Turkey’s Camlica Mosque: Ottoman heritage or modern nationalism? (2023)

Istanbul, Turkey – Istanbul’s skyline has been rapidly transforming over the years as towering new skyscrapers pop up and expansive bridges connect the metropolis that spans two continents.

Since 2019, Grand Camlica Mosque – which stretches over 57,500sq metres (620,000sq feet) and has six minarets and a towering central dome – has been the most visible structure on the Anatolian side of Turkey’s cultural capital.

Perched on the hill after which it is named, the now-largest mosque in Turkey opened its doors to the public on March 7, 2019, as a place of worship as well as a symbol of state pride and Turkish national identity.

Turkey’s Camlica Mosque: Ottoman heritage or modern nationalism? (1)

Since the establishment of the modern republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923, Turkish nationalism has been largely defined by secular symbols that lean away from religion and the country’s Ottoman past.

As president of the early republic, Ataturk outlawed the fez and turban – two forms of Ottoman male headgear – and later the headscarf was banned in state institutions. He also transformed the Turkish language from Arabic to Latin script, moved the capital city from the Ottoman epicentre of Constantinople – later known as Istanbul – to a newly established Ankara, and replaced religious courts with a European-inspired legal system.

Although the “headscarf ban” was notably overturned by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which came to power 20 years ago, religious symbols have remained distinct from the secular Turkish state.

Yet, Camlica Mosque reflects how Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has attempted to challenge the secular narrative of Turkish nationalism by attempting to connect state pride to an Ottoman past and an Islamic heritage.

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“The main objective of the 1923 Turkish revolution was to create a new nation and national identity by fighting the old one,” said Turkish sociologist Ferhat Kentel. “To do this, the Kemalists cut ties with Ottoman times.”

Turkey’s Camlica Mosque: Ottoman heritage or modern nationalism? (2)

“The same goes with AK Party. It used religious and Ottoman symbolism, such as Camlica Mosque, but especially Hagia Sophia Mosque, to cut ties with the Kemalist regime,” he added.

Strong symbolism

Hayriye Gul, one of the two female architects behind the design of the complex, told Al Jazeera that the structure aimed to contribute to the silhouette of Istanbul in a modern and practical way while reflecting traditional Turco-Islamic architecture.

“It’s a modern version of the traditional mosque which included a madrassa [school] and hammam [public bath]. To suit today’s needs, it has a conference hall, parking lot and library,” said Gul.

For Gul and her co-architect Bahar Mizrak, the building also evokes a sense of national pride.

“As Turkish citizens and architects, we’re proud to be part of building such a monumental mosque during the republican era,” said Mizrak.

Designed as a successor to Ottoman-era mosques, the complex is inspired by the work of the empire’s chief architect Mimar Sinan who built Istanbul’s famous Suleymaniye Mosque, among 300 other structures.

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Camlica Mosque includes a prayer hall that can hold about 60,000 people, a museum, a gallery, art workshops, a library and a conference hall, and has many symbolic features that link Turkish and Ottoman history to national identity.

Turkey’s Camlica Mosque: Ottoman heritage or modern nationalism? (3)

Seen from anywhere in the city centre, the mosque’s main dome stands 72 metres (236 feet) tall to represent the 72 ethnic groups in Turkey and spans 34 metres (111 feet) to represent the city of Istanbul’s number plate.

Four minarets are 107.1 metres (351 feet) high, signifying the Manzikert Victory of 1071 which saw Seljuk Turks, led by King Alp Arslan, crush an imperial Byzantine army said to be twice their size.

Turkey’s Camlica Mosque: Ottoman heritage or modern nationalism? (4)

Inside the dome, 16 names attributed to God in Islam are artistically drawn to signify the 16 Great Turkic Empires before the establishment of the modern republic. The number 16 also features in Turkey’s presidential seal, with its large 16-pointed sun surrounded by 16 five-pointed stars to symbolise the Turkish Republic and the 16 great empires.

Linking to more religious symbols, the complex has five smaller domes that represent the five pillars of Islam, and eight monumental doors to represent the eight gates to heaven, according to Muslim belief.

Nationalist projects, messaging

While some observers have linked the decision to build Camlica Mosque to the government’s 2020 reconversion of Hagia Sophia and the 2017 construction of a mosque in Taksim – a square associated with secularism and republicanism, others say the former is part of the government’s political manoeuvring.

Turkey’s Camlica Mosque: Ottoman heritage or modern nationalism? (5)

“There was a need to build a mosque in Taksim because there wasn’t any, and the reconversion of Hagia Sophia was a historic promise of the conservatives, not of Erdogan. But Camlica Mosque was never needed, Osman Sert, PanoramaTR research director, told Al Jazeera.

