Turkey’s 12 best mosques
Wrong! You could perhaps be forgiven for thinking in this way while traveling around Turkey, where too many modern mosques are mere cut-price, cut-down copycats of the great Mimar Sinan originals. In reality, though, Turkey is home to a huge variety of mosques, many of them truly splendid. The following are some of the country's finest mosques but have also been chosen as representatives of different styles.
Ulu Cami, Diyarbakır
Dating back to 639 and the period when the newly invigorated Arabs were pouring north from what is now Saudi Arabia, Ulu Cami in far eastern Diyarbakır is believed to be the oldest mosque in Anatolia. With its elongated courtyard surrounded by the mosque itself and several porticoes, its design has more in common with those of Aleppo and Damascus than it does with later Turkish designs. The mosque has gone through many re-buildings over the centuries and is now undergoing meticulous restoration.
Alaaddin Cami, Konya
The most familiar Turkish mosque design features cascading domes and semi-domes framed by minarets but many of the oldest mosques in the country have a much less showy appearance. As with their caravanserais, the Selçuks tended to focus all their decorative efforts on the portals of their mosques and on the mihrabs inside which usually sat amid a sea of columns, often utilizing pieces of Roman masonry as capitals and bases. Alaaddin Cami in Konya, the original Selçuk capital, boasts an unusually elaborate exterior although its interior is fairly typical, Buried in the courtyard behind it are some of the Selçuk rulers.
Ulu Cami, Divriği
After the Selçuk Sultanate of Rum (Konya) collapsed many different emirates (beyliks) developed in Anatolia. Remote Divriği became the capital of the Mengücek Beylik, one of whose rulers, Ahmed Şah, commissioned an Ulu Cami of such splendor in 1228 that it is now one of Turkey's world heritage sites. What makes his Ulu Cami so special is the Cennet Kapısı (Heaven Gate) that took the usual Selçuk emphasis on portals to such wildly elaborate extremes that it is often described as Rococo in appearance. There's nothing else quite like it in Turkey although a copy has been added to a modern mosque at Bulancak, near Giresun on the Black Sea.
İsa Bey Cami, Selçuk
Tourists who choose to visit the ruins of Ephesus from Selçuk rather than Kuşadası also get the opportunity to appreciate another masterpiece of the Beylik period: the huge and lovely İsa Bey Cami, built in 1375. Despite its position on the far western side of Turkey, this mosque bears some comparison with the Ulu Cami in Diyarbakır, having a large courtyard in which the congregation once prayed out of doors. In general, the mosque is seen as an example of the transition from Selçuk to Ottoman architecture, with the elaborate decoration of the portal harking back to the Selçuks while the twin domes presaged the early Ottomans.
Eşrefoğlu Cami, Beyşehir
On the shores of Lake Beyşehir, the Eşrefoğlu Cami is another masterpiece of the Beylik era that belongs to a distinct subset of “Selçuk” mosques known as “forest mosques” because the great sea of columns inside was created from wood rather than stone. Built in 1299, this mosque features not just 42 lovely wooden columns but also an array of other painted wooden fittings including the mimber and seating boxes for the muezzin and the emir himself. Right in the middle, a square is fenced off with wooden balustrades. Once upon a time, it would have been open to the skies although it's now roofed over.
Other forest mosques include the Ulu Cami in Afyon, and the Arslanhane and Ahi Elvan Camis in the Samanpazarı area of Ankara.
Hüdavendigar Cami, Bursa
When the Ottomans started to take over Anatolia the mosques they designed were far simpler than those that were to come later. Many fine examples can be seen in Bursa, the first Ottoman capital, where a ground plan based on an inverted T developed, with the mihrab up a few steps in the narrowest part of the mosque. Featuring brick-and-stone exteriors, the mosques often look almost Byzantine. With its many domes built onto a flat roof, Bursa's Ulu Cami is the least typical mosque in town. More characteristic is the iconic Yeşil Cami with its fine tiled interior. Tucked away in the Çekirge suburb, the Hüdavendigar Cami, built for Sultan Murad I between 1363 and 1366, is another impressive one-off, its exterior so designed that it looks almost like a Byzantine palace rather than a mosque. Inside, it reverts to the typical T-bar design. It's a shame that more people don't visit it.
