Evliya Celebi at the Sulaymaniyyah Mosque in Istanbul

As a new year begins, I am grateful that I was able to once again visit Istanbul last year. A few years ago, I purchased An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Celebi. Celebi lived in the 17th Century (1611 – c. 1685) and spent his adult life travelling extensively both inside and outside the Ottoman domains including the Caucasus, Crete, Azerbaijan, Syria, Palestine, Armenia, Rumelia, Eastern Anatolia, Iraq, Iran, Russia, the Balkans, the Netherlands, Hungary, Austria, Crimea, Greece, the Arab Peninsula, Sudan and Egypt. Today he would be described as a travel writer. His observations were published as a ten-volume manuscript, the Seyahatname or the Book of Travels. An Ottoman Traveller is a selection of extracts from the Book of Travels.

Evliya Celebi’s the Book of Travels is described by the translators/editors Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim in the introduction as:

“…probably the longest and most ambitious travel account by any writer in any language, and a key text for all aspects of the Ottoman Empire at the time of its greatest extension in the seventeenth century. It is also the product of an unusual personality – a cultured Ottoman gentleman, pious yet unconventional, observant and inquisitive, curious about everything, obsessive about travelling, determined to leave a complete record of his travels.”

My highlight of visiting Istanbul is always going to the Sulaymaniyyah mosque built (1543-57) on the orders of the Ottoman Sultan Sulayman the Magnificent (ruled 1520 – 1566). Below are some extracts from Evliya’s Celebi’s observations about the Sulaymaniyyah mosque in Istanbul taken from An Ottoman Traveller. I have added pictures taken from the internet to illustrate some of the Celebi’s passages. I have also added the original Arabic of the Qur’an to the translated passages for those who like to decipher the calligraphy.

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Description of the Mosque of Sultan Sulayman

It was begun in the year 1543 and finished in the year 1557, and is an exemplary mosque beyond description. The learned men who compose histories, and thus strike the dye on marble, have confessed the inability and failure of the best chroniclers to celebrate this unequalled mosque. Now, this humble Evliya ventures to write down in praises in as much as I am able.

First, this mosque divides in half the ground of old palace the Conqueror had earlier built. On top of the high hill, Sulayman Khan built a unique mosque overlooking the sea. How many thousands of master architects, builders, labourers, stonecutters and marble cutters from all the Ottoman dominions had he gathered! And for three whole years 3000 galley slaves, foot-bound in chains, would lay the foundation deep into the ground, so deep that the world-bearing bull at the bottom of the earth could hear the sound of their pickaxes. They dug until they had reached the deepest part, and in three years, by erecting a platform, the foundation was built up to the surface.

…The bowl of the indigo-coloured dome of this great mosque, up to its lofty summit, is more spherical than that of Aya Sofya, and is seven royal cubits in height.

Apart from the square piers supporting this incomparable dome, there are four porphyry columns on the right and left sides of the mosque, each one worth ten Egyptian treasures. These columns were from Egypt, transported along the Nile to Alexandria. From there Karinca Kapudan loaded them onto rafts and, with favourable wind, brought them to Unkapanu in Istanbul and then to Vefa Square…These four columns of red porphyry are each fifty cubits high. God knows, there is nothing like them in the four corners of the world.

The multi-coloured stained windows above the prayer-niche and the pulpit are the work of Sarhos Ibrahim. Mere men are too impotent to praise them. At noon, when these windows let in the rays of the world-illuming sun, the mosque interior shines with light, dazzling the eyes of the congregation. Each pane contains a myriad of varicoloured glass bits, in designs of flowers and of the beautiful names of God in calligraphy. They are celebrated by travellers on land and sea as a sight not matched in the heavens.

The prayer-niche and pulpit and the muezzin’s gallery are made of pure white marble…the lofty pulpit is made of raw marble and has a crown-like canopy, matched only by the pulpit in the Sinop mosque. And the prayer-niche could be that of Solomon himself. Above the niche, gold on azure by the hand of Karahisari, is inscribed the verse, Whenever Zacharias visited her in the Niche (3:37).

كُلَّمَا دَخَلَ عَلَيْهَا زَكَرِيَّا الْمِحْرَابَ

…There has never been to this day, nor will there ever be, any calligraphy like that of Ahmad Karahisari both inside and outside this mosque. The Creator granted him success in this field. First, in the centre of the big dome, is inscribed the verse: God is the light of the heavens and earth. His light may be compared to a niche that enshrines a lamp, the lamp within a crystal of star-like brilliance (24:35). He has truly displayed his skill in rendering this Light Verse.

…This mosque has five doors…Written over the left side door is: Peace be to you for all that you have steadfastly endured. Blessed is the recompense of paradise (13:24).

سَلَامٌ عَلَيْكُمْ بِمَا صَبَرْتُمْ ۚ فَنِعْمَ عُقْبَى الدَّارِ

Because Sulayman Khan is the conqueror of the seven climes, his name is mentioned not only here but in Friday sermons. And in all the lands of Islam, there is no building stronger and more solid than the Sulaymaniyyah. All architectural experts agree on this, and also that nowhere on earth has such an enamel dome been seen.

Within and outside this mosque the foundation is firm, the buildings elegant, and every piece of ornamentation the work of wondrous magic of extreme perfection. When the construction ended, the Grand Architect Sinan said, “My Padishah, I have built for you a mosque so solid that on Judgement Day, when the mountains are carded like cotton, the dome of this mosque will roll like a polo ball before the carder’s bow string of Hallaj Mansur.”

…Once this humble one observed ten Frankish infidels with expert knowledge of geometry and architecture who were touring this light-filled mosque. The gatekeepers had let them in, and the caretakers had given them special shoes so they could walk around and see it. Wherever they looked, they put finger to mouth and bit it in astonishment. But when they say the doors inlaid with Indian mother-of-pearl, they shook their head and bit two fingers each. And when they saw the enamel dome, they threw off their Frankish hats and cried out in awe, ‘Maria, Maria!’

…This humble one requested their interpreter to ask them how they liked this building. One of them turned out to be capable of speech. He said, ‘All things, whether created beings or man-made structures, are beautiful either on the inside or on the outside. Rarely are the two beauties found together. But both the interior and exterior of this mosque were constructed with such grace and refinement. In all of Frengistan we have not seen an edifice built to such perfection as this.’

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