This post is also available in Turkish.
The highest point in Istanbul is Camlica Hill. At 288 meters, it can be seem from most vantage points throughout the city. On May 29, 2012 Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced: “We are going to build a mosque over 15,000 meters square next to the broadcasting tower in Camlica. The planning work is nearing completion. … This giant mosque in Camlica was designed so as to be visible from all parts of Istanbul.” According to a recent survey, however, the public appears to object to the decision to develop at this location.
Following Erdogan’s statement, on June 13, 2012, the Minister of Culture and Tourism, Ertuğrul Günay, stated in a televised interview that there were no concrete plans to build the mosque. In fact, “so many criticisms were voiced by society, including religious segments, to the idea of building a mosque in a place which is not a residential district. … We will take these criticisms into account and proceed this way.”
Only a few weeks later, it became clear that the mosque would, in fact, be built. Hacı Mehmet Güner, the public works director of Kahramanmaraş’ municipality, became the head architect of the project upon Prime Minister Erdoğan’s order. On July 9, 2012, Güner stated that “the project is very demanding in terms of its size. We will build an even larger dome than our ancestors made. The mosque will have the highest minarets of the world. The height of the minarets will even surpass the [the 105 meter tall minarets of] Medine-i Münevvere mosque [in Medina.] There will be at least six minarets, but some surprises might occur.”
A rendered image depicting the future location of Camlica Mosque atop Camlica Hill, looking down onto the neighborhood and Istanbul. Image credit: source.
Two rendered views of Camlica Mosque, atop Camlica Hill, overlooking Istanbul. Image credit: Source.
Density and Islam in Istanbul
As reported by the Turkish Statistical Institute in January 2013, Istanbul totals an area of 5,512 km2 with an urban footprint of 1,347 km2, and a total population of 13.9 million people (density of 2,521/km2 for all of Istanbul and 10,319/km2 in the urban area). The density disparity is drastic between Istanbul and its urban core, with approximately 7,798 more people/km2 in the urban core than throughout Istanbul. For the entire Istanbul population, there are 3,028 mosques, 40 churches and 16 synagogues. Therefore, there are approximately .55 mosques/km2, 0.007 churches/km2 and 0.003 synagogues/km2. However, the total area of Istanbul also includes forested areas, for which there are no mosques. The density of mosques within the urban core is much higher than in rural areas.
Approximate distribution of mosques throughout Istanbul, Turkey, noting the urban core at “A.” Screen shot taken July 5, 2013.
Density of mosques within the urban core of Istanbul, Turkey. Where “A” is located in the above map. Each dot represents a mosque within the urban core. Screen shot taken July 5, 2013.
Mosques as the Center of Communities
Mosques serve not only as places of worship, but also as communal spaces. In fact, in Islamic urban form mosques have always played a central role in providing a space for public life. As Rabad Saoud described, the mosque, traditionally, was located at the center of the town where markets occurred, and the Madrasssa, which provided religious and scientific teachings. Extending from the traditional mosque-center urban form, were then the suqs where economic activities occurred — markets, social services, arts, administration, trades, baths, hotels and more. Additional morphological components extending from there were government and then residential areas. Mosques, and the communities which have traditionally developed around them, are known as the public realm. Residential areas are private. This is important to note in terms of cultural beliefs of divisions between men and women, social groupings, ethnic origin and cultural perspectives. The mosque and surrounding communal spaces continue to hold the same double purpose in many parts of the world.
Construction of Camlica Mosque has begun atop Camlica Hill. Image credit: source.
Neighborhood of Kisikli, Istanbul, Turkey, which is the location of Camlica Hill and Camlica Mosque (light green color at the upper left of image). Surrounding population size is 29,700 people and the Camlica Mosque footprint will be 110,000 square meters according to Akif Burak Atlar. Image credit: Uskudar Municipality.
Istanbul Public Opinion
On June 11, 2013, I opened a four-question survey on my blog, The Grid, for those who wanted to share their opinions regarding the Camlica Mosque development project. It was open for one week. The survey was in both Turkish and English and posed four questions:
1. The Camlica Mosque project will have a 110,000 square meter (1,184,030 square feet) footprint, serving 29,700 people from the surrounding Kisikli Mahallesi. Do you think that the size of the mosque footprint is appropriate for the surrounding population size? (Respondent choices were strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree.)
2. What do you feel is the main objective for developing the Camlica Mosque? (Respondent choices were religious, political, historical significance, other)
3. What is your opinion regarding the Camlica Mosque project? Do you believe it should be developed? Why or why not?
4. In follow-up from the previous question, please take your opponents position. Why do you think some people wouldn’t want the mosque developed? Why do you think some people would want the mosque developed? To answer this question, please think opposite of your current position.
Of the 56 respondents, 51% answered in Turkish and 48% in English. The results showed that 4% of respondents strongly agreed with the size of the mosque footprint, 23% disagreed and 73% strongly disagreed (a total of 96% disagree with its footprint size). When citing feelings regarding the main objective of the Camlica Mosque development, 11% of respondents believed it was for religious reasons, 73% believed it was for political reasons, 3.8% believed it was for historical significance, while 11.5% believed it was being developed for other reasons and left comments.
For the latter two questions regarding whether respondents believe the mosque should be developed – or not – there were a variety of opinions. Overarching themes from the 96% of respondents who disagreed with the footprint size of the development were:
• There are enough mosques in Istanbul and that the money should be spent to increase or improve hospitals, public schools or education.
