After the humiliating Peace of Zsitvatorok and the unfavourable result
of the wars with Persia, Sultan Ahmed I decided to build a large mosque
in Istanbul to placate Allah. This would be the first imperial mosque
in more than forty years. Whereas his predecessors had paid for their
mosques with their war booty, Sultan Ahmed I had to withdraw the funds
from the treasury, because he had not won any notable victories. This
provoked the anger of the ulema, the Muslim legal scholars.
The mosque was to be built on the site of the palace of the Byzantine
emperors, facing the Hagia Sophia (at that time the most venerated
mosque in Istanbul) and the hippodrome, a site of great symbolic significance.
Large parts of the southern side of the mosque rest on the foundations,
the vaults and the undercrofts of the Great Palace. Several palaces,
already built on the same spot, had to be bought (at considerable price)
and pulled down, especially the palace of Sokollu Mehmet Pasa, and
large parts of the Sphendone (curved tribune with U-shaped structure
of the hippodrome).
Construction of the mosque started in August 1609 when the sultan
himself came to break the first sod. It was his intention that
this would become
the first mosque of his empire. He appointed his royal architect
Sedefhar Mehmet Aga, a pupil and senior assistant of the famous
as the architect in charge of the construction. The organization
of the work was described in meticulous detail in eight volumes,
the library of the Topkapi Palace. The opening ceremonies were held
in 1617 (although the gate of the mosque records 1616) and the sultan
was able to pray in the royal box (hünkâr mahfil). But the
building wasn't finished yet in this last year of his reign, as the
last accounts were signed by his successor Mustafa I.
The design of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is the culmination of two centuries
of Ottoman mosque development. It is the last great mosque of the
classical period. The architect has ably synthesized the ideas of
Sinan, aiming for overwhelming size, majesty and splendour, but the
interior lacks his creative thinking.
Mehmet Pasa used large quantities of materials for the construction,
in particular stone and marble, draining away supplies for other
important works. The layout of the mosque is irregular, as the
to take into account the existing constraints of the site. Its
major façade, serving as the entrance, faces the hippodrome. The architect
based his plan on the ?ehzade Mosque (1543-1548) in Istanbul, the first
major large-scale work of Sinan, with the same square-based symmetrical
quatrefoil plan and a spacious forecourt. This prayer hall is topped
by an ascending system of domes and semi-domes, each supported by three
exedrae, culminating in the huge encompassing central dome, which is
23.5 meters in diameter and 43 meters high at its central point. The
domes are supported by four massive piers that recall those of the
Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, another masterpiece of Sinan. It is obvious
that Mehmet Pasa was overcautious by taking this inflated margin of
safety, damaging the elegant proportions of the dome by their oppressive
size. These "elephant feet" consist of multiple convex marble
grooves at their base, while the upper half is painted, separated from
the base by an inscriptive band with gilded words. Seen from the court,
the profile of the mosque becomes a smooth succession of domes and
semi-domes. The overall effect of the exterior on the visitor is one
of perfect visual harmony, leading the eye up to the peak of the central
The façade of the spacious forecourt was built in the same manner
as the façade of the Süleymaniye Mosque, except for the
addition of the turrets on the corner domes. The court is about as
large as the mosque itself and is surrounded by a continuous, rather
monotonous, vaulted arcade (revak). It has ablution facilities on both
sides. The central hexagonal fountain is rather small in contrast with
the dimensions of the courtyard. The monumental but narrow gateway
to the courtyard stands out architecturally from the arcade. Its semi-dome
has a fine stalactite structure, crowned by a rather small ribbed dome
on a tall drum.
A heavy iron chain hangs in the upper part of the court entrance
on the western side. Only the sultan was allowed to enter the
the mosque on horseback. The chain was put there, so that the
sultan had to lower his head every time he entered the court
not to get hit. This was done as a symbolic gesture, to ensure
of the ruler in the face of the divine.
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is one of the two mosques in Turkey
that has six minarets, the other is in Adana. When the number
revealed, the Sultan was criticized for presumption, since
this was, at the time, the same number as at the mosque of
He overcame this problem by paying for a seventh minaret at
the Mecca mosque.
Four minarets stand at the corners of the mosque. Each of these
fluted, pencil-shaped minarets has three balconies (?erefe)
corbels, while the two others at the end of the forecourt only
have two balconies.
Until recently the muezzin or prayer-caller had to climb a
narrow spiral staircase five times a day to announce the
call to prayer.
public address system is used, and the call can be heard
across the old part of the city, echoed by other mosques in
crowds of both Turks and tourists gather at sunset in the
park facing the mosque to hear the call to evening prayers,
sun sets and
the mosque is brilliantly illuminated by coloured floodlights.