The Artist’s Journal: Istanbul

Süleymaniye mosque

Berny Tan


Photo by Michelle Mercurio

I am not entirely sure what contributed to the feelings that I experienced upon entering the mosque. I can only look back now and try to understand the reasons why I felt this way, “this way” being the kind of sensation that someone more devout would have attributed to the presence of a higher being. Personally, I found it more akin to the overwhelming awe that one might feel in the face of a breathtaking natural landscape of undulating mountains, with a torrential waterfall or a particularly reflective lake thrown into the mix. What can I say – I like architecture.

Undoubtedly, it must have had something to do with the experience of the “new”. This is an ironic statement for a structure with centuries of history, but my encounters with religious architecture had mostly existed within the realm of Christianity and its denominations. Visiting a mosque was not entirely alien, but it had certainly occurred much less frequently in my life than visiting a cathedral (great cathedrals are slightly easier to get to than great mosques these days). In any case, I had never visited a mosque of such scale and intricacy, particularly one that had been built in the heart of the Ottoman Empire; I did not have the fatigue of someone who had seen far too many variations on a theme.

I am conscious of my cynical attitude towards the Church when I say this – the absence of pedagogy was a welcome relief. Because of the prohibition of figurative representation in Islam, I was not surrounded by instructional iconography that sought to establish itself as some kind of

truth. It was not as if I felt offended whenever I visited a centuries-old cathedral; in fact, I still enjoy visiting churches and cathedrals for the purposes of architectural appreciation. I had sat for a fairly long time in the beautiful Sacré-Cœur Basilica when I was in Paris later that month, moved by the haunting chorus of worshipping voices that echoed through its walls. But here, any image offered to my eyes could truly be accepted for its formalistic value, even the calligraphic script that crowned the domed ceiling (my visual literacy received the benefits of my linguistic illiteracy).

Although this pure aesthetic appreciation implies a wholly secular experience within this religious structure, it almost seemed to aid something inside me that was insistently spiritual. I could not deny that I felt uplifted within the expanse of the compound, both inside the mosque and in its courtyard. I’m sure the lack of tourists helped a lot – less popular than the Aya Sofia or the Blue Mosque, we were allowed to bask in relative silence. But what I remember most was the whiteness – there was no oppressive, heavy darkness of Gothic stone through which some higher being could instruct one to kneel and worship. It felt open, liberated, breathable. Its scale was excessive and yet it somehow felt modest; it was humility in the form of an equalizing carpet, undivided by pews.

I have hesitantly defined the mosques of Istanbul against the cathedrals of Europe; enough has been said and done over the centuries to establish this dichotomy, and here I am, perpetuating it. In truth, mosques can effortlessly stand on their own as amazing architectural feats, in their own vein of spiritual sanctuary. Perhaps the only comparison I need to make is this: the mosque’s peaceful grounds seemed to be utterly antithetical to the current face of Islam, so graciously constructed by the dangerous combination of terrorists and mass media. Seeing the mosque’s pristine form against the cloudless sky, its façade turned pink by the setting sun, felt to me like some sort of vindication, however momentary. Too bad – it remains so easy for the millions of people to forget that Islam, like Christianity, has always been capable of creation and destruction in equal measure.