WRITER: Stephanie D’Arc Taylor PHOTOGRAPHER: Thomas Mayer & Cemal Emden
Turkey’s Sancaklar Mosque sheds architectural clichés. The sleek, minimal house of Islamic worship featuring cast concrete walls and a cave-like prayer hall almost disappears into the landscape, eschewing the flourishes of traditional mosques to redefine the religious gathering place we thought we knew so well.
When it comes to religious spaces, the structure of the mosque is the least legislated of the major monotheistic religions. To be considered a church or a temple, a building needs to undergo various rituals designating the space as holy; there also needs to be an altar, regular processions, and other official rites that entitle the space as more than just a building.
A mosque, on the other hand, doesn’t even need to be a building. Islamic tradition dictates that Muslims can pray anywhere they like, as long as they do it five times a day facing in the direction of Mecca. “The prophet used to pray with his companions outdoors,” says Samir Mahmoud, doctor of philosophical aesthetics at the American University of Beirut, “or in a small structure adjacent to his house (the first mosque) consisting of columns of palms with a flat roof.”
Given that there’s no formal dictate in Islam for how a mosque should look, it’s ironic that many mosques, in and out of the Arab world, are so easily recognisable as Islamic houses of worship. The dome, the minaret, and the mihrab (an internal niche indicating the Qibla, or direction of Mecca), what we think of as hallmarks of classical mosque architecture, were innovations of the 7th century Umayyads. These were featured prominently in the style perfected by Sinan, the star architect of the Ottoman Empire, in the 16th century. The Sinan style of mosque – think Istanbul’s iconic Süleymaniye Mosque – was so successful that it continues to be built to this day. Downtown Beirut’s 2008 Mohammed al-Amin mosque is a prime example, as is the Çamlıca mosque, currently being built on a hill outside Istanbul, to be Turkey’s largest.
The mosque is located in a prairie landscape that is separated from the surrounding suburban gated communities by a busy highway. The high walls surrounding the park on the upper courtyard of the mosque depict a clear boundary between the chaotic outer world and the serene atmosphere of the public park.
It’s an architectural cliché ripe for disruption. In Turkey and abroad, says Emre Arolat, the architect of the modernistic new Sancaklar Mosque in the suburbs of Istanbul, “the form of the classical Ottoman mosque is being applied constantly with modern techniques, which make it become an anachronism that is emptied from its content.” The Sancaklar Mosque, in contrast, “was planned with an iconoclastic attitude against the practices of recent mosque building.”
The Sancaklar Mosque, Arolat’s most significant achievement to date, stands the traditional trope of the mosque squarely on its head. Instead of relying on the traditional idea of the mosque, or, indeed, any existing architectural vocabulary, Arolat and his team instead sought to distil the essence of the ritual of Islamic prayer to inform what the structure of the mosque should resemble. At its most basic, the architects determined, a mosque is a place where Muslims come together to worship (indeed, the most commonly used Arabic word for mosque, jami’, means a gathering place).
“The most prominent parameter of the design [of the mosque],” Arolat says, “was the motivation of enhancing the spiritual and sensual satisfaction that one would experience in the space.”
Many notable mosques are grand affairs, their rippling domes and minarets visible for miles around. By contrast, the Sancaklar Mosque, amid rolling countryside beside the Buyukçekmece Lake, is almost undetectable until one is practically on top of it. “It is aimed to have the building completely blend in with the topography, hold to the place as if it has always been there,” the architect says. “While the designers and clients of the historicist mainstream mosques try to shout their structures’ existence aloud, Sancaklar is simply silent.”
In pursuit of this goal, the mosque is set below ground level, accessible by an undulating set of stone steps following the natural curve of the hillside. Native grasses have sprouted around the stones, allowing further integration into the natural topography.
Arolat’s effort to conjoin the building with the surrounding landscape, says Dr. Samir Mahmoud, allows it to more successfully tap into the essence of Islamic religious space. Because “the building is suppressed into the landscape,” says the philosopher of aesthetics, “the mosque interior feels like a cave, much, perhaps, like the cave in which the prophet received the first revelation.”
The aspect of egalitarian communion for worship is also specially emphasised, says Mahmoud. “Rather than a single plane or level there are amphitheatre-like elevations so that worshipers seated in the back rows have a clear view of the imam and Qibla wall,” he says. Further, women worshippers are allotted a space that is equal to that designated solely for men. In the majority of mosques around the world, the women’s prayer space is either on a balcony above or behind that of the main prayer hall, which is predominantly a men-only zone. Here, the prayer space devoted to women “is adjacent to and identical to that of men,” separated of course by a partition, says the architect.
The Sancaklar Mosque also challenges the concept of the minaret, from which the muezzin traditionally calls the faithful to prayer. The minaret at Sancaklar, referred to as a “stone-masonry mass” by Arolat’s team, is a dark stone rectangle little resembling the conical spires and small balconies of the traditional minaret. Rising several metres from ground level, the minaret is the only indication from afar that there is anything here at all. The calligraphy on the minaret, which becomes recognisable as ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is Great) on approach (the first words of the muezzin’s traditional call to prayer), announces that this is a place of worship.
By many accounts, Arolat has successfully created an intelligent and beautiful – yet fully service-oriented – building. The mosque won the 2015 Building of the Year award in the Religious Building category from the well-regarded ArchDaily architecture website, as well as the best religious building award at the World Architecture Festival in 2013. It has also been listed as a candidate for a number of other prestigious international architecture prizes.
The dramatic slits and fractures along the Qiblah wall enhances the directionality of the prayer space and allows daylight to filter into the prayer hall.
The mosque’s aesthetics fits into a new wave of mosque architecture that confronts the traditions of the past. The identity of Muslims in Turkey, argues Arolat, is closely tied with Ottoman history, which suggests a natural affinity for centuries-old architectural modes. “Turkish Muslim identity was and still is constructed as the ‘heir of Suleiman the Magnificent’,” the architect writes. “Recent Turkish religious architecture and the historiographical-ideological assumptions of the believers are closely bound together.”
Dr. Mahmoud echoes this: “In places like Turkey where Ottoman identity, Turkish nationalism, and Islam are inseparable, the Ottoman mosque is both a religious symbol and a cultural icon… to build a mosque in any other style is construed by some as being un-nationalistic or un-Islamic.”
However, the trend for many Muslims is to seek to forge a new relationship with the past, regardless of whether they fall toward the liberal or conservative ends of the spectrum. Puritanical conservative Muslims prefer to disregard any architectural style that came after the early Islamic period as impure; liberal Muslims in general favour modern architectural styles as a sign of forward progress and innovation.
This paradoxical alignment has opened up space for mosques like Sancaklar to be built, and to become beloved by communities that might not be accustomed to post-Ottoman mosques. Perhaps, this will go on to spur individual re-examinations of Islamic identity. “Those who worked on the design of the Sancaklar mosque were working squarely within the ‘Islamic’ framework of creating a place of gathering, prostration, worship, tranquillity, and peace that is in harmony with the natural world around it,” says Dr. Mahmoud. “All [the Sancaklar Mosque’s] departures from the traditional mosque style are not thereby departures from the essence of what a mosque is.”