Hagia Sophia and The Sultan Ahmed “Blue” Mosque

Hagia Sofia at Night

Hagia Sophia

Every art and architecture student has studied the beauty and wonder of  Hagia Sophia. It is a premier example of Byzantine art and construction. This fortress-esque structure has stood as a testament to human ingenuity since 537 AD.  That’s not a typo.   This massive sprawling citadel to God is just under 1,500 years old and has played a pivotal roll in human architectural history.  Some reports suggest that it also held the title of largest cathedral in the world for nearly 1,000 years.  No small accomplishment.

Hagia Sofia in the Snow

Amazingly the entire structure was built in less than 10 years, reportedly by a work crew of some 10,000 people, by the decree of Justinian I of Constantinople. It was the third basilica to be built in the location and the largest of the three. Unfortunately, the structure was severely damaged less than 20 years after it was completed by a series of earthquakes which collapsed the main dome. Resiliently, the dome was re-built, re-structured and raised some 20+ feet. These enhancements were completed quickly and done by the year 562.

Hagia Sofia in the Snow

The church stood as a shining example of Christiandom until 1453 when the Ottoman empire conquered Constantinople. The church was immediately converted into a mosque, a process which resulted in the removal of most of the holy relics, altars, and bells. Interestingly, instead of removing the old Christian mosaics, the Ottomans decided to paint over them.  The interior was re-decorated to serve as a mosque and the building’s four large minarets were added.  The majority of the building’s interior (as seen today) dates back to this period, with the exception of several large christian mosaics which were recently uncovered.

Hagia Sophia (Recovered)

The building served as one of the largest and most impressive mosques in the Muslim world for the next several hundred years. The mosque’s design and appearance was mirrored in other Ottoman mosques and served as inspiration for Istanbul’s numerous structures. It served as the key model for the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, which is now commonly known and recognized as Istanbul’s Blue Mosque.  In an interesting turn of history, Hagia Sophia ceased to be a mosque in 1935 when the then newly elected President Ataturk decreed that it be converted into a museum.

Hagia Sofia in Istanbul

The interior of the structure is truly fascinating.  The sheer scale of the open space in the main area will leave you feeling tiny.  The mosaics are beautiful and reflect the periods in history during which they were created. The mixture of cultures, religions and periods in history is evident in all aspects of the structure creating an eclectic mixture that while somewhat cold, still manages to be very rich and engaging.   Stay tuned for video from inside Hagia Sophia in future posts.  Beyond that, you’ll just have to visit yourself!

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Snow

Sultan Ahmed “the Blue” Mosque

The Blue Mosque was completed in 1616 and sits immediately opposite Hagia Sophia.  The mosque embodies the epitome of Byzantine-influenced Ottoman construction. It relies on heavy inspiration from Hagia Sophia, but the building’s lines and domes are enhanced while simultaneously integrating a series of six minarets into the original design.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Snow

From the start, the goal while creating the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, was to create one of the greatest mosques in the world.  The structure was built on a massive scale and can accommodate 10,000 people during prayer.  It was created to be a purely Muslim structure, in contrast with Hagia Sophia which had a mixed heritage.   It was also fairly controversial initially due to its 6 minarets, which was a violation of accepted policy at that point in time-typically all mosques outside Masjid al-Haram in Mecca were limited to four minarets.

Blue Mosque

Unlike Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is still in active use and faithful are welcomed to attend for daily prayer.  However, don’t fret – the mosque remains open most of the day for tourists, who are welcome into the mosque and given free roam of just under half the ground floor.  If, that is, you’re willing to leave your shoes at the door and have made sure to dress appropriately.

Interior of the Blue Mosque

The mosque’s nickname comes from the beautiful blue tile work that decorates its interior. This is accentuated by more than 200 blue stained-glass windows.   The tiles and beautifully painted calligraphy work has made the Blue Mosque one of Istanbul’s leading tourist attractions.

