Since the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453, the Turkish empire built many mosques from Fatih to Suleymaniye and Sultanahmet, establishing their Islamic identity in the city.
Istanbul is a city steeped in history, dotted with grand monuments and iconic buildings that speak of a glorious past.
Located on the Bosphorus Strait, for millennia, Istanbul has drawn kings and commoners, princes and paupers, merchants and traders from across the world, all drawn to the beautiful and prosperous city.
Among Istanbul’s most beautiful architectural masterpieces, most of which either built or renovated by the city’s Muslim-Turkish conquerers, the Ottomans, some mosques have stood out for their alluring presence, standing tall against the ravages of time and nature’s destructive forces through centuries.
Apart from mesmerising visitors with their architectural genius and majestic presence, they also attract people with their rich history.
“They are very carefully thought out structures,” says Hayri Fehmi Yilmaz, a Turkish art historian, referring to how Istanbul’s Ottoman mosques were designed and constructed by their Ottoman builders.
These mosques were the holistic products of architects and artists, from stonemasons to calligraphers and tile masters, who worked in tandem to design and build these iconic structures, says Yilmaz.
“Ottoman mosques were places where Ottoman civilisation was exhibited,” Yilmaz tells TRT World. “Today's silhouette of Istanbul is provided by these mosques,” he adds.
Let’s check out Istanbul’s ten Ottoman mosques with their distinguished characters.
Ayasofya, also known as Hagia Sophia, was the first mosque of Ottoman Istanbul, which was originally the city’s biggest church built by the Roman Emperor Justinian I in 537 AD. When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople—the old Roman name of Istanbul after its founder Roman Emperor Constantine I, they converted Ayasofya into a mosque in 1453.
For nearly 500 years, Ayasofya had functioned as the primary imperial mosque of the Ottomans. Under the Republic of Türkiye, from the 1930s until 2020, Ayasofya was converted into a museum. Two years ago, the current Turkish government reconverted the architectural marvel into a mosque.
Until the Catholic cathedral of Seville was completed in 1520, the dome of Ayasofya had the distinction of being the world’s biggest roof.
But according to many experts, had the Ottoman rulers not stepped in, the dome of Ayasofya wouldn't have survived for long. In the 16th century, they assigned their chief architect Mimar Sinan, the most skillful builder of the Ottoman era, the task of fortifying the magnificent walls of Ayasofya to ensure its dome stood firm for centuries to come.
The mosque gets its name from its patron, Mehmet II, who was also called the Conqueror (Fatih in Turkish) due to his conquest of Istanbul. The mosque is one of the city’s earliest mosques, being a significant Ottoman monumental project, which included religious and social departments as parts of the complex. (Istanbul’s first Ottoman-built mosque complex is Eyup Sultan, which was built in an area where Abu Ayyup al-Ansari, one of Prophet Mohammed’s companions, is believed to have been buried.)
The mosque complex, which is called kulliye in Ottoman Turkish, was also a conscious step of Mehmet the Conqueror to turn the old Christian Constantinople into a Muslim capital, Istanbul. Many other Ottoman rulers followed in the footsteps of the Conqueror, building many other mosques and Muslim schools, madrasas, which gave an Islamic character to a once Christian city.
The mosque was built on the burial place of the city’s founder Constantine, where the former Byzantine Church of the Holy Apostles stood. The Ottoman ruler was buried in his mosque complex, close to Constantine's burial site.
The mosque was repaired several times after the 1509, 1557 and 1754 earthquakes, but the 1776 earthquake destroyed its dome and walls, forcing the Ottomans to rebuild it with a different design.
One of Istanbul’s greatest mosques is Suleymaniye, built by Suleyman I, who was also called Suleyman the Magnificent because his era represented the greatest period of the Ottoman Empire, which reached the zenith of its power under him in the 16th century.
Suleymaniye Mosque, also built by the Ottoman architecture genius Mimar Sinan, is one of the world’s finest mosques. Located near the Ottoman capital’s imperial headquarters on the European side, it had been Istanbul’s biggest mosque until the construction of the Camlica Mosque in 2019 on the Asian side of the city.
The mosque is called Sehzade, which means prince in the Ottoman political structure, because it was dedicated to Suleyman’s most favourite son, Mehmet, who passed away from smallpox at a very young age.
“In Ottoman history, there was no other mosque built for an Ottoman prince,” says Yilmaz, referring to the Sehzade Mosque, whose architecture and two minarets signify that the commissioner is a sultan and show that it’s meant to be built for a living ruler.
“Actually this is a mourning monument,” says Gulru Necipoglu, a Turkish American professor of Islamic Art/Architecture at Harvard University, referring to how Suleyman the Magnificent and his wife, Hurrem Sultan, felt so much pain for the loss of their beloved son.
The mosque is one of Sinan’s most significant commissions by the sultan and one of his masterpieces, which heralded his subsequent great artworks like Suleymaniye and Selimiye, which is located in Edirne, the previous Ottoman capital.
