Next week, the world's first uppity mosque will open in Istanbul.
In a country where most mosques are variations of the classical designs of Sinan, the 16th-century Ottoman master architect, and where women have commissioned mosques before, but never built them, both the design and the designer of the Sakirin Mosque are a departure from the norm.
In fact, practically everything about the Sakirin Mosque in Istanbul is different from other mosques.
Its walls are almost completely made of glass decorated with wrought-iron mesh. The mihrab -- usually a modest niche indicating the direction of Mecca -- is tulip-shaped and dramatically arched in bright blue. Colours running through the mosque range from turquoise to coral pink to gold and silver. The main element of the fountain in the middle of the courtyard is a sphere made of stainless steel, symbolising the universe.
And the mosque’s main designer is a woman.
Zeynep Fadillioglu, an award-winning designer who made her name with the interiors of fancy bars and restaurants, has created little short of a revolution by her interpretation of a modern place of worship.
With her blonde hair, designer glasses and elegant clothes, Ms Fadillioglu may not look like the obvious choice for a mosque designer: newspapers called the Sakirin Mosque a “high-society mosque” because Ms Fadillioglu is known for creating some of the most stylish lounges and nightclubs in Istanbul as well as hotels and homes for the super-rich, from Turkey to Europe, India to the Middle East.
The fact that Ms Fadillioglu, 53, is the first woman ever to be in charge of the design of a mosque is about to spark world-wide headlines about the project.
“It was very exciting but also seriously scary,” Ms Fadillioglu said of the time when she was asked to take part in the building.
But Ms Fadillioglu, who describes herself as "not really a practicing Muslim", said that the work on the mosque had been a spiritual as well as an artistic experience for her. “If I weren’t a Muslim, I could still have designed it, but there would have been less feeling in it,” she said. She and her team worked closely with theologians and experts on Islamic art. Fadillioglu says, I’m not here to redefine Islam. I’m here to reinterpret the aesthetic part in my own language of design.
The children of Ibrahim and Semiha Sakir, a wealthy Turkish-Arab couple known for their philanthropy, are having the mosque built in honour of their parents. The mosque's name obviously reflects the family name but it also has the literal meaning in Arabic of "Those who are thankful (to God)". It is located at the entrance of the Karacaahmet Cemetery, one of Istanbul’s oldest, in the ultra-pious district of Uskudar on the Asian side of the city -- the last home of at least a million souls, from Ottoman bureaucrats to modern day artists. And now, among the tall cypress trees that grow above them, there also rise two minarets and a dome whose style is as new to the living as it is to the dead.
Into the 21st Century
When Ms Fadillioglu went to work with her 18-strong design team, the main structures of the mosque -- such as the 44 metre-diameter (130') dome coated in aluminium composite, which gives the sphere the look of a spaceship -- had already been built by the architect Husrev Tayla. She decided to put in glass walls entwined with a wrought-iron mesh. The effect is that the main prayer room of the mosque is flooded with the sunlight that falls in through the walls.
Fadillioglu brought in nine artists to work on different aspects of the mosque, and extended the entrance area to create an “easy approach” that makes the whole complex more welcoming, she said.
She is putting a contemporary spin on religious art from the Ottoman era.
The minbar (pulpit), which in most Turkish mosques is made of carved wood or stone, is an ivory-coloured stairway made from acrylic and decorated with a leaf motif. The facilities for preprayer ablution have blond-wood and Plexiglas lockers. In the main hall hangs a bronze chandelier, dangling with thousands of hand-blown glass raindrops — a visual allusion to the Koranic verse that says Allah's light should fall on believers like drops of rain.
The iron on the mosque's enormous iron and glass facade was hand-crafted by specialists in Istanbul. She says, "The glass etching has got different layers of gilding on it, which is from verses of the Koran. We wanted people to feel more left alone with God in this place, rather then being distracted by too much ornamentation. I think that makes it more contemporary at the same time."
An airy and luxurious sensibility pervades the structure. The glass panels with golden etchings reinforce the effect of being surrounded by light. The 400 square metres (135 sq.') of the prayer room can accommodate about 250 worshippers, with room for an additional 100 people on the spacious balcony, the only place where women may pray.
A Woman-friendly Mosque?
Traditional mosques tend to keep women hidden by walls or curtains . Even in newer, more progressive buildings, prayer areas for men and women remain separate — but supposedly equal. Well, Americans know all about "separate but equal", which usually means a small, dark place in the back, while the men kneel in front on a vast carpet enjoying an unobstructed view of the mosque. Ms Fadillioglu said she hoped that religious authorities would one day allow women to pray in the main room as well.
"In the Prophet's time, men and women prayed next to each other," she says. "Lately, with the rise of political Islam everywhere, the women's sections have started to be covered up and boxed off. I've been in mosques like that, and I felt very uncomfortable."
Fadillioglu's women's section is an expansive balcony overlooking the central hall and divided only by criss-crossed railings. And she's made it every bit as beautiful as the men's part of the mosque.
That’s why the mosque might be a good step to change some established prejudices. "This mosque has all the Western and Eastern values nicely blended," Fadillioglu says.
A mosque designed by a woman, as she proudly noted, will be more welcoming to women. “Certain things can be done differently. There is so much creativity in this country.”
Uppity, that's what I call it.
Have a look.
Updated 9 May 2009: GRAND OPENING OF UPPITY MOSQUE
Yesterday, on Friday the 8th of May, the Sakirin Mosque opened for prayer.
Outdoors, the metal spherical fountain designed by the British artist William Pye dominates the entrance (Pye's website , for some unfanthomable reason, does not picture the Sakirin fountain -- nor does a search bring it into view).
Left: Some of the crowd of worshippers at the newly-opened mosque are reflected on the metal structure of the fountain.
Left: Indoors, an early worshipper basks in the sunshine in the main prayer room. The wrought-iron grills on the windows throw shimmering patterns on the floor.
Left, a radiant Zeynep Fadillioglu chats with visitors during the opening. Alongside, worshipping women on their way to test out the women-friendly balcony.
If I find pictures of the women's section, I'll post them later.
Photo credits: Murad Sezer via Reuters.
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