This week’s journey takes us back to the enigmatic city of Istanbul, and one of its most iconic landmarks: the Blue Mosque. Named for the vibrant cerulean interior of its main dome, the Blue Mosque was one of the highlights of our visit to Turkey in March of 2012.
Construction on the mosque began in the year 1609 on the foundations of the Great Palace of Constantinople, an imperial fortress that had once served as the royal residence of the Byzantine emperors. The mosque was built at the behest of Ottoman Sultan Ahmed I (1603-1617), and still officially bears his name (Turkish: Sultan Ahmet Camii). It consists of five main domes, eight secondary domes, and six minarets. The number of minarets was reportedly considered controversial throughout the Ottoman Empire; according to folklore, the architect misunderstood the Sultan’s request for altın minareler (gold minarets) as altı minare (six minarets), at the time a unique feature of the Masjid al-Haram, the Great Mosque of Mecca. Criticized for his presumption, Sultan Ahmed then ordered a seventh minaret to be added to the Mecca mosque (a project accomplished in 1629, during the reign of the 16th sultan, Murad IV). Construction of the Blue Mosque was completed in 1616.
The grounds of the mosque include a spacious forecourt accessed by a monumental but narrow gateway. The court – surrounded by a continuous vaulted arcade – is almost as large as the mosque itself, and contains a small hexagonal fountain and ablution facilities. The interior of the mosque – much like others we have visited, and like nearby Topkapi Palace – is ornately and exquisitely decorated. The lower levels are lined with over 20,000 hand-painted Iznik-style tiles in more than 50 different tulip designs. At entry level, the tiles are traditional in appearance, while at gallery level they take on more flamboyant representations of flowers, fruit and cypresses. The upper levels of the mosque are dominated by blue paint, enhanced by the natural light admitted by over 200 stained glass windows. Decorations throughout the mosque include verses from the Qur’an, many in the hand of master Ottoman calligrapher Seyyid Kasim Gubari. The mosque contains the tomb of Ahmed I, as well as a madrasa and hospice, and remains an active place of worship more than 400 years after its founding.
We visited the mosque twice during our trip to Istanbul. The first occasion, late on a rainy afternoon, involved a quick peek inside the forecourt, but we returned the next day in hopes of getting a glimpse inside. We were fortunate to be permitted entry, and enjoyed a few brief moments marveling at the spectacular beauty of the domes before being ushered outside as the call to prayer necessitated our exit. It was a short but truly wonderful experience!
After leaving the mosque, we made a quick visit to another remarkable Istanbul attraction: the Basilica Cistern. The largest of several hundred ancient cisterns beneath the city, this subterranean chamber – constructed in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, reportedly by over 7,000 enslaved workers – consists of 336 marble columns arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each. Water was transported to the cistern from the nearby Belgrade Forest via the Roman-era Valens Aqueduct and Justinian-mandated Mağlova Aqueduct. While capable of holding 80,000 cubic meters of water – more than enough to service the Great Palace, and later, Topkapi Palace – it contains little today to permit public access.
Most of the columns are recycled from the ruins of other ancient building projects throughout the Empire, and are composed of various types of granite and marble. Although the majority are Ionic or Corinthian in style, a handful are unique. One, known as the Hen’s Eye Column, is engraved with raised pictures of a Hen’s Eye, slanted branches, and tears (pictured below). Two columns in the northwestern corner of the cistern contain the visage of Medusa at the base; one turned sideways, and one upside down (also pictured below). The origin of the sculptures is unknown.
Thank you for joining us on this adventure in Istanbul! -T. & B. June
Our next journey: Zugspitze, Germany