The Space Mosque: The Future of Religious Architecture

Religious architecture is often seen in the UK as something of a bygone era, however this is simply not the case in other areas of the world…

When you think of Istanbul you think of towering masterpieces of Ottoman Architecture from ages past. Giant baroque buildings like the Blue Mosque and the magnificent Byzantine former Church Ia Sofia. Many of Istanbul’s newer mosques seem like cheap copies of the Blue Mosque. It very much looks like a copy/paste situation a lot of the time.

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However not the Marmara Üniversitesi İlahiyat Fakültesi Cami (In English: Marmara University Faculty of Theology Mosque), or as I have dubbed it: the Space Mosque

I remember the curiosity surrounding this strange new mosque as it was being built. I 20161228_152041remember going past on a bus and someone saying “Saruman gibi”- “it looks like something of Saruman’s”. Of course referring to the minarets that look more like the spires of Isengard from Lord of the Rings! From the outside it at first seems utterly bizarre, looking more like it would belong in a star trek film than in a modern Muslim city. It might even look a little soviet!

The spiraling dome seems extremely odd. It hardly even looks like one! It’s all so geometric! It looks 20161228_152240more like a weird ice cream cone than a mosque. The minarets really do look like they should sending transmissions to distant alien civilisations. There is nonetheless something radical about the prominent use of triangular shapes as opposed to the very rounded forms seen in most other Turkish mosques. Almost organic Ottoman cathedrals give way to a new interpretation of mosque design.

It’s pure white architecture seems relatively minimalist compared to the average local Cami. However on closer inspection there is much continuity with Islamic tradition. The pattern of the mesh over the windows is reminiscent of the Ottoman love of foliage in architectural form. The green streak across the dome pays homage to the tradition of green as the colour of paradise in Islam. A mosque that is white all over, but the only other colour in it’s pallette is full of meaning…

However, as soon as you step inside, the atmosphere changes. Gone is the noise of the teeming traffic and building projects. Gone is the biting cold of an Istanbul winter.

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It’s like stepping into a hot spring. The air is warm and silent. Only the sound of a small fountain in the centre of the prayer hall and the whispering of prayers to the Lord can be heard. Beautiful calligraphy lines the walls. White and gold become almost one as you stare around the beauty of the prayer hall. The Mihrab (the archway at the front of the prayer hall that points towards Mecca) is delicately and intricately beautiful. The soft glow of the lights behind the gold seems to fill you with a knowledge of God’s tenderness. Many mosques are a filled with a flurry of colour, however this pallete just glows with warmth.

The inside of the mosque seems at first to be far more traditional that outside. However the unique design is evident in the sheer expanse of the prayer hall and it’s geometric organisation. The design of the fountain and calligraphy lining the walls can be found in many other mosques

But then you look up…

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I don’t know why people don’t compare mosques to cathedrals more because this is awe inspiring. You can finally see why it is so oddly shaped on the outside. Light streams in through the gorgeous skylight and the green windows seem like giant emeralds pointed towards heaven. The spiraling geometric shapes give the illusion of roundess and organicness. The eye cannot help but marvel at it.

Religious architecture in Turkey is dynamic and fresh, far from the tired old churches that dot the UK. If anything this mosque teaches us that religion and regression do not go hand in hand. Creativity and innovation are charged by ideas and Islam is no different from the rest in the sheer creativity of it’s adherents.

If you are reading from Turkey, I want to see more of this innovation. If you are in Britain, think what we could do to revamp our own tired old religious buildings if we put our mind to it…

Hairy Hands

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The Bosphorus At Night

It was the night of the 15th of July. It was dark and rainy in a prestigious boarding school in the English countryside, and a student of mine was tearing his hair out. Around 9pm British time I told him that soldiers were marching on his own home city. I had heard that the tanks were rolling and jets were flying overhead. I am of course referring to the recent coup attempt of certain members of the Turkish military against the current Turkish government. Fortunately I was not there to experience this harrowing event but I could feel the tension through friends, family and the press. Thankfully the chaos was calmed in a day, gone as if it were a bad dream.

However one thing stuck out to me from that particular night. My student described to me in his broken english how the supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan were excessively hairy and had fur growing from the palms of their hands. I doubt that the English joke about hair growing in the palms of your hands as a sign of madness carries into Turkish but the insult seemed clear to me. These people were a different kind of person entirely. They were barbaric, primitive, perhaps like animals. Why would this bright and good natured student of mine think such things? What warrants this suggestive comment?

Who are these Erdoğan supporters then? Most of them are from a primarily working class, conservative Muslim background. Many of the newer Islamic middle class are also great supporters of Erdoğan. The areas I frequented in my teenage years were testament to this. A large proportion of the women wore headscarves and occasionally older men would greet you in the street with a ‘Salam Alaikum’. When asked how you were by neighbours one would say “Çok Şükür”, a relatively religious term for ‘very blessed’. In the surrounding district banners with Erdoğan’s face and the light bulb symbol of the Justice and Development party (Also known as the Ak Parti) were ubiquitous. As I returned home for holidays these last few months a colossal new mosque looms just over the hill. I remember a friend of my mum’s calling Erdoğan ‘Tayyipcim’, an affectionate way of saying “my Tayyip”, not unlike “Tayyipkins”. My journey to school on public transport went through a conservative Muslim neighbourhood and down to the ferry at üsküdar where three beautiful mosques competed with each other for sky space. I recall going into a recently opened burger king near my neighbourhood and finding out it had a Ramadan Iftar menu!

