Folly, Fantasy, and Faith

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on October 27, 2009

According to my Rough Guide "many architectural historians are scathing about the Blue Mosque’s aesthetic merit". But what do they know? I personally found the Blue Mosque one of my favourite places in Istanbul. It is stunning from the outside and charming from the inside. I heartily encourage a visit.

The Blue Mosque’s official name is the Sultan Ahmet Camii. The mosque, like the area surrounding it, is named after Sultan Ahmet I who almost exhausted the imperial treasury to finance its construction in the early seventeenth century. The mosque was, in effect, a great cosmic bribe; wars had been going badly for his forces and Ahmet wished to appease Allah with a new grand imperial mosque. This would be chief mosque of his empire, fulfilling the same functions as Aya Sofya did for the Byzantines. This actually created dissension among the sultan’s advisers, as it was being constructed from a position of weakness; previous imperial mosques had been funded wholly from war booty. Moreover to cement its position Ahmet ordered his architect to construct six minarets. Cue more criticism – the only mosque to have six minarets at that time was the holiest of all, in Mecca. As a result the sultan had to fund a seventh minaret for Mecca, yet another drain on resources. But complaints about Ahmet’s folly did not go away. To be fair it probably also didn’t help that the mosque was to be sited where many of his courtiers had their own palaces.

From the outside the mosque is quite spectacular. It is well situated across from the Aya Sofya (with some pretty gardens in between), and abuts the Hippodrome, the open area that once housed Byzantine chariot races and is now studded with obelisks. It is a pale dove grey, a cascade of shallow domes and half-domes. A minaret stands at each corner. An attached courtyard covers approximately the same area; the other two minarets are at its far corners. Entrance is through this court. I’m not sure if it is always like this, but on my visit the courtyard was full of booksellers’ stalls. From here you circle around to a veranda. It is here that you remove your shoes. Also if you are dressed inappropriately (shorts or short skirts, bare shoulders) you can be loaned a shawl to wrap yourself in. Women should ensure that their heads are covered too.

Once inside you can see why it is nicknamed the Blue Mosque. The interior is clad with over 20,000 tiles. Not all of these are blue – in fact very few are just one uniform colour. But many have patterns, traceries, calligraphy or highlighting in various shades of blue. These are the work of the famous kilns of Iznik, which were pushed to absolute capacity to meet the demands of the sultan. The domes soar overhead. It is much easier to make out their details than in Aya Sofya. Partly this is due to the use of pale tiles rather than dark stone. And partly it is because there are over 200 windows in the mosque. This is not a sombre, austere place of worship to a glowering god, but a playful, elegant one instead. Furthermore, I found the overall atmosphere much more peaceful and reverant than in Aya Sofya, understandably so as this is still a working place of worship. Half the floor area is cordoned off to provide space for those who wish to pray. That, and the enforced removal of shoes, instills a certain mindset into visitors that is absent at Aya Sofya. A look around does not take long, but it is likely to be a blessed respite from the hubbub outside, an oasis of spiritual calm among the crowds and noise of Sultanahmet.

There is no entrance fee to visit, though at the exit there is a desk asking for donations – I gladly gave 10TL. There are also leaflets in a number of languages explaining the core tenets of Islam and striving to correct some of the more common misconceptions about the religion.
Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)
Istanbul, Turkey
0212 458 0776

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