Cosmic Motifs & Elements in Seljuk and Ottoman Architecture

by Nakis Akgul Published on: 29th September 2005

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The structure of Mosques and other buildings draw inspiration from descriptions in the Qur'an as well as pre-Islamic motifs. Here we look at how some of the resulting motifs and elements reflect the idea of the ordered cosmos. all communities, religious architecture is shaped in conformity with the functions required by the religious doctrine and the meanings and contents of beliefs required by creeds. The form and order of a sanctuary is also shaped in accordance with the religious principles and ritual essentials of said religion. Some fundamentals that were brought about by the Holy Qur’an similarly gave rise to the form of the mosque. Of these fundamentals, the most important one is Arsh, namely “the Throne.”

The literal meaning of the Throne is: altitude, high place, ceiling, cover, the tent and it is used in the Qur’an and in the Ahadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) as “Divine Sovereignty, Dignity and the Throne” (Devellioglu 1970: Ars.; Golpinarli 1977: Ars, 1989:101; Akay 1991: Ars; DIA: Ars; IA: Kursu). The concept of Kursi, which is referred to in a verse of the Qur’an entitled Ayat al-Kursi, a is synonymous with the Throne that is attributed to “Allah” symbolically.

As the metaphorical place from which Allah rules the world, the Throne is the highest point of the cosmos. In the Qur’an, it is mentioned that the Throne is over the waters (Huud: 7), it is carried by four angels (Mu’min: 7) and eight angels will, on the Last Day, bear it (Haqqa: 17). He who created the cosmos is firmly established on the Throne (Yunus: 3), (Ra’d: 2), (A’raaf: 54), (Ta-ha: 5), (Hadiid: 4), (Furqaan: 59), (Sajda: 4). His Throne extends over the heavens and the earth (Baqara: 225). The Throne that has six directions and also, weight, shade, corner and columns, is an enormous and valuable object that stands over the heaven as a dome.

This concept has also been outlined in the Old Testament (1. Kings: 22/19; Revelation: 7/11-12). Such a similar concept might also have influenced Christian sanctuaries and other buildings.

On the columns of the Throne is written the declaration of Allah’s Oneness (kalima-i tawhîd). According to the Ahadith collected by Bukhari, the Throne – being on the waters before the heavens and the earth are created – was also over the paradise that was on the seventh stratum of heavens. As for Allah, He is over the Throne. When commenting on the verse which says “the sun runs his course for a period determined (or in a certain orbit)” (Ya-sin: 38), the Prophet Muhammad said: its orbit is below the Throne. This leads some to believe that the concept of the Throne has the meaning of a frame with four corners and is significant from our point of view.

When the Seljuks came to Anatolia, they transmitted a kind of mosque plan with them. This is the Cum’a Mosques in Isfahan, Ardistan and Zeware which belong to the Iranian Seljuks and which have maintained their essentials up until today. They have a dome in front of the mihrab (a niche in the wall of the Mosque) and an iwan (a rectangular hall or space) in front of it with side naves (sahn) constituting as the sanctuary (harîm). Not being isolated by a wall, the sanctuary opens itself to a courtyard. The other three sides of the courtyard are surrounded by a portico (revak), each of which has an iwan within and connects with the sanctuary. Moreover, in the middle of the courtyard at a point where axes intersect each other, there is a square basin.

However, in Anatolia this type has undergone some variations. The part between the basin and the iwan are covered by a vault and thus the courtyard and basin are implied within the sanctuary. This time the basin was not left open to the sky but instead was covered by a dome with a lantern. Being the archetypes of (Ulu) Great Mosques in Anatolia, Niksar (about 1135), Kayseri (about 1140), Erzurum (1197), Nigde (1225), Divrigi (1228), and other mosques like Hunad in Kayseri (1237), Sahib Ata in Konya (1258), alongside Esrefoglu in Beysehir (1299) amongst others not mentioned here are reproduced from the classical Anatolian Seljuk scheme that has no side iwans, their basins covering the domes with a lantern (Gabrial 1934: 177-178, Fig. 112; Kuban 1965:121-122; Karamagarali 1976: 200-203). The most fundamental features of these Anatolian Seljuk mosques – such as the height and width of the middle nave and its dome in front of the mihrab, iwan, basin and dome with lantern – originate from the Iranian Seljuks. While the basin of the Iranian Seljuks exists at the intersecting points of axes of the iwans, for the Anatolian Seljuks it exists at a point where the axes of doors and main iwan intersect.

