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New Mosque: women’s touch on Istanbul’s landscape

The “Sultanate of Women,” a period of Ottoman history that occurred in the sixteenth century, was characterized by the influential role played by female members of the imperial court. It also marked the end of the era of ongoing imperial expansionism. 

Often demonized, these influential female personages seldom receive credit for their many outstanding accomplishments. For example, while the sultan was revered for his charismatic leadership and military achievements, female court members garnered approval by commissioning the construction of imperial monuments and other public works. 

The patronage of architecture was how these imperial women could legitimize their influence. Although these ambitious construction and maintenance projects were not intended to generate revenue, they were often vital in stimulating the Ottoman economy. 

The Valide Sultan, the official title of the reigning sultan’s mother, pursued these activities for several reasons. First and foremost, these royal women wanted to support their powerful sons. 

But they also used these opportunities to bolster their political influence, independent of the sultan. In addition, prestigious architectural projects allowed them to raise their public profiles and, in some cases, achieve immortality in the form of spectacular monuments that still dominate Istanbul’s skyline.

Two women, one project  

The construction of mosques has historically been considered an act of righteousness, and when mosques were built by imperial figures, it cemented the legitimacy of their respective dynasties. 

Istanbul’s New Mosque (Yeni Camii), located in the Eminönü district near the southern end of the Galata Bridge, is an example of this. Its construction had two powerful female patrons who were determined to Islamize the area and exert their influence. 

Despite the many challenges it faced during the construction phase, the New Mosque eventually became a powerful symbol of imperial strength. 

Construction first began in 1579 under the watchful eye of Safiye Sultan, mother of Sultan Mehmet III. To achieve a lasting architectural legacy, she envisioned a lavish mosque complex.

The project, however, was criticized by the Janissaries, the sultan’s elite royal guard corps, who claimed the expenditures required for its construction were unnecessary. 

As a result, the ambitious project was abandoned until Hatice Turhan Sultan, the mother of Sultan Mehmet IV, revived it 57 years later.

When Mehmet IV ascended the throne in 1648, he was a small child of only six years old, while his young mother was disregarded mainly due to her tender age. 

But Hatice Turhan Sultan gradually learned to exert her influence and eventually became the longest-ever serving valide sultan. During this time, she adeptly utilized architectural patronage to consolidate her power, both inside the court and the public.

City rebuilt

On 24 July 1660, much of Istanbul was gutted by a massive fire followed by an ambitious reconstruction program, which was carried out with a specific political agenda. The blaze first erupted in Eminönü, where most homes were built almost entirely of wood. 

The conflagration raged for the next 42 hours, killing an estimated 40,000 people and destroying almost two-thirds of the city. 

Although Istanbul has suffered numerous fires throughout its long history, the “Great Fire” of 1660 is remembered as one of the most destructive. The catastrophe ended up catalyzing the continued Islamization of the city, with Hatice Turhan Sultan eventually reviving the mosque project in Eminönü.

Today, the New Mosque complex remains a celebrated Islamic landmark in the heart of Istanbul’s commercial district. With an interior lavishly decorated with colorful Iznik tiles, it is recognized as one of the “Sultanate of Women” era’s most enduring architectural achievements. 

Every year during the fasting month of Ramadan, a mahya (an illuminated message typically consisting of Koranic verses) is hung between the mosque’s two majestic minarets, further augmenting the city’s colorful skyline.

Hatice Turhan Sultan, whose tomb lies just behind the mosque, also took advantage of Eminönü’s vast commercial potential to attract visitors from all over the known world. 

She did this by supporting the construction of the district’s thriving spice market, known today as the Egyptian Bazaar, which became a center of trade for Indian spices brought to Istanbul via Egypt.

With these two spectacular achievements, Hatice Turhan Sultan left an indelible mark on the rich tapestry of Istanbul’s cultural heritage.

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