Stringing Europe and Asia together, Istanbul is the only city in the world that stretches across two continents. Influences of both of these continents can be seen everywhere. The many castles and fortifications around the city are clearly influenced by Europe, whereas the colours of mosaics and designs on carpets all have resemblances to Asian culture. Two famous architectural structures stand in the middle of Istanbul, showcasing both of these cultures: the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
In 330 C.E., Justinian I ordered the creation of the church Hagia Sophia. This incredible project was a beacon of wealth and power and was one of the grandest structures built at the time. The dome alone had a diameter of 32 meters and a height of 56 meters. This was the first dome of this size constructed in history. The sheer size of the dome left me amazed, and I couldn’t figure out how the builders of Hagia Sophia could paint so beautifully at such a height. I couldn’t help but feel insignificant inside this amazing and historic building.
Although the Hagia Sophia’s original purpose was that of a church, its role changed under the Ottoman Turks in 1453 C.E when they conquered the Byzantine Empire. Sultan Mehmed I was highly impressed by the magnificence of Hagia Sophia. As this new ruler was of the Islamic faith, he converted the building to a mosque adding many classic common Islamic features, including four minarets to the exterior and a mihrab and a minbar to the interior. The minarets are slender towers located on each corner and can be seen from far away. The mihrab is a human sized semi-circled niche cut out into the wall of the mosque. The Imam (similar to a priest in Christianity) will speak into the mihrab and his voice will rebound back into the prayer hall so that he is easily heard by the worshipers. The minbar is a short flight of stairs that ascends to a platform where the Imam stands to deliver speeches, before or after prayer.
Ahmed I, a Sultan who came to power 50 years after Mehmed I, decided to build a mosque that would surpass the Hagia Sophia’s splendor, and reassert Ottoman influence after losing a long war with Persia. Construction on Sultan Ahmed’s “Blue” Mosque was started in 1609, and was completed an astonishing 7 years later. As the dimensions of this mosque were 64 meters by 72 meters this was quite a feat. Later, Sultan Ahmed’s mosque was nicknamed the Blue Mosque because of its interior which contains 20,000 blue coloured tiles and more than 200 blue stained glass windows.
As non-Muslims cannot usually enter a mosque, I had never been in one before. I thought that the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia might have more similarities; however, once I entered the mosque, it was obvious that the only clearly visible parallel between the two were their domed ceilings. The interior of the Blue Mosque was much more colourful than Hagia Sophia. The Blue Mosque was intricately decorated, and had many windows, making it feel warm and very approachable. The interior of the Hagia Sophia was made of different types of marble and had few windows making the space very dark.
Another difference between the two is that the Hagia Sophia was converted from a church to a mosque, and later turned into a museum. When the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque all of the Christian symbols and mosaics were covered or removed and today many of the covered ones can be seen bleeding through the paint that hid them for centuries. The Blue Mosque has remained just this – a mosque – and has only Islamic images decorating the walls. It is still used today by Muslims as a space to pray.
We happen to be near the Blue Mosque on a Friday and witnessed thousands of Muslims exiting the mosque after midday prayer. Fridays are the most important holy day for Muslims and all are expected to attend midday prayer on this day. Men of the Islamic faith are called to pray five times a day, either in a mosque, or at their homes. The following is sung in Arabic at about 4:30, 6:15, 13:00, 17:00, and 20:00 each day: Allah is greatest. (X4) I bear witness that there is no god except Allah. (X2) I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. (X2) Come to prayer. (X2) Come to success (X2) Allah is greatest. (X2) There is no god except Allah. During the first call to pray in the morning, an additional line is added: Worship is better than sleep. I’m not certain that I agree with this because waking up at 8:00 am is difficult as it is. Getting up at 4:30 everyday would be nearly impossible.
I remember the first time that I had heard call to prayer. It was our first day in Morocco – the small town of Chefchaouen. I had nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard someone singing loudly in Arabic. It turned out that every street in the Medina of this town had speakers at the intersections. This woke us up every morning at 4:30 am. Call to prayer was much quieter in Turkey, which I was immensely grateful for because it didn’t wake us. We happened to be in the Aya Sofya (in English: Hagia Sophia) square when call to prayer happened in the early afternoon. It was neat to hear the muezzin’s voice switching from the Blue Mosque to Hagia Sophia and then back again calling the worshippers. It was also interesting to see the shops begin to close and the people (mostly men) head towards the Blue Mosque.
Both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque helped make Istanbul one of my favourite places on our trip. A melting pot of history, architecture and culture, this amazing city will never fail to captivate imaginations.