The relationship we presume here is that the basins (which are usually square and sometimes octagon) represent the water which has taken place in the definition of the Throne and flows under the Throne; the dome represents the heaven; the four pillars which carry the dome represent the four angels carrying the Throne; and the openness in the dome of the building refers to the concept of ascension to heaven (Eliade 1991:158). This openness (lantern) represents the centre of heaven (cosmos). It is in the middle of the dome and since it is on the vertical axis, which is believed to bound the earth and heaven, it represents the axis which is believed to pass through the centre of the world (axis mundi) (Ardalan-Bakthtiar 1978: 75, Eliade 1991: 23-28). The placement of the basin, being right beneath the dome carried by four pillars and on the intersection point of axes of South and North, East and West of the mosque right under the key stone and the lantern, metaphorically represents that the basin is the centre of the sanctuary which is considered as a cosmos. This could be said in an aim to reduce human perception and all that of the cosmos which takes place under and around the Throne, which is on the uttermost stratum of the heaven, and that Allah, the Absolute Sovereign, governs the cosmos from there.

As far as Islamic philosophy is concerned, the concept of the Throne, which is represented by the basin, the four pillars, the dome and the lantern on the dome in a mosque, may refer to the conceptions that Allah is eternal and pre-eternal, that He is exceeds everything and their only Sovereign and the Rule; all the cosmos is ruled from a single centre. This may explain why this scheme appears in a place where one can reach Allah and why it is just in the centre.

Alone with the concept of the Throne, it is necessary to mention the iconographical concept of mandala which is adopted in various ways in Turkish architecture, and which I suppose to have a close relationship with the Throne.

The mandala diagram has been taken as an example for some architectural plans.

Mandala means circle in Sanskrit, and is a symbolic drawing used in rituals and during meditations in Hinduism and Buddhism. Another definition of mandala is a circular diagram that one makes use of to obtain cosmic and physical energy (Rawson 1978:211). According to Rawson it is a point in which universal powers are gathered and represent the cosmos as a sacred area in which the gods dwell. Mandala is made to create a microcosm and to reign over its elements. The mandala diagram has been taken as an example for some architectural plans (Rawson 1982: 66).

The shape of the cosmogram, referred to as mandala in architecture and handcrafts, consists of a circle and a square, one within the other. While the circle represents God, cosmos, mystical life, eternity, the world of eternity and esoterical concepts; the square represents the world, material life, worldly life and all exoterical concepts. This was commonly employed in Central Asia during pre-Islamic life of the Turks as well as in India and the Far East. However, we are not concerned here with the origin and the development of the mandala, rather with its parallelism with the concept of the Throne.

The full meanings that the square and the circle of the mandala include, both separately and together, is in accordance with the philosophy of Islam. The plan with four iwans and a central courtyard has been interpreted as an image of the cosmos. This plan has a very long past; it has been identified with the diagram of the mandala and has been extensively applied in architecture for centuries (Ogel 1986: 59-84; 1994: 63-115). The concept of mandala, which takes place in pre-Islamic Turkic beliefs and traditions, has been united and integrated with the concept of the Throne and has played a significant role in the formation of religious architecture post Islam.

Besides the mosque plans, the same ordinances with respect to the Throne can be found in the madrasa and zawiya (Islamic religious school or monastery) plans. Some examples of these are Karatay Madrasa and Ince Minareli Madrasa in Konya; Sahib Ata Hanegah in Konya; Karabas Veli Hanegah and Ibrahim Bey Imaret in Karaman.

The Portal of Divrigi, Ulu Mosque.

