We have always wanted to visit Istanbul, when we dreamt of this bustling city we couldn’t look much further than the twin icons of the city: The Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. At first glance we expected just to find two wonderful mosque to visit and tick off the bucket list. But little did we know the spiritual and historic experience visiting these wonders of the world would be. Stepping not only back in time but into another culture we discovered so much more than meets the eye.
The Blue Mosque: The history
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque was built during the rule of Ahmed I between1609 and 1616 contains Ahmed’s tomb to this day in the dedicated crypts. Known as The Blue Mosque due to the thousands of hand panted tiles within the interior of this important islamic building. Still a functioning mosque it can hold up to 10,000 faithful at one time and is a place of pilgrimage for many sunni muslims around the world.
Built on the site of the previous palace of the Byzantine emperors and the hippodrome that at one time dominated the skyline of the city it was a controversial project that was intended to reassert the Ottoman power in the region. Seen as the last great mosque of the classic period it was a culmination of the development of Ottoman styles and took influence from traditional Islamic architecture and the Christian routes of the near by and much older Hagia Sophia (more on that soon!).
The most striking of the Mosque features is that of the six minarets making it one of only 3 in Turkey to have this feature and at the time the first. This, according to age old stories, was a mistake after the architect misheard the Sultan. It is said he asked for Gold minarets (altın minareler) rather than six minarets (altı minare). This became the centre of some controversy within the muslim world as this particular feature was unique to the Ka’aba mosque in Mecca. Subsequently the Sultan ordered a seventh minaret to be built in Mecca!
Stepping inside the Blue Mosque:
With full muslim dress now adorning my body the heat of Istanbul seemed to rise to an almost unbearable way. Heavily layered with a crimson polyester Hijab covering my head and a sky blue long and flowing Abaya emblasoned with “Property of The Sultan Ahmed Mosque” on the side. It took me a while to get comfortable, to make my headscarf stay on my head and to avoid tripping over what felt like miles of fabric I was loosely wrapped within.
It was a culture shock for sure, one I was not so much expecting, but one which it turns out was an important experience to understanding this sacred building. Often we are used to, as tourists, being pandered to, having things watered down for the masses and in the process belittling the very culture we travel to see. Here, as I swept into this place I had dreamt of visiting for year, I didn’t feel oppressed underneath this material alien to me, but instead I felt more connected to those around me, to the muslim women I had shared these streets with and those who prayed in this heavenly place.
Glancing up at the ceiling as we entered our breath was taken away, the blue sea of the 20,000 tiles that decorate this ornate interior came rolling in at us. The wide open space of the huge chasm felt impossibly grand and yet with the low lighting, hanging chandeliers and hand woven patterned carpets somehow cosy and intimate.
Tulip patterns dominate the thousands of tiles, natural light pours in through the stained glass windows cleverly places to illuminate this space whilst keeping the atmosphere calm and harmonious. The domed roof feels like it continues for an eternity, domes within domes form a complex shape of unimaginable beauty. Ancient calligraphy quotes passages from the Qur’an as silence descends on this busy place of prayer. Stepping into the Blue Mosque is like discovering the hanging gardens of babylon and exploring the ancient streets of a Persian world now lost to time. You move from the modern, chaotic and noisy world of the outside to that of sultans and Ottoman rule.
A truly wonderful experience that lived up to our dreams tenfold.
Tips for visiting:
Despite having to enter the Mosque dressed modestly and in clothing that fits strict Muslim beliefs it is not necessary to dress any differently to visit. The mosque itself requires everyone who enters to line up as the side entrance and those who require further clothing will be provided with what they need. This includes headscarves on their own, full gowns and also skirts for both men and women who are both required to cover their legs.
