Eschewing historicism, this new mosque in Turkey conveys a sense of spirituality through an austere choreography of light and space
Though it might seem paradoxical, a mosque, unlike a church, is not a sacred place. For instance, there are no rituals of consecration. There is no special ceremony to initiate its religious function, nor a formal procedure to exempt it from use. Theoretically, Islamic prayers can be performed everywhere, provided that that place is clean. A mosque primarily gathers together the faithful, so in effect it is merely a public space. Devotional rituals in a mosque are also surprisingly straightforward An imam is not essential for daily prayers, which can be undertaken individually by believers. An imam only conducts the rhythm of the prayers and even then there is no obligation to keep to his lead. One worshipper can finish early, another can take their time. Prayers without the ministration of the imam are also permitted.
These characteristics of Islamic worship might seem to simplify the task of designing a mosque. And if modernity is a historical condition of inability to produce the sacred, as Walter Benjamin asserted, then the mosque as a building type is explicitly aligned with the modern world. Unlike other monotheistic religions, an Islamic place of worship is almost secular, achieved by assembling a minimum of crucial elements and functions. In reality, however, a new mosque cannot be brought into being with such pragmatic ease and effortlessness, since as the complexity of the functional programme diminishes, architectural expectations are commensurately greater.
In Turkey, contemporary mosque design adheres rigidly to the traditional precepts established by the great 16th-century architect Sinan, when the Ottoman Empire was at its height as a military and political world power. Most new mosques are naive imitations of Sinan’s masterpieces, and only a small proportion manifest the historicist appeal of their predecessors. Beyond this, Turkish architects are rarely capable of envisaging a supranational form of mosque architecture and few contemporary mosques merit wider attention.
Recent Turkish religious architecture and the historiographical-ideological assumptions of believers are intimately bound together. Regarding themselves as direct descendants of the exalted Ottomans, today’s mosque builders express their devotion through ambitious construction programmes that favour quantity over quality. Modern Turkish Muslim identity was, and still is, increasingly constructed around the notion of being heirs to Suleiman the Magnificent, and this politico-religious belief permeates widely across Turkish culture from television to popular novels. In this context, the principal function of a mosque is to visualise the prevailing ideology of nationalism and religion within space, inculcating an inherently nostalgic and retrospective approach, with few exceptions.
Thus despite Islam’s liturgical simplicity, new mosques in Turkey are charged with a complex ideological and political burden. The modern mosque is an icon or a complex of icons, the main aim of which is to support realpolitik. Traditional historicist features are not only expected to affirm politico-religious sanctity, but are also regarded as icons, in which idea and image are inseparable. As a result, a fixed and highly sanctified kind of mosque architecture prevails and to dispute or disregard it has become synonymous with a denial of Islam. A recently completed modern mosque in Malatya, a city in eastern Anatolia, was criticised for being without a central dome, and is now ‘waiting to be revised’ with the addition of a ‘proper’ dome.
Consciously conceived as an iconoclastic stand against current practice, Sancaklar Mosque by Emre Arolat is, without doubt, an exception. However, Arolat did not undertake the project as a vehicle to challenge the traditional establishment. He simply ignored the prevailing language of contemporary mosque architecture and poetically reconceptualised it. Certain aspects and approaches clearly stand out. Most obviously, the building was constructed without a dome in a society that cannot envisage a mosque without a central dome. The unwritten rule for minarets is to design them as the imitations of their 16th-century Ottoman counterparts with conical spires and small balconies; here there are no such features. In a country where believers are accustomed to washing themselves in ablution fountains contained in a concentric polygonal structure (şadırvan) set in a courtyard, the ablution space is semi-enclosed and self-contained. Natural light is usually admitted uniformly throughout the interior, but at Sancaklar daylight is filtered indirectly.
In most Turkish mosques the prayer space for women is placed behind the main prayer hall, which is considered the domain of men. Somewhat radically, female congregants occupy a space adjacent and identical to their male counterparts. Throughout Islamic architectural history, prayer halls tend to be planar with no change in levels. At Sancaklar, the hall is approached from a raised level and worshippers proceed inside by traversing large steps. The mihrab (the niche denoting the direction of the Kaaba at Mecca) is defined by a beam of light rather than articulated as an ornate portal. Most mosque interiors are adorned with decoration, but Arolat eschews applied ornament. The more usual inflationist exuberance of Islamic calligraphy is reduced to a solitary example on a side wall, which functions almost like a modern work of art.
How can this radical exemplar be constructed in a country where the majority of mosques embody political ideologies and historiographical nostalgias? And how can it convince a public that is highly suspicious of ‘alien’ design elements? Possibly because its architect replaces the modern ideological and political paradigms that have served to fossilise recent mosque architecture with theological ones to which no Muslim can easily object.
Rather than regurgitating current stereotypes and social practices, Arolat explores fundamental concepts defined centuries ago within Islamic thought. For example, the ornamental mihrab can be replaced by another form of signifier, since it is liturgically inessential. However, conditions for spiritual contemplation are essential, so modulated light gives an inconceivable ambiguity to the internal space, in order to bestow a sense of tranquillity and solitude. Theological research revealed that women did not necessarily have to be placed behind men, so a new spatial organisation is created that gives women parity. There is no liturgical imperative for the floor of the prayer hall to be flat, so large steps are introduced along one side, like an amphitheatre. Worshippers are now able to fully experience the space instead of their view being obscured. Such actions are a reminder that, as far as Islamic theology is concerned, a community is a gathering of people in a defined space performing acts of contemplation.
Yet Sancaklar Mosque cannot simply be regarded as an architectural by-product of a careful re-reading of Islamic precepts. What Arolat has achieved was not merely on the basis of picking out old and baseless stereotypes that are inherently non-Islamic. Clearly he has no such religious ambition, theological expertise or a new vision for the everyday practices of a Muslim community, yet he shares with his Turkish compatriots a set of common ethical and moral values, reminiscences and cultural legacies. This awareness informs his architecture. Sancaklar Mosque was designed to address moral considerations, satisfy ethical anxieties, and respect and respond to the age-old memories of a devoted Muslim Turk.
Among the main factors guiding the design is the notion of modesty, which was an essential moral consideration before the introduction of capitalist values and economic individualism to Turkey. Half-buried in the ground, the building is barely visible from the outside, its topographical setting partially concealing it from public view. While the designers and clients of historicist mainstream mosques loudly proclaim their existence, Sancaklar is much more reticent, offering few clues about itself through an austere, elemental materiality of roughly hewn masonry and dry-stone walls. To pray here is as if to pray outdoors, immersed in nature, alluding to a form of worship once practised during the time of Muhammad, but since forgotten in the modern world. Yet it is recorded that Muhammad took his small group of followers out of Medina and into the wild to pray. In its evident reciprocity with nature and topography, Sancaklar Mosque refers to this immemorial and deeply resonant act.
Through its interior order the building offers a further ethical anecdote. The bare walls of its concrete structure clearly epitomise an ascetic denial of the prevalent exhibitionism of current mosque architecture. But in form and atmosphere they also resemble a cave, an allusion that has wider symbolic significance. The divine revelations that would later form the Quran first reached Muhammad in the year 610 in a cave on Mount Hira, near Mecca. For the faithful, this utterly plain and confined space enhances the spiritual bond with their prophet. Everyone who worships here experiences an existence within a timeless space devoid of worldly references. By saying nothing of itself, the space encourages worshippers to contemplate a deeper connection with the divine, in absolute solitude. It also implies a poetic religiosity that tactfully steers mosque architecture away from the proscriptive realms of politics and nationhood and redefines it anew in the context of ethics and aesthetics.