Traditional Turkish Architecture And Th3 Myst3ry 0f Numb3r8, Skylife (January 2011)

Muharrem Hilmi Şenalp


“Shapes and thIngs mIrror the meanIng of matter In our archItectural tradItIon. Worlds hIdden In the source of objects are revealed for all to perceIve.” so says professIonal archItect Muharrem Hilmi Şenalp. Şenalp, who has put hIs sIgnature on a number of projects and buIldIngs In Tokyo, WashIngton D.C., Ashgabat, DubaI, BerlIn, YekaterInburg as well as In Turkey, spearheaded the movement to reInterpret tradItIonal TurkIsh archItecture In lIght of modern demands. We spoke wIth Şenalp, a recognIzed authorIty In hIs fIeld, about the unknown aspects of our archItecture. 

Where you would place traditional Turkish Islamic architecture in the history of world architecture?
The dynamics that produced the unique characteristics of Turkish architecture also gave rise to works in art as well as branches of art. The core of the question is what factors brought this about, more precisely, the impact created by our civilization. “Perpetuating tradition is not about the preservation of ashes, it is about keeping the flame alive” says the French socialist philosopher Jean Leon Jaures. Taken as a whole, Turkish-Islamic architecture immediately conveys a vision of a different civilization, a perception of the universe as a deep reflection of conscious presence. 

The question to be answered here is how that civilization viewed material things. In other words, to establish and describe the cornerstones of that civilization. This has manifested itself in all genres of art produced by our civilization, in everything from architecture and the art of the book to literature and music, which assume concrete form in our architecture. Things, or existences, do not reveal their own truths as they appear. In reality, shapes, things and the whole of what is present mirror the meaning of matter. Their nature is not directly conveyed, but rather pointed or referred to.  That which is finite is veiled while the infinite is hinted at. That is why the hidden worlds of geometry in nature and in way they are constructed are discovered through abstractions in our civilization. A dialectic dynamic of stylization exists in the core of our architecture as well as in all our traditional arts.

Why the term ‘cami’ (mosque)?
Because the term ‘cami’ makes a statement. You embody in the building all the art and culture that constitute a civilization, with stone, earth, wood. You bring it into being with its carpets and decorations, with every lecturn you place inside it, with every book you write, with the music heard and unheard, the form of worship, with every material thing and its meaning. And in the end a building is created that is laden with all the values of a civilization. In a general sense, the mosque, which is the center of the town, the quarter, in short of life itself, takes on the identity of a central building that subsumes an entire civilization within it. There is continuous development and progress in all mosque architecture, from the first small ‘mesjid’ in Medina right up to the Süleymaniye and Selimiye, and in secular architecture as well.

Did the city also evolve around the same idea?
Yes, definitely. The mosque is the heart of our civilization, Turkish-Islamic civilization, and the mosque is the city square. Not only that, but squares in the western sense, as in Rome, Milan, Paris - St. Mark’s in Rome, for instance - don’t exist in our civilization, because ours is a mosque civilization. The mosque courtyard is the city square. That’s why mosques have courtyards. In the old days, everybody from petition and letter writers to shoe repairmen, soap sellers and prayer bead vendors used to station himself there, offering his wares and services.

Can you give a few examples of how this came about?
The term ‘külliye’ (complex of buildings adjacent to a mosque) was used because all human needs could be met here. In urban structure, there is a mosque at the center and the madrasas, or religious colleges, around it. At the Süleymaniye, for example, there are the first, second, third and fourth madrasas, where instruction was given in both theology and the positive sciences. In addition there was also the “tâbhâne” (warm room) where guests and scientists and experts from out of town, sort of like the academics of today, could stay. There was a ‘dârüzzafiye’ or soup kitchen where they got their food, and a ‘dârüşşifa’ where the sick came for treatment. There was a hamam (public bath) and a market. In a mosque complex there was everything a person might need, everything necessary to make it a drawing point, a center of attraction. 

There is a low wall between the Süleymaniye and the madrasas that surround it. You enter through a gate in the outer courtyard and garden. When you step into the garden, the mosque stands opposite you, and the wall between you and the outside severs your connection with the world and you enter another world. Then you enter the inner courtyard and are taken into the second circle. There is a different dimension here. There are arches, domes, and in the center a pool with a fountain. From here you pass through an even lower doorway to find yourself inside a colossal space. The interior of the mosque symbolizes the whole universe, and when you are inside it the relationship between man and the world, whatever that may be, is also the relationship between the person and the mosque interior. It’s like that both at Süleymaniye and at Selimiye in Edirne. Everything has been made according to plan, everything is in its place. In other words, it has been constructed with a knowledge distilled from experience. These are buildings built with love and wisdom.

