The dome - symbol of power

The dome - symbol of power

The dome - symbol of power

Selimiye Mosque.

A simple definition of a dome is “a hemispherical semi-eliptical roof, built of stone, timber, metal or glass.” From early on in the Middle East and Southwest Asia it was a popular method of roofing in places where there was no timber. It was easy to build using mud bricks that either tilted slightly inwards or by placing layers of brick in circles that gradually became smaller. There have been a suggestion that the circular huts used by nomadic tribes may have had some impact. The Romans adopted the dome, as we see in the Pantheon in Rome, and the Byzantines used the dome to cover their monumental buildings.

Ernst J. Grube, in explicating what he thought Islamic architecture was, wrote the following about the dome: “The dome appears to be a general symbol, signifying power, the royal city, the focal point of assembly; it can therefore serve both religious and secular purposes. Its outward visible appearance does not truly help us to understand, interpret or identify any building.”

The earliest domes were placed over the kibla which showed the direction to Mecca and lit this part of the mosque. It later moved to the central position over the prayer hall that it holds today. “The dome is, of course, a cosmic symbol in every religious tradition; and symbolically, in Islam the dome represents the vault of heaven in the same way as the garden prefigures Paradise,” wrote James Dickie in his book “Allah and Eternity: Mosques, Madrasas and Tombs.”

The Arabs built mosques or adapted local religious structures such as churches in the lands they conquered; however, for most of the 7th century, they were satisfied to have flat-roofed structures recreating the flat-roofed mosques of Medina and Mecca. The first domed building constructed by the Arabs was the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (691). Since the use of wood in domes had been shown to be very practical in churches, timber was used in the Dome of the Rock. It made the structure lighter and more flexible but had to be covered with copper or lead to protect it from the weather. The use of small domes in Fatimid mosques in Egypt apparently was adopted from examples in the Maghreb. The dome became the dominant feature for mosques, although it was also used in palaces, in particular over audience chambers, and in other places such as schools, and hamams.

Although the earliest mosques in Anatolia date from the 11th century, it isn’t until the 12th century that it became popular to place domes on mosques. The Ulucamis of Niksar and Kayseri and the Alaeddin Mosque in Konya (13th century) have domes. The domes were often in front of the mihrab and in some mosques there were three domes, not just one.


Süleymaniye Mosque.

Early Ottoman domes

Ottoman architecture was first seen in Bursa and Edirne in 14th and 15th centuries. Its architecture was based on the earlier Seljuk architecture and was heavily influenced by Iranian structures, the knowledge of which the Turks acquired on their way from Central Asia to Anatolia, and to a larger extent, by Byzantine architecture. It has been described as a synthesis of the architectural traditions of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The mosques built by the Ottomans had prayer rooms or halls covered by domes and often the porticoes around a courtyard would have small domes.

The mosque, the prayer room of which was covered by a dome, was square and may have been adopted from the Mesopotamia area. It is by far the most frequently found type of mosque in early Ottoman Turkish architecture. The problem with domes is solving the transition from the round dome onto the square building. There are three ways of solving this: the squinch, in which the corners of the square room are filled out to form a base for the dome; the pendentive, which is a triangular segment that tapers at the bottom but spreads at the top to establish a circle needed to hold the dome; and the broken triangular surface that formed a belt just beneath the dome. The latter was an Anatolian Turkish innovation.

Ottoman domes after the conquest

Ottoman mosque architecture did not immediately change following the conquest of Constantinople. The mosques that were built immediately afterwards resembled those in Bursa, İznik and Edirne. Given the lack of mosques, the Ottomans converted a number of Byzantine churches by reorienting the direction of worship to face Mecca and added the minber and kibla. This included the Hagia Sofia.

Students of architectural history divided into two ranks. One believes that all subsequent mosques were imitations of the Hagia Sofia while the other is convinced that the Ottomans weren’t affected in the least by Byzantine architecture. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle – Ottoman architects built on Byzantine architecture but used their own creativity to transform it into something as spectacular if not more so. What particularly impressed the Ottomans was the Hagia Sofia’s dome.

The first grand mosque in Istanbul was that of Bayezit II in the latter part of the 15th century. It resembles and differs from the Hagia Sofia in how the dome is seated in particular the difference in noticeable in how the arches were used in the transition from the walls to the half domes. But the real change came with the appearance of Mimar Sinan in the sixteenth century. In his early mosques – Mihrimah and Zal Mahmud Paşa – he tried seating the dome directly on the porticoed exterior walls. At times he experimented with doing away with the half domes although he used them when building one of his most impressive works – Süleymaniye Mosque. Moreover, Sinan chose to use makarnas or, as they are sometimes called because of their shape, stalactites to connect the half domes to the walls.

The Selimiye Mosque is considered the most mature of Sinan’s works. In it he employed all of the architectural practices that had worked successfully in his previous mosques. Here the dome rests on a circle of alternating support walls and half domes that transfer the weight to eight powerful pillars.

Sinan wrote: “Architects in Christian countries may rank themselves above Muslims in technical skill, owing to the failure of the latter to achieve anything approaching the dome of the Hagia Sofia. This assertion of insurmountable difficulty has wounded the author of these writings. However, with God’s help and the Sultan’s mercy, I have succeeded in building a dome for Sultan Selim’s mosque which is four ells greater in diameter and six ells higher than that of the Hagia Sofia.”

Today it would be unthinkable to build a mosque without a dome.