Origins and evolution of minarets

By Kerim Altuğ, World Bulletin

Minaret at Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque



I. The origins and evolution of minaret

Minarets are tower-like structures usually associated with mosques or other religious buildings. They contain platforms, reached through stairs built inside the minaret, on which the ‘muezzin’ stands to call Muslims to prayer.

In trying to understand how the tower got its special meaning in Islamic societies, scholars have attempted—with mixed success—to trace minarets back to various traditions of tower building in the pre-Islamic cultures of Eurasia. Over a century ago, for example, A. J. Butler, the British historian of Roman Egypt, speculated that the multistoried form of the typical Cairene minaret of the Mamluk period might have been derived from the Pharos (lighthouse) of Alexandria, one of the wonders of the ancient world, which—although long destroyed—is known from descriptions by ancient writers to have been square in the lower part of its shaft, octagonal in the middle and cylindrical at the top. Butler’s contemporary, the German architectural historian Hermann Thiersch, elaborated this theory by publishing a detailed study of the history of the Pharos. He showed that the ancient tower had stood well into Islamic times and could have inspired Mamluk builders in Egypt.


     Not all minarets had three different cross-sections like the Egyptian ones—some had entirely square shafts and some had cylindrical ones. He therefore suggested that square minarets, such as those found in Syria, North Africa and Spain, were derived from church towers. His church-tower theory was strengthened by the survival of the Arabic term sawma’a, used in medieval North Africa and Spain to refer to minarets. Derived from the Arabic word once used to describe the cell of a Christian monk, sawma’a is the source of the obsolete Spanish word, zoma, or “tower.”

     But this theory still left cylindrical towers unexplained. Thiersch believed that cylindrical minarets, like those common in Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, derived from Roman and Byzantine monumental victory columns—an explanation that supported his view that minarets were erected principally as symbols of Islam’s triumph over other religions. But while it was relatively easy to see how square church towers in Syria might have led to square minarets in Syria, Thiersch was unable to explain how—or why—something like Trajan’s Column in Rome could have inspired Central Asian builders to erect cylindrical brick minarets.3

     Still other experts thought that minarets were themselves direct descendants of the Mesopotamian ziggurats. Many have remarked on the supposed resemblance of the Malwiya, the 50-meters spiral tower erected at Samarra, Iraq in the middle of the ninth century, to a ziggurat. However, though there is a centuries-old tradition of representing the Tower of Babel, the most famous ziggurat of all, as a spiral tower, in fact, modern archeologists have determined that only a few ziggurats—such as the one at Khorsabad and perhaps another at Babylon—actually did spiral, and those were square, not round, spirals. The vast majority of ziggurats were actually square stepped towers, with separate flights of stairs at right angles to their sides, so whatever inspired the Malwiya, it was not a ziggurat of the usual type.

     The first mosque to have had towers is the Great Mosque of Damascus, erected early in the eighth century, which had relatively short, square towers—some of them are still visible today—at its four corners. These structures, however, were left over from the building’s earlier incarnation as the enclosure surrounding the Roman temple to Jupiter that once stood on the site. Historians do not know what purpose, if any, the Roman towers may have served in Umayyad times, although it is quite possible that muezzins would have climbed them to give the call to prayer from their tops. Many centuries later, two of these short towers were surmounted by taller towers in the Mamluk style and a new third tower was built on the north side of the mosque.

     In Anatolia, which was opened to Muslim settlement after the battle of Malazgirt in 1071, the first minarets followed the Iranian model, having slender cylindrical brick shafts with a stone base, sometimes decorated with glazed tiles, a circular balcony and a conical roof.

     The Ottomans, who expanded from northwest Anatolia into eastern Europe, further developed this type in stone, and the presence of multiple minarets came to indicate that a mosque had been founded by a sultan. The Üç Serefeli (“Three-Balcony”) Mosque in Edirne, built for Sultan Murat II in 1438, is the first Ottoman mosque to have had not only multiple minarets but also multiple balconies on a single minaret. Each of its four stone towers has a differently decorated shaft; that at the northwest corner rises to 67 meters and has three balconies, giving the building its popular name.

     The combination of tall pointed minarets and large lead covered domes gives Ottoman architecture its distinctive form. In most mosques in the Ottoman Empire this was achieved with a single minaret attached to the corner of a mosque. However, in the major cities of the empire mosques were built with two, four or even six minarets. At some point it seems to have been established that only a reigning sultan could erect more than one minaret per mosque. 


