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Essay on Architecture of Istanbul

1) Istanbul is the only city in the world that stands astride two continents. The main part of the city, which forms the south-easternmost extremity of Europe, is separated from its suburbs in Asia by the Bosphorus, which flows through a deep cleft that separates the two continents in the north-western corner of Turkey. The European part of the city is further divided by the Golden Horn, a scimitar shaped estuary fed at its upper end by two streams.

Q1:What effects did this almost unsurpassable natural setting have upon the history of the city from its founding in c. 658 B.C.?

The effects of this unique geography on the development of the city can be demonstrated through several major events from its history:

First, as legend says, when Byzas (the son of Zeus and Keroessa) asked the Oracle of Delphi where he should settle, her answer was “opposite the blind.” Sailing across the Bosporus in 658 B.C., he arrived to a Greek colony at the Asian shore and saw the potential of the west (European) side. The answer to the Delphi’s enigma was thus that the settlers in the East shore were blind to the spot, where Byzantium (the first settlement, which was ruined in approximately 200 AD) was established.

Second, its ability to control the access to the Bosporus was a major reason for the city’s rapid development.

Third, after reuniting the Eastern and Western Roman Empire, Constantine chooses the location of former Byzantium to build his new capital, calling it New Rome. The city, which was soon named Constantinople, became the capital of Eurasia from its declaration in 330 AD and throughout nearly 1000 afterwards.

2) As the Cathedral of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople for over a thousand years, with the brief exception of the Latin occupation, the Hagia Sophia, built between 532-537 C.E., was the center of Eastern Christianity from the year 360 until the Ottoman conversion. Its importance as the center of religious authority in the Byzantine capital was compounded with its role as the primary setting for state rituals and pageantry. The Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, which put an end to the Byzantine Empire, began the era of Islamic worship in the holy structure, which Mehmed II converted into a mosque immediately after his conquest. Considered a significant influence on the conception of classical Ottoman architecture, the Hagia Sophia is open to visitors as a public museum.

Q2: Please describe the architecture, the articulation of space and the interior decoration.

The dome, an architectural wonder for its time, is 56m in height and 31m in diameter. The interior of the dome is covered with gold tiles and brings light into the hall through a crown formed by 40 windows. The interior hall is covered with mosaics, as can be seen in many mosques – Islamic symbols and geometric figures. Eight calligraphic discs, some of which are among the largest in the Islamic world, present religious motives – the names of Allah and Mohammed and six caliphs. The Coronation Square, where the emperors’ throne used to be, is paved with marble.

The Christian mosaic decorations include the Deesis (a composition from the 14th century, which portrays Jesus, his mother and St. John the Baptist) as well as portraits of nobles and saints. Other notable monuments is the small Vestibule of Warriors (at the exit) and, of course, a model of the city and of Hagia (Greek for “Saint”) Sophia.

3) Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, but the Byzantine Empire’s ruin was accomplished two and a half centuries earlier at the hands of fellow Christians. The City had undergone seventeen sieges, and survived weak Emperors and incompetent generals. The greed of Venice and the venality and gullibility of the Crusaders in 1204 contributed to the destruction of an Empire that had lasted nine hundred years.

Q3: Do you support this view?

The Byzantine Empire underwent a long era of decline. In fact, when the 80,000 Ottoman soldiers approached Constantinople in 1450, the Byzantine Emperor had already lost almost all of his power – having as few as 7,000 soldiers to protect the city, which was last remaining territory he still kept. As the entire Empire, its capital had been raided throughout the former centuries by numerous armies (to name a few: Darius, Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Visigoths, the Huns, the Crusaders and the Arab raiders attempted ruling the city before the Ottomans), but fortunately for us, its destiny was not so dark as its predecessor, Byzantium, which was ruined completely some thousand years earlier.

4) Ottoman architecture is unique in the Islamic world for its unswerving fidelity to a single central idea that of the domed square unit its solid structural core. The intrinsic simplicity of the domed square unit as a structural form made it ideally suited to function on any scale, large of small, without sacrificing clarity or monumentality. It readily accommodated numerous appurtenances domed buttresses, semi-domes, porticoes, domed cloisters, courtyards and minarets.

Q4:Do you agree, and if so, in what buildings is this single central idea most coherently expressed?

The concept of the centrality of the dome, a structure that had been accompanied the Ottomans since their early history in Central Asia, is the most predominant feature of their architectural style. The dome underlies a new unique approach in public buildings (in particular mosques), which revoke the separation between the interior and the exterior spaces. The best representing buildings, though some of them were influenced from other styles, are the Blue and Suleiman Mosques in Istanbul and the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne.

5) True or false.

The main business of the Ottoman state was making peace with its neighbors.

False. The central political idea in the Ottoman philosophy was that the state must dedicate itself to expanding the borders on the Muslim-dominated territories, a notion that can be proved by examining the continuous military efforts of the Empire.

The Central administration consisted of three main parts: The Sultan’s harem, the department of government grouped under the Grand Vizier who was the Sultan’s deputy in all state matters, the Muslim religious institution which consisted of functionaries concerned with education and law.


To contemporary Europeans the Ottoman state was unique in that it had an aristocracy and was run by men chosen by merit and wholly loyal to the King.


The Ottoman Empire was a democracy. This is a government of a state by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided.

False. The main criteria for participation in high-level institutions (in particular the Divan, an infrastructure that allows debets) were personal merits, most significantly in military work.

The civil government and military defense depended upon a corps of Christian levies which was to attain world fame as the Janissaries.


6) One of the last and most modern of the palace complexes is the Topkapi in Istanbul which was still in use at the end of the 19th century. With the Alhambra, it is the only pre-modern Muslim palace still substantially intact. It is a sprawling accumulation of low-level buildings out up over the centuries. Due to fires, much of what survives is relatively modern.