“Sinan used his architecture design of Sehzade Mosque, which resembles Ayasofya, for other prominent projects he pursued later,” Yilmaz says, adding that it inspired many other mosque designs, including modern Turkish worshipping structures.
The beautiful mosque complex includes religious schools and also the deceased Ottoman prince’s mausoleum (turbe). The mosque has a pair of minarets (mosque towers) with two galleries, an exceptional design used by Sinan only for sultanic mosques.
The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed)
Another great Muslim religious structure of Istanbul is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, named after its builder, Ahmed I. The Ottoman masterpiece is also called the Blue Mosque due to its blue tiles, which cover the structure’s interior walls, turning it into blue during nights.
The mosque, which was built between 1609 and 1616, is located on the site of the Grand Palace of the Byzantine rulers, right across both Ayasofya and the Topkapi Palace, the residence of the Ottoman sultans. It has six minarets, something no other Ottoman mosques exhibit.
Ahmed I was uncharacteristically young when he decided to build the mosque, despite the fact that many sultans usually went ahead with their mosque projects when they got older, according to Yilmaz. “It’s something unseen either in Ottoman history or world history,” Yilmaz says.
“While Ahmed I was not known for his successful expeditions, he was both an emotional and religious sultan. As an intimate faithful, he wanted to build such a building. Despite some opposition from some religious jurists, he persisted to build it anyway,” he says.
Unlike many other old structures, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque’s records regarding its construction process and building equipment are almost completely intact, making art historians understand its engineering story in a perfect sense, says Yilmaz.
Kilic Ali Pasha
The religious structure was commissioned by Kilic Ali Pasha, one of the greatest Ottoman admirals, who wanted to build a mosque in the current Besiktas district, whose port functioned as the headquarters of the old Ottoman navy.
Kilic Ali Pasha, an Ottoman soldier of Italian descent, was passionate about building a religious complex, but in the late 16th century, there were already too many mosques in Istanbul, leaving him little room to find a good location to build his complex.
“Ottoman rulers were very careful about where they would build a mosque. The mosque’s land should be accrued as a halal (permissible) property. As a result, according to one account, the Ottoman sultan told him ‘do the construction without touching anyone's property’,” says Yilmaz.
According to other accounts, Murad III, the Ottoman sultan at the time, famously gave an interesting permission to Kilic Ali Pasha saying that "since he is the admiral, let him build his mosque on the sea”.
Under difficult conditions, a determined Kilic Ali Pasha did not yield, bringing tons of rocks from surrounding areas to build an artificial island in the shores of Tophane, a Besiktas neighbourhood, connecting the rock-filled sea area with the mainland to build his mosque.
The Kilic Ali Pasha complex, which once also hosted Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, author of of the classic Don Quixote, as a war prisoner of the admiral, was built by Sinan, who was in his 90s during the commission, making it one of his last masterpieces.
Across vast territories of the empire, many female members of the Ottoman dynasty like Mihrimah Sultan also commissioned mosques, fountains and hospitals to meet the needs of the public.
The mosque, which is located in Istanbul’s Asian district Uskudar near the waterfront, took its name from its sponsor, Mihrimah Sultan, who was the daughter of Suleyman the Magnificent and wife of Grand Vizier Rustem Pasha. The mosque was built by Sinan in the 16th century.
Sokullu Mehmet Pasha
The mosque is one of Istanbul’s most interesting structures, built on a steep slope by Sinan for Sokullu Mehmet Pasha, one of the Ottomans’ most finest grand viziers, and his wife, the daughter of Sultan Selim II.
“Sokullu Mehmet Pasha Mosque is so beautiful,” says Yilmaz, referring to the mosque’s eloquent structure. “Its restoration efforts are also so successful. Mosques like Sokullu Mehmet Pasha are places which will make you get out of your home to visit them,” he says.
It is also believed that there are four pieces of al-Hajaru al-Aswad ('Black Stone’) inside the mosque, according to Yilmaz. Al-Hajaru al-Aswad refers to a sacred rock set in Kaaba, a cubic structure in Mecca, which is considered as the holiest site in Islamic religion.
As a result, many believe that the mosque has holiness, motivating people to visit the mosque, says the art historian.
This mosque is another iconic religious structure of Istanbul, located at the waterfront of Besiktas’s Ortakoy neighbourhood, which is now one of Istanbul’s busiest and most popular locations. Due to its distinctive location, visitors of the mosque can see both much of the Bosphorus and the July 15 Martyrs Bridge.
The mosque was commissioned by Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid in the mid-19th century.
Yildiz Hamidiye Mosque
More than four hundred years after the construction of Istanbul’s first Ottoman-built mosque complex, Eyup, by Mehmet the Conqueror, the last Ottoman-era mosque, Yildiz, was commissioned by Abdul Hamid II, the empire’s last most powerful ruler.
The mosque was built in Yildiz, a neighbourhood in Istanbul’s Besiktas, taking its name from both its location and its imperial sponsor, Abdul Hamid II, who built a new palace for his residency in the same area.
The Ottoman sultan used the mosque for his prayers, making it an imperial mosque, which illustrated both Neo-Gothic features and traditional Ottoman motifs.