Istanbul: a tale of two mosques

The winners of Lonely Planet's 2010 Best in Travel competition, Poonam and Chirag Chhatralia, write about their visit Istanbul and, in particular, their impression of the city's two grand mosques:

A trip to Istanbul without a visit to the Blue Mosque would be tantamount to a trip to Rome and leaving out St Peter’s Basilica. Following the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in war against Persia, Sultan Ahmet I commissioned the construction of the Blue Mosque as recompense. As you wait in the queue to enter the Mosque today, you are surrounded by worshippers and tourists alike.

Istanbul

Construction of the Blue Mosque – known locally as Sultan Ahmet Mosque – began in 1609AD and took seven years to complete. It stands at the heart of Istanbul’s Old Town, aptly named Sultanahmet, suppressing its predecessor and inspiration – Aya Sofya. A tribute to the Ottoman architecture, it takes elements of Byzantine architecture from the Aya Sofya which dates further back to 532AD.

Aya Sofya began its life as a monumental central basilica; then 920 years later and after three reconstructions, it was converted into a mosque. It is situated just minutes across lawns of greenery from the Blue Mosque. Today it opens its doors as a museum to tourists.

Aya Sofya is dwarfed by the Blue Mosque and its exterior can fail to inspire visitors to enter. However, as you walk through the grand doors, its rustic and almost medieval feel take you back in time. The rough exposed walls, fading ceiling and cracked floor tiles are steeped in a history and intrigue.

The Sultan Ahmet Mosque is awe-inspiring for its size and intricately hand painted blue mosaic tiles - hence its more common name, the Blue Mosque. As you walk through the central 10,000 capacity prayer hall, you are bathed in light from the 260 stainglass windows as well as the candlelight bulbs suspended from the high ceiling. You are cushioned underfoot by the bright red carpeted floor - but will leave the mosque with a crooked neck from looking up and admiring the detail in the design and construction of the building.

While the interior of the Blue Mosque captures your attention to its intricate Islamic designs, Aya Sofya intrigues you with its mosaics depicting the life of Jesus. These religious mosaics along the upper gallery were plastered over in 1453 when the building was ordered to become a mosque. These mosaics remained hidden until 1935 when the Republic of Turkey commissioned professional restoration to painstakingly remove the plaster and reveal its historical identity. Take note keen photographers, you are prohibited from using flash photography in order to protect the delicate mosaics from damage.

Aya Sofya beautifully brings together Islamic and Christian symbolism. Testament to this is the depiction of Mary on the far wall with baby Jesus in her arms. Her dress covers her body and her head, similar to how you see many of the Muslim ladies around the old town of Istanbul today.

As a visitor to this museum you will not be asked to adhere to any dress codes. However, in the Blue Mosque men are requested not to wear shorts, women asked to cover up bare arms and legs and all are asked to take off their shoes. In November 2006 Pope Benedict XVI – the second pontiff to visit the Mosque – along with all visitors, entered barefoot and stood in quiet prayer. Plastic bags are provided to allow you to carry around your shoes but you are not spared the odour of sweaty feet as you take in the view of the dome.

The Blue Mosque leaves you inspired and wanting more – the Aya Sofya obliges. Its upper gallery is a people watcher's haven as you look down on the ground floor at visitors wandering around. It is a photographer’s playground and historian’s treasure trove with the historical and rustic design and architecture. The Aya Sofya can safely boost that a view from one of the windows on its upper gallery provides the best photo opportunity for the Blue Mosque dome.

Aya Sofya is open everyday except Mondays between 9.00am and 4.30pm in the winter months and 7.00pm in the summer months with entrance costing 20 YTL for anyone over the age of 12. The Blue Mosque is open daily from 9.00am to 6.00pm except during prayer times (about 30 min. five times a day) and midday on Fridays. Entrance is free.