Interior of the Blue Mosque

Every inch of the building’s interior is covered in rich, padded carpets, beautiful stained-glass windows, or intricately decorated Islamic decorations and calligraphic script. The amount of time and energy that went into these decorations is staggering and an amazing testament to the might, wealth, and glory of the Ottoman Empire at its peak.

Interior of the Blue Mosque

For people familiar with calligraphy, many of the tiles depict beautiful flowing script, which are verses from the Qur’an and were created by Seyyid Kasim Gubari – one of the greatest calligraphers in his era.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Snow

The interior of the Blue Mosque is absolutely gorgeous.  However, it is also slightly overwhelming making the structure feel somewhat smaller and significantly more cozy than Hagia Sophia.  If planning a visit to Istanbul, I highly suggest visiting both structures and dedicating ample time to each. While it is easy to assume that the two will be very similar, the reality is that the experience varies significantly from one to the other.  The Blue Mosque will awe you with its beauty, with its polished architecture and wonderful lighting.  Hagia Sophia will captivate you with its size, scale, and odd mixture of religious and cultural history.

Mosque in Istanbul

Other Mosques Abound

As a first-timer to Istanbul I expected that the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia would be the only two large religious structures in the city.  Especially after seeing the incredible size and scale of the structures it made it hard to imagine that the city could have ever supported a third, fourth, or fifth building of similar scale and scope.

Istanbul at Sunset

So, perhaps you can understand (and share) my surprise at discovering that Istanbul’s skyline is decorated by the impressive domes and needle-like forms of towering minarets from at least half a dozen large mosques.

Have you visited Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque?  What were your favorite parts?  What surprised you?

**Bonus – While visiting Hagia Sophia, there is a free (and separate) series of tombs which can be accessed from the external side of the building.  These serve as the eternal resting place for a number of the region’s influential rulers and religious figures, in addition to boasting their own wealth of beautiful tile and mural work.

An Unexpected Introduction to Istanbul


I swallowed hard with an expression that was no doubt a mixture of delight and annoyance as I suppressed that small lump clawing its way up into my throat as the airplane descended the final few thousand feet before bouncing down onto the runway. The view out the window was unusual.  What I had initially thought to be part of the city’s sprawl clarified into a veritable armada of dozens of merchant vessels all anchored in line, waiting their turn to traverse the Bosphorus.

Before long the thick rubber tires of the Turkish Airways flight were rumbling along the tarmac soon to be replaced by the high pitched squeak of my shoes on the polished marble tiles of Ataturk International Airport.  Laden with my front and back packs – in total weighing just under 15kg – I wound my way through the airport’s serpentine complex of tunnels, halls, and checkpoints in search of the metro.  It was relatively late. My flight landed just after 9:30PM. Darkness had long since fallen.  I was experiencing that familiar feeling of slight anxiety over finding my way to my hostel, at night, through one of the world’s largest cities.  As usual, I hadn’t bothered to pick up a guide book or a map.  I softly chided myself and wondered – as I often do – if it had been a mistake.  No time to dwell, I eventually found a metro map and paused just long enough to trace my route and take a photo on my phone.  With a map to reference it was time to take the escalator down and into the nearly abandoned metro station.

I didn’t know what to expect.  In a conversation earlier on the flight I’d learned that contrary to the 8-13 million person population I had expected via Wikipedia, the locals all placed the actual figure closer to 19/20 Million.  Nearly double the size.  Guides, tweets, and other travelers had warned me that locals were friendly, but could also be obnoxiously pushy sales people and were prone to running scams.  I had a mental image of the Hollywood versions of the markets in Morocco or Mumbai, filled with in-your-face sales people, large throngs of humanity and more pick-pockets than tourists.    I was on my guard.  Shoulders rolled forward. Thumbs stuck in my front pockets.  I didn’t expect trouble, but I was also dead set on making sure I didn’t find any.

