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B - 7 : Minaretts and Domes

On our journey along the Anatolian coast, we will not only see many old Byzantine churches. We are going to see many more mosques with their typical minarets and their domes. In western eyes, they are all built in classic Muslim style. But where does classic Muslim style come from?

Mosque in Alanye - the old stronghold of the Cilician pirates

Since many places never recovered from the severe loss of population during the plague some 100 years earlier, the conquering Arab cavalry found many empty Syriac and Orthodox churches they could take over without violating their promise to the local population to respect their religious freedom.

As such, there was no classic Arab architectural style. It had to develop,first. The Arabs thus integrated many elements from Byzantine churches such as domes, decorative tiles and minarets into their own architectural style. Minarets are a good example. Already in use in Syriac churches to call Christians to mass - why not using the same structure to call Muslims to prayers? In Arab, minaret simply means “light tower” - everybody understood the meaning - regardless of structure.

Schematic Minaret styles from Wikipedia

No 2 is the bell tower of Seville’s cathedral

The use of domes has a similar history. Widely used in Roman and Persian temples to symbolyse heaven over a closed space - domes could be decorated whilst the sky could not - domes were simply adopted by Arab culture. One of the most prominent domes even today is the Pantheon in Rome - literally a temple for All Gods - which was completed with Emperor Hadrian’s money in 125 AD. Its awesome cupola has a diameter of 43.3m which is still unsurpassed today - that’s at least what Wikipedia says!

Plan of the Pantheon in Rome

When Christianity became Rome’s state relogion in 380 AD, the Pantheon was converted into a church. For that reason it survived the two millenia since its construction. The style elements from the Pantheon were widely copied for high profile ceremonial churches and it was thus no surprise that Emperor Justininan - yes, the same man who codified Roman Law and wanted to restore the Empire to its old glory - wanted to have a domed church with a big cupola for his own capital.

Hagia Sophia with a cupola diameter of 33.5 meters completed in 537 AD

It was build so solidly that it still stands today despite several severe earth quakes, fires and the chaos and plundering after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Hagia Sopia with the four minarets which the conqueror of Constantinople, Sultan Mehmet II immediately added when it was converted to a mosque in 1453

The Ottoman Blue Mosque, completed in 1616, adopted many style elements from the Hagia Sophia. The cupola gives it a spaceous interior and accommodates thousands of Muslims for Friday prayers even thogh it is “only” 23 meters in diameter.

Spacious inside of the Blue Mosque


But let’s take a step back from the Turks. One of the first mosques Muslims built was the Dome on the Rock in Jerusalem - finished in 692 AD, sixty years after Muhammad passed away. It had already a dome but no minarets yet. Its dome had a diametre of 20.2 meters only compared to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with 20.9 meters. Several sources credit the Arab rulers for the smaller diametre in order not to offend the sensibilities of the Christians living in Jerusalem - but who knows.

Dome on the Rock in Jerusalem


When sailing along the Turkish coast this summer and spotting a mosque, we actually look at much more than classic Arab style. We look at the history of Roman architecture as well.

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