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Istanbul VII: a mosque with a longer history

Sorry that this post wasn’t, as promised, delivered last week; I have been having difficulties, and let’s just leave it at that. Anyway, today, having celebrated a centenary and sorted the last of my Istanbul photos, it is now blog time. I think there are two more posts to write from the Istanbul material, after which we can move on, and this is the former and it’s about mosques, and one in particular.

Eastern exterior of the Sulemaniye Camil, Istanbul

Eastern exterior of the Sulemaniye Camil, Istanbul

We went to a number of mosques in Istanbul, to say nothing of buildings that had once been mosques and may yet be so again, and while there is a good variety of them around, dating from the earliest Ottoman period to the newest days of the modern state, there is also a bit of a wash of big sixteenth-century ones that look alike. I’m sure that to their congregations they’re all highly individual, but as tourist and photographer it was hard to separate them out. The Sulemaniye Camii, seen above and below, more or less expresses this: it’s splendid (and weirdly, stocked with English-language material printed in Birmingham, specifically Small Heath in fact), but I could show you photos of its nearest neighbour and above the ground level you probably wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.

Interior of the dome of the Sulemaniye Camii, Istanbul

Interior of the dome of the Sulemaniye Camii

Not so, however, the Kalenderhane Camii, just down the road from the much bigger Sulemaniye.

South face of the Kalenderhane Camii, Istanbul

South face of the Kalenderhane Camii

The discerning reader may notice that this brickwork looks more like the Hagia Eirini Museum or the Kariye Museum than it does the Sulemaniye Camii, and you would not be wrong; this is Byzantine building here. In fact it’s more complicated even than that…

View along the south side of the Kalenderhane Camii, Istanbul

View along the south side

We have fabric exposed here from excavations in the 1960s which revealed, apart from a major coin hoard, that at the very bottom there is a bath complex that must date to very near the beginnings of the Roman city, parts of which are now still visible.1

South-west corner of the Kalenderhane Camii, Istanbul

I’m pretty sure that’s the remains of a hypocaust here, under the south-west corner

On top of that, however, at least by the sixth century, was built a church; its east end is still more or less up and had a mosaic of Christ in it that is now removed to the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, though I can’t say I noticed it on display there, and may be the oldest one surviving in Istanbul. Most of the rest of what now stands is late twelfth-century, with some Palaeologan retouching and quite a lot of Ottoman patching due to fire or other forms of collapse. Many people have tried to keep this building going, basically.2

Marble facing in the east end of the Kalenderhane Camii, Istanbul

Marbles in many colours in the east end, with mihrab before

There is, as you can see, quite a lot of the sixth century still here, where it doesn’t sit in such direct contradiction of the building’s modern purpose. In fact, the Kalenderhane had to endure rather more denominational variety than many such a building, because it was adopted by the Franciscans under the Latin Empire (1204-1261), and they added a chapel to the east which still contains some apparently marvellous frescoes, but is always shut and was so for our visit.

Byzantine sculpture and fresco remains in the Kalenderhane Camii, Istanbul

Byzantine carving and fresco remains beneath newer plaster in the entry from the narthex, or whatever one calls a narthex when it’s in a mosque

Then after 1261 it was re-Byzantinised, one presumes, and then when the Ottomans took the city the building was given over to the Mevlevi Dervishes, of whom I admit I know no more than the local signage told me. It became a more general-use mosque somewhat later, and remains so today. Consquently, there is visible overlap between its furnishings and those of other mosques being fitted out in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Interior of the Kalenderhane Camii, Istanbul, facing the south wall

Interior view facing the south wall, with a familiar sort of chandelier in view

But there is also quite a lot of that same sense we have mentioned of things just piling up on each other, in some cases quite literally.

Byzantine capitals and sculture panels and Ottoman epigraphy in the Kalenderhane Camii, Istanbul

Byzantine capitals and sculpture panels and Ottoman epigraphy, below who knows whose windows

And there’s also the simple fact that despite its somewhat conflicted history and rather startling range of colours, it’s still a space with a lot of beauty in it, more peaceful than many another religious building I’ve been in.

Interior of the dome of the Kalenderhane Camii, Istanbul

Interior of the dome, lit by the heavens

I am, I admit, uncertain what to think should be done with the numerous contentious buildings like this in Istanbul that have long histories in the service of both Christianity and Islam. The Kalenderhane Camii has been through quite a lot of hands as the needs of its surrounding population changed or were being changed, but it won’t be long before Muslims have been worshipping in it for as long as Christians did. It’s also not been anything other than a religious building since its first conversion, so it’s not not belonged to one religion or another since it was baths, which not very much of what is there now was. So ownership is complex, at best. What’s been done here to handle that probably couldn’t be done in most of the other cases, given the scale of alteration and removal it would require; but it didn’t seem to me that what had been done here was a bad approach to the situation. I suppose we can hope for the same kind of consideration to be deployed in other cases too.


1. The coin hoard I know of from Michael F. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, c. 300–1450 (Cambridge 1985), p. 521; on the site more widely, aside from this very useful webpage, cited properly in n. 2 below, I’ve consulted Cyril Mango, “Kalenderhane Camii” in Alexander Kazhdan (ed.), Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (Oxford 1991), 3 vols, II p. 1093.

2. Thus far from Mango, “Kalenderhane Camii”, and David Hendrix, “Theotokos Kyriotissa” in The Byzantine Legacy, online here; from here onwards everything I know about the site is from the local signage.

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