I don’t recall any excessive hair. In my local area many men seemed to be much more formally dressed than in the wealthier parts of the city. I don’t recall any unwashed barbarians walking around my area. The Turkish obsession with cleanliness would seem almost Victorian to a British observer. At meal times tissues were ubiquitous, everything was to be eaten with cutlery and if you needed to eat a chicken drumstick, you grasped that thing with a tissue over your hands! Our neighbours were wonderfully friendly. Even with my terrible language skills, neighbours would frequently be polite and welcoming to me. They were just decent folk. Just regular people.

Why then did my student seem to think they were a different breed? Like most of the kids at the summer camp he was from a wealthy family. During the school year he lived on the European side of Istanbul in the fairly posh district of Bebek. From my experience this was hardly a conservative area, at least compared to the neighbourhood I lived in. Friends at my school on the European side would joke that the Asian side of Istanbul (my home) was where all the terrorists came from. Thus projecting an image of poverty and Islamic extremism. For many of Turkish school friends, also from similar backgrounds to my young student, the Asian side was a whole different continent.

And this was not far from the truth. Each morning on my way to school I would cross the Bosporus (an absolutely stunning trip to take every morning which I never truly appreciated until I left for uni in the UK) and immediately things would change. On the road up to my school you could see shops advertising Efes and Rakı, Turkey’s most famous alcoholic beverages. Women in headscarves became more and more rare and I was shocked to see older men wearing shorts! When the call to prayer went off it was from a single mosque with a singer with a weedy voice that cut through the midday air, very unlike the orchestra of different voices one would hear around my house. People walking their pet dogs were the norm, unlike on the Asian side where Islamic tradition states that dogs are dirty and must be kept in the house. From the way the neighbourhood of my school and it’s people looked, you might as well have been Europe.

I spoke before of two camps. My European Turkish friend’s comment on the hairy Erdoğan supporters personifies the divides present in Turkey. Divides between both religion and class. As westerners looking from the outside I only hope that we don’t take the same viewpoint of my student. To project images of the middle east as a seething pot of terrorists and dictators is regrettably common in our Western society. The debate on Erdogan as a dictator is something for another day. For now I ask that we don’t look on any of the Turkish people as people with hair on the palms of their hands.

A Tale of Two Parks

4756734-3x2-700x467In the summer of 2013 Istanbul was rocked by a series of protests against the government. The protests centred around a place in the heart of the city called Gezi Park. I visited a similar park about three years later, where a vigil protecting the President himself stood. This is the tale of two parks.

I visited Gezi Park with my dad who was looking for artistic inspiration as well as the low down on the situation. We arrived on the European side at the district of Kabataş and walked up the hill. As we approached Taksim Square we began to see signs of chaos. Police cars began to appear more frequently, piles of Rubbish became more and more common and there was graffiti everywhere. The first set of tents appeared, along with the first set of trees, and the tension was in the air. Brightly coloured graffiti covered all visible concrete and a couple running a lemonade stand maintained a cheerful ruse on their faces. It was all like a smaller more disheveled wood stock. A random passer by, presumably a resident of the protest camp, ordered my father not to take photos. Walking through the camp you could sense suspicious and exhausted eyes following you as you walked past. The park was full of disheveled tents with men and women exhausted from battling riot police. The whole camp seemed to smell of desperation and despair. Not surprising considering that police and riot vehicles were everywhere. My friend showed me a picture of an overturned bus covered in graffiti, which, although strangely beautiful it looked at from a removed artistic perspective, was a haunting reminder of previous clashes. The rows of shops that used to stand along the edge of the park had been demolished. Rubbish piled everywhere, banners flying everywhere.

This was my experience of Gezi Park.

I returned to Istanbul in August 2016 in may ways a similar time to the summer of 2013. As I left the airport I saw that the city was covered in red banners proclaiming the victory of the Turkish people against tyranny. I heard stories of tanks being overturned and people from all different backgrounds flooding the streets. I visited the area of Kısıklı where I unwittingly stumbled upon the street of Turkish President Erdogan’s main residence. The road was cordoned off and the park opposite was full of people living in tents. Over the entrance to the park was a message stating “we are standing vigil”. It was a Friday afternoon and the air was silent save for the chanting of Friday prayers from the nearest mosque. Posters displaying Erdogan’s face and proclaiming victory over tyranny in the name of God were everywhere. The government was safe, the state had been saved from the chaos of a military coup. No graffiti on any of the public works and the streets swept squeaky clean. The camp however was similarly dirty and disheveled but the air had a far different atmosphere. There was no despair. Only a sense of quiet triumph in the midday sun as people went about their prayers.

This is the tale of two camps. Two separate wood stocks in different places for different causes. And perhaps two different peoples, each with their own motivations and beliefs? A country with two camps indeed.