The beauty I see in Sultanhammet mosque is in its lines, in the elegant spaces beneath its dome, in the opening out of its side domes, in the proportion of its walls and empty spaces, in the counterpoint of its support towers and little arches, in its whiteness and the purity of its lead on the domes - none of which can be called picturesque. Even four hundred years after it was built I can look at Sultanhammet and see a mosque in its entirety, just as it first did, and see it as it was meant to be seen.
Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul: Memories of a City, 2005
I have to agree with him. Sultanhammet mosque, a.k.a. 'the blue mosque', is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.
My first view was standing outside Hagia Sophia and turning one hundred and eighty degrees. It loomed across the gardens and fountains of Sultanhammet Square. Six minarets spread out from its base and its central dome is broken up by lots of little mini-domes which are touched with gold. One of the most exotic buildings in the world? I was dumbstruck by its beauty. The way dome climbed upon dome, and the way dome size and minaret combined to create one of the most mesmerising buildings I have ever seen.
This curvaceous masterpiece was one of the last great mosques to be built in what was then Constantinople. The architect was a student of the great Sinan. It's called 'the blue mosque' due to the grey sandstone, which when lit up at night and at certain times of the day, does indeed look blue. They light up Sultanhammet each evening for a son et lumiere . Istanbullus really look after the gardens between this and Hagia Sophia. There, gardens are clipped into topiary with little bowers and fountains. Just before the compound is an ancient washing facility where the faithful clean their feet before entering the mosque. A reminder of the importance that Islam gives to water and cleanliness.
In the first compound, you can see the details up close on the mosque. It resembled a mostrous bulbous fortress with arches dotted with intricate carvings. You may be approached by Istanbullu carpet salesmen here, but they are the soft sell ("Is there any point in me asking you to come to my shop?") and have to be the politest hawkers I have ever encountered. Crowds seem to pass into a courtyard then to the rear of the mosque. The queue to enter the building starts here, off come the shoes, and black plastic bags are provided to carry them. Then you pass through a succession of arches and, before you know it, you are gazing up at a titanic space. The main worship area has a ceiling of half-dome clambering over half-dome until it reaches 100 feet above you. Everything is light and echoey; white walls with hundreds of blue iznik tiles and a great iron candelabrum dangling 10 feet from the floor.
Easily, one of the best architectural experiences I have had. Everyone around me looked equally impressed whether craning their necks or taking a rest on the white carpet with their backs against the porphyry columns. I came out of Sultanhammet on a massive high and I never felt unwelcome in this muslim building. Istanbul is easy access Islam, a chance to experience the culture without the religious baggage you might encounter in other cities.
Literally across the road is one of the most ancient sites in the city, the famous Hippodrome. We now travel back even further in history to when Constantinople was Christian Byzantium, the lingering legacy of the Roman Empire. Nothing much remains now except an oval park in the shape of the old racing arena. A thousand or so years ago, this is where charioteers to the delight of the populace and under the gaze of the Byzantine Emperor. This was where coronations and parades went on, great rows of stone seats once stood where the traffic rings the park. The grass underfoot was once sawdust trodden on by gladiators and speeding charioteers. It takes a little imagination to bring the Hippodrome in its heyday back to life.
There are a couple of unique treasures remaining. Most striking is an Egyptian obelisque from the temple of Karnak dated to 1500BC. Emporer Theodosious had it positioned on a plinth in 390AD. The bas reliefs on the pedestal are of his family and him at the races. What struck me most about this 3500-year-old monument was that it looked brand new. There was nary a mark of age on the whole edifice. Nearby is a pit with a spiral column reaching up 20 feet, moulded to look like an entwining snake. It sprouted two snarling snake heads but these now reside in the national Archaeological museum. Finally, at the far end of the Hippodrome, is a column dating back to 480AD which is in the worst condition of all. Once wreathed in gold, but stripped bare by the Crusaders when they sacked the city in the infamous fourth crusade.
Most of all, the Hippodrome is a nice green little park in the middle of bustling touristy Istanbul. It is a place to rest those feet and try to imagine that where you are sitting now was once in the middle of whipping charioteers and thundering hooves.
Oh, dont you just wish you had been there?