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  • Writer's pictureTerry Richardson

A Brief History of Rüstem Paşa Mosque in Istanbul

What is Rüstem Paşa Mosque?

Rüstem Paşa Mosque is an attractive, small 16th-century mosque, designed by master architect Sinan, that’s famed for the lovely Iznik tiles embellishing its interior.

Rüstem Paşa Mosque

Rüstem Paşa Mosque History

Situated close to the banks of the Golden Horn inlet amid the bustling neighbourhood fanning out from the famous Spice Bazaar, this mosque was built in honour of one of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent’s grand viziers (or chief ministers), Rüstem Paşa. It was probably executed at the behest of his widow, Mihrimah, favourite daughter of the sultan, with the work carried out by the most respected of Ottoman architects, Sinan.

Built on an awkward, sloping site, the mosque is raised on a terrace approached by steps from the crowded alleys of the bazaars surrounding it. At the top of these is a courtyard with a double porch fronting the mosque projecting onto it. The porch directly attached to the mosque is roofed with domes. The back wall of the last prayer area beneath the porches is decorated with large panels of Iznik tiles. The spandrels (the triangular areas) between the tops of the arches of the outer porch are adorned with eight bright blue medallions sporting, in calligraphic inscriptions, the names Allah, Muhammad, the first four caliphs Abu Bekir, Omar, Osman and Ali, plus the prophet’s two grandsons Hassan and Hussein.

Essentially an octagon inscribed in a rectangle, with the dome supported on four arches springing from octagonal columns, the Rüstem Paşa follows the general design of Classical Period Ottoman mosques. But what makes it extraordinary is the number of beautiful Iznik tiles from the finest period of production (around 1555 to 1620) covering the walls and columns of its intimate interior. The material used in the manufacture of Iznik ceramic wares was predominantly quartz rather than clay, and the resultant sparkling white tiles formed a perfect background for the intricate floral and vegetal motifs decorating them. Also, during this era, the master potters at Iznik introduced a new colour to the standard palette, a rich tomato red known as Armenian bole, enhancing the beauty of the ceramics they produced even further.

The four main floral designs used on the tiles decorating the Rüstem Paşa are stylised tulip, carnation, rose and hyacinth, with sprigs of serrated leaves known as saz adding to the overall effect. Whilst figurative images are proscribed in Islam, flowers, plants and gardens carry great significance. Religious scholars traditionally like to contemplate Allah’s work in garden settings, while flowers remind the faithful of the Garden of Eden. The tulip was the holiest of flowers in Ottoman Turkish culture, with the drooping head of the mature bloom signifying humankind’s submission to Allah.

It's perhaps fitting that this mosque is so luxuriously decorated, as Rüstem Paşa became the wealthiest of Süleyman the Magnificent’s subjects during his two terms of office. His rise to power was almost curtailed when, prior to his proposed marriage to the sultan’s daughter Mihrimah in 1539, he was suspected of having leprosy. An examination by Süleyman’s doctors revealed his ailment merely to be an infestation of lice, not leprosy, and the wedding went ahead!

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