What is the ‘unit of measure’ in traditional Turkish architecture?
Balance, proportion and geometry are the cornerstones of our traditional architecture. Man is the measure. Man, and how and from what perspective that man views life and matter. In measure and harmony, we find an understanding of art that makes the plural singular through the geometry and rhythm reflected in the core of matter via forms and series.Architecture in the end is an art that expresses and embraces the whole. An abstract art that has gone beyond abstraction and become concrete by forming an integrated whole. An architecture that, beyond subjective concrete art, presents an abstract art. Above all, there are sound and acoustics in the art of architecture. As the most fundamental example of traditional architecture, the mosque interior and the area enclosed by its walls, is the expression of the universe as a whole with man at the center. 

Are there codes and meanings in the shapes and numbers of Mimar Sinan’s works as in those of Leonardo da Vinci?
To compare Da Vinci to Sinan would be unfit. The unit of measure used by Sinan in the Süleymaniye and Selimiye mosques is the ‘arşın’  (the ‘ell’ or Turkish yard, approx. 77 cm). When we examine the proportions of the Süleymaniye or the Selimiye, we find that the diameter of the circle traced by the 8 columns that support the dome is 45 arşıns. In our old languages, in the Arab and Ottoman system of ‘abdjad’ (assigning numerical values to letters in the alphabet), 45 is equivalent of the word ‘Âdem’ (Adam), in other words ‘man’. The edge of the dome is 45 arşıns above the floor, and the finial on top of the minaret is 66 arşıns above that. The number 66 is the equivalent of the name ‘Allah’.  

The width of the dome of Süleymaniye is 45 arşıns and the finial on top is 66 arşıns high. So, once again the same proportions and symbols. In the words of the late Ottoman poet Şeyh Galib: 

‘Look kindly on yourself, for you are the essence of the universe, its creme de la creme.
You are man, the apple of the eye of the universe. 

Taking man as the center, Mimar Sinan therefore builds the Selimiye Mosque over a circle 45 arşıns in diameter. He designates the height of the Süleymaniye by the same unit. At Selimiye he made the müezzin’s gallery and its proportions an exact projection of the dome and exactly half the proportions of the Kaaba at Mecca. All these calculations were made with that in mind. Civilization does not come about easily. The Tezkiretü’l-Bünyan, or Book of Building Construction, about the Süleymaniye is known to have been taken down at Mimar Sinan’s dictation by his friend, Sâi Çelebi, who writes of the structure:

This well-proportioned mosque became the Kaaba.
Four columns became at that moment the ‘Four Caliphs’
Supported on four columns, the House of Islam 
Found its stronghold in the Four Caliphs 
I hope that I, a humble servant,
Have honored these things [in my work]  

The text states that “Habib-i Muhtar (the Prophet Muhammed) was present in the occurence” Which means, this mosque, he says, was modeled on the Kaaba. It was erected here over four columns, and the dome and four main supports represent the Prophet Muhammed and the first four Caliphs of Islam. When this is worked out in abdjad, Abubakr is 231, Umar 310, Othman 661 and Ali 110, which adds up to a total of 1312. Dividing 1312 by 4, we get 328. And when we add to that 92, which is the equivalent of the name Muhammed, we get 420, in other words, the equivalent of the word ‘ciharyâr’ (the first Four Caliphs), as Sinan very clearly declared and personally dictated to Sâi Çelebi. There is no way a poet could have known such a detail otherwise. 

This is the civilization we spoke of a little while ago, the civilization that Sinan whispered into the ear of Sâi Çelebi. The stones he used here are no longer mere stones but stones that speak. The Kuranic inscription he had inscribed in the main dome by the renowned calligrapher Karahisârı is verse 41 of the Fâtır (Creator) Sura, which reads: “Verily God holdeth fast the Heavens and the Earth that they pass not away: and if they were passing away none could hold them back but He: for He is Kind, Gracious.” This description of the universe is inscribed at the highest point, as a model of the cosmos. In other words he was trying to construct a small model of the universe.

52 degrees
When the silhouette of the Süleymaniye is viewed from the side and lines are drawn on both sides between the ground and the finial at the top of the dome, the angle with the earth is 52 degrees. And what kind of angle is that? When you take a handful of sand and let it fall slowly to the ground, the angle it forms with the earth due to gravity is again 52 degrees. This angle therefore ensures sound construction and resistance to earthquakes
Portal of Ataşehir Anadolu Grand Mosque 2010- Hassa Architecture & Engineering Ltd. Designed by Hilmi Şenalp

Goethe says “the architectural touch is music” while Chinese philosopher Tao-Te declares “architecture’s purpose is the emptiness inside the building”, meaning the interior, the venue. In the Tezkiretü’l Bünyan, Sinan says ‘the domes of mosques are like water bubbles along a sea of grace’. If we think about this in terms of the philosophy of existence, what do these words mean? Obviously what is being referred to is not the crushing overload of residential multiplexes and graveyards of buildings that have crowded metropolitan cities in a crazed frenzy...