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The Dome

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Posted 20 March 2005 - 21:56

The wind may occasionally impel us to glance up at the sky, where sun, moon and stars float, where wind-tossed clouds transform sky into text. A rotating vacuum that presses us to its bosom and shelters us, encircling every point on our bodies. A transparent, porous space in which everything is at once sky. The sky, which encompasses all that rotates, is circular...The circle we see is “The time before me, the time after me, and the time that belongs to my being.” A space not of time flowing from past to future but of time being scattered directly to all time in a continuous flux. In one of its aspects it corresponds to rotation, in another to the static with its centralized structure, and its closed and introverted nature.

The dome is the most important expression of circularity in building. A massive vacuum enclosing the ‘aura’, in which length, height, width, depth and, most importantly, time extend in every direction.
In a dome, interior explains that which encloses it. The interior is the symbol of the exterior; the dome, a manifestation of externality that rises to the sky over the square and its variations, which represent pure reason and simplicity. As a structural element, the dome has a long past in the history of architecture. Pantheon in Rome, Hagia Sophia in Byzantium, and, again in the Renaissance, Michelangelo’s St. Mark’s are structures that embody the dome. The dome, first used in the monumental buildings of Rome and Byzantium, was widely implemented, especially in places of worship, long before the Turks settled in Anatolia.

Together with the arrival of the Turks in Anatolia, during the period of the Principalities in particular, flat-roofed mosques predominated in what could be regarded as a continuation of the Central Asian tradition of building. But the Ottomans diverged from this tradition, using instead in their places of worship the domed structures traditional in Anatolia.

Quickly adapted by the Ottomans to their own concept of building, the dome in a sense acquired its true identity with them, in a new aesthetic approach which, in its process of self-realization, coincided eminently well with their concept of structure. Windows and light were problems requiring solution in this new aesthetic approach. Structural details such as squinches, pendentives and ‘Turkish triangles’, needed for the mediation from the square to the circle, emerged meanwhile as aesthetic surfaces and textures in their own right. Symmetry, circularity and rhythm became essential aesthetic manifestations of structure and decoration. One reason for all this striving was the belief that the dome in Islam represents the throne of God. Among the Ottomans, the dome in this sense ceased to be a mere structural element, becoming a conceptual element instead. During the 600-plus years of the great imperial adventure that began in Sogut and ended in Istanbul, the dome was the quintessential Ottoman symbol. Evliya Celebi mentions in his notes how the Ottomans referred to mosques as domes. Each period of the empire can be discerned in its domes.


From the first modest examples to the monumental structures symbolizing power and splendor, and again in the feeble counterparts produced in the empire’s final years, the history of the Ottomans is chronicled in their domes.
With its modest and minimal features, the Green Mosque, the first Ottoman domed structure, built by architect Haci Musa in Iznik in 1398, represents the beginning of this process. When Bursa becomes the capital, the great multi-domed and double-domed mosques on a reverse T-plan, such as the Green Mosque and Muradiye, turn it into a monumental city.
A similar phenomenon is evident in the mosques of Edirne, where the Old Mosque and the Three-Balconied Mosque rise to the sky in testimony to the imperial process.

Istanbul becomes a ‘cityof domes’ after the conquest, which is followed immediately by the construction of the corollaries of the great double-domed mosques of Bursa--Mahmut Pasha Mosque at Nuruosmaniye and Murat Pasha Mosque at Aksaray.
The Hagia Sophia, Byzantium’s monumental structure, is converted into a mosque as well. The Ottoman sultans, vezirs, and pashas also commission the construction of numerous mosques for themselves and members of their families. Some of these are ordinary, nondescript structures, but others are truly monumental in nature, most of the latter having been built during the time of the architect known as Mimar Sinan.
A masterbuilder, Sinan went beyond the ordinary in his interpretation of the tradition, his designs and his structural solutions, producing thought-provoking structures which evoke admiration even today. This great architect, who tried to bring a new perspective to the tradition in every building he designed, achieved a perfect synthesis of function and aesthetic in all these structures and must therefore must be regarded not merely as an architect but as an artist as well.
From the aesthetic proportions of the diminutive Semsi Pasha Mosque to the way in which the problems of space and adaptation to topography are solved in the Suleymaniye Mosque built for Suleyman the Magnificent, Sinan underwent a further self-realization in every building he designed.
At Selimiye in Edirne, too, Sinan created a structural organization that can be regarded as a flood of light in a space that seems to virtually support the sky. Exterior has become interior, and Sinan in a sense has created a space for the ‘aura’.

As representatives of the tradition, the architects that succeeded Sinan continued to build monumental mosques, but they also arrived at new syntheses. Foremost among them are Mehmet Aga, architect of the Sultanahmet or ‘Blue’ Mosque, Mustafa Aga, architect of the Nuruosmaniye Mosque, and Mehmet Tahir, architect of the Laleli Mosque. Under the influence of Westernization efforts in the late Ottoman period, we encounter examples that gradually deviate from the Ottoman identity. These eclectic structures express somehow the sadness of an empire that is breathing its last despite all efforts to survive.
It is thrilling to view the Istanbul skyline today when the city lights come on, for the domes seem virtually stuck to the sky. Darkened semi-circles, detached from their spatial contexts, they have become part of the sky itself. When they sky turns a deep azure and the vault of heaven is sprinkled with moon and stars, dome and sky merge into one. And perhaps the true meaning of the dome is revealed.

Text and photos: Kamil FIRAT

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