The original layout consisted of many summer pavilions by the water’s edge. The winter palace is situated on a high ridge, formerly the site of the Byzantine acropolis. The box-like structure of the Topkapi, where access is progressively more restricted as one proceeds from area to area, is faintly reminiscent of the Forbidden City of Beijing.

Q6:Take a good look at the plan of the Topkapi and describe the functions of its various spaces and enclosures.

Used as the sultans’ residence and the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire until 1855, the Topkapi Palace encloses a great array of rooms and functions. Some of the main ones are:

  • Bab-i Hümayün Gate (aka the Gate of Augustus) is the main entrance, in which the public could often see the decapitated heads of traitors as a warning.
  • Court of the Janissaries: always served as a public park and displays some ruins from the Roman era
  • Hagia Eirene (St. Irene): the second-largest Byzantine church after Hagia Sophia, which was used by the Ottomansas an arsenal
  • Babüsselâm.(“Gate of Salutation): signaled all the visitors to alight upon entering the palace and surrounded by two towers that were used for the prisoners who were sentenced to death
  • The Palace Kitchens: considered as the world’s largest and employed more than 1,000 workers with the capacity to serve the palace’s 5,000 residents and as many as 15,000 people during the Ramadan
  • The Throne Room: a pavilion that was used for official receptions to foreign ambassadors.
  • The Fatih Pavilion: treasury room, used to store plunders and presents, in particular thrones, jewelry and swords
  • Several examples for the Ottomans’ kiosk architecture are the Baghdad Kiosk and the Mustafa Pa?a Kiosk, which were used for dining and clothing, correspondingly.
  • The Holy Relic Section: a domed area that presented relics from Mecca and Medina, including the first copy of the Koran
  • The Ahmet III Library: contained about 6,000 Arab and Greek manuscripts
  • The Imperial Council Hall (Divan): debate area for the council
  • The Harem: women’s quarters, which hosted up to 800
  • The Apartment of the Valide Sultan and his private bath
  • The Imperial Reception Hall: hosted celebrations and performances
  • The lavish Private Chambers: facing the water and includes the Reading Room, the Fruit Room and the prince’s room (aka “the Cage”), where the prince prepared himself for the leadership for long years

7) Under Süleyman (r. 1520-1566), popularly known as “the Magnificent” or “the Lawgiver” the Ottoman Empire reached the height of its military and political power. Along with geographic expansion, trade, economic growth, and tremendous cultural and artistic activity helped define the reign of Süleyman as a “Golden Age.”

Q7:Please explain by reference to Süleyman’s specific achievements and his patronage?

Süleyman’s main achievements included:

  • A significant expansion of the Empire into Europe, Asia and North Africa
  • A complete reform of the Ottoman law system
  • Development of the Empire’s architecture, arts and culture

8) The city is the most pronounced expression of the divorce between humans and nature. It epitomizes human intervention in nature, and represents the separation of humans from natural processes. While agrarian communities follow the rhythms of nature and remain in relative harmony with nature, urban communities beat to a different rhythm – a rhythm of technology, economics and human activities. By definition, the city is a landscape of social and human power. Excerpted from Victor Savage and Lily Kong, “Urban Constraints, Political Imperatives: Environmental ‘Design’ in Singapore” in Symposium on Environment and Culture with Emphasis on Urban Issues, Bangkok, 1993.

Q8: How does the urban landscape of old Istanbul reflect social and human power?

As a capital of a major empire, Istanbul’s planning advocates a sense of human control over nature. The very location of the city, which controls the only maritime passage between the Black sea and the Mediterranean, is adhered through the powerful-looking buildings. Most significantly, the official buildings and the public areas in the city, which resembles other historical empire’s capitals such as Vienna and Rome, can be distinguished in terms of height, wide-spread gardens and many gates with a clear hierarchy of who is allowed to pass in them.

9) The Ottoman Empire served for a long time as the gateway to the East, because it sat at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. The revenue from the trade routes formed a large part of the economy.

*The decline of the Ottoman Empire was caused by a combination of internal degeneration and external pressures. One of the primary causes for the fall of the Ottoman Empire was the decline of the Sultanate. Among the results of the decline of the Sultanate was the weakening of the central government’s control over the empire. In addition to the problems in the government the Ottoman Empire experienced economic stagnation as they failed to adapt to the changes in the world around them. As Europeans began to develop new trade routes that bypassed the Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman economy was severely damaged. Then, during the eighteenth century, the Ottomans failed to industrialize as the European countries did. The final major factor in the fall of the empire was the shift in the international balance of power. *

In the end, the Ottoman Empire fell because of a combination of internal degeneration and external pressures. The government declined with the degeneration of the Sultanate. The economy faltered when new trade routes bypassed Ottoman territory and when the Ottomans failed to industrialize. And the empire crumbled when war and rebellion overwhelmed it during World War I. Clearly the decline of the Ottoman Empire was a gradual process involving many factors.

Q 9: Please comment.

Empires and other forms of international superpowers are not eternal. Their success is always due to a set of consequences and may diminish when the external conditions changes and/or when the internal structures backslide.

The Ottoman Empire failed to correspond with the political methodology of its late time (e.g. colonialism, the separation of religion and state and large-scale industrialism), and thus appeared as less threatening and attractive in comparison to the British, the French and the rapid-growing USA.

10) Please describe your favorite monument or landscape feature of Istanbul.

My favorite place is the Topkapi palace, not only because of its lavish appearance, but mainly since it gives us the opportunity to feel the Empire’s power center as free men. It must be thrilling to walk where only the few could enter during those days and to compare this marvelous site with the busy modern Istanbul.

July 7, 2012Tags: , ,