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A grand mosque rises Print E-mail
05 October 2011

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A spectacular building is going up in Midrand – a Turkish developer is pouring money into a mosque and attached school, bringing the gorgeous Ottoman Empire style to Joburg.

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T’S 400 years old, but is brand-new: a grand mosque, using old Ottoman Empire architecture and ancient Turkish building techniques, is rising steadily in the veld in Midrand, its four tall minarets soaring into the sky, encircling a huge dome.

The striking building can be seen from the freeway, its dome arousing the curiosity of passing motorists.
It is the work of Ali Katircioglu, a Turkish property developer, who is stomping up millions for the construction of the mosque. And he has brought a group of Turkish professionals with him out to South Africa for the build, keeping strictly to the methods of the old country.

They all call Katircioglu “Uncle Ali” – he is 75 years old and retired, but has spent the last two years in Joburg. He left behind his family, including his 13 grandchildren, to be on site and see the building rise from the ground, says the project manager, Orhan Celik.

The mosque is already a landmark in MidrandThe mosque is already a landmark in Midrand

A landmark
The mosque, already a landmark, is even more spectacular from close up, with its painted dome rising 32 metres into the air, anchored by the four 55m tall minarets. It is built as an Ottoman structure, modelled on the fabulous Selimiye Camisi mosque in Edirne, Turkey. It is considered to be architect Mimar Sinan’s masterpiece and was completed in 1574. Today it is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Uncle Ali primarily wanted to build a school for Muslim children, but, of course, part of their education would be to attend mosque, so a mosque had to be built. He chose the Ottoman style because when the Ottoman Empire was expanding several centuries ago, it didn’t come as far down as South Africa, explains Celik. “He wants the children to see an Ottoman mosque.”

The mosque and school are to be complete by January 2012, with an attached clinic, an arasta, or row of shops and restaurant, to be complete by mid-2012.

Courtyard and veranda
The Turkish headmaster of the school, Isak Turan, walks through the large courtyard, with its ground-floor arched veranda and first-floor arched windows topped by 21 small domes on three sides. The marble columns are spectacular, as are the finely patterned tiles that surround doorways along the interior of the veranda.

But this is just a teaser for what is to come: entering the mosque proper from a side door, with a view down a corridor, offers quite a sight – a tall ceiling, marble columns topped with gold leaf painted decorations, colourful patterned tiles reaching to the roof, marble floors.

The doorway leads to a veranda – more tiled walls, more marble arches. Local materials couldn’t be found, says Celik, so all materials were imported from Turkey. Turkish calligraphers have also been imported.

One layer inwards there is another high-ceiled passageway, with the women’s balcony overlooking it, the balustrade a delicate concrete lacework of stars and circles. Above it is a set of six arched stained-glass windows, depicting tulips in a blaze of colour. They too were imported from Turkey. Tulips are a symbol of the Ottoman Empire. The women’s gallery is marble floored.

The walls are tiled from floor to ceilingThe walls are tiled from floor to ceilingThe dome
The piece de resistance, however, is the dome. As construction is ongoing, the main hall is filled to the roof with gumpoles, used as scaffolding.

Each pole is cemented into the rough floor. They reach almost 32 metres into the structure, the height of the dome. Turan says the cemented-in scaffolding is used in Turkey, and has probably been done this way for centuries.

In the middle there is no scaffolding, drawing the eye upwards. The dome is painted in intricate detail, hours and hours of work going into it.

It is ringed with a row of stained glass windows, below which is a circle of gold lettering going around the dome, depicting the 99 names given to God. The dome pulls the viewer upwards – it is indeed beautiful.

Celik says that it posed a special challenge. The dome has a diameter of 24 metres and is 12 metres high, and is made of reinforced concrete.

This means that it had to be cast in one go. “It took 20 hours to cast the dome – from 7am to 3am the next morning,” he says. A long casting pipe had to be found, stretching 45 metres from the ground upwards. The dome ranges in width from 200mm to 700mm.

Once complete, the mosque will be able to accommodate 3 500 men and women, most of those men.

A narrow curved staircase comes out above the 21 domes, looking down on their lead roofs, which are beautifully fitted together. From this vantage point, there is a close-up view of the concrete minarets, with their delicate moulding at three points.

Celik says the minarets also posed a challenge. They are only three metres in diameter but contain two concrete spiral staircases, running one above the other – one up, one down. In centuries past these were done in stone, but a special mould had to be made for these staircases.

But this is not the top – there is another staircase leading further up. Over a low wall at the top, there is a narrow balcony with a low balustrade, running right below the base of the dome. This is as close as you can get to the dome. From here, voices echo around the dome, bouncing back – it is a mighty, lofty space.

Down below, the calligraphers work among the gumpoles, balancing confidently on planks on the topmost section of scaffolding, paintbrushes in hand.

The base of the dome is a maze of colours and shapesThe base of the dome is a maze of colours and shapeThree architects
Celik says that the mosque has three architects – the 400-year-old Sinan, the original architect; a Turkish architect, who was tasked with designing the Midrand mosque and who incorporated 75 percent of the original building into her design; and then a South African architect, who had to translate the plans into English so that they could be submitted to the City for approval.

Small changes to the plan were made once work started, says Celik. Back on the ground, there is a large basement dining and conference hall. It has a stage, a central fountain, and an opening in the ceiling, letting in light.

On the eastern edge of the 10ha site is the elegant four-storey school. It will accommodate 850 boys and girls, and when it opens in 2012 it will run grades 0 to 3 and grade 8 classes. There will also be boarding facilities for 200 children, and sports fields.

Back at the grand entrance staircase, young palms and a circular bed of roses, surrounding a fountain, welcome visitors.

Mosque builders think big, plan boldly, and take their time to craft stunning places of worship. This is a place where your prayers will rebound up into the dome, playing there among the myriad colourful images and shapes. And more than likely be answered.

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