Istanbul is home to some of the most stunning and internationally renowned mosques, some noted for their age, others for their intricately detailed minarets and colourful tiled mosaics, and others for their sheer size alone. While the city’s skyline is dotted with mosques, and certainly each and everyone has something worth admiring, there are a few which are absolute must-sees whilst on a vacation to Istanbul.
Hagia Sophia, Sultanahmet
Hagia Sophia is synonymous with Islamic architecture and, even though many no longer consider it a mosque, its distinctive exterior (complete with four gorgeous minarets), and its architectural importance in the Islamic world urges us to still include this at the very top of our list. The now converted museum boasts one of the most eclectic histories known to the religious world. It was initially built around 300AD as a Greek Orthodox Church, was converted to a Roman Catholic basilica in the 13th century, a Muslim mosque in the 15th century and finally an open-to-all museum in the 20th century!
Architecturally, Hagia Sophia is considered an absolute Byzantine masterpiece, while culturally and religiously it is said to be the epitome centre for the preservation of comprehensive relics from all three religions of the book…all under one huge, gilded domed roof. The interior is as impressive as the exterior, showcasing over 30 millions golden tiles, and an innumerable amount of recently restored frescoes and mosaics. The size, the colours, the smells and the history make this a sensory feast bar none.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque
Known more by its colloquial name, the Blue Mosque, thanks to the 20,000 blue mosaic tiles which adorn its interior, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is yet another visual splendour in Istanbul. This much ‘younger’ mosque dates back to the 16th century, and is an astonishing place to visit. The sheer size is mind-boggling, and makes one feel utterly tiny when walking within the walls of the forecourt. The six minarets are incredibly detailed, as is every wall, doorway and arch. Take care to notice an iron chain hanging just off the ceiling on the western entrance; it was placed there to ensure the Ottoman Sultan (the only man allowed to enter on horseback) would still need to bow upon entering the holy place, as a gesture of submission to Allah.
The interior of the Blue Mosque is as splendid of course, the blue Iznik tiles emitting a very ‘blue’ radiance indeed. As opposed to Hagia Sophia, this mosque is still very much in working order, so do cover yourself respectfully and try to avoid just ‘hanging out’ outside during prayer times.
The Süleymaniye Mosque is actually the largest in Istanbul, yet ironically enough we love it because of the much more intimate mosque ‘experience’ it offers. It sits atop the city’s third hill and boasts far fewer visitors, making it a blissfully relaxing place to visit. The interior is actually much more inducive to prayer than the Blue Mosque, and was originally built by order of Sultan Süleymaniye in the 1500s. The mosque’s courtyard is particularly beautiful; marble columns flank the sides and are framed by four minarets and ten galleries, all decorated by colorful mosaic. The interior, on the other hand, is much more subdued, with only a hint of colored tiles throughout.
Some visitors consider this a much more spiritual place to visit than many others, and indeed the lack of crowds and the need for head cover certainly gifts a much more authentic experience. The area around the mosque is also less crowded, and the visit is a much more peaceful and relaxing one. If you only have time to visit one mosque in Istanbul, then go ahead and come straight here, but visiting all three mosques will certainly make for a much more comprehensive glimpse of the Islamic history of Istanbul.
NP&Djjewel via Flickr
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Guillhem Vellut via Flickr