The Great Mosques of Lake Geneva

June 6, 2011

After the Swiss referendum that decided on a constitutional ban on the construction of any new minarets in 2009, Mika Savela speculates about what would the imagery of classical Switzerland have looked like if merged with late 19th century images of Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire.


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Zurich. © Mika Savela.

In 1697, the Hapsburg Imperial forces defeated the Ottoman army in Zenta, Serbia. This event came to mark the Ottoman Empire’s eventual loss of its territories in Central Europe. As a result, Europe, both as a continent and a mindset, became in many ways, not only less Ottoman, but less Islamic than it had been for centuries. Somehow, the memory of the Turks almost reaching Vienna and their presence in the heartlands of Europe was erased into oblivion.

As conquerors, the Ottomans did not systematically tear down the traditional monuments in their provinces, nor spread their religion by force. Instead, they built new institutions, such as schools, mosques, minarets, fountains and baths, as new monuments in the urban fabric. In fact, they built systems that would, in the long run, change both the social and built traditions of cities. In one aspect–the street café–they succeeded beyond all expectations. After the Hapsburg conquest, however, most of the physical remnants of the Ottoman rule were demolished, adapted or integrated, and with them, in a way, direct reminders of this otherness was lost.

After Zenta, the Ottoman Empire remained somewhat isolated from the rest of Europe. One by one, its territories in Northern Africa and around the Mediterranean were snatched by growing European superpowers. At the same time, Western popular interest towards the otherness of the Orient started to grow. The West no longer remembered the Turks as Terrible conquerors, a veritable threat in the backyard, but instead found them exotic and faraway. This significant shift in thinking and the division of power marked the beginning of romanticized Orientalism, as trips to Constantinople, Damascus, Cairo and other exciting, immensely old cities became more commonplace for the wealthy, European, grand touring elite, inspired by the heroic example of Lord Byron and the like.

In 2009, the Swiss referendum decided on a constitutional ban on the construction of any new minarets to existing or future mosques, in order to protect its skylines and alpine landscapes from possible further Islamic influence, leaving the total number of minarets in the country, so far permanently, at four. At a time when urban silhouettes are changing rapidly and the global urbanization keeps escalating, such forceful attempts at keeping the urban landscape static and uniform might seem like a luxury only a few can afford.

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Chillon et La Dent du Midi. © Mika Savela.

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Clarens. © Mika Savela.

In any case, Islam has returned to the West, not trough monuments but with people. How should one really feel about the Swiss decision of banning, not really minarets as such, but the visibility, and any claims of otherness in the urban landscape, especially when, throughout history, power, stately might, religion, industrialization, and modernization have shaped cities everywhere? Outside the western world, these have often been imported forcefully, with systems of rule and order, changing the environment and traditions forever, for better and for worse. What is the worst case scenario for Switzerland?

While historical speculation seldom leads anywhere, it does seem tempting to ponder how the Swiss vote would have turned out had the Battle of Zenta ended differently. What would the imagery of classical Switzerland have looked like? How would that carefully preserved image, now so tightly knit into the conception of national landscape, have changed? Are minarets not as beautiful as they were hailed by the late poets and architects, like the young Swiss-born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, who in 1911, after seeing them, wrote:

upon the hilltops of Stamboul the shining white ‘Great Mosques’ swell up and spread themselves out amid spacious courtyards surrounded by neat tombs in lively cemeteries….Then during the moonlit evenings and black nights if Stamboul my ear was filled by the swooning of their souls and those undulating recitals of all the muezzins on their minarets when they chant and call the devoted to prayer! Immense domes enclose the mystery of closed doors, minarets soar triumphantly sky-ward; against the whitewash of high walls dark green cypress…1

These images have been created as a blend between late 19th century photochrom prints of both Swiss lakeside cities, and Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, often captured by the same photography companies, collecting beautiful landscapes–now deposited in image archives. As far as the pictures go, the beauty of Bosporus waterfronts and Turkish mosques looks no different from the churches and castles by the cities around Lake Geneva—the caïgues and the rowboats, the embankments of greenery, the nostalgia and sadness. In the end, these different aesthetics of the idealized cultural landscapes seem like a surprising match. The questions we may still have are ultimately directed to the ownership and claim of landscape and its history.

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Lausanne. © Mika Savela.

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Montreux. © Mika Savela.

1 Le Corbusier, Journey to the East, transl. Ivan Žaknić. (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1987), 94-95.