The two great mosques of Istanbul
The two buildings look across the crowded square at each other. Like Istanbul itself, they both divide and join the citizens and their history.
Represented within these two great landmarks is the core of the city’s heritage.
If the buildings were people, historical figures even, they would be eyeing each other off with an acceptance of contemporary diplomacy but with memories of a violent past.
This is the beauty today of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (the Blue Mosque) and Hagia Sophia.
Turkey, and Istanbul in particular, has always been a melting pot of culture and religion. As the bridge between Europe and Asia, it has been the battleground for physical and ideological warfare over the centuries.
But a constant struggle is unsustainable. Eventually one world became another and the past became a story rather than a daily reality.
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
On one side of Sultanahmet Park, Hagia Sophia dominates the skyline with its red walls and minarets. It was originally built in 360 AD and for more than a thousand years was a Christian church.
It belonged to the Orthodox Catholics for the whole time, except for a 57 year period between 1204 and 1261 when it was a Roman Catholic cathedral.
In the ebb and flow of the cultural tides, this ‘occupation’ was more than a ripple.
Relics from the church – described as a stone from the tomb of Jesus, the Virgin Mary’s milk, the shroud of Jesus and the bones of saints – were stolen and sent to the west.
But it was two hundred years later that the most dramatic wave was felt.
Sultan Mehmed invaded the city in 1453 and, upon capturing the building, declared immediately that it should be turned into a mosque.
The tide shifted and the cultural makeup of the city was set in the direction that would lead it to modern times.
Today, Hagia Sophia is a museum. From the inside and the outside, it looks like a mosque and it’s hard to imagine the cathedral form.
The low-hanging lights in the main hall add a glowing brilliance to the room, while the enormous dome is one of the best examples of Byzantine architecture.
The high ceilings – higher than most religious shrines in the world – make you feel insignificant in the presence of a deity.
It’s not hard to understand why this landmark has always been considered one of the most important in Istanbul. Emperors have been crowned here, refugees have taken shelter here, treasures have been hidden here.
As I said, it is technically a museum now, but you can feel the life within the walls.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Istanbul
On the other side of Sultanahmet Park, the red is juxtaposed with the blue. Although technically called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, most people just refer to it as the Blue Mosque because of the colour of its interior tiles.
The enormous structure was completed in 1616… long after Hagia Sophia fell into Islamic hands.
The construction of the mosque was ordered by the young sultan, Ahmet I, who, at the age of just 19, decided he wanted a building more impressive than the Hagia Sophia.
Whether he achieved that aim is probably a matter of opinion. Regardless, it is a masterful mosque which can be appreciated from the inside and the outside.
The big difference is that this is still an active place of worship and the tourists (and they number in the thousands every day) must be respectful.
But to see the mosque with its worshippers, to hear the sounds of faith, and to feel the spirituality makes a visit even more special.
In 2006 the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI visited the Blue Mosque. It was only the second visit of a pope to a Muslim place of worship in history.
It was probably no coincidence that this was the site he visited. As he noted at the time, Turkey “will be a bridge of friendship and collaboration between East and West”.
Two buildings, two religions, hundreds of years, one history. The bridge which Benedict XVI refers to is at the core of the city.
You’ll get a lot more out of a visit to the mosques with a guide – and luckily there are some excellent tours available in Istanbul. I would recommend any of these:
A good cheap and comfortable option is Meretto Hotel LALELİ.
For something a bit special, I would suggest either the heritage Celine Hotel, or the more modern Hammamhane.
And if you're looking for 5-star luxury, I think the best value is Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet, and my ultimate favourite is Raffles Istanbul.