As I waited for the train on the largely deserted platform, I repeatedly checked the map trying to figure out which side would take me in the right direction.  Most metro systems are similar, but there are always subtle differences that take a while to figure out.  Is it a zone system or does it work on a per-line ticket basis?  Does the train stop at midnight or run 24 hours?  How are the signs laid out?  Do they announce stops on the train or do you have to watch each station carefully?  As I worked to figure out each of these key pieces of information, I eventually approached a lone man standing near me and asked to confirm that I was in the right spot, for the right line, in the correct direction.

Luckily he spoke English and was eager to strike up a conversation while we waited, answering my questions and gesturing that we should sit down.  The seats were in one of the darker parts of the station, towards the end of the metro line’s tracks. He chatted away cheerfully and asked me questions about my visit. He seemed friendly and open.  I wasn’t.  I was cautious and guarded, though still striving to be friendly.  But, I followed him the 10 steps or so to the benches and then stood making sure I had an easy route out and away if I needed it. I didn’t.  As we chatted more and I got a better read on him, I grew more comfortable and eventually sat down – still paying close attention to my surroundings.

Eventually the metro arrived and we boarded. He asked me again where I was going and I gave him the general station and route suggested to me by the hostel.  He asked what hostel.  I told him I didn’t remember.  My notes said to transfer a few stations in.  He suggested taking the metro with him to the end of the line, then walking about 150 meters to the tram and mentioned it would cut about 20 minutes off my trip.  I glanced at the metro map.  Both seemed to make sense.  He had been helpful and friendly so far – so I agreed.

We chatted about travel, women, and a taste of politics. All the while I stared out the windows taking in a late night view of Istanbul’s strange mishmash of modern, semi-modern, and ancient architecture.  While my concern over being robbed or mugged had subsided he seemed a bit too friendly and too helpful.  In retrospect, I have to say my perception and reality had been poisoned by the stories I had heard before my trip that biased my expectations.   My new concern was that he’d approach me for money or a tip in exchange for helping me get where I was going. An annoying routine I’ve run into all over the globe.  So, with this concern in mind, as we reached the end of the metro line, and he offered to show me along to the tram station/my hostel if I needed help I resisted saying I was fine and could find it/didn’t want to be an inconvenience.

He insisted on walking me to the tram station at the very least, told me we were in his neighborhood and asked if I wanted to get any food or a beer. I thank him and told him I’d eaten and needed to check into my hostel as soon as possible, as it was already nearly 11:30PM.  As we walked through the snow he gave me his number and told me to give him a call if I had any issues or wanted to connect for a tour around the city.

As we came up on the street tram he explained how it worked.  I expected that this was when he’d hit me up for some sort of tip, as he asked me one more time if I was comfortable finding my way the last leg to the hostel.  I nodded and thanked him graciously for all his help and the delightful conversation, and then fumbled in my pocket for one of the tram tokens I’d purchased at the airport. Before I could find it, and to my complete shock and surprise, he pulled out his metro pass and swiped it for me, and motioned for me to enter.  I was stunned.  Not only had I not been hassled and hit up for money, my first encounter with a local was friendly, engaging, and helpful in every way. I was grinning from ear to ear.

This wonderful experience confirmed once again why it is important to always travel with an open mind…to be friendly to the people you meet and evaluate each situation on its own merits. For my part, I’ll strive to pay his kindness forward and return the favor as I see other travelers struggling or in need of a helping hand.   Remember, you always hear horror stores about a destination, its people, or the experiences you might expect to encounter but, the reality is often vastly different.  For many of us, the nature of our experiences is based on a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Choose to give people the opportunity to surprise you, and quite often they will in wonderful ways.

The remainder of my trip to my hostel was uneventful.  I arrived a bit after midnight with a smile on my face and with my perception of what to expect from the Turks completely re-set and re-framed. Despite the snow falling outside, my mood was as bright as a summer day.  Istanbul and adventure called…but first, I needed a good night’s rest.