Istanbul, Turkey’s famous Blue Mosque is hypnotic. You could stare for hours at each swirl of decoration on its 141-foot domes, and at each glint of color on its 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles, imagining the work that went into every intricacy… feeling the energy and spirit of the structure.
During my glorious week in Turkey this month thanks to Turkish Airlines, the Blue Mosque was at the top of my list of places to see. I was thrilled that I got to tour it on day one, because it was mighty hard to concentrate on anything else when the smooth domes of the mosque kept winking at me from across the city! My travel companions kept pointing at it, whispering, “You can tell that’s the Blue Mosque because it has six minarets.” I couldn’t wait to be inside.
So, how did this building get the nickname “Blue Mosque?” Sultan Ahmed Mosque (or Sultan Ahmet Camii in Turkish) is known as the “Blue Mosque” because of the sapphire hue that pervades its decorations. It was built between 1609 and 1616 to proclaim Ottoman power following war with Persia, and to this day, over 400 years later, it is still used as a place of worship.
Because Sultan Ahmed Mosque is in use, all tourists who flock to the site must remove their shoes (plastic bags are provided) and wear appropriately modest clothing. Pack a scarf for your head if you are a woman, and long pants if you are a man. Don’t forget that legs in leggings must be covered, too. I didn’t realize this, and had to borrow a cloth to put around my stockings. (Don’t worry — it’s free to borrow head or leg coverings. Just return them as you leave.) Do make sure to check prayer times, as the mosque is closed five times a day for devoted prayer.
Here is my favorite story about the Blue Mosque. When Sultan Ahmed I announced in 1609 that the mosque would have six minarets (the tall, skinny towers used for calling the faithful to prayer), there was an uproar in the Muslim community because only the great mosque in Mecca had six minarets. How did the sultan solve this problem? He directed a seventh minaret to be built on Mecca’s mosque so his Sultan Ahmed Mosque could have six without offense! Creative thinking in action.
This is a fitting time to step back and acknowledge the religion of Islam for producing some of the most beautiful architecture on Earth. In 2012, I spent Christmas in the largest mosque in India, Jama Masjid in Old Delhi, and my breath was taken away by its grandeur. In 2010, I had the honor of traveling through Cordoba, Spain to see la Mezquita: the famous mosque featuring red and white striped arches as far as the eye can see. Then in 2015, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul floated into my view, and I was awestruck by its color and vibrance.
I share this because in much of our popular discussion of Islam, I think people too often forget the artistic contributions of the Muslim community over the centuries. Who can look at these photos and not be astounded by the beauty of Sultan Ahmed Mosque?
Speaking of Islam, did you know that the population of Turkey is approximately 99% Muslim? The government of Turkey, however, is secular, and in fact banned women from wearing headscarves in public buildings and universities until late 2013. Because of its unique history and its geographic location between Europe, Asia, and Africa, Turkey has proven a key player in the possibility of connection and understanding between Islam and Christianity. Notably, the Blue Mosque is the site of the second ever visit by the Catholic Pope to a Muslim place of worship, which occurred with Pope Benedict XVI in 2006. Since then, Pope Francis has prayed at the Blue Mosque in 2014 in an effort to further inter-religious dialogue and understanding. What power this mosque has!
I will now change gears completely to give touring advice for those who want to visit the Blue Mosque. Do you see how my exterior photos of the building look washed out and shadowy? That’s because the best view towards the mosque faces west, which means the best time of day to photograph the mosque is before noon. (I learned about photography timing the hard way after a particularly sun-blinded day at the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland!)
The other photography trick I wish I had thought of before visiting the mosque was to use the panorama mode on my camera, or even video. It is simply impossible to photograph a satisfyingly wide swath of the towering structure without such methods, and I didn’t think to use these features until I returned to Boston and my wise seventh graders yelled at me about it. Hopefully, though, these photos can begin to convey to you the awe one feels when standing inside the Sultan Ahmed Mosque.
So what do YOU think? Have you seen amazing mosques around the world? Have you visited the Blue Mosque in Istanbul? Do share! Want more Turkey beauty? Check out my first Istanbul article, featuring the city by night!
I was a guest of Turkish Airlines for my wonderful week in Turkey, but all opinions and inclination to gaze at the mosque’s domes all day are my own.