Ilustration 1 Dome of the Süleymaniye mosque, ph: Haidar Ali Tipu Zinan Zapata Ochoa

The Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul and its dialogue with Hagia Sophia, a look to its domes

Historic context


It is no secret to anyone that Santa Sofia (Hagia Sophia) is one of the most important constructions in the world due to the historical relevance it had in the development of both the ancient city of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire; being the largest basilica in the world during the first millennium after the birth of Christ. In this way, when the Ottoman Empire took possession of the entire Bosphorus Strait (present-day Istanbul), it began a meteoric economic and military progress that allowed it to develop art and architecture in an enviable way. At the beginning of the 16th century with the reign of Sultan Selim I between 1512 and 1520, a strong program of construction of mosques, hospitals and madrasas1 began, some of them, of course, inspired by Hagia Sophia, as in the case of the Mosque of Suleiman (Süleymaniye) However, the true apotheosis of the Ottoman Empire came from his successor: Suleiman I, better known as Suleiman the Magnificent. Who was born in 1494 and whose rule lasted 46 years.


Suleiman was a character who took advantage of the privileged education available to him as the son of the sultan of an expanding empire, so when it came time to take the reins of the empire, he was able to show off all the training and advice he received. during its first 26 years of life. In fact, in the body of advisers of the sultan, there was the imperial body of architects, “the Ottoman sultans of the 16th century protected and also directed the arts, establishing artisan workshops in each part of their domain” (Günay, 1998 p. 10)2to guarantee artistic and cultural production in most of the territory they governed. Under this organizational structure of advisers, emerged the most important architect in the entire history of the Empire, and one of the most prolific in the history of architecture itself: Mimar Sinan.


Mimar Sinan, from military man to architect:


The sources and documents that exist today on the life of Sinan are limited, mainly because only two texts of bibliographic notes written by him are known, these notes were later edited by the poet Sai Mustafa Çelebi3 . Although Sinan was born in a Christian family in Ağırnas in Kayseri province between 1494 and 14994, it is known that since he was recruited into the Janissary corps between 1512 or 1513, he always professed Islam as his main religion.5 After participating in the Belgrade campaign, at the Battle of Moach in Hungary, at the site of Vienna, the battles in Iran and Baghdad, for more than 13 years, he began to gain recognition for his capabilities as an engineer and architect:


“It was during one of those campaigns that, despite the lack of materials and tools, he built three fully equipped armed galleys, which he commanded to cross Lake Van on a reconnaissance mission, in which he managed to collect information from the enemy forces located on the opposite side” (Günay, 1998 p. 21).


In the year 1539, and due to the death of the hitherto Imperial Chief of Architects: Acem Alisi, the Grand Vizier Lufti Pasha appointed Sinan as the new Imperial Chief of Architects. By that year, the Turkish architect was already a mature age, but more important than that, he had a large number of architectural visual references due to the military campaigns in which he participated in the Eastern European area6. For this reason, when he began to lead architectural projects, he was able to nurture his work with what he learned from his years as a soldier and commander. According to the documents that list his works, it is known that he designed, supervised, built or restored around 477 buildings7, so, to achieve such a feat, “there had to have been a very efficient system in terms of work organization. Possibly it was difficult to find workers and masters to ensure a regular flow of equipment and materials necessary for the simultaneous construction of different projects”. (Günay, 1998 p. 21). However, Sinan proved to be not only a born designer, but also a tremendous administrator.


The Suleyman Mosque (Süleymaniye)


The Suleiman Mosque is part of the entire Süleymaniye building complex, which included four madrasahs that taught classes in religion and medicine, as well as several courtyards and gardens. However, for this study, I will focus solely on the mosque as the largest symbolic landmark in the entire complex. Although the entire structure erected by Sinan is a formidable work itself, it was also a construction that drew on various architectural and historical references, in fact, before the construction of the Suleiman complex, there was another complex that served as inspiration both the Sultan as well as his architects: the complex of Mehmed II built between 1463 and 1470:


“It was the largest Ottoman complex up to the Siileymaniye building. Suleiman, too, following Mehmed’s example, separated the hostel from his mosque – an architectural development that coincides with the strict control of the zawiyas, – the purge of the Sufi Orders and the conversion of the Sufi convents of the reign of Bayezid II into Sunni madrasas (…) ”(Necı̇poğlu, 1985, p. 96).


