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The crowning dome of Edirne: Selimiye Mosque
2002 / September

One of the greatest masterpieces of classical Ottoman architecture is in the city of Edirne, which was capital of the Ottoman Empire for 90 years prior to the conquest of Istanbul. Selimiye Mosque was built for Sultan Selim II (1566-1574), the son of Süleyman the Magnificent, and its architect was Sinan, the Euclid of his age. The mosque is Sinan's most glorious achievement and in it he set the golden signature of his mastery upon the city of Edirne. I first knew Selimiye Mosque amidst lights and colours, its four slender minarets, the tallest of any Ottoman mosque, drawing me from afar. I saw the soaring space of the interior illuminated by the early morning sun pouring in through the 999 windows, and by night drenched in the light of 3788 lamps. The tulips, hyacinths, violets, carnations, marguerites, roses and pomegranate blossom of the spectacularly beautiful Iznik wall tiles did not seem immutable, but ever-changing as the day progressed and night followed day. After some time inside the mosque the dome which Sinan believed surpassed that of Haghia Sophia made its presence felt.

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The crowning dome of Edirne: Selimiye Mosque
2002 / September

The sense of integral space and mystic atmosphere seemed to purify the emotions of all the petty concerns of daily life. Chief imperial architect Sinan was in his eighties when he built the Selimiye, which marks the zenith of his lifelong endeavour to perfect the domed building. The Süleymaniye Mosque had taken him nearly to the zenith of his creative power, but Selimiye was the crown of his genius. The mosque was built to commemorate the conquest of Cyprus, perhaps Selim II's sole military achievement, and either because no hilltop remained in Istanbul worthy of such a monument, or perhaps as a gesture of loyalty to a city where Selim had spent nine years of his life, it was decided to build it in Edirne. The chosen site was the hill of Saribayir overlooking the city, and the acquisition of land commenced. In those years horticulture was one of the main sources of income in Edirne, and Saribayir was covered with flower nurseries growing principally tulips. The story goes that a woman who owned a small tulip garden here objected to selling her land, and resisted official pressure for a considerable time.

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The crowning dome of Edirne: Selimiye Mosque
2002 / September
Finally they took her to see Sinan, hoping the architect could persuade her. She agreed, but on one condition, that in some part of the mosque there should be a sign that there had once been a tulip garden. Sinan kept his word, and had an inverted tulip motif carved on one of the marble pillars at the eastern corner of the müezzin's gallery in the centre of the mosque. Excavation of the foundations began in 1569. Fourteen thousand labourers and four hundred stonemasons were employed in the construction of the mosque , which was completed in 1575. Rüstem Pasa Mosque in Istanbul had been the earliest indication of the power which Sinan was capable of imparting to a dome, and which in the Selimiye was to reach its ultimate conclusion. In both mosques the dome rests on eight pillars, but in the Selimiye the dome is not only gigantic, rising to 43.28 metres at the summit, and with a diameter of 31.28 metres, but the pillars supporting it have been withdrawn to create the maximum inner space and do not intrude at all.
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The crowning dome of Edirne: Selimiye Mosque
2002 / September
Six thousand people can comfortably pray in this 1575 square metre central area. In past centuries when the Ottoman army halted here on its way to campaigns in Europe, not only the interior of the mosque, but the large courtyard is known to have filled with worshippers. Light from the windows falls on the tiles of the prayer niche and the imperial gallery, on the intricately carved marble pulpit, and the tile inscriptions which are the work of the calligrapher Hasan Çelebi. From there the light rises into the dome, and then cascades onto the gallery of the müezzin beneath. This gallery provides a counterpoint to the sense of space, which in its vastness might otherwise have overbalanced into emptiness. Sinan was a master of such seemingly artless details. On the columns of this gallery, where a fountain of water creates an agreeable sound, I searched for the carved tulip commemorating the woman's tulip garden.
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The crowning dome of Edirne: Selimiye Mosque
2002 / September
When I went out into the courtyard worshippers had gathered around the 16-sided marble Sadirvan (fountain for ablutions) in the centre. Beyond this colonnaded court is the mosque plaza, and there tourists were seated on benches waiting for the prayers to end so that they could visit the mosque. From here the beautiful exterior presented itself, with its single storey colonnades, windows with heavy iron grilles, and red stone window sills contrasting with the honey yellow stone of the façade. The way in which Sinan decorated the exterior of this mosque is striking when compared to the austere Süleymaniye, where all attention is focused on the lines and forms of the architectural structure itself. At Selimiye Sinan has not felt the need to restrain himself in the matter of decoration, whether inside or out, and uses ornamental detail with such mastery that it enhances the monumental structure of the whole.
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The crowning dome of Edirne: Selimiye Mosque
2002 / September

Unlike Süleymaniye, Selimiye Mosque has only a small complex of institutions attached to it, consisting of a medrese and school for teaching the hadith set at the southern corners of the plaza. The medrese today houses Edirne Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art. The arasta, a row of 77 shops against the outside wall of the plaza is a later addition dating from the reign of Murad III (1574-1595). When I left Edirne late that afternoon only the mosque bade me farewell, its domes and minarets visible long after the surrounding city was out of sight. Soon the daylight which poured through the 999 windows would be replaced by the light from 3788 lamps. I had first seen the mosque brilliant with light and colour, and that image would remain with me.

* Ersin Toker is a freelance writer.

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