The first image that came to my mind when I thought about visiting Istanbul was the big beautiful Blue Mosque. Oh to be standing in front of one of the world’s finest mosques. I couldn’t wait. So the first night we landed, cold and tired, we ran straight to the Hippodrome, which was walking distance from our apartment. And right there, alongside the Hippodrome, standing tall, towering before us with it’s powerful presence were the domes and six minarets of the Blue Mosque. It looked magical at night, and I couldn’t wait to return in the morning.
So taking a tour of the Blue Mosque was the first thing we did on our first day in Istanbul.
If you’re staying in Sultanahmet like we were, chances are the Blue Mosque is easily within walking distance. If not, it’s right opposite the tram station by the same name.
When to go:
The mosque opens an hour after sunrise until and hour before sunrise. It is a fully functional one so you have to be mindful of prayer timings, half hour slots, when tourists aren’t allowed inside. Check here as the prayer timings change every day.
There is no entry fee. Visitors have to take off their shoes while entering the mosque, and carry them in a plastic bag that’s provided at the entrance. Women must have their heads covered, and scarves are available for rent at the entrance as well. While photography is allowed, do be considerate towards the worshippers.
We stepped into the courtyard and saw worshippers and tourists mingling about, around a fountain that was previously used for ablutions. Muslims are required to wash their hands and feet before prayer. Here, we watched as touts from nearby shops politely reminded us to visit their shop after our visit was done. And cats. Plenty and plenty of cats milling about.
We stepped behind the heavy leather drape that probably insulated the mosque from the winter chill and at once had a sharp intake of breath. It was magnificent. One half of the mosque is cordoned off for worshippers by a wooden barricade, and the other half was for us. The walls and windows were decorated with the most intricate of floral designs. Depicting living beings wasn’t allowed as it was said to distract from prayer. Similarly, the colonnaded area behind the pillars all around was for women worshippers, to maintain the sanctity of prayer. I couldn’t take photographs of this because there were worshippers inside at the time.
Glancing up at the mammoth dome, I noticed it was only the fluted elephant foot shaped marble pillars that supported these arches. A marvelous feat for the engineers of those times, I might add. Apart from the little winter light that streamed in through the original stained glass windows, there was very dim lighting inside the Blue Mosque, and it took a while for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. The light source was bulbs attached to low hanging chandeliers that once upon a time held oil lamps. This dim light, reflecting against the early 17th century blue Iznik tiles cast a blue tinge all over the interior of the mosque, which is what gave it its name. The soft carpet felt nice, shielding my barefeet from the winter cold, and I noticed the design on the carpets formed lines, for the worshippers to sit in an orderly fashion.
As a fine example of hat (Arabic calligraphy) are the two medallions above the mihrab that read Muhammed and Allah. After trying to catch a glimpse of a model of the entire Sultanahmet and grounds just near the crowded exit, I left this glorious shrine to Ottoman splendor with a heavy heart, pulled my boots out of the plastic bag, and tried to wear them before the marble floor froze my feet.
Understandably, the Blue Mosque marks the decline of the Ottoman Empire as many say it was the folly of building too glorious a mosque that emptied the treasury of the then Sultan Ahmet. Which gives it its real name: The Sultanahmet Camii.