Although the two complexes have many structural similarities, they served different ideological purposes. “When the Conqueror declared himself successor to the Byzantine emperor by assuming the title of Sultan-i Rum, he was still surrounded by a predominantly Christian population” (Necı̇poğlu, 1985, p.96). -which may explain why Sinan grew up in a Christian family despite being born under the Ottoman Empire. In this way, the logic of construction of the Mehmed complex attended above all to the search to demonstrate the power of Islam and particularly of the Sultanate in geographical areas where Christian remnants still existed. On the other hand, during Suleyman’s reign and with all his military conquests in Eastern Europe, the construction of the Süleymaniye complex and its corresponding madrasas were more closely tied to a quest to improve the production of Sunni Islamic knowledge and jurisprudence8 . Additionally, the complex’s Mosque performed the function “of an imperial mosque where Suleiman and his impressive entourage prayed every Friday” (Necı̇poğlu, 1985, p.98).


The dome as an Islamic-Christian archetype of the divine


Both Hagia Sophia and the Süleymaniye Mosque have quite a few similarities. However, without fear of being wrong, I would say that none stands out more than the resemblance between its two domes. It should be remembered that the execution of domes in the Christian world began with the construction of Hagia Sophia at the hands of the then emperor Justinian, and although the great reference in terms of domes was the Roman pantheon, it had been built on a round wall, for what the way to balance the weights was different. Hagia Sophia, meanwhile, had to deal with the problem of making the construction of a giant dome on a square base viable. After the dome collapsed years later as a result of an earthquake, it was redesigned with the inclusion of what is now known as pendentives; some small triangles that go on the capitals of the four columns and that help the dome to better distribute its weight on a square base.


Ilustrationn 2 Interior of Hagia Sophia, ph: Haidar Ali Tipu Zinan Zapata Ochoa


A fairly common mistake, and one that I feel that many of my colleagues make, is that they think that the study of domes is limited only to the roundness of the dome and its representations, and if for some reason they are interested in the pendentives of the dome, it is more due to its paintings or mosaics, than to the entire symbolic apparatus that pendentives and columns have by themselves as visual forms. It is here where the Süleymaniye Mosque and Hagia Sophia share so many things: in its dome, but not the dome understood simply as a rounded shape full of representations, but as a structure that, from its foundations, from its columns, possibilities the closest symbolic ever created experience of how it must feel to be in the presence of God.


Both Hagia Sophia and the Süleymaniye Mosque shared a genuine interest in their construction, showing a sophisticated and luxurious materiality that was consistent with their quest to bring God’s presence to earth in a symbolic sense. The French scientist and surveyor Petrus Gyllius explained it well during his visit to Constantinople between the years 1544 and 1547:


“The present Emperor Solyman has taken up a Place in the middle of this Precinct; where he is laying a Foundation … now building with the most elegant Marble, brought from several Parts of the Turkish Dominions, so that you may see infinite Kinds of it lying about the Building, not lately dug out of the Quarry, but such as for many ages has been used in the Palaces of several Princes and Emperors, not only in Byzantium, but in Greece, and all Egypt.” (Ball, 1729, p.112).9


Due to the difficulty in transporting the gigantic stones for construction, many legends were generated similar to those that Hagia Sophia had at the time regarding its materiality, which was used as a mechanism to demonstrate the wealth and power of Justinian as emperor. Regarding the dome of the mosque, the Süleymaniye “makes a deliberate reference to Hagia Sophia through the use of precious materials from distant places, as well as by the use of an adjoining dome with two semi-domes” (Necı̇poğlu, 1985, p.103) . And it is that, possibly, this was the greatest reference that Sinan incorporated in the construction of the mosque and particularly of the dome, since by using two semi-domes, one on each side, it made the visual experience of the construction reflect in a way hierarchical but at the same time organic, what means approaching God according to the Abrahamic religions, that is, a process that always goes from less to more, the closer I get to God, the bigger and more majestic everything becomes.