It does however take a little longer because of this so if you do have the correct clothing then by all means do wear it. Do bear in mind that Istanbul can be incredibly hot in the summer so I chose to wear light clothing that would be ok underneath these garments and also for the rest of the day. Often you can think you are prepared for your visit but still find they require you to wear all the clothing provided. Hats for example are not suitable instead of a headscarf and I am also not sure if t-shirts are ok either. In one of the other mosques I was only required to wear a skirt and headscarf as an example.
Visiting is free but queues can get large. Often the mosque can be closed for hours for private prayers and this is especially common for teachings and at important times of the year. I would advise getting there early and checking the opening hours for that day. You can often enter the courtyard before the doors open so you can start queuing early on.
Photography inside the mosque is allowed during most of the day, but during prayers (after the call has gone out) it is not allowed.
The Hagia Sophia: The History
The Hagia Sophia might be famous for being one of the iconic mosques in Istanbul but what many don’t realise is that is started off life as a church and is much much older than the Blue Mosque that sits just across the park. Many people, including us in the past if we are truly honest, even mistake the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque for either the same building or interchange them freely.
Constructed as a church between 532 and 537 by the Emperor Justinian I of the Byzantines. It was in fact the third church to sit on this holy site. It is often mistaken that the church is dedicated to Saint Sophia just like those we saw all over Eastern Europe. But it is instead a phonetic spelling of the greek word for wisdom and the name of the church itself means “Shrine of the Holy Wisdom of God.”
Constantinople, one of the oldest cities in the world as Istanbul was known at the time, was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453 by Sultan Mehmed II and so entered the next stage in the history of Turkey. The sultan was suitably impressed by the large and imposing orthodox catholic at the centre of this world famous city and so ordered it to be converted into a mosque.
The story of the Hagia Sophia tells the story of the history of Istanbul and Turkey as a whole in many ways. After having many of the frescos depicting jesus, Mary and the Christian saints painted over, the altar replaced by a minbar and mihrab and the four minarets added it stood as a functioning mosque until 1931. It was at this point at which the new secular republic of Turkey lead by the revolutionary leader Ataturk closed its doors for prayer and turned it into a museum. This was in line with many of the changes made to create the modern state we see today and the end of thousands of years of Ottoman rule though out Eastern Europe, including many of the countries we had travelled through to reach Istanbul.
Visiting the Hagia Sophia:
In the first instance we expected visiting the Hagia Sophia to be much like what we experienced with the Blue Mosque. But we couldn’t have been any more mistaken. In many ways it was a more interesting afternoon spent in the ancient walls of this most historic building. The combination of both muslim and christian remnants is something rarely seen and the age of what we were seeing and the moments in history it represented was hard to take in.
To be stood in such an impressive structure from the era the Hagia Sophia was built in is one of the reason we travel for. To feel history and to take it in not only though books or photographs but through experiences, feelings and that overwhelming and inexplicable emotion it fills you with.
However at the same time visiting the Hagia Sophia also felt somewhat flatter than the Blue Mosque and a little bit more shallow. Being now a museum rather than a functioning religious shrine filled with passionate locals it lacked some of that authentic atmosphere. Gone were the elegant women strolling around in their flowing gowns, the lines of faithful knelt in intense prayer and the special atmosphere that filled the gigantic space.
In here there were hundreds of tourists, cameras clicking in all directions and nothing but western clothing to be seen. In some ways I felt much freer in here, but yet it also felt less respectful and more of a commodity like any other museum. We loved exploring the corners of this ancient icon and wondering up at the centuries old frescos and how they represented the complex history of this wonderful country. Yet there was something missing from this experience that made the Blue Mosque so special for us.
Tips for visiting:
The Hagia Sophia is a paid for museum and is a little on the expensive side we felt at 40TL.
If you plan on visiting many of the other museums and palaces of Istanbul it would probably work out cheaper to get the museum pass for 85TL which includes the Topkapi palace and 10 other museums.
There can be long lines to enter the museum at peak times so again it is advisable to get there early and check opening times for when you would like to visit. At certain times of the year such as the first day of Ramadan the museum is closed for religious ceremonies.