The Rüstem Paşa Mosque is one of the greatest masterpieces of Mimar Sinan, whose architectural legacy adorns the city of İstanbul.
Rüstem Paşa is located in the heart of the old peninsula in Eminönü. It never has a shortage of visitors and most happen to be tourists; for some reason, locals don’t frequent this mosque or don’t know of it, despite its splendor. Its beauty is partially due to its architecture and partially due to Rüstem Paşa. Here is the story of a mosque which resembles a tile museum:
In Ottoman times, it was said that Rüstem Paşa was wealthy, cautious and intelligent. The same can be said for the mosque which carries his name and which has a unique architectural structure among historic mosques. Sinan had a vision that would not have been appropriate – building a mosque in a part of town which was a commercial hub. However, when the powerful Rüstem Paşa supported the plan, the mosque was built and its lower floor was converted into a shop. Thus, commercial life could continue uninterrupted in the area, with a convenient mosque in the heart of the area, handy for shop keepers and artisans to say a peaceful prayer in a tiled oasis.
Today, if you don’t know where the winding stairs in the dark stairwell lead to from the restaurant on the lower floor, then it will be hard for you to imagine the structure. You leave behind the chaos of Sepetçiler Çarşısı (The basket makers’ market) and take these slightly scary stairs to find yet another surprise. You will find yourself in the courtyard of this amazing mosque, along with other tourists marvelling at the blue tiles that adorn its walls. So beautiful is its exterior that you may find it hard to push yourself inside. And then…
The mosque is filled with the most exquisite examples of Ottoman tiles. Professor Suphi Saatçi, a scholar of Mimar Sinan, points to the tiles on the minbar (pulpit) and tells me, ”This is a panel that has ceased to be composed of tiles.” He points to the red on the tiles. ”If you touch these, you will notice that they are raised. Just as we cannot seem to recreate this color, we cannot figure out how they have been raised, either. The masters of these works have gone and taken their secrets with them. The tiles are flat but rise when placed in the oven. There is something inside them, but nobody knows what this is. They even conducted an analysis but couldn’t figure it out. These are tiles from 500 years ago.”
Even the window frames are tiles.
The mosque is almost entirely made out of tiles. Professor Saatçi smiles while saying, ”You must have heard the rumors that Rüstem Paşa was quite miserly and this is why he had tiles placed throughout the mosque, the best kind. Rüstem Paşa didn’t hesitate to dig into his pockets this time though and met all the costs.” The professor went on to say, ”What we should really pay attention to is the architectural expertise with which it has been built. For example, the dome of the mosque is similar to that of the front part of Selimiye.” It has a dome that rests on eight pillars. While four are visible, four have been hidden. He placed the dome on an octagon and while the dome covers the base of the octagon, the corners are left open, with half-domes. These bring light into the structure. The distance between them has been fixed with triangles and is covered with tiles. This is an Ottoman design which utilizes a vast amount of tiles. It is like a tile museum.”
The fact that it is located in such a central commercial district prevented collectors from stealing any of its pieces.
When you walk onto the courtyard of the mosque, which is much like a terrace, one can see the intricate workings of Sinan. Carefully examine a tile to the right-hand side of the main entrance. The work is a Ka’bah miniature and dates back to the year 1050. “This is a very important and beautiful artwork,” Saatçi explains. Right by this amazing work, unfortunately, are some modern and unbecoming restorations. Some haphazardly written calligraphy on broken tiles in different designs and colors catches our eye.
From the corner of the mosque which sells bags, cards, fridge magnets with tile designs, we head into the market. It’s a narrow street and all the vendors have lined the road to showcase their goods. The professor says, ”This is the street on which shoes stolen from the mosque are sold. If your shoes go missing, you may repurchase them here for a few liras.” We walk on and blend into the crowds at the market.