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Heritage & History

Divine Simplicity

Just below Skopje’s medieval walls lies Mustafa Pasha Mosque, one of the city’s most renowned and striking landmarks. It dominates the plateau above the old bazaar and is visible from all sides. Its 47-metrehigh minaret and 16-metre dome catch the eye of every visitor to the Macedonian capital. The mosque lies on the periphery of busy city life hiding its grandeur in sacred serenity. Only neighbourhood kids playing around its fence, the gardener tending the courtyard and a few believers preparing for the prayer disrupt the silence and accentuate its quiet holiness.

It stands unchanged since 1492, when Mustafa Pasha, the commander of Skopje, had it erected to honour God. The marble tablet in Arabic reveals that the mosque was built in November 1492 (“at the beginning of Moharrem in the year 898”) by Mustafa Pasha, “let the just augment the reputation of the benefactor Mustapha, son of Abdullah”. Being vizier in the court of two Sultans, Bayazit II and Selim I, Mustafa Pasha was a respectable and important person possessing large estates throughout the Balkans, including Skopje and surrounding villages. Despite his wealth and might he too faced the unpredictability of life when his beloved daughter Umi died at a young age. He dedicated to her a turbeh (mausoleum) with a sarcophagues carved in marble, something not seen in Macedonia until then. After his own death in 1519 he was buried within the same walls.

The mosque is elegant and simple in its design. The central square chamber has a twelve-sided tambour supporting a monumental dome. The mosque is built in the early Istanbul style influenced
by Byzantine architecture. One of its characteristics is the alternation of one layer of carved stone with two layers of bricks in the walls and in the tambour. Some experts consider this to be an indication of the existence of an earlier Christian site, probably a church devoted to St. Marina, at this location. Having in mind the importance of Skopje in the preOttoman times, when it was the capital city of the mightiest Serbian ruler Dushan the Strong who was also a devoted believer and erected many churches around his tsardom, it is reasonable to believe that the area around his royal seat could have been covered with sacred buildings.

Mustafa Pasha Mosque used to be part of a religious complex. Archeological findings around the mosque point to the existence of a medresah (religious school), imaret (public kitchen for the poor), living quarters for the clerics and other buildings. The famous Turkish traveller Evliya Chelebi wrote about those buildings in his chronicle during his visit to Skopje.

In the mosque courtyard the visitors are welcomed by a nice fountain built in 1933 on the site of an older one. In the Moslem sacred architecture such fountain is called shadrvan. Believers perform ritual ablution at the fountain before prayers. The mosque entrance is a portico supported by four marble columns with three small domes. One of the three is a bit bigger than the other two and prepares the visitors for the big central dome. The wooden door is carved in the kundekari technique, while the interior is painted with the rich polychrome malakari decoration. The interior is simple and spacious. The traditional mihrab (niche indicating the direction to Mecca) is in the southeast side, the mimbar (pulpit) is decorated with marble carving. On the right side of the mosque there is a beautiful slender minaret in the upper part of which there is an elegant balcony with richly decorated banisters with magnificent marble stalactite carvings and rosettes. The turbeh of Mustapha Pasha Mosque, where the sarcophagus of his beloved daughter Umi is placed is a marvellous piece of architecture as well. It lies next to the southeast side of the mosque. It has
six sides, with an opening on each, a door and five windows.

The turbeh is covered with a dome built on a shallow tambour, which is polygonal from the outside and circular on the inside. The lintel of the turbeh has been crowned with a calligraphic inscription board, which was damaged in the 1963 earthquake and is kept within the turbeh. The sarcophagus is placed centrally and is decorated with a relief of floral motives.

The Mosque remained untouched until the disastrous Skopje earthquake. Suffering a minor damage, it was only partially restored after the catastrophe. Its full grandeur was revealed during the renovation funded by the Turkish Government which ended in 2011, after five long years of careful work of the conservators. The restorations strengthened the foundations of the mosque, the domes as well as the minaret. The minaret has been taken apart stone by stone, and then erected again, each stone in its original place. The renovation has restored the original colours to their true nuances. Mustafa Pasha aimed to make place for himself in the heaven enlightened by Allah. For sure, the monument endowed by him provokes admiration in every visitor casting an eye on it.