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Ottoman Architecture

The rich Ottoman Empire was known for its lavish and picturesque architecture characterized first of all by mosques with domes on square structures and pencil-like minarets. In the late thirteenth century, the Ottoman Empire originated from small groups of Oguz Turks who called themselves that ‘Sons of Osman’ after Osman Gazi. In English this name sounded like ‘Othman’ so the name ‘Ottoman’ took hold. The Ottoman architecture developed from very simple forms of flat roofs to complex architectural structures of multiple shapes and intricate decoration. The conquest of Constantinople was an important event for the Ottoman architecture because it enriched it and added sophistication. The Ottoman architecture went through different phases and researchers mark the Early Ottoman period from the mid-ninth century to the mid-fifteenth century, the Classical Ottoman period covers the eleventh to the seventeenth centuries, while the Late Ottoman period begins at the turn of the twentieth century. Between the Classical and the Late periods there is the Baroque period.

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Early Ottoman Period

In the Early period, the Ottoman architecture was very simple and the mosque, as a symbol of the Ottoman architecture, usually was “an oblong room covered by a tiled pitched roof or an interior wooden dome”. Because of frequent fires, flat roofs replaced wooden domes and from now on “the domed square” became a principal characteristic of the early Ottoman architecture. At first mosques constituted mainly of a simple room for prayer and a minaret. This type is called “the single-unit mosque”. The “multi-unit mosque” has several rooms, or compartments divided by pillars, all topped with domes. The “eyvan mosque” has a rectangular hall with one side open, a dome and minarets but it should necessarily have the same “basic axial system”.

With an aim to increase the inner space of the mosque without introducing many walls and columns, Ottoman architects eventually adopted double or triple domes and/or single domes supported with bays or semi-domes. It was done not in an attempt to achieve the best aesthetic effect. Rather it was a search for “the largest single uninterrupted space” that was not subjected to a single form such as “the Greek-cross or the Latin-cross form of a church”.

Classical Ottoman Period

The architecture of Hagia Sophia significantly influenced the Ottoman architecture when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and turned it into the Ottoman Empire’s capital rename Istanbul in 1453. Hagia Sophia had a remarkably large dome rested on pendentives and supported by semi-domes. The illusion of grandeur was highlighted by many widows underneath the dome so that when spectators entered the building they were impressed by an abundance of light streaming from the widows made invisible by the light. The Ottoman Turks turned Hagia Sophia into the mosque by adding four minarets and removing many columns inside to make the inner space as much unobstructed as possible.

At that period, Hagia Sophia had the world’s largest dome which was later surpassed by Mimar Sinan’s Mosque of Selim II at Edirne. Sinan (called in Turkish the Architect ‘Mimar’) was the greatest Ottoman architect and the Edirne mosque has been believed to be his masterpiece. While on the outside the Mosque of Selim II is a dominating dome with four tall minarets, the interior is an octagon capped with four half-domes. Done with the 1:2 ratio “[t]he result is a %uFB02uid interpenetration of several geometric volumes that represents the culminating solution to Sinan’s lifelong search for a monumental uni%uFB01ed interior space”. 

Thus, the Classical Ottoman period is characterized by complexity and sophistication derived from the Byzantine tradition fused with native Turkish tradition. Inasmuch as the Ottomans conquered many Byzantine areas they used the existing architectural structures. Either the buildings were converted into mosques or their major construction elements, such as columns and their parts, were used in Ottoman constructions.

However, there was a principal difference between Byzantine and Ottoman religious buildings. Whereas Hagia Sophia was a basilica with longitudinal orientation, the mosque had to be center-planned. The galleries around the mosque could not be as wide as the aisles, as was the case with Hagia Sophia. The centrality of the dome was sometimes emphasized by semi-domes. The examples of the Ottoman architecture of this period with such characteristics are the Istanbul mosques: Beyazidiye, Süleymaniye, %u015Eehzade Camii, Sultan Ahmet I Camii, and Yeni Cami.

Another influence of the Byzantine architecture is the use of polygons in the base of the mosque. The octagon was inscribed into the base of the Constantinople church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, later turned into a mosque. As was mentioned earlier, Sinan used this principle in his mosque of Selim II and in Üç %u015Eerefeli Camii, both in Edirne. This type of structure allows the architect to avoid the use of columns, which gives a hovering effect.

The Mosque

Generally the mosque is a very traditional construction that cannot be easily changed. Even though a number of elements such as domes, minarets, and balconies can vary, the general principle remains the same: it is a center-oriented construction with a porch outside and a niche indicating the direction of Mecca, called the mihrab, inside. Often the mosque is proceeded by the avlu, the courtyard, with a domed arcade around and a fountain for feet washing in the center. Inside the mosque, apart from a quite big mihrab, there are usually a pulpit, mimber, for sermons, a special place, Kuran kürsü, for reading the Koran by the imam, a place, müezzin mahfli, for the imam’s assistant; additionally, there is usually a hidden place, hünkâr mahfli, for the emperor and people so that the public could not see them attending the mosque. Outside of the mosque there were mausoleums, türbe, copying the mosque’s construction. Türbes usually were domed squares with a porch made of wood and stone and decorated with stained glass, Iznik tiles, and paintings. 

Other Ottoman Architectural Structures

Imperial mosques were usually included into larger complexes of religious and social buildings called külliye. Külliyes often had a religious school, madrasa, that in an architectural sense was very similar to the mosque but with smaller proportions. A typical madrasa had one wall open whereas the other three were covered with vaults or domes. There were cells along the walls which formed a courtyard similar to the mosque, with a domed lecture hall at one end and a fountain at the center. Another principal element of the külliye was the soup kitchen, imaret, conformed to the same structure of domed or vaulted rooms around the courtyard. The same general plan was used for hospitals, darü%u015F%u015Fifa, and caravansarais, kervansaray. All the above mentioned institutions were free of charge in the Ottoman Empire and had to be financed from other institutions such as the public bath, hamam. Its construction and architectural form emulated the Roman bathes with an anteroom for changing and relaxing, a bathroom with moderate temperature and a steam-room.

Other social institutions functioned independently from the imperial külliye. The han had functions and architecture similar to the caravanserai. The only differences were two floors: there were stables for camels and horses on the first floor, and rooms for guests on the second floor. The guests could trade their goods in the courtyard which made it a kind of a market place. Additionally, each han had its own hamam, imaret, a small mosque, a dining room, toilets, and other services such as blacksmith. Among other types of buildings are the library, kütüphane, and the dervish monastery, tekke. For purely aesthetic functions the Ottomans would build public fountains, çe%u015Fme, and paved paths, sebil. Public fountains were a niche in the wall usually paved with marble. The basin was usually decorated with floral or geometrical motifs while the wall behind the fountain usually had inscriptions in round calligraphic handwriting style. The Ottoman paved paths were usually lavishly decorated with carvings and decorative grills.

In contrast to the mosque, the general plan and decoration of Ottoman residential houses were very modest. It was the point to make a contrast between everyday life and religious experience that was recognized by other religions as well. Unlike domed mosques and other social institutions, houses usually had flat or pitched roofs. Design and the living plan depended on the climate and the environment. Inasmuch as Islam prescribed men and women to live separately and meet only in the communal areas, houses usually were centered round the courtyard in an L- or U-shape. Houses usually were built from wood and had not more than two stories.

Ottoman architectural forms

Ottoman architecture had two types of capitals both derived from geometrical structures. The stalactite looks similar to stalactite formations while the lozenge is a diamond shape. Both types of ornamentation are used to hide the transitions from columns to ceilings, pendentives, capitals, etc. Arches in Ottoman architecture were usually pointed rather than round. Doors often indicated the wealth and status of the owner. Often Ottoman buildings have a minimum number of windows on the façade or they were very small and aesthetically insignificant, whereas doors have symbolic indication of social standing. Doors were usually tall and in mosques they had monumental scale of being gates called eyvan.

For revetment, Ottoman architecture used faience and ceramic tiles. In the Early Ottoman period, ceramic tiles were very simple in blue or turquoise color with gold overlay, with no design and of hexagonal shape. Cuerda seca tiles had more complex look and color combinations being fired with differently colored glazed. Later at Iznik tiles were made with painted design on very bright colors of white, green, red, and deep blue. The technology was very difficult and was lost with time but at the period of its flourishing Iznik tiles were incomparably breathtaking because of their pure and bright colors.

For decoration Ottoman architecture used both tiles and mosaic and often tiles were cut into small pieces and used as mosaics. In this case effects were different because tiles reflect light differently and less shiny. Ottoman art had a very extensive use of ceramic tiles and covered large surfaces with them. Sometimes entire buildings could be covered in tiles and tiled mosaics. An example of a total tiled look in a building is the Shahi Mosques in Isfahan finished in the beginning of the seventeenth century where all constructional elements such as the dome, minarets, arches, vaults, and other surfaces are covered in tiles.

Sinan the Architect

Sinan was the greatest and the most prolific architect of the Ottoman Empire. He  created at least  “84 large mosques, as well as 52 mescits, 63 medreses, 7 Kuran schools, 22 türbes, 18 public kitchens, 20 caravansarais, 3 hospitals, 35 palaces, 8 storehouses, 52 public baths, 6 aqueducts, and 8 bridge” and one-fourth of all his constructions is still intact in Istanbul. However, the total number of his architectural works all over the Ottoman Empire exceeds 400 structures. 

Late Ottoman Period

After the Classical period there were several other periods such as the Tulip period and the Baroque period which reflected the fact that the Ottoman Empire began changing its sealed-off manner of living and started a process of Westernization. In the eighteenth century, more public areas were made such as public fountains and picnic areas. These were periods of lavish decoration. Right before the fall of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War the country saw a renaissance in architecture when young architects attempted to revive the Ottoman identity and resist Westernization. The Ottoman revival style used modern materials such as steel, glass, and concrete and traditional Ottoman architectural elements such as tiles, domes, pointed arches and others. An example of the Ottoman revival style is the Istanbul Grand Post Office.


Drawing heavily on the Byzantine tradition Ottoman architecture nevertheless was able to develop its own distinctive style and manner. Characterized by the use of domes and pencil-like minarets Ottoman architecture looks unified and harmonized which is especially evident in the artworks of the greatest Ottoman architect Sinan. Having developed from highly introverted and religious tradition Ottoman architecture in its late period went through a stage of Westernization and arrived to modernity retaining its characteristic elements and national character.

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