Küçük Ayasofya, İstanbul
After the Ottomans seized Constantinople from the Byzantines in 1453 they had to improvise places of worship from existing buildings, which meant quickly converting all the Byzantine churches into mosques. These church-mosques included both Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) and the Chora Church (Kariye Cami). Both are now museums but other church-mosques continue as places of worship even today. One particularly lovely example is Küçük Ayasofya, which started life in 527 as the Church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus. Externally it's not especially striking but step inside and you'll find a two-story ring of marble columns etched with fine carvings and a lengthy inscription. It's a splendid one-off.
Süleymaniye Cami, Istanbul
Of all Turkey's architects none has the name recognition of the great Sinan (c. 1490-1588). Today more than 80 of the buildings he designed for İstanbul still survive, including medreses, hamams and bridges. But his many mosques have left the greatest mark on the city, and of those mosques is the recently restored Süleymaniye, the great mosque that he built for Süleyman the Magnificent. It bestrides the skyline, which is the most impressive, not least because almost all of its original külliye, the collection of social buildings surrounding it, survives.
Süleymaniye is huge, splendid and crowded, and some visitors prefer the much smaller Rüstem Paşa Cami that hunkers down near the Galata Bridge, its walls papered with lovely İznik tiles on the inside and out. There are more fine tiles in the Sokollu Mehmed Paşa Cami in Kadırga but my own personal favorite Sinan mosque is Şehzade Cami, the first large mosque complex he designed.
Selimiye Cami, Edirne
Much as Süleymaniye is admired, Sinan himself rated Selimiye Cami, which he built for Sultan Selim II in Edirne between 1569 and 1575, as his masterpiece, a decision confirmed by UNESCO when it awarded the mosque world-heritage-site status in 2011. Set at the back of a small park that makes it easy to appreciate it, Selimiye incorporates all the familiar Sinan characteristics -- a central dome covering a huge central prayer hall with a collection of smaller domes and semi-domes surrounding it and four tall, thin minarets framing it.
Sultanahmet Cami (Blue Mosque)
Designed by a pupil of Sinan, Sedefkar Mehmet Ağa, between 1609 and 1616, Sultanahmet Cami is as grand as, and similar in design to, Süleymaniye, and features an unrivalled selection of İznik tiles. But where Sultan Süleyman had been happy to settle for four minarets, Sultan Ahmed I wanted an even more impressive six. For that alone, Sultanahmet Cami stands out. It wasn't until Merkez Sabancı Cami arose in Adana in 1998 that a second mosque in Turkey also opted for six mosques.
Ortaköy Cami, İstanbul
Most commentators think that Turkish mosque architecture went into a slow decline from the end of the 17th century onwards. In the latter half of the 19th century, however, the prolific Balyan family of architects bestowed a distinctive set of mosques on İstanbul, especially on the shores of the Bosporus. Typical of these mosques is Büyük Mecidiye in Ortaköy, built in 1855 and now sitting just beneath the Bosporus Bridge. Whereas the windows of Sinan mosques tended to be relatively small and were often filled with stained glass, this mosque has huge, arched windows designed to draw in light from the outside. By this time, the baggage of the social buildings once associated with mosques had been shed along with the cascading domes and semi-domes. Instead, Ortaköy Cami features a single large dome along with two minarets. Dolmabahçe Cami is more or less a mirror image of it.
Şakirin Cami, İstanbul
Modernity has not been kind to İstanbul mosque design, little of which rises above mediocrity. A striking exception is Şakirin Cami on the edge of the Karacaahmet cemetery between Üsküdar and Kadıköy. Completed in 2011, this mosque nods towards the style of Frank Gehry on the outside. On the inside, however, it's unique. The work of a female interior designer, Zeynep Fadıllıoğlu, it features a magnificent turquoise and golden mihrab together with beautiful gold-leaf calligraphy and dripping plastic chandeliers. It's well worth going out of your way to see.