The Hagia Sophia
Inaugurated in 360CE (though the current version was built nearly 200 years later) the Hagia Sophia was originally a church, and then was converted into a mosque, before becoming the modern-day museum. After it became a mosque in 1453, it was a model for many other mosques in the same style, including the Blue Mosque and the Süleymaniye Mosque.
The last time I saw the Hagia Sophia they were doing some renovations, so it was covered in scaffolding and I couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about, and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go back. However, as it’s a ‘must see’ in Istanbul, I obligingly went along with Madeline, Tom and Amir, smiling like a parent taking her child to the zoo for the first time.
Then I entered, and I was the one who gasped. It was breathtaking.
Lights hang from the ceiling on wire frames shaped like flowers, bathing the colossal central nave in a golden glow. Large black disks decorate the pillars on the second level, each inscribed in gold with the names of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, the first four caliphs and the two grandchildren of Muhammad. Without meaning to, I broke away from the others as I tried to inhale the essence of the building, my eyes as wide as a child’s and my heart beating furiously. At several moments I was moved to tears – when I saw the gold religious mosaics on the upper gallery, when I wandered through the quieter, cooler stone corridors, and when I looked back towards the entrance from the opposite end of the mosque, I was overwhelmed by the Hagia Sophia’s size.
The Blue Mosque
The only mosque in the world with six minarets, the Blue Mosque is one of the most beautiful things I saw in Istanbul, and I wish I had a photo that did it justice. Its name comes from the blue tiles that decorate the interior, which form intricate patterns around the arched stained-glass windows. Apparently more than 20,000 tiles line the interior, and rings and rings of lights hang from the ceiling in bell-shaped cups of glass.
Unlike the Hagia Sophia, this is still an operational mosque, which means that you need to remove your shoes in the courtyard before entering (though they weren’t that strict about women covering their hair), and you also aren’t allowed in at prayer times. However, there are tourists rushing in and out almost constantly, snapping photos as they balance the plastic bags carrying their shoes on their wrists. I really wish some of them would have been more reverent – I felt a bit like they were letting the mosque down.
After buying my ticket for Topkapi Palace, I stopped to take a photo of the gate.
A man approached me. “Would you like a tour in English?”
“No thank you, it’s too expensive for me,” I said.
“But it’s free for you!” he exclaimed.
A slow smile spread across my face as I asked, “why?”
He shrugged, “because you’re a beautiful girl, and it’s always nice to have a beautiful girl on the tour.”
After four more snaps I untangled myself from the group and rejoined the tour. I could finally enjoy the palace – though I kept a safe distance from all children thenceforth.
Although the tour was interesting, I really preferred wandering around alone. One thing I did learn was that in Islam, simplicity is considered to be beautiful, so most Islamic architecture is very simple. However, in the 18th century, European styles came into fashion, so the palace now has many French-style embellishments that were added in that period. He also said that Islamic architecture is always asymmetrical – as only Allah is perfect, they didn’t build symmetrical buildings. This means that many doors are off centre, with a different number of columns on each side and quite often the columns are in different colours. And this is something you can see everywhere – the Hagia Sophia was originally a church, so is quite symmetrical, but when the four minarets were added, three of them matched and one of them didn’t. The Blue Mosque is also an example with the six minarets containing different numbers of galleries (I think four have three galleries and two have two, but couldn’t find anything online to confirm this).
So the palace is very simple (in comparison to European palaces) and beautiful. Divided into a number of courtyards with large gardens, it’s very soothing and open and feels a world away from the city. Because many of the palace buildings are surrounded by colonnades, they don’t intrude on the gardens, but seem very airy. And the walls of the final courtyard extend out to the water, affording wide views across the Bosphorus.
Some of the buildings house museums, or items from the treasury (including the second largest diamond in the world), or porcelains or the Sultans’ kaftans, while others are furnished as they would have been when people lived in the palace.
The Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern is an underground cavern of 9,800m2 capable of holding 800,000m3 of water. Rows and rows of stone pillars run up and down its length, all 336 of them 9m high and 4.9m apart. People walk over the water on raised wooden walkways. The only lighting is from the bottom of the pillars, which were lit by amber lights shining up from their feet – they illuminate the sides of the pillars and reflect against the water. It’s really magical.
I stumbled onto Süleymaniye Mosque by accident. Having gotten a bit turned around between the Spice Market and the Grand Bazaar, I found the second largest mosque in Istanbul when I was trying to get back to the hostel. The Süleymaniye Mosque was designed as a complex consisting of the mosque, a hospital, a primary school, four Qur’an schools, a medical college, a school for the learning of hadith (narrations about the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad), a public kitchen, a road-side inn and a hamam.
I feel so privileged that I was able to see it – with cream walls, red carpet and little arched windows, it’s completely different to the cool, cellar-like stone of the Hagia Sophia, and the mosaic tiles of the Blue Mosque. Excluding the warm floral designs on the central dome, and the small signs in Arabic, the only decorations were red or blue strips around the arches between the pillars. The simplicity only drew attention to its size, so big that the rings of lights hanging in the centre of the mosque seemed like a solar system.
Built from 1843 to 1846, Dolmabahçe Palace is on the European side of Istanbul, and was the first European Palace built in the city.
Unlike Topkapi Palace, Dolmabahçe Palace was very ornate with fourteen tonnes of gold-leaf gilding the ceilings and countless chandeliers made of English crystal. The largest hall in the palace is stunning – with moulded pillars, beautifully painted walls and the largest Bohemian crystal chandelier in the world, weighing in at 4.5 tonnes. The central dome has been painted to look as though it is a part of another building, so it resembles stone arches that look out onto a garden or courtyard.
Unfortunately you could only see the palace as part of the tour, and you weren’t allowed to leave the group due to security concerns, so it often felt like we were being herded around like cattle. I much preferred Topkapi Palace, where I could roam as I pleased.