When you visit Istanbul it is inevitable that you will hear the call for prayer five times a day. The minarets of the mosques all around the city are equipped with loudspeakers to invite and remind the community that it’s time for prayer.

During your stay you are also most likely to visit one or more mosques such as the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii) or my personal favorite, the Süleymaniye Mosque. In this article I’ll explain the structural details of the mosques so you know what to look for.

The Ebul Menucehr or Ani mosque in Kars, Turkey.

The Ebul Menucehr or Ani mosque.

Arrival of Mosques

After the 1071 Selçuk (Seljuk) victory over the Byzantine Empire at the Battle of Manzikert, the conquest of Anatolia by Oghuz clans began. As they started settling in present-day Turkey, the first Turkish made mosque (Ebul Menucehr Mosque) was built in Ani, Kars. This architecture style reflects the Seljuks, which is quite different than the ones you will see in Istanbul.

Most of the mosques you will see in Istanbul were built during the Ottoman Empire and the Ottoman architecture can be defined as a synthesis of Mediterranean and Middle East architecture conventions. Regardless the variety of the time, the need, the technology to build, all Ottoman architecture had one thing in common: mosques were surrounded by social foundations (külliye) or a complex of buildings adjacent to them. Mosques and their surrounding buildings were frequently built on the lands ruled by the Ottomans.

Buildings around a Mosque

Typically the following buildings accompanied mosques:

Süleymaniye Mosque and its surrounding buildings in Istanbul, Turkey.

Süleymaniye Mosque and its surrounding buildings.

  • Medrese — school for secondary and further education
  • İmaret — a kind of alms house providing health care and clothing, also with a kitchen to prepare food for mosque officials, visitors from other cities and the poor. Mehmet II (the conqueror) described this free service for the travellers as hosting the traveler and his animal (most likely a horse) in Kervansaray for three days and then letting them go, since any stay over three days was no longer considered as being a guest.
  • Türbe — tomb, mostly belongs to the person who built the mosque, ordered to built the mosque or the important state or religious person of that time.
  • Kütüphane — library
  • Hamam — Turkish bath
  • Da-rüşşifa — hospital
  • Kervansaray — caravanserai, a roadside inn with a large courtyard. These inns (han) provided a place for travelers to rest and recover. It also supported the flow of commerce, information, and people across the network of trade routes.
  • Tekke — dervish lodge

What to look for inside a Mosque

The mosque is mostly in the center of all the above mentioned buildings. Around or inside the mosque, you should try to locate the following details:

Courtyard (avlu) and ablution fountain (şadırvan) of a mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

Courtyard (avlu) and ablution fountain (şadırvan).

  • Avlu — This is the courtyard. Historically, in the warm Middle Eastern and Mediterranean climates, the courtyard served to accommodate the large number of worshipers during Friday prayers.
  • Şadırvan — Ablution fountain in the middle of the courtyard. Later, the taps were set in a more discreet part of the mosque.
  • Mihrap — A niche in a mosque wall indicating Kıble(qibla), the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca. This is the direction that Muslims should face when praying. That’s also why the wall in which qibla appears is often called the “qibla wall”.
  • Minber — The pulpit positioned to the right of themihrap. The mosque officer, the imam uses theminber to deliver the Friday sermon.
  • Müezzin mahfili — This raised platform is found in the big scale mosques and is positioned mostly in the middle right side of the nave, opposite to the imam’sminber. The müezzin stands on mahfil to give responses during the imam’s sermon, the khutbah. The müezzin is the person who leads the call to prayer at Friday services. The muezzin is also the person who calls for prayer five times a day. While he used to climb up one of the minarets in the past, these days he has a PA system to his disposal.
  • Hünkar Mahfili — A screened balcony where sultans and their entourage (males only) could pray. You can only find these balconies in the big and historical mosques. A sultan had no superiority over an ordinary man when it came to praying. This was a precaution taken to prevent assassins. Mosques built recently do not have this.