The Sultanahmet Mosque, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque, ranks high up there as one of my favorite sights in Istanbul. Before visiting, I'd been lusting over photos of this commanding mosque on Pinterest, imagining what it would be like to stand right before it. Or better yet, inside of it. When we started our search for private tours, D and I knew this mosque had to be a part of it. Happily, it ended up being our very first stop while exploring Istanbul.
When we arrived at the doors of the Blue Mosque, we were kindly asked to remove our shoes. This practice is simply out of respect for the mosque and the people who pray in it. "Would you want to place your face to carpet where millions of soiled shoes have walked upon?," as Funda, our lively tour guide reminded us. Makes sense, so of course, we obliged (they give you a plastic bag to carry your shoes around in). In addition, men were to cover their knees and ladies were to cover their heads, shoulders, and knees if exposed. Because I knew this was common practice in mosques all over the world, I thought to bring my own scarf (color coordinated, of course!) to wrap around myself. If you didn't have your own, you were at the mercy of the mosque's loaner pashminas (Traveler tip: who knows who's head has been wrapped in those pashminas, so I'd advise bringing along your own!). They also had loaner sarongs if your knees were showing, but those looked a lot less grungy. After dressing the part, we all entered through the doors of the Blue Mosque, ready to be 'WOWed.' Add in a few more awe-inspired adjectives and that's how amazing this place was. If you thought the outside was huge, the inside was even more palatial...and colorful. So, so colorful! The carpets were rich with crimson, the walls covered in brightly patterned ceramic tiles, and cascading from the ceiling were giant, circular, wrought-iron chandeliers that gave the whole mosque an almost romantic ambiance. This was just about the time I started wishing for a wide angle lens, because it was impossible to capture the depth and beauty of this massive place all in one camera shot. The area where prayer occurs 5 times a day was blocked off to the public, but we could walk around almost every other part of the mosque. Thankfully, we got there before too many other tourists showed up, so we could enjoy the mosque without being agitated by being cramped together. Funda gave us ample time to wander around on our own, then took us aside and explained the mosque's history and significance in the realm of Islam.
A few things I didn't know before visiting the Blue Mosque:
--Women are asked to cover their heads and shoulders with a hijab (veil) out of modesty and reverence to God. It is not only considered a physical body covering, but also embodies a metaphysical meaning. Al-hijab means "veil that separates man or the world from God." The Qur'ran instructs both women and men to dress in a modest way.
--The pointy, castle-like spires that surround the mosque are called minarets. From these minarets, the call to prayer is announced each day. Most mosques only have 4 minarets, but the Blue Mosque has 6. This was a source of contention during the building process back in 1616. The former principle practicing mosque, Hagia Sophia, directly adjacent to the Blue Mosque, has only 4 minarets.
--You can hear the call to prayer resound from various mosques all over Istanbul. The calls, while brief, literally engulf the city and can be heard almost anywhere.
--The main hall is reserved for men to pray in only. Women have their own separate section in the back of the mosque. This is not to degrade women, rather to accommodate their need to pray in private.
--It is commonly known as the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles surrounding the walls of the interior design. Turkish people adore the color blue. The word turquoise is derived from an Old French word meaning "Turkish." TURK-oise. So, there you go. ;)
--Besides being a tourist attraction, the Blue Mosque is still an active mosque, closing to visitors for 30 minutes 5 times a day for prayer.
--This video, by travel guru Rick Steves', provides a great overview for the Blue Mosque. Couldn't have said it all better myself, Rick.
I have to admit, having to "dress up" (so to speak) and get a true physical feel for a traditional Muslim practice was pretty neat. I only wish we could have been inside the mosque during the time of prayer. I would have loved to experience the mosque in that way as well. A few Aussie friends of ours from the cruise got to sit in on an afternoon prayer in a smaller mosque in Istanbul that day (Hi Keon-Cohen's!!). Lucky ducks! Color me 400 different shades of green with envy. Guess I'll just have to add that to my bucket list for another visit!