Reading Erdogan’s Ambitions in Turkey’s New Mosques

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All this construction activity has proved to be a vote-getter for the AK Party. Many Turks, even those who will never visit, say, the Zorlu Center, a fancy Istanbul mall with its own Eataly, or who will never drive their car over a new bridge, or who already have their favorite nearby mosque to pray in, have thrilled to Turkey’s progress and been filled with national pride: Their country is modernizing; their government is getting things done. That may be because Erdogan has cleverly manipulated the Turks’ identity. Even if the AK Party was destroying communities to modernize the country, it was offering its people images of past and present greatness as a psychic balm. Erdogan often speaks of ancient battles won by the Ottomans, and he keeps putting up all those 16th-century-style mosques in tribute to a period when they ruled the greatest empire on earth.

The Mimar Sinan Mosque, for example, was named for the Ottoman Empire’s most famous architect. It draws on Seljuk and Byzantine influences, like many of Turkey’s most celebrated edifices, including the Selimiye and Suleymaniye Mosques. They have dome roofs, an array of minarets, stone-portal facades, interior courtyards and decorative tiles. (While most visitors find their orblike bodies and graceful minarets to be magical, the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky memorably compared Turkish mosques to enormous frozen toads.) Likewise, Erdogan’s most cherished initiative, a huge mosque on Camlica Hill in Istanbul, near the shores of the Bosporus, is a classic Ottoman mosque with one expansive dome roof, several cupolas and a total of six minarets arranged around it.

Erdogan is ordering the construction of mosques much as Suleiman the Magnificent once gave orders to Mimar Sinan. But as Bozdogan points out, there were many styles of mosques throughout the Ottoman Empire; in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, Ottoman Baroque and Ottoman Neoclassical were common creative experiments. The Ottomans did not hesitate to seek out modern European influences for a Westernized future and seldom looked back to some glorious past. Erdogan, however, sees such 18th- and 19th-century mosques as a contamination, not purely Turkish like the mosques of the 16th century. Bulent Batuman, an associate professor of urban design at Bilkent University in Ankara, suggests that Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman mosques are not nostalgic, which would mean an acceptance of the Ottoman Empire’s demise; for Erdogan, they are “a disavowal of such failure” and a forward-looking attempt to restore the past’s glory.

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