Visiting the mosques of Istanbul

When you think of Istanbul the first image that comes to mind is probably that of Hagia Sophia. The Mosque that once was a Church, the Church that became a Mosque, and the Mosque that became a Museum to be turned back into Mosque. Yet I doubt anyone really goes to Hagia Sophia for prayer. You wouldn’t if you had to queue for as long as it is required, perhaps. So I do wonder why this Mosque, once a Church, once a Museum was to become a Mosque again – and very recently, just in 2020.

I suppose that was a political decision, and I won’t dive into the politics and religion that I cannot truly understand. The truth is Hagia Sophia is indeed the symbol of Istanbul, even of Turkey. How many of us see its image popping into our heads once this country is mentioned? Hagia Sophia is for Istanbul what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, the Big Ben to London, and the Statue of Liberty to New York. It is inescapable. Yet, how many of us know the story behind such a marvellous work of architecture?

For most of its lifetime – a very long one as Hagia Sophia (meaning Holy Wisdom) was erected in 537 – this place was a Church, more specifically a Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Whilst most symbols related to Christianity are currently hidden, if you pay attention you can still find them (photo below of mosaic representing Mary and Jesus). It only became a Mosque in 1453 upon the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire. As described in my first post on Istanbul, before Constantinople, the city was called Byzantium. And Hagia Sophia was truly to be considered the epitome of Byzantine Architecture. It remained the world’s largest cathedral until of course, it was converted into a Mosque. But even once transformed into a Mosque, the Cathedral of Seville in Spain would take that title away in 1520. Still, Hagia Sophia became the model through which orthodox churches were to be designed and this style was to be adopted by the Ottoman mosques a thousand years later.

After Mehmed, the Conqueror converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque, it became the main one in Istanbul until the construction of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque – commonly known as the “Blue Mosque” due to its interior decorated with blue tiles. Unfortunately, this was under renovation at the time of my visit and all I could see was the below – which doesn’t even loo that blue.

The only thing I could see in the inside of the Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque

Hagia Sophia was denied to show off its mosaics depicting Jesus, Mary, Christian saints and angels and minarets were added as well as other key elements that constitute a mosque. It remained open until 1931. At the time it closed to the public, reopening in 1935 as a museum. In July 2020, the decision was reverted and Hagia Sophia became once again a Mosque. When I went on a walking tour of the city, the tour guide joked about it – if there is anything we don’t need more of are mosques, and no one comes to pray here. Indeed. Istanbul receives thousands of tourists every day, and they come in bulk, disembarking from cruises in huge groups. Terrifying-looking queues to visit Hagia Sophia start as early as 8am, lasting until the end of the day. I visited it at around 7pm, when I was casually passing by and saw a small queue outside – in five minutes, I was in and I could admire the mosque without having to stumble upon people.

Still, the reopening of Hagia Sophia as a Mosque may be a little more problematic than it seems. The tour guide was joking but I could sense the tension in his words. It shows how dangerously intertwined religion and the state are, becoming one. It was argued that Hagia Sophia is the personal property of the sultan and the building symbolizes the Muslim identity of Turkey. This was quite controversial – against it were the members of the opposition, UNESCO and, of course, the World Council of Churches. Bear in mind that since Hagia Sophia is a Mosque, you don’t have to pay an entry fee. So imagine how much money they could make if they kept Hagia Sophia as a museum that celebrates both orthodox and Muslim cultures, rather than making it back into a Mosque where no one goes to pray…

In 1550, Mimar Sinan, Ottoman Imperial Chief Architect to three different sultans, would be inspired by Hagia Sophia to build what in my opinion is the mosque you cannot miss in Istanbul – the Süleymaniye Mosque, commissioned by sultan Süleymaniye the magnificent.

Here I did not see any queues, the interior was mostly empty and I simply cannot understand why. This Mosque has completely changed Istanbul’s skyline and is as or even more magnificent than Hagia Sophia. You can also visit the imperial mausoleums around it and the Muslim cemetery – I found the surrounding area very peaceful, contrary to the bustling surroundings of Hagia Sophia. Definitely, a place to go to rest and admire the beautiful views of the Golden Horn. After all the Süleymaniye Mosque sits on one of the seven hills of Istanbul.

Please be aware that to visit mosques you have to comply with certain etiquette rules. Women need to cover their heads, if wearing skirts these need to go below the knee. Both men and women cannot wear shorts and shoulders need to be covered, and it’s imperative that shoes are removed. This is to ensure the carpet where people kneel to pray stays clean. Be respectful of these rules. Was it bothersome to cover my head and take off my boots every time I wanted to visit a mosque or peek inside a mausoleum? Yes, a little. But who chose to visit the city and explore its culture? I did. Don’t try to be funny about it – when I see tourists trying to go around these rules, thinking they are too good to comply, I feel sick to my stomach. Be respectful of each country’s rules. You don’t have to agree with them, but it was your choice to be there in the first place.

It’s taking me a sweet time getting my Istanbul content out here, but I’m getting there. Sometimes life gets in the way, and sometimes we simply need more time to digest the experiences we’ve had before setting off to properly look at the photos and write the content down. And well… sometimes I’m not inspired! So bear with me. 2023 will bring more adventures, and this year I will take the time to ensure I’m happy with the content I publish instead of posting for sake of it (that’s why I have Instagram for 😉 )

Love, Nic

4 thoughts on “Visiting the mosques of Istanbul

  1. Wow! The Süleymaniye Mosque looks indeed amazing. The same style as Hagia Sophia but the decoration is exquisite. I love the contrast between the gold ornaments and the red arches and carpets. Quite strange that it attracts fewer visitors. Perhaps people get bored after seeing the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque which have similar designs. By the way, happy new year! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Happy New Year Len! Thank you for reading and your comment. I personally think is more to do with the crowds coming from large tour groups, staying in the area between Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque and not venturing beyond that. I’ve found that in certain places the lesser known attractions often seem to be equally or even more astounding. But I’m not complaining, at least I got to admire it without the crowds 😉

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  2. The Süleymaniye Mosque was one of our favourites, too. It was the first one we visited on the evening of our arrival in Istanbul. We got there during prayer time, so could not enter. We went back the next morning to see the interior and I am so glad we did. Surprising as you say, that there are no queues. Turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque is beyond me as well. When we visited the Chora Church, a little gem with old peeling frescoes, we saw that this place too was being transformed into a mosque.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It saddens me to see the history of the city being so easily “replaced” due to what to me starts looking like religion fanatism. I’ve always found Bizantine churches stunning, and it concerns me that the beautiful frescoes that typically addorn its walls may be neglect or even destroyed due to their transformation into mosques… specially when no more mosques are needed! Thanks for your comment Leighton.

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