• There are enough mosques in Istanbul and the location of mosque on Camlica Hill is inappropriate because Istanbul lacks green spaces.
• Disagree with the construction, however, if it is to continue, it should be built at a modest scale that is congruent with the demographic size of the local neighborhood.
• Disagree with the construction because it lacks unique architecture.
For those 4% of respondents who agreed that the Camlica Mosque should be developed there were minimal comments. These comments included “it should be built,” with little clue as to why the respondents felt this way.
Following-up from this question, we asked the survey respondents to stand in the shoes of their opponents and ask themselves why their opponents would want the Camlica Mosque to be built – or not. This seemed to be a difficult task for many respondents to take part in, understandably, as construction of religious structures tie heavily to belief. Overwhelmingly, however, was the consensus on both sides regarding the political presence endued in the development of Camlica Mosque. Overarching themes included thoughts that the Camlica Mosque is:
• A way of deteriorating Istanbul’s secularism by placing a religio-political monument in the highest point in the city – for all to see that Istanbul is a modern-day Islamic capital.
• Symbolic to the government’s control and political posturing.
• Since religious people support mosques and these are the current government’s voters, the government is doing it to please this section of the population.
• Camlica Mosque may been seen as a symbol imposed by the government.
• Development and construction provisions were not transparent.
What Istanbulites Desire
Overwhelmingly, the survey responses displayed a disagreement with the footprint size and location, citing that the money should instead be utilized for other public goods – hospitals, education/schools, green spaces.
“I believe such a large-scaled mosque is not necessarily needed. The very last few empty spaces of the city should be developed as green areas.”
“Considering there is adequate number of mosques in the city, it will be more of a benefit to community to build a hospital or public school instead of this mosque which is rather a visual symbol than a place for worship.”
“The area called ‘Camlica Hill’ should not be zoned for construction, it should be preserved. Istanbul does not really need such a large mosque. If it is still to be built, then the location should not be Camlica Hill.”
“Are there any proposals for educational buildings in İstanbul that are as large as this mosque proposal?”
“My opinion is that the Mosque should be developed but to a smaller scale. Having worked on the design for a Mosque elsewhere, the size and footprint of the project could be reduced in size based on the surrounding population demographics.”
“Since there is adequate number of mosques in the Camlica area, it should remain as a spot where you can take a break from the city life.”
“Besides mosques I believe it is necessary to build schools in Istanbul as well. The prophet of Islam is believed to have said ‘he would be a slave to whom teaches him a letter’ to express the importance of education. This one example shows that Islam encourages education and opposes ignorance. Being in a mosque nurtures our soul. Education is given in schools. This is why a school should be built instead of a mosque.”
“It should not be built the way it is proposed. There is actually a need for a mosque there but the one to be built should be modestly scaled and compatible with the green zones.”
Additional responses echoed the thoughts that the current Camlica Mosque plan did not provide any unique architectural features, therefore, it should not be developed.
“This ugly project should not be built since it has no unique features regarding architecture.”
“It should not be built. It is an imitation of Ottoman architecture that does not reflect its era. This imitation being compared to our mosques which symbolize the city is an insult to Great Architect Sinan who never repeated himself in his practice.”
“If it is still to be built, it should not be simply an imitation of Ottoman mosques but should be re-designed as a part of a whole surrounding and landscape.”
Others felt that the development was purely for political reasons aimed at gaining AKP (current political party) voter support. Many expressed fears that the location could work as an agent to cause more separation amongst Istanbul populations, while one respondent stated that people “object to the project because of their bias, intolerance and opposition to Islam.”
“The placement on an elevated location makes the project highly visible to the surrounding context which conveys certain types of messages. The prominence of the structure suggests a religio-political hierarchy of sorts that Islam dominates the landscape. Consequently, the Camlica Camii project conveys religious messages to insiders (believers) and political messages to outsiders (non-believers).”
“This is complete political posturing, a statement of AKP’s power, like the triumphal arches that lined Rome as memorials to wars won.”
“Camlica Camii is an overtly religious structure that will dominate views across Istanbul, constantly reminding inhabitants and visitors that the city is undoubtedly a modern-day Islamic capital. This makes many citizens who are used to living in a secular capital uncomfortable. Added to that, the Mosque will be developed on what I assume is public land, or at least land that is free to wander through, thereby claiming open land for religious use and infringing on notions of a democratic ‘right to space.’”
“The project is perceived as a show of force and was decided without taking public opinion into consideration during the process.”
“I think the people who want the project to be develop are either very religious and look at it as a future symbolic architectural element of the city or have political interests behind which they intend to manipulate the population.”
Respondents don’t seem to oppose Camlica Mosque based in anti-Islamic sentiment. Rather, the respondents feel that the scale and location of the project is inappropriate for the surrounding population, especially given the number of mosques that are already established in the area. But they also said that they are weary due to the political-religious implications that the location of Camlica Mosque could have on secular Istanbul.
So, why do you believe Camlica Mosque is being developed? Do you agree or disagree with the outcome of our survey? We look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comment section below.
Post by Renée van Staveren. Contributions by Akif Burak Atlar. Translations by Çiğdem Yılmazer. Images are linked to sources.
Renée van Staveren is an urban planner, the Editor-in-Chief of The Grid, a blog about environmental design, and a resident of Istanbul since 2010. Akif Burak Atlar is an urban planner and musician, Secretary General of The Chamber of Urban Planners’ Istanbul Branch, and a resident of Istanbul since 1999.