Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Gothic Ottoman Architecture

We continue the theme of re-use in last week's post by turning to the city of Famagusta in Northern Cyprus, where there are many striking examples of adaptation and re-use of buildings. A thriving medieval and early modern city under various Latin rulers, Famagusta boasted several large church complexes, which the Ottomans would inherit upon their conquest of the island in the second half of the 16th century. Some of these churches were directly converted into mosques, resulting in some seemingly unlikely instances of "Gothic" Ottoman architecture.

[1] Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque, Famagusta
The most striking example is the Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque (before 1954 called Aya Sofya) [1], known originally as the Cathedral of St. Nicholas. The construction first began in 1298 and continued for approximately a century thereafter. The dynasty who ruled as the Kings of Cyprus at the time were the French Lusignan family, who opted for the style of church architecture most prevalent at the time in their homeland--namely, Gothic. When the Ottomans took over the city in the 16th century, the new Muslim population required a Friday mosque for prayers, and it made sense for both economic and symbolic reasons to simply convert the cathedral, which is situated in the main square of the fortified town and is easily the tallest landmark in the area. 

[2] Detail of the front facade
At first glance, the mosque appears to be a Gothic cathedral better suited for Reims than the eastern Mediterranean,  but there are a few subtle details that hint at its present use as a mosque. First, the base of the left tower turret now supports a make-shift minaret [1]. Second, if one takes a closer look at the decoration of the front porch, you can see that all figural sculptures of holy figures that typically sit in the niches or arches of a Gothic church have been removed. In one instance [2], it seems that the head of one animal sculpture has been removed, in order to "deactivate" the potential for the stone to be inhabited by a jinn. Although, after having pointed this out, it bears to mention that the style of Cypriot churches are already far more restrained in terms of decoration when compared to their continental counterparts, so the Ottoman masons probably did not have to go to much effort to make the facade suitable as a place for Muslim worship. 

[3] Interior of the mosque-cathedral
The beautiful interior of the building [3] maintains the original cathedral's high vaulted ceilings with tall windows letting in plenty of light. As most churches, the original cathedral was constructed with the altar facing due east. When the building was converted into mosque, the niche indicating the direction of  prayer (mihrab) had to instead be located SE in order to be in the direction towards Mecca. As a result, the mihrab was placed in the central arch in the south side aisle of the building, with the nave still serving as the main prayer space for worshippers, except they now stand perpendicular to the original apse of the mosque-cathedral.  

[4] Graffiti found on the mimbar
[5] View of the ceiling from the apse
There is evidence that the Ottoman Muslim prayer-goers were just as transfixed with the decorations of the tracery windows as any modern viewer might be. The 16th-century marble pulpit (mimbar), where the imam would deliver the Friday sermon, has been covered with graffiti [5]. It is an under-appreciated fact that Ottoman buildings in every corner of the Empire are covered with all kinds of graffiti, so this is far from unusual within its context. The graffiti for the most part consists of prayers and verses of the Qur'an, but there is one instance of a geometric design, reminiscent of the tracery in the glass windows located above [5]. It seems that at some point in its history as an Ottoman mosque, one visitor opted to sketch out the patterns of the art surrounding him.                                                 

Being located in contemporary Northern Cyprus, the Friday mosque of Famagusta by extension remains a contested space. Nevertheless, this mosque-cathedral stands as an extremely well-preserved example of a religious building continuously used for over 7 centuries, which suggests a need to re-think what might be included in a more inclusive definition of "Ottoman architecture."

Medieval and Renaissance Famagusta: Studies in Architecture, Art and History.
Farnham, Surry; Burlington: Ashgate, 2012. 
Ottoman Cyprus: A collection of studies on history and culture. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2009. 



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