A tale of two mosques

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↑ The iconic Blue Mosque at sunset

ISTANBUL is a city filled with mosques, some of the largest and grandiose ones mankind had ever built. Most visitors associate Istanbul with its iconic Sultan Ahmet mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque due to the colour of its interiors, and any questions arising in the mind of a skeptical tourist are dispelled the moment they enter the building, for this structure is certainly, for the lack of a better adjective, stunning blue. Facing the Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia, built in 4th century CE using architectural and engineering techniques that will remain unchallenged for a thousand years since its construction, the Ottoman Sultan Ahmet, in the 17th century, ordered the construction of a structure that would be architecturally based on the Hagia Sofia, but Islamic in nature. Thus emerged the Sultan Ahmed mosque; a piece of beauty symbolizing pride and faith of the Ottoman rule and an amalgamation of Byzantine and Ottoman concepts.

However, this post is not about Istanbul’s famous mosque alone. I wanted to introduce the readers, through an opening paragraph in which I quote big names such as the Blue mosque, to another of Istanbul’s stunning wonders, namely the Süleymaniye Mosque, designed by Mimar Sinan, the famous architect of the Ottoman empire, under the blessings of Sultan Süleyman also known as Süleyman the Magnificent. Why, you might ask, am I talking about this mosque? Good question. That’s because this mosque is, in my humble opinion, more beautiful than the Blue Mosque and receives less attention in general tourist literature than it commands.

Let’s start the tale!

1. The Blue Mosque

↑ Who is the bluest of them all?

LOCATED in the heart of Istanbul’s historic Sultan Ahmet area, which has a high concentration of top sites of tourist interest and is always overrun by large tourist buses dropping one big batch of visitors after the other, is Istanbul’s signature Sultan Ahmed (Blue) mosque. It is nearly impossible to visit Istanbul and not see this mosque; a proper comparison would be like going to Paris and missing the Eiffel Tower or travelling to New York City and skipping the Times Square; a sort of thing that just doesn’t happen (to regular visitors).

Built with the intent of rivaling the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya), architects of the Blue Mosque pulled all stops trying to achieve the grandiosity of the Byzantine basilica, but were not quite successful in surpassing the design of a central dome of that nature, although success is, ofcourse, a subjective term. From the outside, the Blue Mosque is so impressive that one cannot but just stand there and appreciate the beautiful structure comprising eight smaller curved domes, six minarets, and one large central dome, making the building a masterpiece that draws upon elements of both Islamic and Byzantine design. This design was not revolutionary at that time, as you might expect, because Mimar Sinan, the master Ottoman architect, had built dozens of mosques based on a similar style, each of his structures improving upon the previous. One of Sinan’s students adapted the master achitect’s work for the construction of the Blue Mosque.

↑ Stupendous interiors of the central hall; very difficult to take a picture that communicates the grand scale of the building.

Stepping inside, and I won’t go into too many details because the description alone would span multiple blog posts, one is confronted with a jaw-dropping magnificence of the prayer chamber illuminated with a circular string of subtle lamps hung from the ceiling above. Lavishly decorated with calligraphy, Ottoman patterns and intricate brush work, the interiors prompted me to think of one word: Blue. Designed with Iznik tiles, that gives it the distinctive blue colour, the slender curves of supporting pillars really makes the colour and the artwork pop out, in a way that made me feel as if someone from the sky was coming down talking to me, while I was overwhelmed and almost intimidated by the dimensions of the interiors. This discord really resonated with me and I made two subsequent visits to the Blue Mosque trying to attempt, in vain, to digitalize this beauty on the lens of my camera.

We have progressed so much; we can visit lands far away and photograph scenes and moments from our travels, but there is no way to capture the feeling of a place, something that can only be experienced in person, at a given place, at a given time, and I am only trying here, without getting too philosophical, to narrate in a verbose manner and to paint a visual imagery of my experience in order to communicate those feelings to you, my esteemed readers.

↑ Lights hanging from one of the eight smaller domes draped in calligraphy, patterns and other artwork

As you can see, the imposing beauty of the Blue Mosque is very captivating, pardon this adjective-laden sentence, especially for people who have never seen anything like this before, and has the magnetic effect of attracting your mind to visit it over and over again. As tourists and infidels, if I may add, while you share the main chambers with devout Muslims offering prayers, you will be asked to enter the premises through side entrances and you will also be asked to stay within a perimeter inside the prayer hall, a simple mechanism to control crowds, rightly so because tourists, and there can be hundreds of thousands of them here each day, can be very unquiet and disrespectful, a characteristic that annoys me generally but will annoy me even more if I were praying, and a behaviour that can only be attributed to the fact that these people, I’m generalizing, do not understand that the place they are visiting is not artificially propped up Las Vegas, but a real, functioning place of worship. It’s for reasons like these that places on the tourist highway can tend to get frustrating.

