The mosques are exquisite examples of Islamic architecture, particularly in Istanbul and in Turkey’s largest city you’ll find one round each corner. Five times a day, the haunting call to prayer echoes around the city, where at the center of the historic Sultanahmet district, imams from the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sofia and a smaller mosques nearby and far, even from the other side of the Bosporus, sound like they are engaged a musical dual.
Seduced by Islamic architecture, I dedicated a day to visit Istanbul’s great mosques, not counting the Hagia Sofia (originally a Greek Orthodox Cathedral), which had been my first port of call when I arrived in Istanbul. While religious buildings from all faiths fascinate me, even though I never had my own religion to identify with, I tend to tackle them in bulk, whether it’s the colorful Hindu temples of South India or Budapest’s synagogues in the old Jewish Quarter, and on this trip Istanbul’s mosques were no exception.
The Blue Mosque, also known as Sultan Ahmed Mosque, is perhaps the most famous, evident by the queues snaking round the side entrance waiting for the doors to open at 8:30 in the morning for visiting hours. Admission is free, but it is time consuming for volunteers to check if tourists are attired correctly (arms, legs, and in women’s case the décolleté and head, should be covered) for the mosque. If not, appropriate garments similar to long sleeved kaftans are handed out, along with headscarves for women.
After being kicked out of the Vatican for wearing a skimpy sundress at 16, I learned my lesson about appropriate clothing for visiting religious sites, so in Istanbul I wore one of my salwar kameezes (a traditional tunic-trouser suit) I bought in India, which even came with a matching headscarf, so I had no need to skimp on style while visiting the mosques. If I was allowed into Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid Mosque wearing this outfit I knew I would not have no issue in Turkey.
I took my shoes off in the corridor at the side entrance, ripping off a small plastic bag from the dispenser located next to a stone column so I could carry them around with me. Fortunately, inside the mosque, plush carpets replaced the smooth cool stone underfoot.
Since the visiting hours are targeted at tourists, along with limited access inside the mosque for non-muslim visitors, the Blue Mosque becomes crammed with people snapping photos of the stained glass windows and intricate blue tiles and detail painted on the wall.
While beauty of the Blue Mosque is undeniable, during visiting hours it does become as busy as in the Hagia Sofia, and it’s hard to take in the architectural beauty without being subject to someone almost poking you in the eye with a selfie-stick. I decided to hit my next port of call to Istanbul’s largest most the Süleymaniye Mosque on the other side of Sultanahmet hoping to find less crowds.
Saturdays in Istanbul is personified chaos. The streets transform into markets and market turn into mosh pits without music. I made the mistake of cutting through the Grand Bazaar, which is usually a throng of people, although surprisingly ordered in boutiques, but exiting into the street was worse, since I found myself in the middle of a street market. Locals, people from out of town jostling shoulders with curious foreigners buying socks and pans, among other items, but it was the book market in the side street that enticed me.
The crowds thinned here between the texts and novels in Turkish and Arabic scattered between a few English language text books lined the stalls, where owners sat drinking tea while Istanbul’s famous cats and kittens curled up on boxes of books left out in the sun.
Eventually I managed to leave the crowds behind and got lost trying to find Istanbul’s largest mosque, which was on a hill right above me (there was a reason it was not obvious where I was going).
An old man who smiled with his eyes read the confusion on my face and asked me if I’m looking for the mosque. He pointed me in the right direction, but enticed me to come into his shop. Normally my alarm bells go off, since I know this usually means I will have a glass of apple tea and leave with a new carpet, but in this case there was something different about his cabinet of Ottoman curiosities.
I stepped inside and the tiny shop it’s a beautiful chaos of vintage Persian rugs, antique jewelry and 17th century Sufi art.
“You don’t have to buy anything,” the old man said, “just look.”
I flipped through a book of Ottoman paintings and sketches depicting whirling dervishes, medical drawings, and scenes depicting Rumi or Omar Khayyam’s poetry. The motifs and colors are stylized, influenced by art coming from the Silk Road where features are sometimes emphasized as Chinese and Central Asian accents featured in the back drops.
The proprietor told me his name is Hussein and within minutes the apple tea came out.
“You don’t have to buy,” he assured me as I flicked through the book of paintings. I would love to buy one, but I figured a piece of 17th century work of art is out of my budget, “I just appreciate that you’re interested. People come to Istanbul, they rush from site to site, take photos, buy overpriced things in the bazaar and go home. They don’t stop to look.”
He pinned a blue and white glass “Evil Eye” pin onto my tunic and asked me to come back, “we will drink tea on the terrace upstairs, come back tonight and I can show you Istanbul.”
After saying goodbye, I walked out onto the street finding the narrow staircase Hussein told me to take that would lead to the Süleymaniye Mosque, which was on the corner with the hamam, a Turkish bath, that is also part of the mosque complex. The stairs led up to a view across the Golden Horn and the Bosporus, punctuated by the chimneys from the medressas, religious schools, but turning round, the large dome of the mosque dominated this side of the skyline.
The outline is a grander version of the Blue Mosque, although the size dwarfs its more famous counterpart. It’s not only the magnitude of the mosque itself but the entire complex, which is flanked to the side by a cemetery which also houses Suleiman’s tomb and a caravanserai on the other side. At the entrance of this mosque there was no queue. A lone man checked visitors adhered to the dress code, handing out headscarves and covering.
The mosque interior is white, and is more peaceful than the Blue Mosque. Tourists are not jostling each other in the aim to take the perfect selfie, and volunteers skirt the barrier handing out leaflets on Islam and answering any questions on the Muslim faith.
Stepping out of the mosque, the famous wind comes in from the Bosporus. Istanbul is a city with a unique skyline, defined by its mosques and minarets. Amidst the chaos that gives Istanbul its character, there are moments of peace, when it’s just you and the wind.
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This is my second story from my collection of moments from my recent trip to Istanbul (you can read my first story here: Moments from Istanbul: The Women’s Hamam.
I was invited to Istanbul as the guest of the co-founders of Roomkita, a Turkish startup company that offers hotel search via partners such as Booking, Hotels.com, HRS, Otel, among others, with over 600,000 properties in more than 200 countries. This new meta-search site helps travellers not only to find the best hotel to suit their budget, but also offers them the chance to find the best place by location, TripAdvisor ratings, as well as other factors such as amenities.
I would also like to thank the Great Fortune Hotel for hosting me in conjunction with Roomkita.