One of the greatest examples of Islamic architecture is located in the city of Beyşehir in Konya Province. It is the Eşrefoğlu Mosque, built in the 13th century, standing in a beautiful area near Lake Beyşehir. The uniqueness of this building, based on a wooden construction, was noticed by UNESCO, which in 2023 included the mosque on the World Heritage List.
Historical background of the mosque's construction
In the last years of the Sultanate of Rum (the second half of the 13th century), many areas of Asia Minor had a high degree of political independence. Self-governing family states were then established, called beyliks, after the beys ruling them. One of such families was the Eşrefoğulları, who controlled the beylik located in central Anatolia, and chose the city of Beyşehir as their capital.
Despite the low political importance of the Eşrefoğulları beys, their capital became an important cultural centre of the Seljuk world. The second bey of the Eşrefoğulları family, named Suleiman, ordered the construction of a mosque in Beyşehir in 1296, one of the largest buildings of this type erected during the Beylik period in Asia Minor. The construction of the Eşrefoğlu Mosque was completed in 1299, and when Bey Suleiman died in 1302, he was buried in a tomb adjacent to the mosque.
Architecture and decor of the mosque
The Eşrefoğlu Mosque is built on a rectangular plan with sides 31.8 and 46.55 meters long. The mosque has one minaret, located on the right side of the main entrance to the building. The main portal measuring 7 by 10 meters and two smaller gates lead to the building. The interior of the mosque is illuminated by 35 windows.
The wooden roof of the building is supported by 42 wooden columns, each 7.5 meters high and 40 centimeters in diameter. The columns were made of cedar wood, and according to local tradition, they were soaked in the waters of Lake Beyşehir for six months before being used in the building.
In the middle of the prayer hall there is a special depression which was filled with snow from the nearby mountains until the 1940s. This solution was used to cool the interior of the mosque in the summer and ensured adequate humidity of the wooden structure.
The magnificent interior door leading to the prayer room is decorated with multi-colored tiles, in a dominant shade of blue with brown elements. The inscription placed on the tiles above the door contains information about the date of construction of the mosque.
The interior of the mosque is visually divided by six rows of columns. Wooden girders supported by them define seven naves. The main nave, leading towards the mihrab, is wider than the others. Above this nave in the roof there is a window opening called aydınlık feneri (i.e. lantern). This hole served as a source of light, and in winter, snow also fell through it, accumulating in the above-mentioned recess in the floor of the building.
The mihrab marking the direction of Mecca, like the inner gate of the mosque, is decorated with ceramic mosaic. The decorative motifs reflect Seljuk traditions: the composition consists of geometric and botanical elements, stalactites, a rosette, and inscriptions. In the vault, right in front of the mihrab, there is a dome made of brick and stone, decorated on the inside with geometric motifs and inscriptions.
On the right side of the mihrab there is a pulpit, or mimbar, made of walnut wood using a technique called kündekari. It involves joining wooden elements together without the use of nails and glue.
The wooden elements of the mosque, including the capitals of the columns, are decorated with the kalemisi technique, i.e. hand-painted ornaments. It allows giving the wood different colours. The Eşrefoğlu Mosque contains the best-preserved and visually the richest examples of the use of this technology in the world.
The uniqueness of the Eşrefoğlu Mosque also results from the rarity of using wood as a construction material in Asia Minor. Anatolian architects in the service of Turkish rulers preferred the use of stone as a building material. Wood is a material traditionally used in Central Asia, so its use in the Beyşehir Mosque symbolizes the transitional stage between the history of the Turkic nomadic peoples from the depths of Asia and the tribes settled in Anatolia.
The Eşrefoğlu Mosque Complex includes, in addition to the mosque itself, the tomb of Bey Suleiman, a caravanserai, and a bath building. The remaining buildings in the vicinity of the mosque, including the madrasa and the bedesten, date from a later historical period.
Entry on the UNESCO World Heritage List
There are only a few mosques with wooden roofs and columns in Turkey. In addition to the Eşrefoğlu mosque, this category includes the Grand Mosque in Afyonkarahisar, Aslanhane (Ahi Şerefeddin) Mosque in Ankara, Grand Mosque in Sivrihisar, and Mahmut Bey Mosque in Kasaba. However, the Eşrefoğlu Mosque is the largest of them and the best preserved in its original condition.
On April 15, 2011, the Eşrefoğlu Mosque along with the other above-mentioned buildings was included in the list of sites waiting to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The main reason for this decision was the recognition that it is the largest and best-preserved mosque with wooden columns and a roof in the world.
In September 2023 these wooden mosques of medieval Anatolia made it to the UNESCO World Heritage List, along with the ancient site of Gordion. The property consists of five mosques built in Anatolia between the late 13th and mid-14th centuries. They are located in five different provinces of present-day Turkey. These mosques have an exterior built of masonry and multiple rows of wooden interior columns that support a flat wooden ceiling and roof. The masterful woodcarving and handiwork used in these mosques' architectural fittings and furnishings are also noteworthy.
More than seven centuries after its construction, the mosque still operates and serves the local community as a place of religious worship. Outside of prayer hours, you can visit the Eşrefoğlu Mosque and take photos there, without using a flash. Guests are expected to behave and dress appropriately. For those who are forgetful, there is a supply of long, loose trousers and scarfs in the vestibule. Before entering the mosque, you can usually meet ladies selling local handicrafts, praising their products quite loudly and insistently.