Why Would Istanbul’s Seaside Mosque Lose its Defining Feature?

The city municipality has re-started construction of a pedestrian walkway by Semsi Pasa Mosque, years after public outcry had halted it. Here’s what Istanbullites have to say about the project.

“Imagine yourself walking through congested streets and neighbourhoods—you are surrounded by things on your left and on your right. Suddenly, a beautiful jewel appears before you. You enter the courtyard of this structure…you continue walking and you reach the sea gate. Imagine the relief and contentment you feel with the sea stretching out before you.”

These are the words architect Halil Ibrahim Duzenli uses to describe the great reprieve the tiny Semsi Pasa mosque in Istanbul’s Uskudar district offers its visitors. Renowned for its position, as it sits directly on the coastline since its construction over 440 years ago, this distinctive structure is once again at the centre of a heated debate in Istanbul. Concerned citizens, historians, and architects fear that new construction efforts threaten the mosque’s unique features, alter Istanbul’s cityscape, and the legacy of the master Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, who designed it.

On January 9, 2021, videos of construction workers laying out steel beams extending from the walls of the mosque toward the sea, started making the rounds on social media with the hashtag #SemsiPasaCamiineDokunma, “Don’t touch Semsi Pasa Mosque”. The Istanbul municipality had started building a sidewalk extending from the mosque several meters toward the sea, and observers feared its implications.

“For more than 400 years after Architect Sinan’s [death], there has been an effort to preserve the seaside quality of this mosque,” Nurefsan, a graduate student of sociology from Istanbul who has been following the events, told TRT World.

“Now, it is about to disappear in the name of ‘creating a pedestrian walkway’. Today, most buildings lack any aesthetic quality. If we’re not able to protect our historic sites, we will completely lose the essence of the city.”

The construction plans are actually not new: in 2016 the AK Party Metropolitan Municipality leadership had planned to fill in the coastline by the mosque as part of the “Uskudar Project”, despite objections from historians, architects, and locals. The project was promptly halted in 2017 after public outcry and when the installation of pile foundations cracked the mosque’s walls.

A revised project that shortened the length of the original pedestrian walkway was approved by the new CHP Metropolitical Municipality leadership in January 2020, sparking controversy online. The new Istanbul leadership stated that it would resume the project, albeit with structures that wouldn’t “harm” the mosque in the same way.

In response, the Head of the General Directorate of Foundations, Burhan Ersoy, criticised the re-instatement of pedestrian walkway project in a tweet, calling on the project to be halted, and threatened to initiate a legal process unless it stopped.

The Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality shot back, saying it was simply “fixing” a “despicable” situation brought about by the previous leadership.

According to critics, this is missing the point.

“The Semsi Pasa Mosque is everyone’s heritage, and its context is that it’s next to sea…[this is] special and has to be protected,” says Zeynep Sanli Ikbal, a concerned citizen working in the architectural field. “[It offers] a  rare peaceful and spiritual experience, and the direct connection to the sea would be damaged [with the walkway].”

Ikbal started a Change.org campaign with a friend to pressure decision makers to stop the construction. It has over 1,300 signatures as of the time this article was published. “Buildings on the Bosporus are in a special category…This is not like Dubai where you claim the land on water. We have to have our own intelligent urban development models and understand the layers of heritage and how to work with it,” she told TRT World.

Duzenli agrees. “This location was decided upon over 400 years ago. In the framework of respect, preservation, and muhabbet (love), you can’t touch this structure in this way.”

He adds that today, the mosque complex serves as a litmus test for the pressures of contemporary urbanisation—from the filling of coastlines, the creation of recreation spaces, to the ballooning population in big cities.

“In some places, this pressure has to be transformed into something good, something better,” he says.

“The Semsi Pasa complex’s [existing design] represents a breathing space for people in these modern times.”

“Illuminating mirror of the eight paradises”

The elegant Semsi Ahmet Pasa Mosque Complex on the Uskudar coast is easily missed by tourists who flock to larger mosques in the area, or the nearby Maiden’s Tower. However, visitors to this seemingly unassuming mosque on the crowded seaside road of Uskudar are instantly struck at the grandeur, intricacy, and openness offered by this small “jewel”.

Any visitor to Turkey has witnessed the mastery and artistry of Mimar Sinan, the most celebrated Ottoman architect distinguished for his distinctive style and his aesthetic contributions to the urban tapestry of Istanbul, Edirne, and many other cities and towns in Ottoman lands.

In addition to the grand Suleymaniye, Selimiye, and Sehzade mosques, identified as milestones in his career by the architect himself, hundreds of other structures like smaller mosques and masjids, palaces, madrasas and hospitals stand as a testament to his spirit, eye for design, and his architectural experimentation. Semsi Pasa Mosque, in particular, stood out for its beauty for both Sinan and his contemporaries, like Ottoman intellectuals Evliya Celebi and Eremya Celebi who praised its gem-like quality.

“He built near his palace along the shore an agreeable Friday mosque ‘whose heart ravishing silver dome is a bubble on the lip of the sea, and each of whose polished polychrome marble panels is a world illuminating mirror of the eight paradises,’” writes historian Gulru Necipoglu, quoting the endowment deed of the mosque in her book, The Age of Sinan: Architectural Culture in the Ottoman Empire.

It is lovingly referred to as “Kuskonmaz Camii” or “The Mosque Upon Which Birds Don’t Land” by locals, referring to the strong winds coming from the Bosphorus, Marmara Sea, and the Golden Horn, which prevent birds from landing on its dome or minaret.

The mosque was commissioned by Grand Vizier Semsi Ahmet Pasha, and was completed in 1580.

“There are very few architectural pieces on this globe that are this small—and get more valuable, more grand, the smaller they get. It’s a gem that adorns Istanbul before our very eyes. It’s priceless,” says Duzenli.

“What’s needed here is for everyone to get together with respect—for one another and for the complex. My hope is that everyone is candid about the current situation…that all political sides accept their wrongs…and that they focus on the ultimate goal [of protecting the mosque].”

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