The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are two dominant and majestic buildings within the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul. With its uncanny ability to feel like a small town, rather than part of Turkey’s largest city, locals of this district no longer look twice at the hordes of tourists flooding their streets every day. In the past, these traders took advantage of their presence and turned the primary source of income and trade into tourism. With visitors looking for inside info and historical facts about one of Turkey’s most iconic areas, travel agents and tour guides find themselves in high demand.
Naturally, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this is no surprise, but the above two prize gems stand out. Standing directly opposite each other, tourists who have read these cultural destinations are must-see attractions, form long queues for entrance. Today these buildings are iconic tourist destinations. But their history stretches back through centuries, connecting them to two great empires and two prominent religions.
About the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia: Former Church, Museum and now Mosque
The church was first constructed in 360AD, during Byzantine rule, but 117 years later, rioting locals destroyed it. Rebuilding started immediately and apart from minor wear and tear over the years; we see a magnificent building today. It would be easy to assume when the Byzantine Empire fell in 1453 to the Ottoman conquest, the first building they would demolish would be the sacred church. However, the conquering Sultan Mehmed the 2nd, after allowing soldiers to pillage it, set about converting it into a mosque.
Perhaps in awe of the architectural structure and ceiling dome, which was the largest in the world, they removed only the Christian symbols like frescoes and religious statues. The landmark became Constantinople’s first imperial mosque, and spent the next 565 years as a place of worship for Islam, marking her place in the history of Constantinople. By 1935, the Ottoman Empire fell. Known as the sick man of Europe, the newly formed Turkish Republic expelled the last ruling sultan. The pleasant blend of Byzantine architecture combined with Islamic facades prompted the newly formed government to turn it into an official museum.
In 2020, the Republic of Turkey said using as anything other than a mosque was not legal and its status reverted. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan endorsed the controversial decision. The building will keep UNESCO status and will welcome visitors - not unlike the Parisian Sacre Cour. Walking through the doors into the interior, visitors enter a large hall topped with a decorated dome. The eye-catching Islamic calligraphy plaques catch people’s attention first, rather than the Christian frescoes uncovered during its museum conversion. Leading off the main hall, the winding stone staircase takes visitors to the upper level and the best viewpoint of this sacred building.
The Majestic Blue Mosque
From the Hagia Sophia, a walkway through the park directly in front of it, and across a minor road, reaches the Blue Mosque. Passing by souvenir shops and bookstalls, eight stone steps lead to an arched doorway, surrounded on the right by rows of stools and taps for Muslims to wash before entering. From the arched doorway, visitors go into the large courtyard where cats roam freely, with an air of sense as if they own the streets of Istanbul. Taking their shoes off before entering the interior, a sign reminds travellers to be quiet, but at some point, the noise will fill the dome from people who either don’t care or are not aware they stand in one of Turkey’s oldest and biggest mosques. A building that symbolises fine Ottoman architecture, part of the architectural inspiration stems from the Byzantine Hagia Sophia opposite it.
Built in 1616, it is impressive that nearly 400 years later; it functions as a place of worship and tourist attraction at the same time. Its name stems from thousands of blue tiles adorning the interior ceiling, but locals also call it the Sultanahmed Camii because of its location. Mosque officials and locals using it for pray seem unaffected by hordes of tourists gathering around the entrance and in the courtyard. They ask men to wear trousers and women to cover their head, arms, and legs. Admission is free, but they accept donations towards upkeep and maintenance through a donation box near the entrance.
These two buildings of Istanbul are popular tourist attractions but stand for much more. They represent three cities; Byzantium, Constantinople, and now the cosmopolitan metropolis of Istanbul. They show perfect examples of man’s struggle for power and tell a story of how the world’s leading religions intertwined.
Also See: The old city Sultanahmet neighbourhood is a sightseeing and walking-tour treasure chest. Other monuments and touristic attractions within walking distance include the Topkapi Palace, a sprawling complex and first home of the Ottoman Turks when they invaded Constantinople. Sitting nearby, the hippodrome only has a few columns visibly but envisage it as the social setting for the Byzantine Empire. Heading down a flight of stone stairs, we arrive at the Basilica cistern, that featured in the James Bond film, From Russia with Love. Travellers who like history should head into the Archaeology museum, while a short stroll away is the Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s largest and oldest markets and a great place to buy souvenirs.
More About the Fatih District: The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia sit in the Fatih area that has many other hidden gems. In this article, we discuss where to go and what to see. From the colourful houses of Balat and Fener to shopping and the seven hills and mosques, it is a great introductory guide for first-time visitors in Istanbul.
Beautiful Bosphorus: Istanbul divides itself across two continents separated by the Bosphorus strait. This stretch of water has been in a pivotal landmark in its historical storyline, but even these days, keeps its status as the lifeline of local communities and top touristic attraction.
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