Evliya Çelebi (Derviş Mehmed Zillî, 1611-1684) was born in Constantinople, and journeyed throughout the Ottoman Empire during his lifetime. He received an education at a medrese (Islamic religious college) and is best know for The Book of Travels (Seyahatname), an imaginative account of his journeys. In this passage, he described the Süleymaniye Mosque, the building of which was sponsored by Sultan Süleyman I ("The Lawgiver' or 'The Magnificent') starting in 1550. He also includes the awed reaction to the building of a group a travelers from France ('Frengistan').


 Excerpts from The Book of Travels by Evliya Çelebi (c. 1630)


[The
Süleymaniye] was begun in the year 951 (1543) and finished in the year 963 (1557), and is an exemplary mosque beyond description. The learned men who compose histories, and thus strike the die on marble, have confessed the inability and failure of the best chroniclers to celebrate this unequaled mosque. Now, this humble Evliya ventures to write down its praises as much as I am able.

First, this mosque divides in half the ground of the old palace that the Conqueror had earlier built. On top of the high hill, Süleyman Khan built a unique mosque overlooking the sea. How many thousands of master architects, builders, labourers, stonecutters and marble cutters from all the Ottoman dominions had he gathered! And for three whole years 3000 galley slaves, foot-bound in chains, would lay the foundation deep into the ground, so deep that the world-bearing bull at the bottom of the Earth could hear the sound of their pickaxes. They dug until they had reached the deepest part, and in 3 years, by erecting a platform, the foundation was built up to the surface.

In the following year construction was halted while the workman cut stones for the buildings above the foundation. A year later, the prayer-niche was installed to the same measurement as that of the mosque of Sultan Bayezid II the Saint. In 3 years they completed the walls as far as the vaults of the dome on all 4 sides. After that, they constructed the lofty dome on top of the solid square pier base.

The bowl of the indigo-coloured some of this great mosque, up to its lofty summit, is more spherical that that of Aya Sofya, and is seven royal cubits in height.

Apart for the square piers supporting this incomparable dome, there are four porphyry columns on the right and left sides of the mosque, each one worth ten Egyptian treasures. These columns were from the city of (– ) in Egypt, transported along the Nile in Alexandria. From there Karınca Kapudan (‘Admiral Ant’) loaded them onto rafts and, with favorable wind, brought them to Upkapanıı in Istanbul and then to Vefa Square. When he delivered the four columns to Süleyman Khan at the mosque, he recited the verse:
The ants presented Solomon
A locust’s leg;
Whatever of ours suits you
Accept, I humbly beg
Süleyman Khan was pleased, and, as a reward for his service,  Karınca Kapudan was granted governorship of Yılanlı (Spurie) and Rhodes islands. The four columns of red porphyry are each fifty cubits high. God knows, there is nothing like them in the four corners of the world.

A semi-dome above the prayer niche and another one above the qibla gate apposite it are fixed to the great dome. But the are no semi domes resting on the aforementioned piers. In order not to overload them, the chief architect Sinan put windows of cut glass and crystal, (–) in number.

The multicolored stained windows above payer-niche and the pulpit are the work of Sahoş (‘Drunkard’) Ibrahim. Mere men are too impotent to praise them. At noon, when these windows let in the rays of the world-illuming sun, the mosque interior shines with light, dazzling the eyes of the congregation. Each pane contains a myriad of varicoloured glass bits, in designs of flowers and of the beautiful names of God in calligraphy. They are celebrated by travelers on land and sea as a sight not matched in the heavens.

***

Once, this humble one observed ten Frankish infidels with expert knowledge of geometry and architecture who were touring this light-filled mosque. The gatekeepers had let them in, and the caretakers had given them special shoes so they could walk around and see it. Wherever they looked, they put finger to mouth and bit it in astonishment. But when they saw the doors inlaid with Indian mother-of-pearl, they shook their head and bit two fingers each. And when they saw the enamel dome, they threw off their Frankish hats and cried out in awe, ‘Maria, Maria!’

Then they saw the four vaults at the skirt of the dome, resembling the Vault of Chosroes. They are like the rainbow, in accordance with the verse:
Like the milky way, with head raised high
He threw the lasso to the vault of the sky.
– each on as it were a vault created by the hand of God.

They gazed at these arches and at the rest of the mosque’s interior for an entire hour, with finger in mouth, then went outside into the courtyard. When they saw the four minarets, the four pedestals, the six lofty gates, the delightful courtyard and surrounding arches and domes, the columns and row on row of well-proportioned cupolas topped by gilded Muhammadan finials, their eyes were dazzled from the splendour. Once again they threw off the hats and walked all around this noble mosque bareheaded. Now in their awe, they bit all ten fingers, that being their way of expressing extreme astonishment.

This humble one requested their interpreter to ask them how they like this building. One of the turned out to be capable of speech. He said, ‘All things, whether created beings or man-made structures, are beautiful either on the inside or on the outside. Rarely are the two beauties found together. But both the interior and the exterior of this mosque were constructed with such grace and refinement. In all of Frengistan we have not seen an edifice built to such perfection as this.’

‘How does this mosque compare with Aya Sofya?’ I asked.

‘To be sure,’ they answered, ‘that is a larger building, constructed with brick, and an ancient work, solid and well-built for its time. But this is a finer construction in terms of grace, elegance, and beauty. It also required a greater expenditure than Aya Sofya.’

In fact, they say that every ten miskals of stone used in this mosque cost one gold piece.


The Süleymaniye Mosque

Suleymaniye MosqueSuleymaniye Mosque Suleymaniye Mosque Interior

Source: An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels by Evliya Çelebi, translated by Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim, Eland Publishing, 2011, pp. 8-16.

Images: https://pixabay.com/photos/mosque-suleymaniye-bosphorus-4996267/; https://pixabay.com/photos/s%C3%BCleymaniye-cami-minaret-istanbul-2872691/; https://pixabay.com/photos/istanbul-turkey-mosque-islam-777146/