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Identity of the Empire: Ottoman mosque complexes and the muqarnas vault

Published June 11, 2019

Muqarnas Vault, detail of dome. Mimar Sinan, Süleymaniye Mosque, 1558, Istanbul. Photo: Stephen Zucker

Ottoman architecture demonstrates the influences of numerous traditions including those of the Anatolian Seljuqs and Byzantium, both of which existed in Anatolia (modern central Turkey) when the Ottomans rose to power. More specifically, the Imperial Ottoman mosques of the classical period show the clear influence of the mid-6th century CE Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia.

Muqarnas Vault, detail of minaret. Mimar Sinan, Şehzade Mosque, 1543-1548. Photo: Lynn Jones

A major characteristic of Ottoman mosques from the early period is the dominance of a central dome that covers a significant part of the prayer hall. With the advent of the classical Ottoman phase, this central dome increases dramatically in size and is often combined with a series of half-domes and small domes that cascade from the central dome, with the overall arrangement fitting within a pyramidal outline. A number of mosques have one, two, or four half-domes supporting the central dome. The domes in Ottoman architecture have a semi-circular flat profile. An arcaded courtyard usually flanks the prayer hall along the façade located opposite the qibla wall–the wall which indicates the direction of the holy city of Mecca.

Large imperial Ottoman religious complexes usually feature a significant number of facilities, which, in addition to a mosque may include a mausoleum for the patron, a soup-kitchen, religious schools, public bath, hospital and shops.

The Ottoman mosque is distinguished by elegant pencil-shaped minarets, which are often fluted and end in a lead-covered, elongated conical cap. Such minarets are a clear indication of Ottoman-sponsored buildings throughout the Ottoman Empire. The minarets may have anything from one to three galleries, or balconies, usually resting on corbelled muqarnas vaults. Mosques with royal patronage have multiple minarets, from two to six.

The muqarnas is used selectively in certain areas, such as the underside of minaret balconies or above windows and portals. It is used as a load-bearing and transitional element, allowing the weight of the domes to be dispersed to the walls upon which they rest, as is seen at the Süleymaniye Mosque. The muqarnas vault is also used as a decorative element, as is seen on the minarets of the Shezade Mehmed mosque.


Adapted from ‘Museum with No Frontiers, Administrated on behalf of the Consortium by Museum Ohne Grenzen, e.V., accessed August 18, 2019.

Architectural Images

  1. Topkapı Palace, Sea Gate, Istanbul, Turkey
  2. Sehzade Mosque, interior.  Istanbul, Turkey
  3. Topkapı Palace, Imperial Harem, reception room, Istanbul Turkey
  4. Topkapı Palace, Imperial Gate/Cannon Gate, view from exterior. Istanbul Turkey
  5. Topkapı Palace, Imperial Harem, reception room. Istanbul Turkey
  6. Sehzade Mosque, Interior.  Istanbul, Turkey
  7. Great Mosque of Kairouan, Egypt, with Ottoman additions
  8. Topkapı Palace, Imperial Gate/Cannon Gate, looking toward Hagia Sophia. Istanbul, Turkey
  9. Topkapı Palace, Baghdad Kiosk, Interior dome, Istanbul, Turkey
  10. Mosque of Sultan Ahmet, west exterior view, Istanbul, Turkey
  11. Topkapı Palace, Tulip room, Istanbul, Turkey
  12. Baghdad Kiosk, exterior. Topkapı Palace, Istanbul, Turkey
  13. Detail: Minaret.  Sehzade Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
  14. Topkapı Palace, View from Bosphoros, Istanbul, Turkey
  15. Topkapı Palace, Kitchen roof, Istanbul, Turkey
  16. Sehzade Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
  17. Türbe (tomb), Mosque of Sultan Ahmet, Istanbul, Turkey
  18. Aerial view, Topkapı Palace (upper), Hagia Sophia (middle) Mosque Complex of Sultan           Ahmet (lower),  Istanbul, Turkey
  19. Sehzade Mosque, interior, Istanbul, Turkey
  20. Detail: Minaret.  Sehzade Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey