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Controversial mosque

Senada Sokollu / asbAugust 23, 2013

A mosque with the world's highest minaret is under construction in Istanbul. Critics of the project say it was badly planned and fear it represents a step towards a stronger Islamic influence in Turkey.

Snow covers the ground on the shores of the Bosporus near Istanbul's historical Ortakoy mosque, Sunday, Jan. 6, 2002. Many of the main arteries in Istanbul were cleared by Sunday, after a blizzard and blanket of snow brought life to a standstill in the city Friday. But several highways remained closed and some 10,000 villages, most of them in eastern Turkey, were cut off by snow. (AP Photo/Murad Sezer)
Image: AP

The highest hill in Istanbul is in the district of Camlica, located on the Asian side of Turkey's largest city. It is a popular viewpoint to admire the skyline of the ancient metropolis, featuring a minaret of a historical mosque that dates back to the times of the Ottoman Empire.

But in the near future, all eyes might be on the hill itself. This is the future site of a "huge" mosque that, when built, would be seen "from any point in Istanbul," according to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Construction of the controversial project started in March. According to the Turkish newspaper "Today's Zaman," the property will be a 15,000 square meters (161460 square feet), or more than 2,000 soccer fields. The construction costs are estimated to be 43 million euros ($57.4 million) and the mosque will have space for some 30,000 people.

"When it comes to size, the project is very demanding. We will build an even bigger dome than our ancestors," said Haci Mehmet Güner to the Turkish newspaper "Hürriyet." Erdogan recently named him the head architect of the mosque project. "The mosque will have the world's highest minaret; it will be even bigger than the 105-meter-high minaret of the Medina-i Munawara mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia."

"Erdogan is trying to compete with the sultans"

Opponents of the mega mosque have criticized the entire design of the project.

Er ist ehemaliger Präsident des unabhängigen Architektenverbandes in Istanbul. Copyright: Private.
According to architect Oguz Öztuzcu, Erdogan is trying to compete with the sultansImage: Privat

"Erdogan decided all by himself that a mosque is to be built in Camlica," Oguz Öztuzcu, former president of an independent architecture firm in Istanbul, told DW. "Usually a city planner, architect organizations and universities are consulted in order to achieve the best results in the end."

According to Öztuzcu, the jury that selected the best architecture design was comprised of government employees who did not approach the project independently: "The decision had been made beforehand; the size, the architecture style and the place. That's not a real competition."

No more than a copy?

The new building, Öztuzcu added, will be a copy of the Blue Mosque, a world famous symbol of Istanbul. "Erdogan is trying to compete with the sultans," Öztuzcu said. "You simply don't copy symbols - that's degrading the original."

With modern construction techniques, it is not that hard to surpass something built 400 years ago, the architect added, "You cannot compete with a stone carver in this day and age." The characteristic features of the historic Blue Mosque lie in the way it was built, which is not being practiced anymore. "Unfortunately, this new massive mosque will be a symbol of ignorance, not of knowledge and wisdom,” he said.

However, if you ask Ergin Külünk, president of an association for the construction and preservation of Islamic centers in Istanbul, building the new mosque is a necessity. "The Asian part of the city is lacking a mosque with a size that meets the requirements of believers," Külünk said, rejecting accusations that the new mosque will be a copy of the world famous Blue Mosque. "We wanted a classical mosque with a dome - and if you build it this way, it is inevitable that it resembles the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia or Süleymaniye mosque," Külünk told the "Hürriyet" newspaper.

A photo taken on April 7, 2009 shows the Blue Mosque in Istanbul before US President Barack Obama's visit. Built in the early 17th century by Sultan Ahmet I to compete with the grandeur of the Hagia Sophia Church, the mosque is one of Istanbul's largest. Pledging respect for Islam, Obama turned to public diplomacy on April 7, meeting religious leaders and students and touring ancient monuments in Istanbul on the second day of his first visit to a mainly Muslim nation. . AFP PHOTO / MUSTAFA OZER (Photo credit should read MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty Images)
Will the construction of the new mosque copy the Blue Mosque?Image: MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty Images

Symbol of a religious Turkey?

The mosque's opponents see a particular political significance in the controversial project. Erdogan Bayraktar, Istanbul's minister of environment and city planning, told "Hürriyet" that the mosque is meant to "represent the era of the AKP," Erdogan's Muslim-conservative party. Architect Öztuzcu even suggested the house of worship represents a step towards a stronger Islamic influence in Turkey.

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan attends on June 26, 2009, the 20th Crans Montana Forum in Brussels. Turkey's prime minister sought today to revitalise its EU membership bid, bogged down amid opposition from Paris and Berlin on top of historical differences over Cyprus. AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGET (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)
Does Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan only want to build a memorial for himself?Image: DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images

The AKP generally wants to increase the visibility of Islam in Istanbul, according to Mesut Yegen, a sociologist at the Sehir University in Istanbul.

"I do not think that the new mosque is a sign for the entire country that Turkey is going backwards or becoming more religious," he told DW. "The construction will merely reflect Erdogan's personality - which is authoritarian."