It is not a coincidence that the mandala has been used as a motif outside mosques, madrasas and zawiyas. Some instances of mandala motifs are: the west portal of Divrigi Ulu Mosque and its door’s wing, the window on the north portal of Nigde Sungur Bey Mosque, the bases of the minarets of Sivas Gok,  Cifte Minareli, and Erzurum Hatuniye (Cifte Minareli) Madrasas are extensively decorated with the words of Allah. These examples demonstrate the commitment Turks had to the Throne concept, giving an Islamic identity to the mandala whilst uniting the two concepts.[1]

When we investigate Ottoman architecture, especially the buildings of the Sultan, one may observe the same mandala-Throne relationship. This similar approach exists in Bursa Yesil Mosque and Madrasa, Bursa Muradiye Madrasa, and in the Darussifa in Edirne Beyazid Kulliye. In Bursa’s Ulu Cami, the square basin, which exists at the intersection point of, axes, is covered by a dome with a lantern based on four pillars. Orbits and planets, which exist at the eastern face of the wooden minbar of Ulu Cami of Bursa, are a decorative indicator of the Throne’s element.

The Portal of Erzurum Hatuniye Madrasa

Edirne Eski Cami, which is based on four pillars within a square plan, though its basin has been removed, is another example of mandala – the Throne composition having a dome with lantern where the axes passing through the doors intersect each other (Ardalan-Bakthiar 1975: 31, 75, Fig. 49a). A square, made of nine equal squares is also a well-known variation of mandala.

Selimiye Mosque, being the peak and the masterpiece of the Ottoman Architecture, has great importance by using cosmic motifs and elements like mandala and “the Throne” in perfect harmony with its architectural structure. There are two great circles on top of the gateway by which one can enter into the sanctuary through the courtyard of the mosque. Having borders on three sides represent a mandala. Besides this, right in front of the door in the basement, there is a mandala with a circular green stone in its centre; and another mandala five metres towards the fountain with a purple like brown colour. One may observe the same mandala on the entrance to the Sultan Ahmet Mosque in Istanbul and the Behram Pasa Mosque in Diyarbakir. These can be interpreted as the signs of holiness of the place that one enters to pray to Allah.

Selimiye Mosque.

The square sanctuary and the projection of the dome within this square, appears to be a mandala. The Plan of Selimiye Mosque). The fact that the dome is based on eight columns has the implications of the Throne (Hakka: 17). Yet, the most significant example of where the Throne is manifestly displayed, is the place of the muezzin’s mahfil (caller to prayer) lodge . Some colleagues have also perceived the importance of the place of the muezzin’s mahfil and put forward various aspects (Akin 1988; Senalp 1988: 9-10; Akin 1993: 8-9, 20). The mahfil is placed right in the centre of the sanctuary and beneath the key stone of the dome, which may not be observed in any other mosque. Undoubtedly, there are meanings and reasons in addition to hearing takbir (call for Muslims to remember Allah) from every point, in the preference of this place. This place exists on the vertical axis of the keystone, which is the centre of the universe and the centre of the harim, which is the centre of the world. An octagonal basin bordered by a square frame, stands just beneath the muezzin’s mahfil. The basin refers to Kawsar (the holy water of Paradise) which flows under the Throne. Not being contented with these, in order to express the concept of the Throne, Architect Sinan placed a big central chark-i falak representing the sun and the planets, on the bottom side of the mahfil in relief, so as to face the basin. This could be said to be the way Sinan interpreted the Prophet Muhammad’s revelation of Chapter Ya-sin, verse 38. In other words, the orbit of the sun and the planets are under the Throne, but over Kawsar.

Right at the centre of the dome, Surah (chapter) Ikhlas is written. When the dome is considered together with this Surah, it absolutely denotes “The oneness” and confirms the philosophy of the Throne. As much as Selimiye Mosque is a masterpiece according to all architectural criteria; its iconographical motifs and elements, as well as its connecting of those motifs and elements within its architectural concept mean that it occupies an exceptional place.

