Istanbul's Top (Free) Attraction - Pt2

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

Our Visit

We turned up just about ten minutes before the noon-time prayers which meant we had to rush rather. It’s not appropriate – it may not even be permitted – to go in during the five prayer sessions each day and each can take up to half an hour. Seeing us standing outside the ladies checking that people were correctly dressed called down to us "Hurry, only ten minutes, please hurry".

We entered up some stone steps – from memory I don’t recall any step-free way to get into the mosque – into an area for removing your shoes and covering up. Unlike many mosques where you leave your shoes with a shoe minder, the Blue Mosque encourages visitors to carry their shoes inside and provide big rolls of plastic bags. This means they can keep a through traffic of tourists, in through one door, out through the one on the opposite side. If men turn up in shorts, or women without a headscarf or other hair covering, or with shoulders or legs exposed, lengths of fabric are provided to ensure suitable modesty.

Suitably covered up, we headed inside. If you are used to Christian churches then mosques can disappoint as you really can’t just march around all over the place exploring. You won’t find lots of tombs or paintings, statues of saints and bishops or anything of that kind as Sunni muslim decoration avoids the use of figurative images. You can take photographs and even if they don’t ask you to turn the flash off, I personally think you should. Try going at different times of day when the light is in different positions.

Visitors who aren’t there to pray are restricted to the area behind a wooden rail and are asked not to take pictures of people praying which is only a matter of politeness. Many people are a bit miffed to discover that it’s not blue outside or inside – in fact the 20 000 hand painted Iznik tiles inside (any one of which I’d sell my kidney for) contain a lot of the distinctive blue pigment but the overall effect is much lighter than generally expected. Once you’ve got over the impact of the tiles, and admired the lovely carved wood on the doors, you’ll probably find your eyes drawn to the lights. Enormous chandeliers hang down from the ceiling, their wires ensuring that it’s completely impossible to get a really good photo almost anywhere inside the mosque. The stained glass windows at the mihrab end of the prayer hall are beautiful but very tough to photograph. You’ll no doubt find yourself practically falling over backwards as you crane your neck back to look at the painted underside of the domes.

A few things to look out for are the loge where the Sultan and his family would pray – this is at the mihrab end (mecca-facing) on the left hand side. Next to the mihrab you’ll see the minbar (yes, I know it sounds like mini-bar but it isn’t) but there aren’t too many other things to look out for. One of my favourite things is to just find a quiet spot, sit down and look around or just sit and don’t look around but soak up the history of the place. Look at all the prayer spaces marked out on the carpets and imagine the millions of worshippers who’ve passed through the doors since the 1600s. Imagine all the prayers offered up under the dome and the intense sense of community. On a previous visit I sat and watched an old man teaching a young boy – presumably his grandson – how to pray. Nobody minds you watching if you do it quietly and respectfully.

Respect is a big issue and I only have to step into a mosque to get incensed by people who break the rules. Would you walk into St Paul’s cathedral, stick your camera in the face of someone praying, shout to your friends and fart? I’d hope not (though I can’t rule out any of that after seeing a good few parties of Italian school children). So why do people who’ve been politely asked to cover their hair and their legs walk into the mosque and instantly take those scarves off again and let their sarongs slip? Nobody forces them to go inside or to stay for more than a few minutes. Would it really hurt so much to just stop playing with your i-phone for 5 minutes and keep your scarf in place? My husband has got used to having to placate his indignant wife and to physically restrain her from stomping up to a bottle-blonde and asking why she thinks the rules don’t apply to HER. I remind myself it’s totally inappropriate to get annoyed in a mosque and I bite my tongue.

When you’ve had enough, pass through the door on the far side and you’ll find benches where you can sit down and put your shoes back on. There’s a man standing at a counter and happy to take any donations you might want to get and he’ll give you a receipt for every Turkish Lira he receives. There’s no pressure and lots of people just walk straight by without giving anything but I wouldn’t do that. Once you’re outside there’s a small carpet museum (with some seriously old, threadbare, valuable carpets) which is worth a look if you really like carpets (which I do) but probably not everyone’s idea of fun. From the steps as you leave the mosque you’ll see straight towards the Hagia Sophia which is just a couple of minutes walk away – or more if you’re no good at brushing off the postcard salesmen and people flogging silly hats. At the moment the area between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia is a complete mess and I assume it’s being tarted up for the year of culture. It’s a shame as on previous visits we’ve spent a lot of time sitting in the gardens here. Hopefully it’ll be sorted out soon.

The mosque changes with the light and I recommend popping by and taking photos at different times of day. The best time for getting pictures inside is most likely the worst time for taking them outside. For me, it’s the perfect excuse to go back a few times during any visit.

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

© LP 2000-2009