Istanbul's top (free) attraction - Pt1

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by koshkha on May 22, 2012

Istanbul's most famous building?

If you ask most people to name an attraction in Istanbul – especially those who’ve not actually been there - there’s a very strong chance that they will pick the so-called ‘Blue Mosque’, known more formally as the Sultan Ahmet Camii. There’s something about the name that seems to tantalize and intrigue and promise something rather special and indeed, as Istanbul mosques go, this is a gem – not so much for its architecture which is, quite honestly, not so different from rather a lot of Istanbul mosques, but for its richly decorated interior tiling.

I recommend that everyone goes to see the Blue Mosque and goes early in their trip. You need to know where it is because you’ll spend half your trip seeing the Hagia Sophia from rooftops and saying "Oh look, the Blue Mosque" or the Suleymaniye Mosque from the Bosphorus or the Galata Bridge and failing to work out that it cannot be the Blue Mosque as that’s on the other side of the hill. Ideally I would say make it both the first and the last place you visit – an introduction to the city and a place to stop and take stock before you head home again. It’s certainly not my favourite or the most impressive attraction in Istanbul and it’s equally not the most interesting mosque I’ve ever visited but for a large number of tourists, it may well be the first mosque that they have ever visited and if that’s the case, they can expect a treat.

It has a few things in favour – not least that it’s entirely free in a city where very little seems to be any more. More importantly it can be a beautiful and peaceful space in what’s sometimes a rather ‘full on’ sort of city. I had probably been about half a dozen times before our most recent trip to Istanbul and I made sure that it was the first major attraction that my parents and my sister and her partner visited.

A Little bit of History

The mosque was built between 1609 and 1616 during the reign of Sultan Ahmet I – the Sultan after whom the historic area of Sultanahmet is named. When you look at the sheer size of the place it’s astonishing that the whole mosque was built in just a few years. It also seems an impressive feat of engineering and architecture until you realise that the Hagia Sophia, the church-turned-mosque-turned-museum which stands nearby on the other side of Sultanahmet square, is even more impressive and is 1400 years old. This is another reason I say go to the mosque first – if you see the Hagia Sophia before the mosque you risk a sense of ‘so what’ which the Blue Mosque doesn’t really deserve.

There’s a fabulous sense of balance about the place. The prayer hall of the mosque is about the same size as the courtyard that stands in front of it. This is quite unusual as I’ve seen mosques with enormous courtyards and small prayer halls (for example the Jamii Mosque in Old Delhi) and ones which are the other way round like the Suleymaniye mosque in Istanbul. The most famous and unusual feature is that it has six minarets rather than the usual one or two or the occasional four. This was actually very controversial at the time it was built when only one other mosque – in Mecca – had six minarets and it was seen as a scandalous challenge to the supremacy of the other mosque.

In 2012 Istanbul is one of the European Cities of Culture and things during our trip seemed to be getting lined up for lots of visitors. We’ve previously entered the mosque through the entrance off the Hippodrome, through the courtyard and through the central door but this entrance now seems to be restricted to Muslims. Instead there are signs directing tourists round to the entrance on the far side of the mosque. To get there you pass the ablutions taps along the side wall where worshippers perform their washing rituals before entering the mosque.

Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)
Istanbul, Turkey
0212 458 0776

© LP 2000-2009