The Blue Mosque in Istanbul, or to give it its official name Sultan Ahmet Camii, is both a place of worship and a major tourist attraction receiving four to five million visitors every year. Facing the Hippodrome in the centre of Old Istanbul, its grey cascading domes and six minarets are one of Istanbul’s iconic views, the interior is just as stunning.
This was my first visit to Istanbul and Sultan Ahmet Camii was high on my must-see list along with Hagia Sophia Mosque and The Basilica Cistern. Since they’re all in close proximity in the Sulthanamet this is the perfect place to start exploring the city.
Sultan Ahmet 1 became the 14th emperor of the Ottoman Empire in 1609 at the age of 13. In a sort of mosque face off he ordered the building of a new mosque to rival the nearby Hagia Sophia. The Sultan demanded the mosque have ‘altin minaret’ or gold minarets. His architect misunderstood and built the mosque with ‘alti minaret’ – six minarets instead. The only other mosque in the world with as many minarets was the Haram Mosque of Mecca. The religious leaders of the time were so outraged that the Sultan sent his architect to Mecca to build a seventh minaret so that the holiest of mosques could retain its superior status.
The Blue Mosque Courtyard
We approach the mosque from the West side near the Hippodrome for our first, close-up, glimpse. This is the best place to appreciate the mosque’s perfect proportions rather than from Sultanahmet Park. A step through the tall wooden gates and into the large square courtyard and we’re face to face with the spectacular dove-grey domes, marble walls and gold-tipped minarets.
At this point most people just stop and stare and the courtyard is busy with people gazing upwards in awe. The mosque is beautiful with its gently curved domes appearing to bubble upwards. We stay for half an hour exploring the courtyard enjoying the beautifully ornate cloisters and the views of the domes.
To enter the mosque itself we exit the courtyard and head around the outside to the south door which is for tourists. This also helps the prayer part of the mosque retain its sacred air. Worshippers enter through the main door after using the ablutions area.
As the mosque is a place of worship dress code is strict. Before we could enter I made sure my legs, head and shoulders were covered. We also took socks with us as shoes had to be placed in plastic bags before we could enter. Recently officials have become stricter and now there are more stringent checks to ensure that visitors dress appropriately. Robes are handed out to under-dressed tourists so if you don’t want to wear one of these don’t dress inappropriately. I visited again in 2014 and despite being covered I was still handed a robe to put on over my clothes.
Inside the Blue Mosque
Inside the mosque is cool and we notice an air of hushed calm as visitors become aware of the beauty inside. A lone worshipper immersed in prayer kneels on the deep red carpet. The building is a work of art and earned the moniker’ Blue Mosque’ because of it’s ornate decoration. More than 20,000 blue Iznik tiles in traditional Ottoman patterns adorn the walls and ceilings. Lilies, carnations and tulips are depicted throughout. We were able to see some of the tiles from the ground floor although the majority are on the upper levels and out of sight.
The interior domes are intricately tiled, painted and decorated with verses from the Koran and the sayings of the prophet Muhammad. We padded across the carpeting in our socks, necks craned upwards. Softly coloured rays of light filtered on to us through the 260 stained-glass windows.
Where: Meydanı Sokak 17, Sultanahmet, Istanbul
When: Open daily from 09.00 till 1 hour before dusk. Plan your visit to arrive mid-morning as the mosque is closed half an hour before until half an hour after prayer time – 90 minutes in all.
Prayers happen five times a day with the first call to prayer at sunrise and the last one at dusk. Avoid visiting a mosque within half an hour after the ezan is chanted from the Mosque minarets. On Friday the doors are closed at 11am and open again an hour after noon prayer.
Entry: Free but donations are gratefully accepted.