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Page last updated at 01:14 GMT, Monday, 29 September 2008 02:14 UK

Istanbul skyline gets woman's touch

By Dorian Jones
BBC News, Istanbul

When I met designer Zeynep Fadillioglu, she was giving instructions to her team of architects on the installation of a cutting-edge water feature.

Sakirin Mosque
The design draws heavily on Turkey's Islamic traditions

The metal sphere created by British designer William Pye will dominate the entrance of the Sakirin Mosque.

The fountain, along with a modern glass chandelier from China made from thousands of individually crafted shards of glass, are central pieces in what is being seen as one of most radical mosque designs in Turkey in generations.

"Designing everything we tried to be contemporary, but not, let's say, too futuristic or avant garde," Ms Fadillioglu says.

"We don't want the public to reject the place. We want the public to feel part of the place, rather than watching it as an incredible art object. I think it should be their own place."

The internationally renowned interior designer sees herself as a product of Turkey's secular republic, which was established in 1923, and gave equal rights to men and women.

Pioneering woman

Dealing with major projects is nothing new for Ms Fadillioglu, who has made her name designing hotels and homes for the super-rich, from Turkey to Europe, India to the Middle East.

But she admits the chance to be the first woman in Turkey to be in charge of building a mosque was the opportunity of a lifetime.

"When I was offered this project I cried," Ms Fadillioglu said.

The mosque was commissioned by a wealthy Arab Turkish family, as a memorial to their mother.

"I think what is exciting is that I am a woman," she said.

"Especially at a time when so much is being discussed wrongly of Islam not allowing women to have equal rights. The fact that a woman can build a mosque disproves this."

Zeynep Fadillioglu (Pic: Zf Design)
We wanted to go with the flow of Islam, while at the same time creating something contemporary
Zeynep Fadillioglu

She believes being a woman brings a different insight to building a mosque.

"I care more about the aesthetical side, I care more about the public, I try to give a place to be really left with God, rather than creating a symbol."

Despite Turkey's strictly secular status, much of the country remains religiously conservative, and the Sakirin Mosque is being built in one of the most religious parts of Istanbul.

Ms Fadillioglu admits she was expecting problems, but was pleasantly surprised.

"I did not face any problems whatsoever. I was more scared myself, I had the prejudice myself, that I would have problems. That's why I took very cautious steps and we worked as a team."

Ironically, she said she faced more problems from staunchly secular friends.

"People with Western values, they kept on asking me why I was building a mosque. People had all these confusions, that I was somehow selling out my secular ideals."

Fusion of influences

The aim of the Sakirin Mosque - combining the influences of the past and present, and East and West - has been a difficult balancing act, Ms Fadillioglu concedes.

Sakirin Mosque dome
The dome is one of many that make Istanbul's skyline special

"We worked here with a lot of Islamic craftsmen, contemporary craftsmen, with very different views on life, and all of them worked very well together. That co-ordination may be more difficult to achieve with a masculine figure. With a feminine figure it is more easily handled, I think."

The mosque construction comes as Turkey remains deeply divided over the role of religion within society.

In July the ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) narrowly escaped being shut down. It was accused of seeking to overthrow the secular state, and the country's constitutional court handed down a fine and a severe warning.

An opinion poll released this month found that 68% of the country believes there is a conflict over religion and secularism. In such an environment Ms Fadillioglu hopes the mosque will become a symbol of unity.

"There are big discussions on whether Western values are to be integrated with Islamic values, or whether two different communities will remain divided.

"I think this mosque has all the Western and Eastern values nicely blended. We wanted to go with the flow of Islam, while at the same time creating something contemporary."


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