İsa Bey Mosque is located at the southwestern foot of Ayasuluk Hill in Selçuk, between the ancient Artemision and the Basilica of St. John. It is the most impressive example of Muslim architecture in the town. Erected in the 14th century, it represents the transitional period of Anatolian architecture — post-Seljuk, but pre-Ottoman. This mosque is also one of the oldest and most impressive works of architectural art remaining from the times of the Anatolian beyliks.
Historical background - the Aydınid dynasty
The sponsor and founder of the mosque was İsa Bey — a member of the local ruling Aydınid dynasty. He was one of the sons of Mubarizeddin Gazi Mehmed - the founder of the dynasty. The capital of the Aydınids was situated first in Birgi, and then — in Selçuk. In both cities, numerous architectural monuments from this period of history have been preserved. İsa Bey's road to power was a long one as he was the youngest of the brothers. His father initially divided the control of the major towns of his realm between the older sons. His oldest son, Jalal al-Dīn Hızır, got the fortress of Ayasuluk, Umur received the acropolis of Smyrna (modern Izmir), Bahadır İbrahim received Bodemya (now Bademli), and Süleyman took Tire. The youngest of the brothers, İsa, had stayed with his father at Birgi, while his older siblings enlarged the domain of the Aydınids. They raided as far as the Thrace and Gallipoli, forced many towns to pay the tribute, and conquered the harbour and fortress of Smyrna from the Genoese.
After Mehmed died in 1334, Umur succeeded him as the head of the dynasty. He forged an alliance with the Byzantines but was soon threatened by the crusade organised by the Venetians together with Rhodes and Cyprus, and aided by Pope Clement VI. Soon, the Aydınids lost Smyrna, and their position in the Aegean political sphere was seriously undermined. Determined to recover Smyrna, Umur was ultimately killed fighting outside of the castle of the city.
Umur's brother, Hızır Beg, was an astute politician who intended to cultivate good relations. He even proposed a truce to the Venetians in 1349 but was rejected. Therefore, he manipulated the hostilities among the Christian powers and created an alliance with Venetians' long-lasting rivals, the Genoese. He even granted them capitulations in Ayasuluk-Ephesus. Soon, a similar treaty was concluded with the Venetians. The end of hostilities opened the way for increasing the significance of Ayasuluk as a trade hub in the second part of the 14th century. By the 1350s, the city had become a significant trading outpost in the more extensive Mediterranean network. It welcomed not only Venetian and Genoese merchants, but also the ones from Famagusta, Pera, Pisa, and Rhodes. Soon, they were joined by the traders from Florence, Barcelona, Ancona, and Ragusa.
The Aydınids had been controlling Ayasuluk from the beginning of the 14th century, but they did not initiate any significant building programmes until the 1360s. The reason was the relative insecurity of the town, situated near the coast. On the one hand, this location enabled the development of Ayasuluk as a prosperous trade centre, but on the other hand, the town was at a constant threat of an attack. Thus, the first Aydınid buildings, a grand mosque and a family mausoleum were constructed at Birgi, situated further to the east, in a valley protected by the mountains.
Inspiration and motivation for the construction
Ayasuluk flourished especially during the reign of İsa Bey, between 1360 and 1390. During these thirty years, the trade brought much wealth to the town, and İsa Bey undertook many ambitious construction programmes, of the scale unseen here since Late Antiquity. One of these projects was the erection of the grand Friday Mosque bearing the name of its sponsor. Until then, the role of the major mosque of the town had been played by the Basilica of St. John, converted into a Friday Mosque, as it was large enough to accommodate the Muslim congregation. However, an earthquake in the 1360s severely damaged this building, thus possibly motivating and inspiring İsa Bey to order the construction of a new mosque in the town.
İsa Bey had selected a very peculiar location for his new Friday Mosque: on the southern outskirts of the Ayasuluk Hill between the Church of Saint John and the ancient Temple of Artemis on a vast plain below. It seems that this location had a highly symbolic meaning for its founder, creating a link between the different periods of the town's history. Not only the site of the mosque created the link to the town's past but also the incorporation of ancient materials in the prayer hall and columns from churches in the courtyard.
Some travellers of the 19th century, such as Francis V. J. Arundell and William Turner believed that the site of the mosque had earlier been a location of a Byzantine church. They claimed that the prayer niche (mihrab) of the mosque had originally been an entrance to this church. For instance, Turner, a British diplomat, described the mosque in his book "Journal of a Tour in the Levant", published in 1820 in the following words:
"Just south of the castle at the foot of the hill, is a large Turkish mosque, said, I believe, but know not on what authority, to occupy the site of the ancient church of Saint Paul. It was built by the same Musselim of Melasso as built the Mosque of that city, and is almost entirely composed of ancient stones many of which are ornamented, and have their ornaments turned upside down: it is a large building, 120 feet square. Within it are two columns of black marble, twenty-five feet high, as I judged, and about five feet diameter. They were taken from the ancient city. This mosque being not now in use, is fast falling to ruin."