Nevertheless, under no circumstances am I suggesting that you skip this place. 🙂

After enjoying my visit to the Blue Mosque, I went walking in random directions, on one of the several small cobblestone streets of Old Istanbul, peeping into other mosques and savouring many kinds of food options on the way. It was in one of those places, while lost in my thoughts with a cup of tea in my hand, that a stranger started chatting with me and asking if I had been to Suleymaniya mosque. Suleymaniya? Where is that? I asked. Since I hadn’t been there, I decided to walk to this new mosque off the tourist hotspot. Well, who am I kidding, it was a popular place but still quieter than the Sultanahmet mosque.

2. The Süleymaniye Mosque

↑ Inner courtyard and a distinctly Sinan style of architecture

DISTINCTLY identifiable on the Istanbul skyline, the Suleymaniye Mosque, commissioned by Ottoman emperor Suleiman the Magnificent, stands on top of a hill in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. There are various streets leading up to this hill and I ascended from the Eminönü side of the Golden Horn, a name given to a horn-shaped gulf on the European side of the Bosphorous over which the Old city of Istanbul is laid out. This being a common way to climb up the hill, the street passing through very non-touristy areas skirting around the Grand Bazaar, I got to see the real commercial side of Istanbul, something that I had overlooked in my quest to check off all the tourist sights on my list.

↑ Ritual ablutions by devout Muslims who are preparing to pray inside

Since the mosque was closed when I reached there, being the time for prayers, I simply lingered around the courtyard admiring various little shrines, tombs and leafy grounds of the mosque. The spots around trees were busy, you know, with groups of people sitting at the base of a tree trying to escape the sun and talking to each other while waiting for the mosque to reopen. I noticed an empty tree inviting me to sit under its shade, an opportunity that I seized immediately, and I sat down writing my thoughts in my pocket sized diary. After some doodling I got up and went to the northern periphery of the courtyard, only to be braced with a stunning view of Istanbul and the iconic Bosphorous bridge spanning across two continents.

↑ This view of Asia and Europe knocks the socks off pricey rooftop patios! I am on the European side, across the Bosphorous river is Asia!

While it is hard to describe the Suleymaniye mosque, since I am good neither at articulating my thoughts nor at appreciating the architectural merits of a historic monument, it is not difficult to discern that I will, regardless of my expertise, go ahead and fill another paragraph with long sentences and clause separators. From the outside the façade resembles that of the Blue Mosque for the reasons mentioned above, but one must acknowledge its beautiful proportions and the fact that it was laid on top of an uneven surface. I did that. After entering through a seemingly ordinary side entrance one is suddenly exposed to a large central prayer hall with spectacular decorations, calligraphy and artwork, reminiscent of the Blue Mosque which we visited earlier, but certainly not as busy or vivid as you can probably tell from the pictures. The Sulemaniye mosque uses somewhat subtle colours, mix of several shades and feels more airy and lighter due to numerous little windows piercing through its dome projecting sunlight in the chamber below. I once again felt overwhelmed, which I usually do in large houses of worship, but the feeling didn’t send me into an elevated heartbeat mode, making me bit more relaxed and feel-at-home instead. I spent more time here, walking around the limited space available for tourists and trying to take pictures from various angles.

↑ Interiors of the adorned with decorations and washed by natural sunlight. The place is not as crowded as the Blue Mosque.

The mosque is not just a place of worship but a supermarket of community services, if I may use that word to illustriate the fact that you can access a soup kitchen, a hospital, a rest area and a library, among several other services provided by the mosque. Cute and crowded chai khanas (tea houses) line the southern edge of the masjid’s courtyard.

Thoroughly satisfied from my visit, on my way out of the mosque I took the opposite path that led me down the hill through the famous Beyazıt lane ending near the tram tracks at the Istanbul University for more shopping, eating, ogling and praying options.

↑ Wrapping up prayers at the Süleymaniye

Conclusion: Which mosque to visit?

THUS I wrapped up my visit to the two mosques; one more famous than the other, one more grandiose than the other, one more older than the other, one more graceful than the other. Clues to solving that puzzle are hidden in this long verbose blog post. The next question before me was if I should advise my readers to pick one over the other, or be highly critical of one mosque vis-a-vis the other, tactics that I would never engage in because, ultimately, I am neither a subject matter expert nor a local believer who frequents these places so I don’t feel in a position to discuss the relative merits of the two places, plus why would you listen to me anyways. Nevertheless I will tell you that both these places warrant a visit because, choosing to quote a dialogue from Harry Potter, neither can live while the other survives, although it’s not as dramatic.

↑ Süleymaniye mosque seen from a tram stop across the Golden Horn

Enjoy your visit! This is how I finally decided to end this post, although I could have ended it with a mandatory cheezy question that travel bloggers, or any bloggers for that matter, love asking, such as, have you visited this mosque, what did you think about it, and so on. I will leave it up to you to choose how you respond but let me assure you of my full attention and gratitude for expressing yourself, or opting not to, in the manner of your choosing.