to the design of the Hagia Sophia eliminated the use of columns; thus, there are no obstructions to view, light and air (Roberson, 1998).

Windows, domes and arches dominated the 16th and 17th century Ottoman architecture. The Sinan style architecture emphasizes unity and coordination. No matter how small a part is, it is not neglected hence the architect sees to it that its design compliments with the whole. During this period, Ottoman architecture played a greater role than just building structures. The proliferation of building mosques and other edifice defined Ottoman power. The imperial architects followed a centralized design and implemented this throughout the empire.

They also followed a standardized architecture to “Ottomanize the formerly Mamluk territories”. However, the architectural designs that were prevalent in the provinces did not exactly copy the architectural designs of structures in the capital of the empire. The designs in the rural areas had to conform with the available materials and skilled labor. The structures which were patronized by the provinces were the fountains, avanserais and building complexes which transformed the functions of the cities. Most of the mosques also exhibited hemisphirical domes and pencil-shaped minarets (Zeitlian, 2004).

According to Baer (1989, p. 687), the highly articulated exteriors of Ottoman architecture reversed the standard Islamic preference in mosques which is to stress the interior at the expense of the exterior. However, the greatness of Ottoman architecture’s Golden Age waned in the 18th century, when architects deviated from classical architectural principles and adopted European styles. Baroque, Ampir and Rococo styles as well as excessive Western decorations influenced the architecture of the period. Fountains also proliferated the structures that were then built (Sansal, 2008).

Sinan’s influence to Ottoman architecture almost disappeared in the 19th century. During this period, Abdul Aziz and Sultan Abdulhamit II and other architects began to search for an international identity of Ottoman architecture. In their quest for this identity, the architects did not look back to the classic Ottoman architecture of Sinan but to earlier architectural styles—the 14th and 15th century style in Turkey, 12th to 14th century styles in Andalusia particularly Seville and Granada in Spain and the 17th and 18th century styles in Moghul India.

The innovations that 19th century architects introduced were more evident in the interior rather than the exteriors, which remained to be influenced by the West. They maintained an outward acceptance of western traditions and culture but kept the core and the heart of their craft to Islamic traditions. The prevalence of this kind of art exemplifies not just a simple act of change, but an indication of the empire’s visions. The Ottoman rulers in the second half of the 19th century stressed their leadership of the Sunni Muslims worldwide, thus the need to adopt foreign architectural styles and infusing it with Islamic traditions.

The style that prevailed during this period is known as the new Ottoman Caliphal Islamic style. This style employed carved and painted woods with Kufi calligraphy, onion domes, horseshoe arches, towers and finials, use of flat areas of low relief and an exterior style of tile work (Duggan, 2002). According to Kuban (2001), the 19th century Ottoman architecture was not only limited to the erection of mosques. This period also gave way for the building of churches; however, literature delving on this century of Ottoman architecture fail to touch this topic.

Ottoman architecture remained to be Muslim from the capture of Constantinople until the 18th century. During this period, the renovation and building of Christian churches was prohibited. Thus, no development on church architecture emerged. However, this rule changed by the end of the 18th century when legal and social rights were given to non-Muslims. By the 19th century, churches were built, some of them even adopting the styles that were employed in mosques such as the archs which were evident on the church’s interior.

However, before growth of Ottoman architecture in Constantinople, the city already housed great architectural works. Aside from the famous Hagia Sophia, a beautiful architectural piece by itself, the Basilica cistern was built. It is located about south-west of the famous Hagia Sophia and served as one of the historical structures of Istanbul. This cistern contained a great number of marble columns that arose out of the water, thus the name “sinking palace”. The cistern was built during the rule of Emperor Justinianus. It is believed that seven thousand slaves worked on the cistern.

The water that placed on such cistern came from the Egrikap? Water Distribution Centre in Belgrade Forest. The plan for the cistern was created by a group of German divers. Within the cistern are 336 columns which reflect the corinth and dor types, are nine meters high and are arranged in 12 rows. The support for the ceiling are cross shaped vaults and round arches. Since its foundation, the cistern has undergone numerous reparations and restorations. The cistern which can hold up to 100,000 tons of water, provided the water utilized in the palace of the Byzantine empire.

During the conquest of the Ottomans, the cistern supplied water to the Topkapi palace. However, after the Ottomans have established their own water facilities, they ceased using the cistern as they preferred to use running water rather than still water. The cistern remained to be a secret from the west until the discovery by Dutch traveler who was studying the remains of the Byzantine empire. The cistern was transformed into a museum after undergoing reparations and restorations from 1985 to 1987.

The cistern again went through deep cleaning in 1994 (Yerebatan Sarnici, n. d. ). Despite the numerous years that passed, the influences of Ottoman architecture still remain to be a source of awe and inspiration in the erection of buildings. The functional designs of Sinan, the employment of numerous windows to allow more air and light to circulate and the elimination of the use of too much columns in a structure to give more emphasis to the center serve as great contribution to modern day architecture.

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