II. Construction of minaret

The minaret is one of the important elements of Ottoman architecture which bring completion to a mosque. Minarets basically consist of following parts:

     The pencil-shaped Ottoman minaret is a tall, faceted or fluted mostly polygonal cylindrical shaft which has a ring on upper or lower part, resting on triangular buttresses, (Transition zone) “pabuç” above the bases “kürsü” Transition zones mostly decorated with Turkish triangle motives. Foundations, usually the ground underneath the towering minarets are excavated until a hard foundation is reached. Gravel and other supporting materials may be used as a foundation, and it is rare that one is built directly upon ground-level soil.

      Minaret has a circular balcony “serefe”, wider than the shaft and resting on a band of muqarnas which looks like superimposed rows of fish scale. From the balcony rises a small, cylindrical shaft called “petek” with a conical cap resting on two rows of fish scale. The caps mostly covered with lead sheets and on the top of them, glazed alems consist of kova, cubes, ring, armut, neck and crescent take place.

     Stone masonry, basically a structural element, but it can also be employed to provide decoration. Ashlar masonry, preferred for monumental structures for its longevity and stability, has become the traditional material fort he minaret, which is itself the symbol of mosque architecture, both as a structural and decorative feature. Massive stone facades support these minarets whose shaft, also of stone, are shaped and interlocked both with each other and with the facade wall. The main supporting element of the minaret is the stairwell, while the stalactite structure beneath the minaret balconies both supports them and acts as decorative feature. Some minarets as of the Sehzade mosque are decorated throughout the length of the shaft. Shafts tend to be cylindrical or fluted, with stalactite motives clustered around the balconies. The balustrade is also a focus of motive.

     The varied minarets of early Ottoman mosques gave way to soberer and plainer types, particularly under the masterful hand of Sinan, the greatest Ottoman architect. Sinan’s mosque for Süleyman the Magnificent in Istanbul (1550-1556) has two pairs of minarets framing the courtyard: The taller two measure 76 meters and have three balconies each. Sinan’s mosque for Sultan Selim in Edirne has four identical minarets framing the dome; each stands over 70 meters tall and has three balconies reached by three nested helical staircases.

     Seventeenth-century European travelers to the Ottoman Empire record that teams of muezzins gave the call to prayer antiphonally from the several balconies of minarets, but the increasing height and multiplication of minarets in Ottoman times cannot be explained by piety alone. For architects, the minarets served to frame the domed masses of the mosque; for patrons they remained a powerful symbol of Islam—and the Ottoman sultanate—triumphant. Ottoman minarets consequently became a familiar sight as Ottoman domination extended around the Mediterranean basin into Syria, Arabia, Egypt, North Africa, Greece and the Balkans. The traditional square minaret continued to hold its own in Morocco, where the Ottomans never ruled.


III. Analysing of monuments 

Minarets of suleymaniye

     The complex, which was built for Süleyman the Magnificent, was to be the largest of its kind in Otoman architecture to be built after the century-old Fatih complex. At the centre of the complex stands the mosque, which is surrounded by four medreses, a medical college, stores, a Koranic college, mental hospital, soup kitchens, an infirmary, baths, a school and two mausoleums. The size and complexity of the site, in actual fact, renders it an example of urban design rather than an enclosed complex in the classical sense. The function and structural organization of the buildings reinforce this. A geometrical arrangement is discernable among them, although this was only achieved through remarkable engineering to accommodate the uneven and steeply sloping site on the upper slopes of the Golden Horn. Two of the medreses are built on successive levels to the north-east of the site, and a series of terraces were constructed over the rest of the site.

     The dome and the courtyard of the mosque, which is its foil, are no new development, although Sinan has abandoned the square in favour of a rectangular court forty-four by fifty-seven meters; nor is his use of four minarets: both concepts are related to the Üç Şerefeli Cami at Edirne. But there the minarets were archaic, whereas Sinan has archieved classical symmetry; moreover his are beautifully proportioned, with the two taller at the junction of court and building possessing three balconies while the shorter at the extreme North corners of the court have only two. This contrast in size helps greatly emphasize the powerful axial movement from the north to south which is such an outstanding feature and also the underlying pyramidal form, strongest of all architectural statements, of the silhouette so grandly set above the Horn.

