Politics, religion, and money. Is it ever possible to have any without the others? Throughout history, and continuing today, all three have been pretty much the driving forces of practically anything humankind did and does. Of the mosques I visited in Istanbul, New Mosque is a good example of this.
The Yeni Cami, (New Mosque) is an Ottoman imperial mosque. It can be found in Eminönü, one of Istanbul’s many neighbourhoods. It’s in a beautiful location – when standing in the square facing the mosque, the Bosporus and Galata Bridge are on your left and the Spice Bazaar is on your right. The people watching can be fantastic, a mix of local people and tourists. There are also plenty of pigeons if you feel like feeding some birds. Just don’t get pooped on.
New Mosque’s life started in 1597 under the orders of the Valide Sultan, Sultana Safiye, mother of Sultan Mehmed III. As such, the original name of the mosque was Valide Sultan Mosque. Sultana Safiye was motivated by politics and religion in building this mosque. Back then, the Eminönü neighborhood was Istanbul’s main commercial hub…and where the city’s Jewish population mostly lived. As the Jewish population grew in power and wealth, people (both local and foreign) became more and more discontent. Sultana Safiye apparently wanted to capitalize on this discontent – not only would building a mosque in Eminönü push Islamic influence into that part of the city, it would also allow her to confiscate Jewish-owned property in the area for said mosque. She had mixed success – no one protested the new mosque on the basis of its location (other than those who lost property). But they did protest on how expensive it was to build!
In 1603, Sultan Mehmed III died. Janissaries, elite soldiers of the Ottoman Empire, seized the opportunity to exercise their ever-growing political influence and forced Sultana Safiye to stop building the mosque. Because of their prestige and strong influence in the Empire, it wouldn’t surprise me if they were the reason why she was also shuffled back into the harem –they didn’t like for spending “their” money and they didn’t like that she too had political power, so they relegated her out of sight and out of mind.
The project was left abandoned for about 60 years, until another Valide Sultan decided she wanted to complete the mosque as a work of piety. Sultana Turhan Hatice, mother of Sultan Mehmed IV, finished the mosque in 1663. She was also the one who had the Spice Bazaar built. Once completed, the mosque was given the name New Valide Sultan Mosque – which was shortened to New Mosque by the common folks.
New Mosque is quite beautiful, but I think it is so because of its setting. Being surrounded by life, markets, and water gives it quite the atmosphere. If you visit, make sure one of your visits is during the “golden hour” of the setting sun – the light is beautiful against the mosque’s stones, some of which come from the island of Rhodes. New Mosque has about 66 domes/semi-domes and two minarets. When facing the mosque, to the right are the line of taps where men go to perform their purification rituals before going to pray. When you climb the steps to the mosque, you enter into a courtyard that has an ornamental ablution fountain. Once inside the mosque itself (don’t forget to take off your shoes!), there are plenty of Iznik tiles to admire, though they are of “inferior” quality compared to ones used in older mosques….apparently. To my untrained eye, they are beautiful just the same. There are also several calligraphic plates inscribed with the names of the first four khalifahs (important civil and religious leaders). So while New Mosque isn’t as gorgeous as some of the others in the city, it is well worth a visit.