High on a hill on the Asian side of Istanbul overlooking the Bosporus, squads of engineers and workers are constructing a giant mosque complex that will rival the city’s Sultan Ahmet and the Süleymaniye mosques in size, but not necessarily in splendor. Scheduled for completion on July 1, 2016, the Çamlıca Camii Külliyesi (Çamlıca Mosque Complex) will be one of the biggest Islamic shrines to be built in Turkey since the founding of the republic in 1923.
More than half of the construction has been finished, but the walls, minarets, interior domes, the courtyard and many of the accompanying buildings have yet to be erected. Located on the slopes of the 268-meter (879 feet) Çamlıca Tepesi, one of the highest hills in the city, the mosque complex will be visible from all over Istanbul.
During Friday prayers, the interior and the courtyard of Çamlıca Cami will be able to accommodate as many as 35,000 worshipers, about 7,000 more than the Sabancı Central Mosque in Adana, in southern Turkey and presently the nation’s largest mosque complex. Financed by public donations, mostly by the industrialist Sabancı family, and built in 1998, the site of the Sabancı Central Mosque is larger than the Çamlıca complex.
Many architects have been critical of the Çamlıca Camii project, arguing it lacks originality and that its two female architects had designed an inferior clone of the 17th century Sultan Ahmet (Blue Mosque). Sultan Ahmet is situated on the historic peninsula of the European side of Istanbul, across from the sixth century Hagia Sophia, a monumental Byzantine basilica that is now a museum. Over the centuries Ottoman and Turkish architects tried in vain to emulate the Hagia Sophia in their mosque designs.
One professor of architecture described the Çamlıca Camii project as a “bad joke.” Like the Blue Mosque, Çamlıca Camii will have six minarets, a symbol of Turkish supremacy in the Islamic world. The Sabancı Central Mosque also has six minarets and elephantine pillars supporting the dome, similar to the Blue Mosque. Only the holy mosque in Mecca (Al-Masjid al-Haram) has seven minarets as it is regarded as the holiest place in the Islamic world.
The design of Ankara’s Kocatepe Camii, another major city mosque complex built during the Republican era, was also slammed by critics for being a weak imitation of the works of the great 16th century Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. It was completed in 1987 and opened in a ceremony attended by then-Prime Minister Turgut Özal and his Cabinet.
Ottoman mosque complexes included the main worshipping area, a colonnaded courtyard and minarets, as well the tombs of the sultans, members of their family and their retinue, caravanserais, medreses (higher schools of learning), hospitals, imarets, or soup kitchens for the impoverished and destitute, and arcades for craftsmen and guild members.
Modern day mosque complexes have underground car parks, shopping plazas and supermarkets, in addition the main prayer area and courtyard.
The two female architects, Bahar Mızrak and Hayriye Gül Totu (both wear headscarves as a sign of Islamic piety), were awarded the Çamlıca Camii Complex project in an architectural design competition in 2012. None of the other projects submitted the 50 entrants were deemed sufficiently majestic.
Their project is different from the Blue Mosque and the 16th century Süleymaniye (the mosque complex of Ottoman Sultan Süleyman “the Magnificent”). The Çamlıca Camii complex is designed to be not just a place of worship, but a cultural center as well. Unlike in Süleymaniye, no commercial buildings and shops will be allowed within the boundaries of the Çamlıca Mosque complex. The site will have a library, an art gallery and a conference center for 1,000 people, as well as recreational and sporting facilities.
Environmentalists have also objected to the location of the mosque complex, which is in one of the city’s remaining forest areas, Çamlıca Tepesi, saying that the facilities will only add more concrete to Istanbul’s once-green silhouette.
Although the hilltop setting has numerous charming, traditional Ottoman-style outdoor cafés, restaurants and pedestrian walkways with spectacular views of the city, it has already been marred by scores of ugly looking radio and television relay towers that emit dangerous levels of electromagnetic waves and radiation. The relay stations were established on the top of Çamlıca with the advent of private radio and television two decades ago.
The building of the mosque complex in Çamlıca, health officials say, will needlessly subject millions of worshippers to the electromagnetic waves, already affecting visitors to the Çamlıca hilltop and thousands who live nearby. Scores of cancer cases have been reported in the nearby Kısıklı and Ferrah neighborhoods. Many residents living in the two neighborhoods next to the radio and TV relay stations also suffer from insomnia, painful headaches and nervous disorders.