Evolution in ‘Green’ Bursa

Light: BursaI arrived in Istanbul a few hours ago, via a ferry across the Marble Sea. The weather is wonderful. About 80*-85* with patches of clouds. It was a much shorter journey from Yeşil Bursa, or “Green Bursa,” as they call it, to Istanbul–and compared to Anatolia, it is, indeed, lush and green. It took three hours, where I had expected six. Clearly the ferry was quicker than the land route–but I’ll get to that in another post.

And now, the penultimate installment of my journey across Anatolia. We return to the moment in Bursa when I awoke from a deep food coma, took a shower, opened the drapes and saw Ulu Dag.

After that I ambled downstairs to the hotel lobby, smiled at the dour woman behind the desk and visited the Ulu Cami of Bursa.

Here comes more architecture stuff, but bear with me, as this is the last of it.

The Ulu Cami (1394-99) is clearly Seljuk inspired, although technically it belongs to a period known as the Beylik Era, that interregnum between the fall of the Seljuks and the rise of the Osmanlı, better known as the Ottomans. The mosque is clearly a pre-Ottoman attempt to both provide a larger space for worship on the old Damascene rectangular plan. It succeeds, to a certain degree. The interior is spacious and the calligrpahy along the walls, while heavily restored is lovely. It holds to the old tradition of several parallel aisles along the qibla walls, which faces Mecca. The mihrab, the Muslim equivalent of a Christian altar, or an Orthodox iconostasis, was a gilded work of art, although it too, had been heavily restored. There is also a small lantern-dome spreading light through the mosque like butter on toast. But sadly, this mosque represents an evolutionary dead end, much like homo habilis were to homo sapiens. The mosque was cluttered and claustrophic like all the others I’d seen, except less so. Clearly the Seljuks were reaching for something new, but they failed. (This is not to ‘dis the Seljuk achievement, however.) Their successors would do what the Seljuks could not.

It is to the Osmanlı and their architects whom we now turn to.  But first a short digression. As I wandered across the landscape of Anatolia these last few weeks I grew to understand the constraints Seljuk architects were dealing with. From the oldest mosque in Turkey, the Ulu Cami of Harran–a classic example of pre-Turkish Islamic architecture–to the last in Bursa no clear break was made with the past, from that first mosque, the Prophet’s home in Medina, a simple rectangle of open air. An although it was the Turks who introduced faience tiling to the world, after all the very word turquoise means ‘the color of the Turks,’ the art died in Anatolia for reasons I don’t quite understand, and that will take more research than I am capable of doing at the present–nor does it really have much to do with the intellectual riddle I’ve been trying to understand. Turkish mosques have much less ornament, as well, than their cousins in the rest of the Muslim world. And although the iwan, as you recall, those large, sumptuously tiled entry portals found on the mosques of Iran, Uzbekistan and India, were used here in Turkey, they would not see their ultimate flowering until the Persian-led or-inspired dynasties of India and Iran concretized their potential. Nor should it have flourished here in Turkey. This was what I learned while traveling through the development of Turkish architecture. The iwan was, in many senses, grafted onto the old Damascene rectangular plan for a reason: it provided an airy, open, triumphant-feeling space for worship. And it is the perfect architectural device for doing so, in the right place, geographically speaking. But there was still a problem the Turks faced, which I could not put my finger on. There was a riddle, of sorts, more like a word on the tip of my tongue unable to blurt out, swimming in my mind, hiding, furtive.

One afternoon while pondering why there were no iwans in Turkey–or so very few–or the few that did exist, were muted, an insight arrived. I was admiring the weather in Sivas, grateful I wasn’t in the cold highlands of Van. I recalled just how brutal the weather in Turkey can be–it was snowing in Erzerum at the time. And I had just read from my History of Islamic Architecture book about the evolutionary leap Turkish architecture in Bursa attained when I put the two together.

The Turks wanted airy, open, massive spaces for worship, but with Turkey’s long, cold, inclement winters, traditional open-spaced mosques architecture, like that of Iran, India and Arabia simply would not work. The Seljuks had done all the could with the old devices. And an attempt to enlarge their scope was untenable. Something else was needed. But what?

It would arrive a scant thirty years after the Ulu Cami of Bursa was built. The Ottoman genius was simple: they cast their eyes across the Sea of Marmara, from their first capital, Bursa, and found their muse, so to speak. Her name is Hagia Sophia.

Between 1419-21 a Turkish architect named Hacı İvaz Pasha squared the circle, both literally and figuratively, with his conception and construction of the Green Mosque of Bursa. The Green Mosque isn’t the most beautiful in the world, but as Jairhazbhoy notes, the tile work is Timurid in character, not surprising as Timur had only just crashed like an insensate wildeebeast across Anatolia twenty years prior. There are hints of the kind of enigmatic brilliance that would blossom in Meshed and Herat, especially in the Gohar Shad and find its culimination in the Sheikh Lutfollah of Isfahan. But it isn’t the tile-work we’re concerned with here, especially as the Turks, unlike the Iranians, were not obsessed with it, although they invented it.

The moment I walked into the Green Mosque it was obvious a huge conceptual leap had been made. Instead of several parallel aisles and a claustrophobic space cluttering up the qibla wall there was light. There was openeness. And there was a sense of space so missing from the Seljuk architecture I’d witnessed the last few weeks. Four rectangular walls reveted upwards into a zone of transition filled with some of the most ingenious pendentives I’ve ever laid eyes on. The pendentives were capped by a drum filled with windows and topped by a dome.

Here, I thought to myself, is the first Turkish attempt to succeed in providing ample space for worship and to keep the inclement weather out. It felt like the prayer hall was outside, in the open air, like an Iranian or Indian mosque. It felt triumphal. But it also felt like I was in a Christian church. A closer inspection of underscored exactly why: this mosque is built on the old cruciform, semi-basilicar floor plan, one that dominated Byzantine architecture for a millenium or more. With important differences, however. There was no nave and there was no altar. (As you recall, mosques don’t need naves, as there are no prietly processions in Islam.) An almost perfect fusion of Islamic needs with Byzantine inspiration. Of course, the personal knowledge that I could see this and appreciate it was also gratifying. It was only a few short years ago that I picked up my first book on Islamic architecture and struggled with terms like squiches, faience–forget the bigger concepts, and what really was a pishtaq or an iwan? And now, here I was not only appreciating the austere beauty of an art movement that has spanned a millenia or more, but also appreciating it intellectually. It felt good.

The Ottomans would no doubt refine their architecture in the years to come, especially with the inclusion of the massive forecourts of the Imperial Mosques here in Istanbul. But it was in Bursa where Ottoman architecture was born. And it was in Bursa that my long journey through the twists and turns of Seljuk architecture would finally come to an end.

Of course there is a postscript to this story–a fitting end to my Anatolian days–but for that you will have to wait until tomorrow.

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