      The corresponding corner-blocks on the North side are incorporated into the bases of the taller minarets, while the four central buttresses avoid projecting into the portico by forming the traditional recesses inside the mosque itself. The South corner-blocks are excessively strong and their function is partly aesthetic, in that they balance those t the North corners which have to support minarets which reach the height of 63.80 meters exclusive of their lead caps. These may have been elongated in the seventeenth century, and bring the total height to seventy-six meters. All four minarets are multi-faceted, and their ten galleries are borne by sharply carved and vigorously pendant stalactite consoles with balustrades designed in a diversity of traditional geometric patterns. Beneath the lead caps light-blue glazed tiles lighten the effect as if they were windows. The square bases which are simply panelled on each face, with pilasters set into their corners, reach to the height of the portico over the west and east doors and their feet reach to the height of the courtyard wall. The huge and clumsy bases of the earlier periods are now reduced to harmonious proportions and the Stone shafts are as lissom as they are strong. Moreover, the tapering of their trunks between an above their galleries is subtly handled so that their diminution is felt rather than perceived and so adds to their appearance of height.  

Measurements from minaret bases

  Height to the ceiling of porch of the taller minaret base, 3.35 meters, height of the door, 1.89 meters + 22 cm of threshold, width of the door interior 62 cm, height of the frame, 3.16 meters, width of frame 1.66 meters. The measurement of edge of shorter minarets octagonal formed of base is 1.51 meters, height of the door from bottom of lentil, 1.85 + 21 cm. of threshold, moulding under the threshold is 24 cm., width of the door interior is 62 cm. eight of the frame, 3 meters, thickness of the lentil, 21 cm.

Minarets of sehzade

     This was the first imperial complex to be built by Mimar Sinan. The complex consists of a mosque, medrese, primary school, hospital, stable, caravanserai, timekeeper’s room and tombs.

     Although the complex bears the name of Sultan Suleyman’s son Sehzade (Prince) Mehmed, Suleyman originally intended the complex to be dedicated to himself, but upon the sudden death of a son he had hoped would one day be Sultan he decided to dedicate it to the Sehzade. The complex is located on a plateau dominating the city immediately beside the Old Palace (now the University of Istanbul) and between the Fatih and Bayezid complexes.

     The mosque is roofed by a central dome supported by four half domes. The plan consisting of a cruciform element set within a square is the ultimate point of development in the framework of the Ottoman architectural tradition. Previous steps in this development are to be seen in the Uc Serefeli Mosque in Edirne, the old Fatih Mosque in Istanbul and the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque in Uskudar.

 With the Sehzade also for the first time in Ottoman architecture solid walls are replaced by a colonnade. The minarets are adorned in search of enrichment. The use of pink and white marble in the voussoirs is attractive as are the motifs in relief which cover the twin minarets (because although dedicated to Mehmet this is a sultan’s mosque). This charm Sinan was to reject as dangerously sweet afterwards. The minarets are set the extreme north-east and north-west of the mosque. Façate on bases which act as terminals for the lateral galleries outside. Their twin şerefes are carried on stalactite corbels. The caps are tall but they have been restored and the original ones would have been squat in the earlier sixteenth-country manner. The serve as fine foils to the upsurge of dome and semi-dome and robust decagonal turrets. This is the first formal, classical build-up in logical but aesthetic terms of the exterior mass of a great mosque’s roofing.

Measurements from minaret bases:

      Height from upper frame of the base, 2.92 meters, length of the door interior, 1.97 meters, width of the door interior, 62 cm, height of the lower frame 2.48 meters, width of frame 1.50 meters. 

Minarets of ati̇k valide

     Atik Valide is Sinan’s largest complex after the Süleymaniye. Built fort he mother of Murat III, Nurbanu Valide Sultan, it includes a mosque, a medrese, a han, alms houses, an infirmary and schools of the Koran and Koranic Law. The mosque employs a plan which is a variation on the six-piered dome system used by the architect earlier in the mosques of Semiz Ali Paşa and Sokullu Mehmet Paşa at Kadırga, with the latter addition as a pair of cupolas flanking the main dome which depart from the original plan. The complex as a whole is much more interest than the mosque alone, and is notably successful in adapting to the site, especially in the arrangement of interlinked fourcourts, which are spacious enough to be considered terraced gardens.

