The Blue Mosque is a monumental and iconic sight with otherworldly domes and minarets.
If the Hagia Sophia is my architectural girlfriend, then the Blue Mosque is the mysterious lady across the bar who speaks in a language I vaguely understand and orders expensive drinks. I mean this in the most figurative way possible. In fact, cancel that metaphor, as given that the Blue Mosque is a mosque she wouldn’t be drinking at all. If the Hagia Sophia is my architectural girlfriend, then the Blue Mosque is the beautiful, mysterious, sophisticated lady that you see across the room at a party who tugs at all of your desires but always manages to remain all the way across the room from you and you never even get to start a conversation with her because just what the hell would you talk about with her anyway? Jeez. What kind of parties do I go to?
Looking at the Blue Mosque from the Hagia Sophia is like Michael Phelps admiring Ryan Lochte from afar.
At any rate, if I understand the history behind this whole thing even a little bit, Sultan Ahmet was so taken by the architecture of the Hagia Sophia that he had his architect, Sedefkar Mehmet Aga, design a whole series of Imperial mosques emulating the general aesthetic of the Hagia Sophia, but on a much grander (hard to imagine) scale. Well, it mostly worked. While the Hagia Sophia is amazing, you have to consider that it was built something like 1500 years ago, and the Blue Mosque had about 1,000 years of more highly developed engineering, construction, and material technology to become so much more grand. I mean, you know, the
Romans Byzantines didn’t do so bad with the Hagia Sophia.
The scale of this building is really deceptive. It doesn’t look small or anything from a distance, but up next to it you really feel dwarfed.
At any rate, let’s talk about our visit to the mosque. We have walked by mosques all over the world, in Thailand, Hong Kong, New York, lots of places. We’ve never been in one before and had no idea what to expect. I had some idea of what the art style would be, as Islamic art typically features beautiful repetitive patterns, lots of script from the Koran, and no pictures of people. Knowing that the design was a riff on that of the Hagia Sophia I expected to see something similar to what we had seen across the park, with domes and such. I didn’t expect much else, because expectations are for scrubs, and Carolyn don’t want no scrub.
From the courtyard it’s clear how big this mosque is.
As we made our way through the gauntlet of vendors selling headscarves to western tourists, Carolyn whipped out the scarf she had been carrying across the continent, covered her shoulders, and we walked right into the courtyard. It. Was. Grand. The starkness of the clean stone path, the pointedness of the minarets, and the grey color of the stone reminded me a bit of a cathedral, but in a much more elegant way. The line took about 20 minutes to get to the door, and at the door we kicked off our shoes, Carolyn covered her head, and we walked into the Blue Mosque as welcome visitors in a place whose religion is, frankly, as foreign to me as it gets.
The highest dome in the Blue Mosque.
Underneath one of the massive half-domes in the Blue Mosque.
If I didn’t know this was a mosque, I might think it was a church with all of the stained glass and whatnot.
The amazing tile work is where the Blue Mosque gets its name.
The original red carpets of the Blue Mosque. They’re still in great shape at going on 500 years
At the recommendation of a commenter on this blog, I had purchased Strolling Through Istanbul: A Guide to the City by John Freely. In the book he mentioned that the carpets in the mosque were the original carpets installed over 400 years previously. You might imagine that they didn’t smell supremely fresh (it could have been the feet of all of the tourists that filled the air with the aroma of corn chips, as the faithful wash their feet before entering), but boy oh boy were they beautiful. I heard once that a well crafted Turkish or Persian rug would last essentially forever, and the rugs in the mosque looked as if they were brand new. I can’t imagine how many millions of people have trampled these rugs. Holy craftsmanship, Batman.
It’s like a mathematical explosion in my head.
Now, when we’ve visited massive religious sites like St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, or even the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York, I’ve managed to sense that the architects were inspired beyond the normal levels of achievement. These spaces tend to be beautiful. The Blue Mosque is no different. The domes, half domes, and generally curved profile of the building is as stunning on the inside as it is on the outside. The amount of light that enters the worship space is incredible, and the height of the ceilings is such that you might feel that it reaches all the way to the heavens, doubly so if you were to enter this place 400 years ago. The Blue Mosque gets its name from the dazzling white and blue tiles that line its interior, lending a much less blue feeling than you might imagine based on the name alone, but the repetitive patterns established by the tiles would send the mathematically inclined person into a coma filled with equations, I might imagine.
A close-up of that stained glass. I’d forgive you for thinking this was the wall of a church somewhere.
At any rate, I was more taken by the similarities than the differences between this massive mosque and the massive churches I’ve been in. I really think that most of the difference is in the art style and the picayune of the religions. It’s pretty amazing to walk on the same carpets that the sultans of the Ottoman Empire walked on at the height of their power, and I don’t think there’s really that many places in Istanbul that can give you a feel of what the old Ottoman Empire might have been like as much as the Imperial Mosques and palaces. When they talk about the old cliche “east meets west” crap in Istanbul you think, “oh, I think it’s ridiculous to focus on that,” but then when you see why it’s pretty in your face.