Worshipers are not in short supply at this delightful place of worship, as it rises at the heart of the devoutly Sunni orthodox district of Fatih. In this most conservative of quarters many women go out about their daily business wrapped in all-enveloping black chadors and the busy streets are full of men sporting skull caps and flowing beards, dressed in voluminous shalwar pants and knee-length kameez tunics.
Visitors however, seemingly put off by the distance of the mosque from the tourist heartland of Sultanahmet around 1.5 kilometers away, and the fact that neither the tram nor Metro run right by its doors, are as rare as hen's teeth. Yet even if the architecture of the Fatih Camii were not so beguiling, nor its history so interesting, a visit would be worthwhile, if only to experience a historic mosque that is, unlike the much-hyped Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque), perpetually jammed with tourists corralled into a slim corridor at the rear of the prayer hall.
From the Holy Apostles to the Mosque of the Conqueror
The capture of Byzantine Christian Constantinople in May 1453 by Sultan Mehmed II meant the last piece of the Ottoman imperial jigsaw was in place. The capital of the Ottoman Empire moved from Edirne to its new, more impressive location on the Bosporus and Mehmet II, now known as Fatih (Conqueror) Sultan Mehmet, immediately turned what had been the spiritual heart of the Byzantine world, the Haghia Sophia or Church of the Holy Wisdom, into the Aya Sofya Mosque.
Eager to make a mark that was all his own, however, Mehmet later ordered the construction of a purpose-built mosque complex, the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Külliyesi. This complex, with the mosque at its heart, was surrounded by eight medreses (theological schools), a soup kitchen for the poor, a hospital and hospice, a caravansaray for travelers, a primary school, library, bathhouse and fountains. The complex was a major undertaking, the largest of its kind in the Ottoman Empire at that time, and at least some of the material used in its construction came from an equally important building which had stood on this site -- the Church of the Holy Apostles.
The now vanished church, dating back to the sixth century and built on a cruciform plan with five domes (the Basilica of St. John at Selçuk/Ephesus, which has survived the vicissitudes of time rather better, is based on it), was the second largest church in Constantinople. It's probable that the splendid purple marble sarcophagi, today displayed outside the main building of İstanbul's fine Archeology Museum, were taken from here as until the early 11th century this was the final resting place of the Byzantine emperors -- including Constantine himself. The purple and green marble columns, plus those of granite, used to support the multi-domed portico running around the vast courtyard, are likely survivors of the Church of the Holy Apostles.
An exploration of the old city's Byzantine past is often as much about mentally re-creating what was here rather than admiring what has survived, so let's leave Fatih Camii's Christian antecedent with a poem that ancient sources tell us was inscribed above the main portal of a church also famed for its mosaic clad interior
Mark is put to death by the people of Alexandria.
The great sleep of life Matthew sleeps.
Rome sees Peter die by the sword.
Philip is given what was given Peter.
Bartholomew suffers death on the cross.
Simon too on the cross ends his life.
In Rome vain Nero crucifies Peter.
In life and death John lives.
Luke died peacefully at the end.
The men of Patras brutally crucify Andrew.
A knife severs the life paths of James.
Lances kill Thomas in India.
A pleasing simplicity
On the exterior of the southeastern, Mecca-facing wall of the pale limestone Fatih Camii is the türbe (tomb) of its benefactor, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror. Despite restrictions imposed by Atatürk in the early years of the republic, it continues to attract many Muslim pilgrims who come to pay homage to a man who was both the greatest ruler of the Ottoman Empire and the one who finally brought a city prized by the Prophet Muhammad himself into the orbit of Islam. They can often be seen, open hands held out in veneration, at the grilled windows of the domed türbe. The octagonal marble tomb is a Baroque masterpiece, especially its elongated, sinuously curved porch decorated on the underside with gilt, molded-relief floral patterns. The tomb owes its Baroque styling to the fact that it is a rebuild of the original, which was badly damaged, along with the mosque itself, in a deadly earthquake in 1766.
Like all Ottoman mosques, the Fatih Camii is best approached from its main, west-facing entrance. Pause to admire the elaborately decorated portal framing the massive, multi-domed prayer hall ahead of you before stepping into the spacious courtyard, at its center is a şadırvan (ritual ablutions fountain) still bubbling (unlike that at the Blue Mosque) with water. At either end of the domed son cemaat yeri (last-prayer porch) are semi-circular panels set into the plain stone wall, glazed with early and exquisite İznik tiles.
Although at the heart of a very devout community, non-Muslim visitors are very welcome providing they follow the usual mosque rules. In fact here, unlike in much more frequently visited mosques in the Sultanahmet district, the low wooden screen beyond which only practicing Muslims can go is placed much further towards the prayer wall, allowing you to stand more or less underneath the central dome and fully appreciate the sense of space the architect achieved here.
It is likely the mosque, in line with early Ottoman mosques elsewhere, originally had just a central dome and single semi-dome at the mihrab (prayer niche) end. But it was much remodeled during its 1766 post-quake rebuild and now, like the Blue Mosque, has a central dome flanked by four semi-domes. The fact that it is sparingly decorated in comparison to its six-minaretted rival down the road, and that the central dome is supported by four unobtrusive plain piers rather than by the fancy ribbed “elephant's feet” columns doing the same job in the Blue Mosque, gives the interior of the Fatih Camii a pleasing simplicity and airiness. This is enhanced by the copious windows piercing both dome and the walls.
What the original architect would have made of the remodeled Fatih Camii will never be known. Indeed we are not even certain who he was. Most sources ascribe the work to one Atik Sinan (not the great Sinan), most likely a Christian convert. According to one story Atik Sinan had his hands chopped off by an angry Sultan Mehmet, disappointed that his appointed architect had failed to endow his “baby” with a dome as high and wide as that of the Aya Sofya.
The Greek Orthodox caretakers of the tiny Kanlı Kilise (Church of Mary of the Mongols) halfway down the hill towards the Golden Horn from the Yavuz Selim Mosque, told me a different tale. According to them the architect was a Greek called Christodoulos, who worshipped at Mary of the Mongols. He pleaded with Sultan Mehmet not to convert "his" church into a mosque after the conquest and the sultan, satisfied with his architect's work, agreed. The corroboration of this version of the story is that a copy of the firman (an official decree) issued by Sultan Mehmet and bearing his elaborate tuğra (seal) is still proudly hanging from the wall of this small 13th century church -- and that the church is the only one in the city where Orthodox worship has continued, uninterrupted, from before the Ottoman conquest to the present day.
My last visit to this great mosque was on a Friday morning. A small kiosk at the western end of the wall bounding the complex was selling grain to a steady stream of passersby to feed to the quarter's copious pigeon population, thus helping them to fulfill the Prophet's injunction to treat all animals well. The vast courtyard was empty as I tracked past the tinkling şadırvan to the main entrance and placed my shoes in one of the plastic bags provided.
Inside the cavernous prayer hall I could see nobody bar a skull-capped figure reading the Quran on the raised müezzin mahfil platform, though there must have been someone else tucked away behind a pillar as the hum of a vacuum cleaner tackling the vast expanse of nearly new fitted carpet filled my ears. Within a couple of hours the prayer hall would start to fill up with the faithful for the most holy prayer session of the Muslim week, but for now I had the first purpose built imperial mosque in the city virtually to myself. That's something you're unlikely ever to be able to say about the Blue Mosque.