     The mosque has two polygonal shafted minarets, which were probably restored in the nineteenth century, because it is a royal foundation and the egg decoration at the lower part of the balcony and girlands from top of petek. There are some reluctants to accept this mosque as the work of Sinan, because the plan is sophisticated reversion to that of Sinan Pasha with the dome carried on six supports but there seems no reason to doubt that the conception was his originally. The minarets can be reached from the portico and from inside, which is exceptional at this period.

Minarets of mihrimah sultan at uskudar

     The mosque was built for Mihrimah Sultan, daughter of Süleyman the Magnificent, together with a series of buildings, namely a medrese, infirmary, baths, alms house and school. The mosque is one of Sinan’s more interesting early structural experiments, although the other buildings in this small complex tend to abide by the general structural rules for such complexes. While he was actually building the Şehzade, with its four semi-domes, in the Mihrimah, at the same time he employed a plan involving three semi-domes flanking the central dome. It is actually the first and only time he used that plan.17

      The square main block of the harem of the mosque is as uncompromising as that of the Valide Cami at Manisa. It rises starkly from behind the broad roofs and domes, its main dome crowning all. The half-domes on the east and west are obscured to some extent, and this gives the impression that the elegant minarets are set unusually far apart, the whole effect being of stateliness which must have been greater still before the foreshore in front of the building was cobbled and crowded with taxis and trucks. The second minaret, which is so essential for the balanced design of the complex, shows this to be a sultan’s mosque; the greater mosque which Mihrimah built for herself at Edirnekapı has only one. The polygonal shaped shafts of minarets have thick rows of muqarnas at balcony level and have entrance doors at the portico.18 These two minarets, a privilege of royalty, viewed across masts of ships and sinuous lateen sails announce the landmark.

Minarets of mihrimah sultan at edirnekapi

      The mosque is part of a complex including a medrese, mausoleum, baths and stores; the medrese flanking the court, and the other buildings arranged close by in a compact group. The mosque is one of Sinan’s less-innovative structures, but is, nevertheless, among the most successful examples of the classical Ottoman style. The plan, a simple arrangement of a row of three cupolas on either side of a raised dome, provides the framework for a number of features which were unusual for the period. The support system, although apparently simple, is in fact truly skeletal in a modern sense, with load-bearing members taking all the weight of the superstructure, especially in the central domed area, where the grand piers and intervening arches bear the entire load of the dome, leaving the walls free to bear only their own weight. Piercing such curtain walls for illumination is a relatively easy matter, and here the result is a highly-illuminated interior enclosed by walls pierced by large numbers of windows.

     Here on the sixth hill where the mosque constructed, once stood the monastery of St Georgious and, although it is the most far-flung of the great mosques in the city, he raised it high on a platform set on vaults and gave it a tall and slender minaret so that it could be seen from afar both from within the walls and by the travelers from Edirne. Its height also served as a foil to the dome. A single minaret is always less satisfactory than two, and one of normal dimensions would have looked weak beside so large a cupola. As the Sultan’s daughter, Mihrimah was entitled to two minarets, but as legend has it, she ordered Sinan to stop at one as a symbol of her desperate loneliness.

     The mosque and its dependencies have twice suffered from severe earthquakes. The Hadika reports that some of the stairs in the minaret were damaged in the first quake of 1719 and had to be replaced by a ladder. The mosque and the medrese also suffered. The much more severe quake of 1894 brought the all too slender minaret crashing down athwart the north-west corner of the mosque and its portico. A result has been the disfiguring of the interior by twentieth-century stencilling.21 Because of the destruction appeared both in the mosque and the minaret after earthquake of 1999, the minaret had demolished in 2006 and rebuilding with new material process is still going on. 

Measurements from minaret bases:

     Width of minaret door frame, 1.89 meters, width of door interior, 1.30 meters, height of the door interior, 2.04 meters, height of door frame, 2.67 meters.



Creswell. K. A. C.;  “The Evolution of the Minaret with Special Reference to Egypt”, Burlington Magazine 48, 1926, s: 134-140.

Egli, H.; Sinan, an Interpretation, İstanbul, 1997.

Eyice, S.;  “ İstanbul’da Bazı Cami ve Mescid Minareleri”, Türkiyat Mecmuası X, İstanbul, 1953, s: 

Goodwin, G.; A History of Ottoman Architecture, London, 1971.

Kuban, D.; Sinan’ın Sanatı ve Selimiye, İstanbul, 1997.

Sözen, M.; Arts in the Age of Sinan, İstanbul, 1988.

Sözen, M.; Sinan Architect of Ages, İstanbul, 1988.


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