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  • Writer's pictureTerry Richardson

A Brief History of Yavuz Selim Mosque in Istanbul

What is Yavuz Selim Mosque?

Yavuz Selim Mosque is an elegantly simple 16th-century mosque that crowns the summit of the old city’s Fifth Hill, a prominent landmark on the Istanbul skyline.

Yavuz Selim Mosque

Yavuz Selim Mosque History

Despite being of modest size for an imperial mosque, Yavuz Selim, also known as the Selimiye, is one of the most beautiful in Istanbul. Its design is breathtakingly simple and attributable to the architect Alaüddin.

The mosque, completed in 1522, is a square of around 25 metres surmounted by a daringly shallow dome, its apex floating some 30 metres above the floor, supported by smoothly curving pendentives (the triangular gaps between the arches). The attractive pale stone from which it’s constructed provides a perfect foil for the sparing use of decorative elements within the interior. Most striking of these is a band of semi-circular panels or lunettes, each filled with the most beautiful blue and white Iznik tiles. Light floods into the prayer hall from 24 arched stained-glass windows piercing the drum of the dome, and further, larger windows with pointed arches are used in each wall. The mihrab (or prayer niche) is a shallow recess in the Mecca-facing prayer wall, its simplicity leavened by the stalactite carving in its arch, with gilt calligraphy in a panel above it. The mimber (or pulpit) is very impressive, with delicate marble fretwork panels and a strikingly tall conical roof above the pulpit itself.

The mosque is preceded by an avlu of great charm, with the usual domed porticos flanking the courtyard supported by columns of various marbles and granites, topped by finely carved capitals from which spring polychrome arches. At the centre of the courtyard is an elegant ritual ablutions fountain capped by a shallow dome supported on eight slim columns.

Several interesting tombs stand in the grounds of the mosque complex. The oldest belongs to its patron, Sultan Yavuz Selim (or Selim the Resolute). Although he only ruled for eight years, in that time he doubled the size of the Ottoman Empire, adding parts of Persia, Syria and Egypt to Ottoman domains. Crucially, the capture of Egypt and the holy sites of Mecca and Medina meant that from then on Ottoman sultans were able to claim the title of ‘caliph’, or rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad, thus becoming titular rulers of the entire Islamic world. A formidable foe in battle, Selim was equally terrifying when it came to his style of governance, beheading no fewer than eight grand viziers during his short reign.

Selim’s domed, octagonal türbe (or tomb) contains a sarcophagus, carefully enveloped in an embroidered velvet cover and topped by a magnificent turban. As was the custom, the sarcophagus is symbolic, with the body buried beneath the tomb. Opposite Selim’s resting place is another octagonal türbe dedicated to four of the children of Süleyman the Magnificent, Selim’s son and successor in whose reign the mosque was completed. Like Selim’s tomb, it has some attractive tile panels decorating its porch, and was possibly the work of Sinan.

The other tomb of interest is of a much later date, that of Abdülmecid I, who died in 1861. The Ottoman Empire was by then in precipitous decline, but that didn’t stop the sultan from making the most of his position – his 26 consorts and concubines bore him more than 40 children.

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