A Turk who extols the glories of Ottoman mosque architecture, for instance, will complain that the government spends too much money building mosques today. Newspapers are divided between those for “religious people” and those for “secular people.” While half of society flocks to mosques at the call to prayer, the other half closes the window to drown out the sound. My friend Sema, who came with my mom and me on our trip to Bursa, did just that during the time that I lived with her. Like most young, professional Turks raised in secular households, she has little interest in Islam and sees the political version of it as dangerous for the country. “Before long, our country will be like Iran,” she says.
Our trip to the small mountain city came at an opportune time for all three of us. My mother had missed me, as I had been living in Turkey for seven months. Sema and I needed a break from İstanbul: The concrete, the noise and the construction had been driving both of us crazy. We got to our hotel on a chilly but clear January evening. We were located in Heykel, the historic district of Bursa. We went out for one of those walks you take when you first get into a place just to get the feel of the town. We wandered past the 15th-century silk market and to the doorstep of Ulu Camii (pronounced u-lu-JA-mi).
In his famous travel memoir, the “Seyâhatnâme,” Evliya Çelebi called Ulu Camii “the Hagia Sophia of Bursa,” but I enjoyed the building precisely because it wasn’t like the famed church of Constantinople. I understand what the 17th-century traveler meant to say, which is that Ulu Camii, or “The Great Mosque,” is the crown architectural jewel of the city of Bursa. However, this space was something unexpectedly different and more rewarding for a visit than many of the stunning yet repetitive structures visited by travelers in İstanbul. I believe it is fair to say that the architectural formula that was a smash hit in the 10th century with the construction of the Hagia Sophia has been totally mass-produced in modern Turkey. The Hagia Sophia was innovative at the time because its dome is supported by rounded, triangular pieces that allow it to gracefully transition onto its cubical base. Also, this dome is supported by windows, which give it the appearance of “floating on the air,” as some 10th-century observers described it. The 16th-century Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan was so inspired by the church’s design that he echoed it in all of his mosques. This caused the design to eclipse all others within the empire. Today, the domes and spires are a trademark of Turkey, so almost every new mosque in the country is built in this style.
Unlike more famous mosques, Ulu Camii is built on a rectangular base, with one central dome and 20 smaller domes lined up along the roof. Below the central dome is a fountain that trickles serenely, its sound echoing throughout the interior. While its boxy outward appearance may not be as stunning as Mimar Sinan’s mosques, with their billowing domes and semi-domes, the interior offers more space in which visitors can wander. The columns that buttress the long building provide extra surfaces for decoration, as well.
The first things that attracted me were the calligraphy panels on the walls. I had never seen anything like these gigantic Arabic phrases twisted into bizarre shapes. Some panels feature verses in Arabic that mirror one another. I wondered why İstanbul mosques haven’t got any panels like those. Why did they never become popular? It occurred to me that Ulu Camii is an artifact of the days when the Ottomans were just one of many regional powers in the area. The state had not yet blossomed into the superpower it would become. I supposed that this was a moment of originality, before ideas became institutions and unbreakable traditions like mosque designs are today. For some reason paper calligraphy never became widespread in Turkey and ceramic tile decorations became the tradition. Perhaps one of the benefits of not yet having traditions is that one can be experimental, as the Ottomans were with Ulu Camii.
The mosque offers so many nooks, crannies and decorations that my companions lost me as I tried to get photos of everything. Then we realized that large groups of people were filing in. We hadn’t noticed the call to prayer outside. People took their places on squares of carpet for the evening prayer. Tourists were never allowed in during this ceremony, but we were already inside. We were unsure of what to do. Leaving would have disturbed the worshippers, many of whom were near the door. So, we made our way furtively to the women’s section as quietly as possible. A silence overtook the mosque. Then, the imam began to sing the prayer in Arabic.
“Bismillahi rahmani rahim…” This famous opening line of the Quran echoed throughout the space. Taking in the pointed arches supporting the ceiling, I noticed that they intersected with one another, layer upon layer. Their overlap was regular, like the meter of the verse being recited. I found it peaceful and felt myself slipping into a meditative state. Only the moment, the space and the trickle of the fountain seemed worthy of my attention. It was similar to how the breath and energy flow of the body become the point of focus during yoga. The tension brought on by the car horns and jackhammers of İstanbul melted away.
“Iyyaka na’budu, wa iyyaka nasta’in…” The worshippers stood, hands clasped as the prayer continued. A lady nearby caught my attention and signaled for us to sit on the floor. “Your feet must be tired,” she whispered. We had all been worried that our presence might disturb them, but they seemed understanding.
“Allahu akbar!” The worshippers bowed in unison, hands on their knees. Just then, someone’s cell phone went off. The headscarved ladies looked around awkwardly as the phone continued to ring.
“Subhana rabbi al-adhim…” The people stood. I looked at my mom to see what she might be thinking. She smiled, seeming to be appreciative of the moment. In the weeks leading up to her visit to Turkey, my mother was teased by her coworkers in America. One man put on a headscarf and danced around. Another told her gravely that when he served in the military in the ‘80s, he had intercepted messages from Turkey. Another man was shocked that my mother could be so calm about me living here. “You know it’s a Muslim country, right?”
“Allahu akbar!” The worshippers prostrated with an almost unitary thud on the soft carpet. I looked to Sema to see what she might be thinking. She seemed moved by the moment. She would confess later on that she had never attended an evening prayer in a mosque before.
As we walked back to the hotel, my mother said, “God is there…For all people; not just Muslims… I felt it.” Even if Sema and I were more reserved in our feelings about God, we had to admit that the space and the ritual had a power to transport a person away from the noise of the everyday and reclaim a sense of one’s center -- of one’s authentic self. Regardless of your opinion of Islam, there are things that the architects and artists who worked on the project sought to create: a political symbol, a monument to an almighty creator and a refuge for the mind. I believe we experienced all three of these on our visit.