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Exploring Turkey’s unique ‘underground’ mosque

Mosque architecture is changing over time, influenced by modernity

Menekse Tokyay

Published: Updated:

Mosque architecture is changing over time and an example of a more modern approach is one dubbed Turkey’s first “underground” mosque, Sancaklar.

The mosque opened its doors to worshippers two years ago and continues to impress visitors with its unique architecture.

Although the mosque is actually partly above ground, it gives the impression of being built into the surrounding slope, especially when viewed from above.

There are more than 86,000 mosques in Turkey with the most famous being the Blue Mosque. But, the uniqueness of the Sancaklar mosque is that it departs from standard mosque design in a bid to break architectural taboos and encourage worshippers to focus on the essence of the religious space and on the Islamic faith.

Menekse tokyay
Menekse tokyay

Sancaklar mosque stands in Istanbul’s suburban Buyukcekmece district and is spread over an area of 1,200 square meters. The architecture combines Islamic and Ottoman designs with a modern touch, seemingly free from mainstream architectural typology.

In 2013, out of 704 projects from 50 countries, the building won first prize in the World Architecture Festival competition for religious places. In 2015, the project was selected for the Design of the Year award, organized by the London Design Museum and it was also shortlisted among the 40 nominees for the Mies Van der Rohe Award.

The mosque was designed by Turkish architect Emre Arolat for the Sancaklar Foundation.

Menekse tokyay
Menekse tokyay

Surrounded by aligned walls, its upper courtyard is home to a prairie that separates the mosque from the chaos of the outside world and the nearby highway. Strolling around the mosque’s outdoor area, you will notice a long canopy running along one side where two olive trees and one linden tree are located. From this point, you have to descend natural stone stairs to reach the building.

The cavernous prayer hall of the mosque is large enough to host more than 650 worshippers, while it aims to isolate believers from the outside world and invite them to delve deeper into their inner world.

What strikes one about the Sancaklar mosque is that its design is humble and simple, perhaps to deepen worshippers’ relationship with their faith, and with this underground concept, visitors can leave behind all the challenges of the outside world.

Menekse tokyay
Menekse tokyay

The only decoration on the walls is the Arabic letter “waw” and verse 41 of Surat al-Ahzab, a chapter in the Quran: “O you who have believed, remember Allah with much remembrance.”

The main space is free of any decorative ornaments unlike many modern mosques built recently in Turkey. Daylight penetrates the prayer hall along the Qibla, or Mecca-facing, wall.

Arolat says there has mainly been positive feedback on the style of the mosque.

“There is not any predetermined architectural framework that the Quran imposes. The only criteria is that any kind of hygienic area may host believers,” Arolat told Al Arabiya English.

“It is such an unusual [example of] architecture that every time I come here for worship I feel an enormous [sense of] inner peace. It is also a place of meditation for me when praying under daylight infiltrating into the hall,” Asli Karacan, a youngster living nearby, told Al Arabiya English.

Menekse tokyay
Menekse tokyay