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“Camlica Mosque was a political decision and part of a series of nationalist projects launched by Erdogan and the AK Party to build national pride at a time when they have little to offer in terms of economic development,” he added.

Over the past five years, Turkey’s economic crisis has seen the Turkish lira drop to historic lows and people’s concerns over the cost of living grow. Meanwhile, Turkey has undertaken a range of political and economic measures to boost its national pride and independence.

Among those projects are TOGG, the first ever Turkish-made electric car launched in 2022, the TCG Anadolu, an amphibious assault ship and Turkey’s first landing platform dock in 2023; and Camlica Tower, a huge telecommunications tower inaugurated in 2021 as Istanbul’s tallest.

Erdogan has also invoked nationalist messaging during his electoral campaign ahead of the May 14 vote by incorporating the country’s centenary celebration into slogans, and promising that the next 100 years will be the “Century of Turkey”.

Turkey’s Camlica Mosque: Ottoman heritage or modern nationalism? (6)

According to Sert, Erdogan’s nationalist rhetoric has particularly spiked since the 2016 coup attempt which could have seen his government overthrown.

“The coup attempt was a breaking point in the country’s history that created public concern about the republic’s security and continuity. It triggered nationalist feelings wrapped around worries that the country’s fate was under threat,” Sert told Al Jazeera.

He added that the emergence of the leader of the ultranationalist, right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli, as Erdogan’s main political supporter at the time also indicated this.

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“To make this momentum more sustainable, Erdogan needed the consent of the people, so religion and nationalism came together,” he said.

National pride

But according to Kentel, “Erdogan’s ideology is not religious, but nationalist with some religious undertones.”

Erdogan and the AK Party have been successful in “integrating traditional and conservative sectors of society into nationalist identity. With this renewed form of nationalism, sectors which did not previously associate with the nation-state, now relate strongly with it,” he said.

Turkey’s Camlica Mosque: Ottoman heritage or modern nationalism? (7)

Kentel and Sert said while this form of nationalism has attracted conservative sectors of society, it has polarised and alienated many others.

Still, Camlica Mosque has become an important stop for tourists and locals visiting Ottoman palaces and mosques, with many seeing it as a success for Erdogan and his party.

“Camlica Mosque is a source of national and political pride. It represents Islam’s presence in the modern world and symbolises AK Party’s political power,” said Mustafa, a 39-year-old accountant visiting the mosque.

“While values of the republic were secular and mostly rejected by the country’s conservative sectors, the AK Party has managed to keep these concepts while appealing to a larger segment of society,” he added.

(Video) Turkey debates status of iconic Hagia Sofia

Another mosque-goer, 37-year-old Suheyb, agreed: “The AK Party brought the state closer to the people. Camlica Mosque is seen as a symbol of this transformation.”

Like the mosque-goers, former AK Party parliamentarian, Iffet Pollat, told Al Jazeera that Camlica Mosque was a “salutation to the Turkish Republic, to Ottoman heritage and our Muslim ancestors, all in one. It is a masterpiece of the Turkish Republic under Erdogan”.

Turkey’s Camlica Mosque: Ottoman heritage or modern nationalism? (8)


Who built the Çamlıca Mosque? ›

Planning for the Çamlıca Mosque began in the year 2000 and was led by two female architects, Bahar Mızrak and Hayriye Gül Totu. Their design won second prize in a competition to come up with something suitable.

When was the Çamlıca Mosque built? ›

Büyük Çamlıca Mosque, the largest mosque in the history of the republic, whose foundations were laid on August 6, 2013, was opened to worship on March 7, 2019. A large number of statesmen from all over the world and religious leaders attended the opening ceremony, which was equipped with Turkish flags.

Which church converted to mosque in Turkey? ›

Hagia Sophia ( lit. 'Holy Wisdom'; Turkish: Ayasofya Ancient Greek: Ἁγία Σοφία, romanized: Hagía Sophía; Latin: Sancta Sapientia), officially the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque (Turkish: Ayasofya Camii), is a former Christian church converted into a mosque and major cultural and historical site in Istanbul, Turkey.

Why did Hagia Sophia became a mosque? ›

Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom” in Latin) was built in the 4th century as a Byzantine church. It was just converted into a mosque following a decision by the Turkish court and final confirmation of the Turkish president. Many saw the decision as anti-Christian, but it was intended first and foremost to please Arab Muslims.

What is the name of the mosque that was founded during the rule of Ottoman Empire? ›

The Eyüp Sultan mosque, Constantinople, circa 1879. Built in 1458 the Eyüp Sultan mosque was the first of many grand mosques that the Ottoman sultans would see built in Constantinople under their rule.

Where did mosque architecture originate? ›

The Origin of the Mosque

The Prophet Muhammad's original house in Medina (in present-day Saudi Arabia) is thought to be the first mosque and probably served as a model for early mosque architecture. It was a mud-brick structure with living quarters on one side of an enclosed rectangular courtyard.

