Thursday, November 27, 2014 21:30 [Daily Archive]

Domestic by Mustafa Akyol
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Anew mosque styled for the new millennium
ISTANBUL - Created by one of Turkey’s most stylish designers, Zeynep Fadıllıoğlu, the Şakirin Mosque, on the Asian side of Istanbul at the entrance to the city’s largest cemetery, will soon welcome believers to a space of not just traditional faith but also contemporary aesthetics.

Zeynep Fadıllıoğlu is a Turkish designer known for creating some of the most stylish lounges and nightclubs in Istanbul. As a winner of the Andrew Martin International Designer of the Year award, her fame, and that of her husband, restaurateur Meto, has gone beyond Turkey.

"For almost 25 years, this glamorous pair have been creating sophisticated hot spots that are the number-one destinations for Turkey's glitterati," wrote The Independent in 2004, in a review of the couple’s then newly opened restaurant in London. "Zeynep manages to make her passion for all things Oriental and European sit together in easy, informal arrangements." 

Yet, probably none of the projects Fadıllıoğlu has undertaken before were as passionate as her current one in terms of combing the Orient and Europe: the design of the most modern mosque that Istanbul, and Turkey, has ever seen.

This ongoing construction is at the entrance of the Karacaahmet Cemetery, the oldest and largest in Istanbul. Located in the Üsküdar district of the Anatolian side, this burial ground is the eternal home of at least a million souls, including many prominent figures ranging from Ottoman bureaucrats to modern day artists. And now, among the tall cypress trees that grow above them, there also rise two minarets and dome whose style is new, not only to the dead, but also the living.

The project was commissioned by a London-based wealthy Arab-Turkish family in the memory of their deceased mother, Semiha Şakir, whose name is recognized by Turks from the quality schools she founded. Her children, Ghassan, Gazi and Gade, have decided to name the mosque "Şakirin."

It obviously is a reference to their family. But it also has the literal meaning, "Those who are thankful (to God)."

The Şakirin mosque seems to be a combination of traditional elegance and modern austerity. It has a dome; but unlike those on traditional mosques, this metal sphere looks like a space ship. The architect, Hüsrev Tayla, built Ankara’s magnificent Kocatepe Mosque before, which is in the old Ottoman style. This time, in collaboration with other artists such British designer William Pye, he has taken a whole new direction.

Fadıllıoğlu’s job is to design the interior. Different artists are working for her on the altar, calligraphy and pool in the courtyard. Every detail, from the carpets to tiles, is designed anew. She is also planning a system by which the worshippers, after taking their shoes off to enter the mosque, will wear galoshes. Hygenie, she notes, is as important as aesthetics.

A women-friendly mosque
One thing that is notable in the Şakirin Mosque will be the women’s area. In traditional mosques, this is often a very small, dark and apathetic place at the back. Although many believe that this is what "Islam" ordains, it is actually a relic from the culture of the medieval Middle East. No wonder ultra-Orthodox Judaism has a similar tradition of male-favoring seclusion. In Fadıllıoğlu’s design, women will still be separate, but the upper-level designated for them will be open, lighted, and beautifully decorated. A mosque designed by a woman, as she proudly noted, will be more welcoming to women.

The mosque, which is plans to open in May, will also have a small museum showcasing works of Islamic art. Among these might be the overlay of the Ka’aba of Mecca, the holiest Muslim shrine, which the Şakir family recently bought at an auction at Sotheby's for about a million dollars. The total expense for the mosque is unknown - but it is estimated to be very, very high.

This overtly upper-class initiative to introduce an example of modern aesthetics into Turkish Islam seems very timely. For quite sometime, the Turkish intelligentsia has been debating on the rural and unsophisticated character of the Islamic culture in their society. An analytical story written by senior journalist Sefa Kaplan and published by daily Hürriyet two weeks ago was titled, "The Analysis of Villager Islam."

"The secularization effort during the Republican era included the struggle with the symbols of Islam," Kaplan said. "Consequently, Islam was pushed to the rural areas; it soon lost its urban heritage and was filled with superstition and ignorance." When these devout villagers started to pour into secular cities, Dr. Süleyman Seyfi Öğün, a political scientist, says they brought not just religion but also rural culture - and hardly made a distinction between the two.

The result was a deepening tension between the bourgeois seculars and the ex-rural but not-yet-fully-urban religious. The living spaces of the former centered on well-groomed cafes, restaurants, and bars of rich neighborhoods such as Nisantaşı or Bebek. The latter’s neighborhoods were rather characterized by the hastily built mosques, which presented very little, if any, sense of aesthetics.

In other words, the much-debated secular-religious conflict in Turkey is, to some extent, also a class conflict. What the secularists despise is not Islam as such. It is the Islam of the villagers that they find crude and distasteful. That’s why the mosque might be a good step to change some established prejudices. "This mosque has all the Western and Eastern values nicely blended," she said. Apparently, it will also nicely blend the values of urban and rural Turks.
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