on August 2, 2009
The Blue Mosque was built in the seventeenth century on the orders of Sultan Ahmet I with the intention that it should rival the Hagia Sophia which stands opposite it. The image of these two fantastic buildings square up to each other is one of the most breath-taking sights in Istanbul. Both buildings are extraordinary but it's the Blue Mosque that wins me over with its six stately minarets and awesome courtyard.The Blue Mosque is easily identifiable from all over the city - even in a city that is teeming with mosques. There is a story that claims that the Sultan had demanded that the mosque have minarets made from gold - in Turkish "altin" - but the architect misheard him and built six - in Turkish "alti". While six minarets was something rather special in what we now call Turkey, they caused a stir in the Islamic world in general because the only other mosque to boast six minarets was the one in Mecca, held to be the holiest in the Muslim world; the solution was to add a seventh minaret to the mosque in Mecca. The other feature that makes the Blue Mosque quite distinct from the outside is the wonderful way the smaller domes tumble down from the main one; it always makes me think of one of those champagne glass arrangements where the bubbly is poured into the topmost glass and cascades down into those below it. The one thing that the Blue Mosque is not, from the outside, is blue. The proper name is the Sultanahmet Camii (or Sultanahmet mosque); the epithet "blue mosque" was given because of the interior of the mosque which I shall describe later.Following a series of disastrous wars for the Ottomans, Sultan Ahmed I decided to build a large mosque in Istanbul which he believed would be an offering to placate Allah. It had to be pretty special because there had't been an imperial mosque constructed for over four decades. In the past the sultans had financed such projects with wealth won in wars but Ahmed I did not have these riches at his disposal and, instead, he decided to obtain the funds through the treasury, a decision that enraged the legal scholars, the Ulema. Work commenced in 1609 and took seven years. The royal architect Sedefhar Mehmet AÄŸa, who had studied under the great architect Sinan, was placed in charge of the project. The mosque is situated on the former site of the palace of the Byzantine emperors, facing the Hagia Sophia and the hippodrome. Parts of one side of the mosque were on the foundations of the old palace. Several existing palaces had to be bought so that they could be demolished to enable the construction of the Blue Mosque on this site.For today's visitor, the mosque is easy to get to, in the heart of the Sultanahmet part of the city, close to tram and bus stops. The jump on, jump off sightseeing bus stops almost at the entrance.The Blue Mosque is a working mosque and this status dictates certain etiquette from visitors. Visitors may only enter through the north door; at peak times there can be a queue but as there are often lots of tour groups milling around the entrance and people fussing about whether to take their shoes off, you may not have to wait as long as you might expect. We visited in mid-August and found we only had to wait a few minutes. There are signs instructing you to remove your footwear and asking women to cover their heads; you can borrow a scarf if you need to. Shorts are forbidden for men and women and women shouldn't wear short skirts/dresses. Bare shoulders should be covered up; if you wear a bigger scarf this will usually cover your shoulders too. If you have turned up in shorts (even if they aren't especially short but more like three quarter length) you may be asked to wear a wrap over them. If it's a really hot day, zip off trousers that can also be worn as shorts are a wise move. At some mosques you leave your shoes at the door and collect them on the way out but at the Blue Mosque you don't leave by the same way so you carry your shoes with you; if you need one, you can get a plastic bag, we just carried ours in a backpack. The mosque is open between 9am-6pm daily, except during daily prayer times (lasting about half an hour, five times daily) and midday on Fridays. All the written descriptions of the mosque I have read couldn't prepare me for the splendour on entering the Sultanahmet mosque. The high ceiling is covered with about 20,000 blue tiles; they are a typical 16th century Iznik design, depicting flowers, trees and abstract patterns - this is particularly notable because the decor of mosques is not normally allowed to represent living things. On the lower levels the tiles are the most commonly used tulip design - there are said to be fifty different kinds of tulip design tiles in the mosque – and on the upper levels the designs feature a variety of flowers and cypress trees, the designs becoming more flamboyant and intricate at you climb. It's also the case that the first tiles that were used were the best quality and, as the money ran out and the price of tiles escalated, tiles of inferior quality had to be used. Some people are quite sniffy about the Blue Mosque saying that the tiles are very faded and that parts of it have been slathered in blue paint to try to give the illusion that the interior looks better than it really is. I'd agree to some extent. It's really only the tiles at the very top that are brilliantly blue and these aren't easy to appreciate. You also need good light to really do the interior justice. Some huge chandeliers have been installed to fill the place with artificial light but sunlight allows you to allow see the intricate designs of the stained glass windows. They aren't the most magnificent windows you've ever seen but they do contribute to the overall effect.It's actually the architectural effect rather than the way the mosque is decorated that appeals to me. I love the slightly squashed effect of the domes and the sheer size of the central dome with its baby dome circling it is mind-boggling. On the upper levels the walls are decorated with verses from the Qu'ran, some of these are thought to have been painted by Seyyid Kasim Gubari who was the man responsible for such work in many of Turkey's grandest mosques; he was regarded as the foremost calligrapher of the period. There are some great views from the upper galleries over the smaller domes of the mosque. My favourite part of the mosque is the royal kiosk which you can only see from a distance because it and the mihrab (the prayer niche that all mosques have) are roped off to allow worshippers the space to pray. The kiosk is basically a little loggia with two private rooms and it gives access to the royal loge which is situated in the uppermost gallery. In 1826 the Grand Vizier ensconced himself in the royal loge during the suppression of the rebellious Janissary Corps.Ten marble columns support the loge which has its own mihrab carved from jade. This is one of the most important buildings in Istanbul and only by seeing it for yourself can you truly appreciate its magnificence. The interior may not be as dazzling as some claim but there is still much to admire and enjoy. A guided tour - or at least a very good guidebook - is essential to help you get the most out of your visit. There are plenty of places around the city to book a guided tour and your hotel may also be able to assist. Without some degree of information all you can really do is stand there and marvel at how grand it is, some background information makes it more worthwhile. Admission is free but you will have to pay for the services of a guide. If you visit in the summer then you should try to arrive quite early before the queues build up; however they do seem to be well managed and waiting times are not excessive. Although this is a working mosque and you'll see plenty of people coming to pray I do think that the numbers of people allowed in at any one time is too high and I felt that this had an impact on my impression of the building. While the interior could be missed, I would definitely recommend you make an effort to at least see the exterior, especially from inside the courtyard as this give you one of the best views of the cascading domes.
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