When and where was the mosque built? ›

The home of the Prophet Muhammad is considered the first mosque. His house, in Medina in modern-day Saudi Arabia, was a typical 7th-century Arabian style house, with a large courtyard surrounded by long rooms supported by columns.

What was the first mosque built in the world? ›

The Quba Mosque (Arabic: مَسْجِد قُبَاء‎, romanized: Masjid Qubāʾ) is a mosque located in Medina, in the Hejazi region of Saudi Arabia, built in the lifetime of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in the 7th century C.E. It is thought to be the first mosque in the world, built on the first day of Muhammad's emigration to ...

Who built the oldest mosque in the world? ›

According to tradition it was originally built over 1,300 years ago in 627 CE by Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas, who was an uncle of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, and was named in memory of Muhammad.

Who spread Christianity in Turkey? ›

Constantine the Great, the founder of Constantinople, was the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity.

What is the no of Christians in Turkey? ›

As much as 90% of the population follows Sunni Islam. Most Turkish Sunni Muslims belong to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence. The remaining 0.2% are Christians or adherents of other officially recognised religions like Judaism.

What are the 7 churches in Bible in Turkey? ›

The Seven Churches of Asia as stated in the Book of Revelation are Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Today, all these are existing names in Turkey as they are ancient cities protected by the Culture and Tourism Ministry of the Republic of Turkey.

Can non Muslims visit Hagia Sophia? ›


All visitors, Muslims and non-Muslims are allowed to enter Hagia Sophia Mosque. Visitors should remove their shoes before stepping onto the mosque's carpets.

Why do Muslims want Hagia Sophia? ›

Hagia Sophia became the symbol of imperial and sacred prestige for the Ottoman empire – it stood along in significance with the Kaaba in Mecca and the Dome of Rock in Jerusalem. Interior conversions also took place during Ottoman rule.

Why is the Hagia Sophia important for Christianity and Islam? ›

The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque in 1453 was the final symbolic nail in the Byzantine Empire's coffin. Hagia Sophia stood as a constant reminder of Islam's triumph over the West and Christianity—Islam was victorious.

What religion was under Ottoman rule? ›

Officially the Ottoman Empire was an Islamic Caliphate ruled by a Sultan, Mehmed V, although it also contained Christians, Jews and other religious minorities. For nearly all of the empire's 600-year existence these non-Muslim subjects endured systematic discrimination and, at times, outright persecution.

How did Hagia Sophia affect culture? ›

The Ottomans changed Hagia Sophia, and they were changed by it. They converted the building into a mosque and symbol of imperial power, and yet their entire notion of imperial architecture was shaped by Hagia Sophia. Even in today's Turkey, mosque architecture is often based on Hagia Sophia, with a large central dome.

How did Muslims change Hagia Sophia? ›

Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. Minarets were built on the exterior and a minbar and a mihrab in the naos. In the interior, moreover, the Christian furnishings were removed, and the decorations eventually whitewashed or plastered over.

Is mosque indigenous or Islamic art? ›

The term Islamic art not only describes the art created specifically in the service of the Muslim faith (for example, a mosque and its furnishings) but also characterizes the art and architecture historically produced in the lands ruled by Muslims, produced for Muslim patrons, or created by Muslim artists.

What is the role of the mosque in society? ›

It is a place where Muslims gather, since a mosque's role is that of a centre of authority for the Muslim community, which guides and instructs them in their religious as well as temporal duties and obligations and directs their relationships with their environment as per the revealed laws of Islam.

What essential part of a mosque is historically a gathering place? ›

The outermost part of a mosque is known as the sahn. This is the central courtyard and gathering place typically enclosed by a wall and arranged around a central fountain.

Who built the Great Samarra mosque? ›


Who built the first mosque in Egypt? ›

Mosque of ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ, earliest Islāmic building in Egypt, erected in 641 by ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ, the leader of an invading Arab army. The mosque was built in Al-Fusṭāṭ, a city that grew out of an Arab army encampment on the site of present-day Cairo.

Who built the mosques? ›

Many Muslim rulers after the death of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, emulating him, established their domains by first building a mosque. In the same way Mecca and Medina are built around the Masjid al-Haram and the Masjid al-Nabawi, Karbala, in present-day Iraq, was built around the Shi'ite Imam Hussain Shrine.

Who constructed the Great mosque? ›

Great Mosque of Damascus, also called Umayyad Mosque, the earliest surviving stone mosque, built between 705 and 715 ce by the Umayyad Caliph al-Walīd I, who proclaimed to his citizens: “People of Damascus, four things give you a marked superiority over the rest of the world: your climate, your water, your fruits, and ...


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