As a conclusion, we can say that there is a close relationship between mandala and “the Throne” concepts. Moreover, that the Turks had used the form of mandala pre-Islam and continued to use it after. They accepted it in their scheme of religious architecture, and that the mandala conjoins with the Qur’anic concept of the Throne. Lastly, these two concepts and their connotations have extensively influenced the art used in architecture.


Akay 1988: H. AKAY; “Ars” article, islâmî Terimler Sozlugu, Istanbul 1988.

Akin 1988: G. AKIN; “Edirne Selimiye Camii’ndeki Muezzin Mahfili Uzerine Dusunceler”, Mimar Sinan Uluslararasi Sempozyumu, Ankara 1988, pp. 1-14.

Akin 1993: G. AKIN; “Mimarlik Tarihinde Pozitivizmi Asma Sorunu ve Osmanli Mekan ikonolojisi Baglaminda Edirne Selimiye Camisi’ndeki Muezzin Mahfili”, Turk Kulturunde Sanat ve Mimari, (ed. Dogan Kuban), Istanbul 1993, pp. 1-40.

Ardalan-Bakhtiar 1973: N. ARDALAN-L. BAKHTIAR; the Sense of Unity, the Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture, Chicago 1973.

Devellioglu 1990: F. DEVELLIOGLU; Osmanlica Turkce Ansiklopedik Lugat, Ankara 1990.

Eliade 1991: M. ELIADE; Kutsal ve Dindisi, Ankara 1991.

Gabriel 1934: A. GABRIEL, Monuments Turcs d’Anatolie, II, Paris 1934.

Golpinarli 1977: A. GOLPINARLI; “Ars” article, Tasavvuftan Dilimize Gecen Deyimler ve Atasozleri, Istanbul 1977.

Karamagarali 1976: H. KARAMAGARALI; “Kayseri’deki Hunat Camii’nin Restitusyonu ve Hunat Manzumesinin Kronolojisi Hakkinda Bazi Mulahazalar”, A.U. Ilahiyat Fakultesi Dergisi, 21, Ankara 1976, pp. 199-245.

Karamagarali 1993: B. KARAMAGARALI; “Icice Daire Motiflerinin Mahiyeti Hakkinda”, Sanat Tarihinde ikonografik Arastirmalar, Guner Inal’a Armagan, Ankara 1993, pp. 249-270.

Kuban 1965: D. KUBAN; Anadolu Turk Mimarisinin Kaynak ve Sorunlan, Istanbul 1965.

Ogel 1986: S. OGEL; Anadolu Selcuklu Sanati Uzerine Gorusler, Istanbul 1986.

Ogel 1994: S. OGEL; Anadolu’nun Selcuklu Cehresi, Istanbul 1994.

Rawson 1982: P. RAWSON; the Art of Tantra, Toledo 1982.

Senlap 1988: M. H. S. ENALP; “Sermimaran-i Hassa Sinan bin Abdulmennan”, Lale 6, 1988, pp. 2-15.

Senlap: “Ars” article, Islam Ansiklopedisi, Turkiye Diyanet Vakfi.

Senlap: “Kursu” article, Islam Ansiklopedisi, Milli Egitim Bakanligi.

[1] As far as I am informed by M. Kiel in his letter on 10.12.1995; Irene Beldiceanu, a specialist on the pre-Ottoman and early Ottoman Turkish population of Anatolia and the Ottoman Tahrirs, had mentioned that the Turkish tribes in 14-15th century in Anatolia still adhered to Buddhism. In addition, he considers that, there are some symbols on certain statues found in Afyon that can be taken as evidence of Buddhist culture (gravestones). Remembering that Eretnaogullari were of Uighur origin, as well as the fact that Sultan Bayezid II was said to have been one of the last to have studied the Uighur language which must have been spoken in Anatolia for quite a long time, these should have been the bearers of elements of the Buddhist culture. It is understood that the Buddhist culture continued to exist in Anatolia during Seljuk and Ottoman periods. B. Karamagarali, in her article (1993: 249-270) also points out many iconographical examples seen on Islamic buildings and handcrafts, indicating or relating to Buddhist culture.

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