Another aspect that is important to consider is that when Hagia Sophia was built, it was built as the templum novum Salomonis (new temple of Solomon), trying to imitate the legendary temple of Solomon built once in Jerusalem. There is even a myth that says that when Hagia Sophia was inaugurated, Justinian said: “Solomon, I have surpassed you” (Scheja, 1962, pp. 44-58). This information is interesting because Suleiman probably knew the historical relationship between Solomon’s temple and the construction of Hagia Sophia, which implies that when the construction of the Süleymaniye mosque began at the hands of Sinan, the mosque sought to be not just a new structure that in a way it competed with Hagia Sophia, but, in the same way, with the temple of Solomon itself. Thus, when Sinan began to think about the columns that would support the main dome and following the Hagia Sophia reference, his conclusion was very simple: we have to look for a luxurious, strong and attractive material, in this way he arrived at the red granite that the columns have today.10 Now, although the four columns have an undeniable structural importance, they also carry with them a symbolic and mystical proposal, since in a certain way they are the representation of the four great caliphs who came after the prophet (Abu Bakr, Úmar, Uthmán and Ali), and that they literally support the dome, that is, they support God. Evliya çelebi, a 17th century Ottoman writer recounts in his chronicles that when Sinan finished the dome of Süleymaniye, he told the Sultan: “My Emperor, I have built you a mosque that will remain on the face of the earth until Judgment Day, and when Hallaj Mansur comes to shake Mount Damavand from its foundations, he will be able to break the mountain, but not this dome. ” Without a doubt, the most charming thing about this statement by Sinan is that, by saying what he said, he implicitly implied that the dome is the most sophisticated formal and visual manifestation of what God is. First the mountains fall before their dome, first everything falls before God.


Although the domes in the Islamic-Christian world represent God and his omnipresence, in the cases of Süleymaniye and Hagia Sophia this logic is evident in all its dimensions, since both domes are not only the representation of the divine, but rather Furthermore, they manifest themselves as the throne of God on earth. In the case of Hagia Sophia supported by four angels, and in Süleymaniye, supported by the four caliphs (another similarity between both religions, as we remember that in many churches it is common to see paintings of the four evangelists on the pendentives of the dome) . Finally, and daring to make a somewhat anachronistic analysis, I want to bring up a phrase by the German artist Joseph Beuys, who, words plus words less, believed that monuments should be ephemeral, Beuys was concerned that the city and history would change, and that the monument, untouchable, massive, became, sooner or later, an obstacle. This idea of Beuys is important for the case of the Süleymaniye Mosque because, for me, Hagia Sophia is basically a monument to religious and mystical diversity, and although I think that Beuys is partly right, I think that what artists and architects should always do, it is not to knock down monuments because their temporality has passed, but on the contrary, to constantly propose forms of dialogue with them under their own works. Sinan achieved this with the construction of Süleymaniye, a constant and almost inexhaustible conversation between two structures whose temporality is not the same, but whose symbolic and mystical logic is totally related. The Flemish writer of the 16th century, Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq once said, more than correctly that: “the Turks have no idea of chronology or of different eras, they love, more than anything, to mix in a wonderful way historical facts ”(Busbecq, 2012) and Sinan, without fear of being wrong in my assessment, achieved this with the Süleymaniye mosque and its dome.




  • Ball, J. (2020). The Antiquities of Constantinople. BoD – Books on Demand.
  • De Busbecq, O. G. (2012). The Life and Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq: Seigneur of Bousbecque, Knight, Imperial Ambassador (Vol. 1). Cambridge University Press.
  • George Scheja, “Hagia Sophia und Templum Salomonis,” in Istanbuler Mitteilungen, Deutsches Archdologisches Institut, Abteilung Istanbul 12 (1962): 44-58.
  • Günay, R. (1998). Sinan: el architect and his works (Vol. 46). Yapı-Endüstri Merkezi Yayınları.
  • Katkak, B (2017). Mimar Sinan´s Istanbul. Turkiye Turing Sees Otomobil Kurumu.
  • Necı̇poğlu-Kafadar, G. (1985). The Süleymaniye Complex in Istanbul: An Interpretation. Muqarnas, 3, 92-117. doi: 10.2307 / 1523086.




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