Suitcase and World: Istanbul. The Grand Blue Mosque.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Istanbul. The Grand Blue Mosque.

he Blue Mosque is its popular name, Sultan Ahmet Mosque its proper name in English and Sultanahmet Camii ("Sool-tan-ah-met Jam-ee) its official name in Turkish. However you choose to refer to it, it is a spectacular mosque. On the outside, its six slender minarets and cascading domes distinguish it from all other mosques - not only in Turkey but around the world but it is the 20,000 handmade ceramic Iznik tiles that line its interior walls that gave it its popular name.

The Blue Mosque was constructed by Sultan Ahmet I, between 1609 and 1616, as a place of Islamic worship to rival the Hagia Sophia. The two great architectural monuments stand, facing each other, on opposite sides of Sultanahmet Park.

The Blue Mosque is a functioning mosque and to preserve its sanctity, non-worshippers are required to use the north entrance, off the Hippodrome. From the Hagia Sophia, Lei and I walked across the Hippodrome to the north entrance. Before we joined a queue of visitors waiting to get in, we spent a few minutes in the courtyard.

As is the custom when entering any mosque, we had to remove our shoes and cover our heads. Huge wooden doors stand at the entrance.

Entering into the mosque you find yourself standing in a very expansive space - dimly lit by a chandelier. It takes a few seconds to adjust to the low light.

Another photo op for Lei and I. We tried to explain to our volunteer photographer that we wanted the beautiful tiled walls as a backdrop but to no avail :-(

Then, you look up and you see the spectacular domed ceiling - so ornately decorated that it simply takes your breath away. The center dome is surrounded by three Central dome semi-dome with three exedrae that are crowned by half domes. I wish I could have laid down on the floor so I could admire the ceiling at length without straining my neck. I also wished that I had a longer telephoto lens to capture the detail.

The famed Iznik tiles line much of the interior walls so it's not hard to get an up close view of them. There are so many patterns and designs - some more intricate than others, some more colorful than others. If not for the size of the space to disperse the tile, it would really give you a headache trying to take it all in.

When traveling, it's not unusual to be asked where you're from. In our brief trip through Turkey, it quickly became evident though that Turks are not accustomed to seeing oriental faces - particularly Chinese faces. We would get asked by locals to have our pictures taken with them. At first, we didn't know what they were asking for - we thought they wanted us to take pictures of them. A few hand gestures and broken phrases in English and we finally got the gist of it....though it did seem to be an odd request to us. While most locals asked if they could take our pictures....which we kindly obliged, I'm almost certain I saw a few snapping photos with either their cell phones or their digital cameras when they thought we weren't looking.

The first time this ever happened to us was while we were in the Blue Mosque - a bunch of school children wanted to have their pictures taken with Lei. At one point, it became a bit of mob scene and I was worried for Lei's safety.

Hopefully, none of the pictures that were taken of us will show up on the web where they ought not to be :-)

As we exited the grounds of the Blue Mosque, I turned around and snapped one last photo. What a grand place and despite the crowds, I could see how you could find serenity in the surroundings - there's just so much beauty to distract you.

Heading back towards the Hagia Sophia, we came across rows of wooden benches facing the Blue Mosque. We didn't realize what they were for until we returned 10 days later to see the Blue Mosque it all lit up at night. We found a spot on one of the benches and enjoyed a light show with narration about the history of the mosque - acoustics were bad but we enjoyed the show anyway.

Because the Blue Mosque was constructed to rival the Haghia Sophia, some people like to compare the two - which one is grander. That's not something I care to do. The Blue Mosque is grand in its own right and even though it is revered as a national treasure, it still serves as a place of worship. At the end of the day, as I was looking back at the photos on my camera, all I could think of was just how lucky I was to have seen both of these great monuments to Turkey's past and present.