The Sultanahmet area of Istanbul has an uncanny ability to feel like a small town, rather than part of the largest city in Turkey. Locals working in bars, restaurants and hotels no longer look twice at the hordes of tourists flooding their streets every day.
In fact, these traders took advantage of their presence and turned the main 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.
The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are two dominant and majestic buildings within that area. 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 the history of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque stretches back through centuries, connecting them to two of the world’s greatest empires and two of the most prominent religions.
The Hagia Sophia: Former Church, Mosque, Museum and now Mosque.
In 360AD, during Byzantine rule, first construction of this church was completed. However, 117 years later, rioting locals bought about its destruction. Rebuilding started immediately and apart from minor wear and tear over the years, it has been expertly maintained to become the beautiful and magnificent Hagia Sophia that we see today.
It would be easy to assume that when the Byzantine Empire fell in 1453 to the Ottoman conquest, that the first building to be demolished would have been 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 at that time was the largest in the world, only the Christian symbols were removed: such as frescoes and religious statues. The Hagia Sophia became the first imperial mosque of Constantinople 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 had fallen. Known as the “sick man of Europe,” the last ruling sultan had been exiled from the newly formed Turkish republic some years before. The Hagia Sophia and its pleasant blend of Byzantine architecture combined with Islamic facades prompted the newly formed government to declare the Hagia Sophia an official museum.
In 2020, following a Turkish court ruling that said its use as anything other than a mosque as "not possible legally", the venerable building became a mosque again.
The decision was controversial, but endorsed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The building will retain its 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. Most certainly, the eye-catching Islamic calligraphy plaques catch people’s attention first, rather than the Christian frescoes uncovered during its conversion into a museum. Leading off the main hall is the entrance to the winding stone staircase taking visitors to the upper level. This is the best viewpoint to see this sacred building.
From the Hagia Sophia, a walkway through the park directly in front of it, and across a small road, reaches the Blue Mosque. Passing small shops selling books and souvenirs, eight stone steps lead to an arched doorway, surrounded on the right by rows of stools and taps for Muslims to wash themselves 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 of the mosque, a sign reminds visitors to be quiet but it is a guarantee that at some point, noise will fill the dome from people who either don’t care or are not aware that they stand in one of the oldest and biggest mosques of Turkey. A building that symbolises Ottoman architecture at its finest, part of the inspiration behind it came from the Byzantine Hagia Sophia opposite it.
Built in 1616, it is amazing that nearly 400 years later; it is still a fully practising mosque at the same time as being one of Istanbul’s most visited tourist attractions. Its name stems from the thousands of blue tiles adorning the interior ceiling but locals also call it the Sultanahmed mosque because of its location.
Officials of the mosques and locals using it for pray seem to be unaffected by the tourists gathering around the entrance and in the courtyard. They simply ask for men to wear trousers and women to cover their head, arms and legs. Entrance is free but donations towards its upkeep are gladly accepted as evident by the donation box situated near the entrance.
These two buildings of Istanbul are marketed as popular tourist attractions but they stand for much more than that. They represent three cities; Byzantium, Constantinople and now the fully cosmopolitan metropolis of Istanbul. They show perfect examples of man’s struggle for power and also tell a story of how the world’s leading religions have been intertwined.
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