Sancaklar Mosque is the first mosque designed by Emre Arolat Architects, a company founded by Emre Arolat and Gonca Paşolar. It is one of the 20 winners of RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Awards for International Excellence 2018, and the 1st Prize in the World Architectural Festival Award 2013.

There has been much controversy in Turkey over plans to build new showpiece mosques that tower over Istanbul’s panoramas, making bold statements to the rest of the world and competing to be the biggest and best. Sancaklar Mosque exists in stark contrast to these intrusive models. It blends into the very landscape in which it was built. It doesn’t scream “look at me,” but instead welcomes visitors with a whisper and an air of gentle contemplation.

This was the aim of Emre Arolat Architects (EAA) in designing the mosque: to distance it from current architectural discussions and search for the true Islamic meaning of a mosque, with an emphasis on essence, not form.

The low-key outlook

From the road, there’s not much to see—just an attractive, natural-looking stone wall made from Bodrum slate, and a rectangular tower that looks more like a chimney than a minaret. It is only the name, Sancaklar Camii, carved into a piece of stone, which gives away the fact that this is a mosque. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was a high-tech museum built adjacent to the ruins of an ancient city.

This outer wall was built with the intention of making a clear demarcation between the chaos of the outer world and the serenity within. Yet, enter through a gap in the wall, pass the high canopy and the unconventional minaret, and you can still admire a spectacular view of the stretching prairies—a patchwork of farmed fields with blemishes of inhabitation.

Separated by tufts of grass, shallow steps at uneven angles curl their way down the hill from the upper courtyard into lower space. This effect causes the mosque to appear to have been absorbed into the landscape. An olive tree grows beside the steps halfway down, once again juxtaposing manmade and natural elements.

Yet, at the bottom of the steps, long stark walls serve to cut you off from the exterior world, and bring your focus within. The spaces created between the walls are as interesting as the structures themselves. Stone, wood, grass, and sky are contrasted at angles that draw in the eye and create an atmosphere of reflection even before you take your shoes off and step inside.

A quick look

The mosque occupies a 1,200 square meter space and can hold 650 people. The fact that it is seven meters below ground causes the mosque to appear part of the landscape itself.

Step into serenity

When you make the transition, the carpet is soft and thick under foot, and a sense of calm instantly envelops you. Exposed stone walls made from the same slate as the exterior are tastefully up-lit with evenly spaced spotlights shining from their positions in pebble-filled moats lining the wall’s interior.

At the front of this man-made cave, natural light floods in from a skylight that runs the length of the qibla wall, illuminating the curved steps of the minbar. There is no dome reaching towards the celestial realms, instead the roof is a series of ever decreasing layers of geometric shapes cut from reinforced concrete that resemble the steps you descended moments before. As you would expect from this exercise in modesty and minimalism, the interior is not adorned with calligraphy and symbolism. There is just one verse, on a shining modern black painted glass wall, that translates as “Remember your Lord much.”

Whether you come here to worship or to admire the architecture, the calming effect created by the contrasting materials, textures, line and angles is undeniably impressive. It serves to remove you from the turbulence of Istanbul, and allows you to be alone either with your god or simply with your thoughts.

Terms for mosque

The horizontal axis which faces the direction of the Ka’aba in Mecca, towards which Muslims pray.
A tower from which the call to prayer is traditionally issued, usually in Turkey they are long and slender and vary between one and four per mosque.
The pulpit from which the imam (prayer leader) delivers the Friday sermon at the noon-time prayer. The inclusion of a minbar is what distinguishes a cami (mosque) from a masjid.

How to get there

This mosque is more than a little out of the way and requires a vehicle and determination to reach it as it is located in Büyükçekmece, in Karaaç Mahallesi. Take the E80 highway headed west out of Istanbul; before you reach Büyükçekmece Lake, turn off the road following signs for Alkent. Turn right and pass through Alkent 2000 residences, heading towards Toskana Vadisi Evleri. The mosque is located on the opposite side of the road from Toskana Çarsısı.