The Zal Mahmud complex was built by the architect Sinan and commissioned by Shah Sultan, daughter of Selim II (1566-1574), and her husband, the Ottoman vizier Zal Mahmud Pasa (both d. 1580). Due to deteriorated inscriptions and inconsistent documentation, which provide dates ranging from 1551 and 1579, the exact construction date cannot be pinpointed. Standing on an inclined site in Eyüp between two avenues that run along its east and west sides, the complex can be entered via portals on either side. It consists of the mosque and the tomb on the south side, and the upper and lower madrasas on the north side of the site.
In the Zal Mahmut Pasa complex, Sinan shifted from the graded pyramidal structures of his earlier mosques, building a large, pierced rectangular box with a single dome that is twelve and a half meters in diameter. On the exterior, the effect of the dome diminishes next to the height and monolithic character of the exterior walls. The five-bay portico attached to the north of the prayer hall attempts to balance the massing. The center bay of the portico, distinguished from the other (domed) four by its mirror vault, highlights the portal of the mosque. The portal features a wooden door topped with muqarnas carvings.
Entering through the portal to the north of the prayer hall, one sees four small columns carrying the upper gallery, which block the view of the dome. The unexpected experience of limited vision continues, as the central space is dimly lit in comparison to the side galleries. Further into the prayer hall, the dome above the central space rests on large pendentives over four colossal piers, or "elephant feet". The arches are plainly visible, a departure from Sinan's pyramidal mosques, where the arches are embedded in the supporting semi-domes. With the revelation of the arches, the side galleries become independent structures. They hold many windows, some reaching up to the level of their flat roofs, and are better-lit than the central space. On the qibla wall, the pentagonal mihrab niche features two small columns on its sides and a pencil-work frame.
On the exterior, the single-balcony minaret stands at the northwestern corner of the mosque and is entered from the western bay of the portico. On its east elevation, the mosque has a vaulted basement floor that opens to the lower courtyard with rows of arched columns. Two massive piers, exposed on the south elevation, soften its flatness. Overall, the mosque is a relatively simple composite structure of brick and stone. As it represents a departure from Sinan's other mosques and his developmental trajectory, it may have been one of his experimental works. Alternatively, it could have been designed by another architect.
The madrasa, which also departs from a conventional, symmetrical typology in favor of an organic plan development, is located on the north end of the site, forming two adjacent clusters on two levels. Connected to the northeast corner of the mosque by a staircase, the two clusters were developed independently. Therefore, they are usually referred as two separate madrasas, the "upper" and the "lower."
The U-shaped plan of the upper madrasa creates a fountain courtyard within the portico of the mosque. It consists of thirteen cells of different types and sizes, and a larger classroom. The cells on the western wing follow a rectilinear typology along the courtyard side. On the other side, their shape becomes trapezoidal, conforming to the shifting boundary of the site. These cells have mirror vaults; the eastern wing's five sequential cells are all topped with domes. The classroom is located north of the upper madrasa, and is shifted from the central axis. On its east is a mirror-vaulted rectangular room; three domed cells and a trapezoidal cell are found on its west. A portico runs along the northern and eastern edges; the western wing is left blank, drawing focus to the fountain in the courtyard.
The lower madrasa is L-shaped in plan, with seven identical domed cells on its north, and four typologically different cells and a classroom on its east. All are fronted with a portico. The first of the seven cells attached to the upper madrasa shift to the north, doubling the depth of the portico bay, which results in an elongated mirror vault. The other six bays of the portico have identical domes, whereas the domes on the east vary in size. A fountain is located at the southeastern corner of the madrasa, next to the eastern portal of the complex.
The irregularities in the plan continue in the tectonics of the complex; one finds unequal arch lengths, columns that do not match, and unrelated masonry patterns. These mixtures provide no clear statements concerning the architect's intentions or the possible stages of construction and renovation.
The tomb stands in the lower courtyard, between the eastern entrance of the complex and the mosque. It is entered through a four-columned portico on its north. While its exterior appears octagonal, its interior features a cross plan. The domed central space is flanked by four rectangular spaces surmounted by mirror vaults. The tomb contains the cenotaphs of Zal Mahmud and his wife.
The complex suffered damage several times, beginning in the seventeenth century. Deserted in 1808, it was restored in 1825 and was preserved until the 1894 earthquake, during which its minaret, along with other parts of the complex, was demolished. Following the replacement of the minaret, the mosque was again abandoned in 1930. The interior ornament was restored during the 1955-1963 renovations. 1964 is the last documented date of a restoration at the complex.
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