Our first night in Istanbul, we sat on the rooftop bar overlooking the Blue Mosque, its five domes and six minarets bathed in blue light. The soft breeze off of the Bosphorus circled us as we sipped our gin and tonics while we soaked in the beautiful and exotic sights of Istanbul’s Old City and the light from one of its legendary mosques.
Shortly before sunrise, we awoke to the call to prayer from various mosques within the Old City as it penetrated the intricately carved wooden screens on the windows of our elegant room in the reconstructed 19th century Ottoman mansion, Hotel Desaadet. It was my first time to be in a Muslim country and to experience the morning call to prayer. I found it to be a moving reminder that this ancient culture had served as home to both Muslim and Christian faiths.
After breakfast, our guide collected us from the lobby of the hotel to visit the Sultan Ahmet Center from where the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires ruled. After having enjoyed its minarets bathed in blue light we were anxious to see the Blue Mosque (i.e.., Sultan Ahmed Mosque built between 1609 and 1616) in the daylight.
The architect’s (Sedefkâr Mehmed Ağa) goal for the mosque was to create a structure of overwhelming size that would inspire awe. As we removed our shoes and respectfully covered our heads we entered into the massive prayer hall which is crowned by the main dome. It was impossible to take in all of the 20,000 handmade ceramic Iznik tiles in 60 different tulip patterns, calligraphy of Koranic verses, and over 260 stained glass windows with floral motives. It was light, beautiful, and serene. After walking through a small portion of this vast structure we slipped on our shoes for the short walk across the Sultan Ahmet Center to the other legendary mosque of Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia.
Built between 532 and 537AD by the Roman emperor Justinian I as the Christian cathedral of Constantinople, it served as the state church of the Roman Empire and, at that time, it was the world’s largest interior space and remained so until the Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520. When I was studying art history, the Hagia Sophia was considered to be the epitome of Byzantine architecture and I could hardly believe that I was now standing in a structure that was over 1500 years old. The Hagia Sophia was architecturally converted into a mosque (with Christian symbols removed and minarets added) after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. And, in 1935 the mosque was taken over by the Republic of Turkey as a cultural attraction.
Since 1453, Istanbul has served as the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Today, it is the largest city in the Middle East and at last count there were over 2,900 active Byzantine and Ottoman era mosques in the city.
Mary Beth I have a passion for creating and experiencing unforgettable moments and sharing those with others. I hope that this story has helped you experience one of those moments.