However, the idea that there had been a church in this location must be treated with extreme caution, as it has not been confirmed by archaeological excavations. Moreover, the archway that had reportedly been a part of this earlier church was a relatively new addition, when the mosque was turned into a caravanserai.
Nevertheless, the ambitious Aydınid ruler, İsa Bey, decided to construct his Friday Mosque as a symbol of his influence and wealth. He even started using the title of the sultan at the time of the mosque's construction. To emphasise the message, the Syrian architect helped to imitate some aspects of the Great Mosque of Damascus. For instance, the clustering of spolia columns and capitals in the interior of İsa Bey Mosque is the direct allusion to the mosque in Damascus, erected of spolia inside the sanctuary of the ancient Roman temple to Jupiter.
The mosque in Selçuk was not the direct imitation of the Great Mosque of Damascus. The architect chose to reproduce only the selected aspects of that building, aiming to enhance the prestigious, pious and kingly image of the patron. For instance, the coloured-stone decoration in the portal and windows, ornamental arabesques, and faience mosaics demonstrate the influence of works from the Zengid periods. The Zengid dynasty was a Muslim dynasty of Oghuz Turk origins that ruled parts of the Levant and Upper Mesopotamia on behalf of the Seljuk Empire in the 12th and the 13th centuries. Another source of inspiration was the architecture of the Mamluk realms in Syria and Egypt. This inspiration by the eastern Islamic architecture was most possibly the conscious effort of İsa Bey who inspired to be equalled to greater Islamic dynasties of other Turco-Islamic rulers.
Architecture and decoration
İsa Bey Mosque occupies an area of approximately 49 to 56 meters. It is approached from Kalinger Street, and the first impression that the visitors have is the one of surprise. They are greeted not by a grand gateway but by a massive wall with a blocked archway in the centre. This is the qibla wall of the mosque that served as the entrance to the building when it was used as a caravanserai in the 19th century.
The plain southern façade may be disappointing, but the main entrance to the mosque is from the west, where a superb façade provides access to the courtyard. To access the mosque, the visitors climb a double staircase located over a fountain. The western portal is decorated with coloured marble and elaborate muqarnas decoration. The present appearance of the portal is the result of a thorough reconstruction carried out in the 1970s by the Directorate General of Foundations on the basis of the drawings from the 1860s. The lower part, exposed to less damage, features mainly original materials: reddish, black and white stone. The upper part is reconstructed. The entrance opening is tiny in comparison to the height of the whole portal, to make it appear more imposing and monumental.
The basic information about the mosque is provided by the inscription placed above its western doors. It was built in the year 776 of the Islamic Hijri year, and this date translates into the years 1374-1375. The architect of the mosque was Şamlı Dımışklıoğlu Ali of Damascus. Moreover, the highly decorative northern doorway of the courtyard had another inscription over the lintel. Much of this portal has been looted and destroyed, but the inscription was recorded in the drawings made by Edward Falkener in the 1860s. This lost inscription stated that: "Only they shall maintain the mosques of God who believe in God and the Last Day, perform the prayer and give the alms and fear none but God. Such as these may be among the rightly guided."
The mosque has two main parts: a prayer hall with two lateral aisles and a rectangular courtyard adjoining it to the north. The topography of the site influenced the design of the north and east sides of the structure, and the courtyard walls facing these directions are rather plain with few windows. The west and south walls have two rows of decorative windows.
Twelve columns stand inside the courtyard that was originally encircled with porches on three sides. Today only the columns, clearly of Byzantine origins with the Corinthian capitals, have survived from these porticoes. It is probable that these columns were taken from the Basilica of Saint John. The courtyard also has a fountain in the centre, set among the lawn, rose bushes, and greenery.
Two minarets once rose above the east and west portals, but the mosque now has only one minaret, erected of bricks on an octagonal base with windows over the western portal. It has been preserved up to the height of the balcony, and the zig-zag decoration is still partly visible. It is accessed via an external staircase from the courtyard. The second minaret, originally symmetrical to the surviving one, has never been rebuilt after it was destroyed by the earthquake.
There is an exhibition of gravestones in the courtyard, officially maintained by the Ephesus Museum in Selçuk. The most interesting of them is the one of Hoca Ali ibn Salih, the probable founder of the so-called İsa Bey Hamam situated nearby. He died in 1378, and his tombstone consists of three sections with bands of scripture, not only informing about the date of the death but also giving the name of the stonemason, Halil, who carved the stone. This is an infrequent situation in Turkish tombstones that usually do not inform about their maker's identity.
Another tombstone on display is the one of Hacı Umur Ibn Menteşe, who died in 1400. He was a member of the Menteşe dynasty that ruled the areas to the south of the Aydınid lands from their capital in Milas (ancient Mylasa). This tombstone was carved from a fragment of an ancient column. Besides giving the name of the deceased, this tombstone informs that "every living creature on earth is mortal".
