A city divided and conquered

Inside two of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks: Hagia Sophia and the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (the Blue Mosque). Both are critical to Istanbul’s history.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


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.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

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.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

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.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

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.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

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.

To save time when you visit Hagia Sophia you can get this skip-the-line ticket or use the Istanbul Tourist Pass, which includes a guided tour.

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.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

The enormous structure was completed in 1616… long after Hagia Sophia fell into Islamic hands.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

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.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

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.

To skip the line at the Blue Mosque and learn more with an excellent guide, I would recommend this tour of the main sights – one of the best in Istanbul.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

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:



Istanbul has some wonderful accommodation and you’ll be able to find whatever style you’re looking for.


For a backpacker option, I think Stay Inn Taksim is the perfect mix of comfort and atmosphere.


A good cheap and comfortable option is Meretto Hotel LALELİ.


For something a bit special, I would suggest the modern Hammamhane.


And if you’re looking for 5-star luxury, my ultimate favourite is Raffles Istanbul.


This site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
I'm on a mission to visit as many World Heritage Sites as I can. Only about 800 more to go... eek!

56 thoughts on “A city divided and conquered”

  1. Beautiful photographs roomie. I’d hate ya for the talented way in which you illustrate the photos with words if I didn’t, instead, like you so much.

    Keep being so eloquent, it makes your blog one I truly love to visit.

    • There’s so much to do in Turkey, I can understand how you might have run out of time. But Istanbul is certainly one of the most interesting cities in the world. Keep on moving it higher up the list! 🙂

  2. Hi Michael,
    Lovely Photos! I have to correct you on some historical facts. Hagia Sophia does look like a church and there are enough features of Orthodox christianity in and on it to show. It predates all mosques and Islam itself. What happened since 1453 is that its beautiful design has been copied for all mosques by Muslims. Hence what appears to be is not really what it is

  3. Just to put this in perspective, the mosque purpose was to appear more impressive than the adjoining christian church. Is that a good reason to build it? It is if you are inflicted with a massive inferiority complex and you had just finished invading the capital of the Holy Roman Empire and raping then killing everyone within the walls of Constantinople. Ah, but I digress.

    • I don’t think this is the first time there was conflict between religions and I’m sure it won’t be the last. You’re right, it is sad to see people be so blinded by their own faith that they can’t accept another’s views. But at least in this case the result was a couple of beautiful buildings! 🙂

    • The Ottomans didn’t conquer the Holy Roman Empire (which was based around Germany) but the Roman (Byzantine) Empire.

  4. Believe what? i got revert to this page becoz I rather confuse whether the blue mosque and Hagia Sophia is the same building or not. Ur writing is good, and the picture is wonderful. nice post 🙂

  5. I wrote Hagia Sophia vs Blue Mosque on Google and your site was on the first list, on top of Wikipedia!
    That’s how you know you’re awesome..

    • Both of these buildings are so photogenic! I had trouble capturing them from outside because there are lots of things in the way but there were so many wonderful angles inside. I kind of want to go back and do even more too!! 🙂

  6. I want to thank you for all your photos and writes about Turkey. Most of Turkish citizens didn’t visit that you have visited, and I am sure government publications not affected as yours. Thank again for presenting beautiful side of Turkey.

  7. Hello-
    Beautiful photos!! I currently teach English as a Second Language in Minnesota, but taught in Turkey in 2003-2004. I was doing a combination English grammar/Geography lesson yesterday and used your photos- MUCH better than mine! Thanks much!!
    One note, though- the building that exists now was finished in 537. It was an older building on the same site that was built in 360. Here’s a link to the museum webpage that describes the history. http://ayasofyamuzesi.gov.tr/en/history
    I’ve done some other teaching overseas- Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia- and did some free traveling all over Europe… if you’re ever in Minneapolis, find me on couchsurfing- I’d be happy to put you up and trade stories!! Alison Jones

  8. What I am wondering is if there is a way in which the Blue Mosque is deliberately patterned after Hagia Sophia. I see similarities but can’t put my finger on them.

  9. The first name of the Church was ‘’Megale Ekklesia’’ which means ‘’the Grand Church’’. The first Hagia Sophia was built in 360. It was a wooden-roofed basilica, built on the site of a pagan temple. On the contrary to the popular belief, it was donated by Constantinus II not by Constantine the Great. (Source: https://hagiasophiaturkey.com )

    When its roof was burned by a fire in 404 and destroyed mostly in a second fire in 414, a great believer of orthodoxy Theodisius II dedicated another church in 415. Among the ruins of Theodisius’ church, you can see the architrave of twelve sheep that represents the twelve apostles of Christ in front of the monumental entrance.

    As a step on the way of a secular country, Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum by the order of Atatürk and reopened in 1935.

  10. Why no commentary about the fundamental rudeness of Muslim Turks and Otto Ana when Saint Sophia’s (Hagia Sophia) was forcibly desecrated to become a Mosque, but now its a “museum” while the Blue Mosque remains a Madjid? Why haven’t modern Turks allowed the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Constantinople reconsecrate it as their Cathedral? Instead, the inside of the “museum” the current dictator of a Turkey Erdogàn began Qur’anic recitations during Holy Week in this yeAR.

  11. I pray that a great earthquake befalls turkey and the one true god Jesus Christ lets out upon the 10 great plagues on all jthe non Christians residents of turkey The bubonic plague
    Infestation of Frogs
    Infestation. Of Lice
    Raging of the Wild beasts
    The river turning blood red
    Death of first born son
    Raging Hail
    Infestation of Locusts
    I pray that all of these misfortunes are to be bestowed on the country
    Of turkey for its sinful act Of desecration of a house of worship of the one true god


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