Istanbul is home to over 3,000 mosques from the small (e.g. Şemsipaşa Mosque) to the massive (Süleymaniye Mosque), from the Byzantine age (like Hagia Sophia) to Ottoman times (like Sultan Ahmet Mosque), and many are worth a visit for their historical, architectural and cultural value. But what if you don’t have months to explore this beautiful city? What if your heart is bursting for the most beautiful mosque among the many spectacular ones that sing to you five times a day every day? While it will never be easy to decide on the most breath-taking mosque in Istanbul, the Rüstem Paşa Mosque at Eminönü makes sure you don’t have to look far for a worthy candidate.
First, why the name “Rüstem Paşa”?
In one sentence: when Rüstem Paşa died at age 61 in 1561, he left behind his wife —the only daughter of Suleiman the Great— and she commissioned a mosque in her deceased husband’s name to honor his philanthropic contributions and his role as the empire’s Grand Vizier (equivalent to a Prime Minister). Mimar Sinan, the gifted imperial architect behind many noteworthy structures, didn’t hold back his imagination in designing the Rüstem Paşa Mosque, and there are several important features which make this Mosque unique, beginning with its location above a busy bazaar.
In those times, it was crucial that a mosque not only be awe-inspiring, but sustainable also. While the family coffers were substantial, they wanted the Rüstem Paşa Mosque to outlast even that, earthquakes notwithstanding. With the Mosque built atop covered stalls, a constant stream of maintenance money was guaranteed by the bazaar’s rent. Visitors to the Mosque ascend a flight of steps to the second floor where a stunning sight awaits.
Like the Suleymaniye Mosque, also a brainchild of Sinan, ceramic tiles from Iznik were used to decorate Rüstem Paşa. However, unlike any other mosque, Rüstem Paşa isn’t just decorated with ornate tiles: it is covered in the greatest collection of Iznik’s best tiles. From top to bottom, inside and out, the Mosque wears tiles of cobalt, emerald, sage green, manganese purple, and red.
The mihrab of the Rüstem Paşa, a niche on the wall closest to Mecca toward which the congregation faces for prayers, is made even more beautiful by tiles which create a pattern found nowhere else in the Mosque. Elsewhere, floral designs predominate, where tulips are a common motif and where serrated leaves that curl and curve, inspired by Chinese art, were a fresh addition to Ottoman art at the time. Because red was the hardest color to concoct, the ceramic masters of Iznik sent them 180 kilometers north to Istanbul the moment they managed to perfect their technique, sometime after the 1550s. Luscious shades, intricate geometric patterns, and the sheer beauty of expert craftsmanship create an interesting effect on captivated visitors: instead of looking upwards to the magnificent domes, eyes travel across the Mosque as if on a voyage of colors. It is for these 2,300 tiles that many fall in love with Rüstem Paşa.
Once one manages to break free from the mesmerizing tiles, one can observe what is overhead, where another interesting characteristic of the Mosque reveals itself. The central dome rises above an octagonal floor plan, where squinches ease the transition from one shape to another. Between the squinches, four semi-domes support the dome from places atypical of mosques: by the diagonal corners instead of on the cardinal points. In Rüstem Paşa, you won’t find Istanbul’s grandest mosque, but perhaps the prettiest.
A visit is highly recommended, and you can combine a trip there with one to the Strawmat Weaver’s market (Hasircilar Çarsisi) under the mosque, and to nearby Spice Bazaar and Suleymaniye Mosque. It won’t take too many minutes of walking and promises to take your breath away.