The rectangular prayer hall, measuring around 18 by 48 meters, is situated to the north of the courtyard. It is entered through a triple archway supported by columns, located in the centre middle of the north wall. Above the pointed arches, there are three windows letting the sunlight into the prayer hall. The hall is divided into two aisles parallel to the mihrab wall and a central transept running perpendicular to it. This floorplan is not unique as it is similar to other contemporaneous mosques in Anatolia, Mamluk Egypt, and Syria.
The parallel aisles are demarcated with pointed brick arches resting on four massive granite columns. Three of these columns have muqarnas capitals, while the fourth one, to the left from the entrance, has a re-used Composite order capital, combining the volutes of the Ionic order capital with the acanthus leaves of the Corinthian order. These massive columns had probably been taken from the Great Gymnasium in the ancient city of Ephesus, as suggested by Edward Falkener, who arrived in the area in the 1850s, looking for the Artemision. His idea was confirmed by Gertrude Bell, the famous British traveller, who visited Ephesus thirty years later.
The two middle columns support identical brick arches which extend to the north and south walls, thus forming the transept. The side aisles are covered with a pitched roof, and the transept has two domes resting on octagonal drums supported by pendentives. These two domes, covered with lead, have the diameters of 9.4 and 8.1 meters. Thanks to Evliya Çelebi who wrote in the 17th century, it is known that both of the domes were covered with blue tiles from Iznik that Evliya compared to lapis lazuli. Nowadays, only one of the domes is still covered with tiles executed in a mosaic technique.
The north, south, and east walls of the prayer hall were built of ashlar, limestone, and re-used marble. The most decorative wall is the western one, distinguished by its design, artistry, and materials as it was built of marble. It has a portal and two rows of windows, notable for their craftsmanship. The windows, of different dimensions and style, are elaborately decorated with muqarnas patterns, inlaid coloured stones, knotwork, and interlace patterns.
One of the most striking features of İsa Bey Mosque is its marble decoration. This mosque was the first one erected in Asia Minor, where the utilization of this material was introduced on such a large scale. Naturally, this was possible because of the abundance of marble spolia within the ruins of ancient Ephesus. The marble was used to decorate doorways, façades, and the mihrab. The ancient marble slabs and fragments were carved with geometric and vegetal patterns by the builders of the mosque, in style clearly transmitted from Syria.
The construction of İsa Bey Mosque involved some novel architectural solutions. First of all, this mosque is a rare example of Beylik-period architecture where a courtyard with porticoes on three sides was added to the main building. The first case with this solution was İshak Çelebi Mosque, built in 1366 in Manisa. Moreover, this mosque is the second example of a double minaret building in Anatolia for this period, with the first one being Çifte Minare Medrese in Sivas, constructed in 1271.
Fate of the mosque
When Evliya Çelebi visited Ayasuluk in 1671, his general impressions were of a place of extreme poverty, sharply contrasted to the glorious past. The only building that impressed him was the great mosque of İsa Bey, still maintained. Çelebi stated that it was as huge as Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and could only be compared to the Great Mosque of Damascus. The description of İsa Bey Mosque provided by Çelebi stated that the building was decorated with marble slabs and the inscriptions, of the highest quality, were made in gold letters. The most spectacular sights were four gigantic pillars, and splendidly decorated mimbar and mihrab. Even the courtyard, also paved with marble, was treated as an integral part of the mosque and as such, it was forbidden to enter there wearing shoes.
On the right side, there was an enclosure for the Cloak of the Prophet. Unfortunately, this sacred object could not be seen as it had been moved to Istanbul. Notably, the transfer of the sacred object to Istanbul was not the first time when the city lost holy objects, as the similar fate befell the sacred relics removed from Ephesus by Byzantine emperors.
As a result of the earthquakes that hit Selçuk region in 1653 and 1668, the mosque was severely damaged. One of its two minarets collapsed, and the upper section of the second one broke off at the height of its balcony. Also, the arcades surrounding the courtyard were destroyed. Unfortunately, by 1829, the mosque was in ruins and in the 19th century, it was used as a caravanserai. A door was opened in the niche of the qibla, and the crown of muqarnas of the mihrab was removed. The mihrab niche was walled up at a later date. According to some guidebooks, the section of the mihrab was transferred to Izmir and re-used in Kestanepazarı Mosque. However, most likely this is not correct as the fragmented mihrab inscription is in Izmir but not in the mosque only as a part of an exhibition in the Agora Open Air Museum.
The mosque was then repaired in 1934 and then restored in the second half of the 20th century. With funding provided by the General Directorate of Foundations, a thorough renovation of the mosque was carried out in 1975 when the mosque was reopened. In 2005, another renovation was carried out, during which, among other things, the lead roof was renewed. As of 2019, another restoration was in progress, focussed on the minaret of the mosque.
The mosque is open to visitors except for prayer times. During the visit remember to behave according to the rules set out for the guests: take off your shoes at the entrance, dress decently and, in the case of women, cover your hair. Tourists can visit only one section of the interior.
İsa Bey Mosque is located on the west side of the city of Selçuk, at the intersection of St. Jean Caddesi and 2040 Sokak. It stands only 300 meters from the ruins of the Temple of Artemis and 250 meters from the entrance to the Basilica of Saint John.
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