Continuing our strolling explorations through Istanbul, we popped our heads into Sultan Ahmet Camii, known in English as the Blue Mosque, which is also the starting point for the day’s walking trail which took us downhill to the edge of the Marmara Sea (chapter 6, page 107).
Sultan Ahmet Camii aka The Blue Mosque
The Sultan Ahmet Camii is the most famous purpose-built mosque in Istanbul. I say it that way because, in a “keeping up with the Joneses” kind of way, it sits next to the larger, grander Hagia Sophia. Founded by Sultan Ahmet I, he instructed his architect – a student of the famous Sinan – to build a mosque that surpassed the beauty of Hagia Sophia. There are a few nice tales about its construction.. firstly, the young Sultan was so keen to see it completed that he often pitched in himself; and secondly that when it was unveiled as having 6 minarets rather than 4, Sultan Ahmet was accused of being too self-aggrandising because Mecca was the site of the only other 6-minareted mosque. His solution was to pay for a 7th minaret in Mecca.
We got there just after the opening time hoping to beat the inevitable queues from the tour busses as this is Istanbul tourist central. Our timing was perfectly coordinated with said coaches, and from the entrance in the south-west corner the queue stretched the length of the mosque, its courtyard, around the corner and half-way up the other side. We were offered expedited entry with a local tour guide for 40 lira (about £13) but being British we secretly like waiting in line and it only took 35 minutes.
Outside, the dark stone of its distinctive silhouette so iconic in Istanbul’s skyline looks fantastically detailed in bright sunlight, but seemed to make it one with the dreary overcast cloudy sky we had. This lowered our expectations for what we were about to find inside..
Despite being restricted to the back 3rd of the main prayer hall, this, like so many times in Uzbekistan, was a “wow” moment. The space is huge, and dominated by the giant red carpet on the floor and the massive, beautifully decorated dome overhead. It’s the blue in the dome’s design that gives the mosque its name.
Just outside the Blue Mosque we stopped for an early packed lunch next to the massive Egyptian obelisk while we read the introduction to the Hippodrome from our guidebook.
Now a narrow park, it was really difficult to appreciate the sheer scale of the once mighty Hippodrome. Even when we read that the courtyard of the Blue Mosque was built on the foundations of the Hippodrome’s seating, we still weren’t able to fully appreciate how big and important this arena was to Byzantine society. In researching this post, I found this reconstructed image..
All that remains of the Hippodrome today are a fountain, 3 central columns, and the foundations of the western rounded end. The largest of the central columns is called, appropriately, Colossus, and having stood next to it in person, to then see it in situ as the middle-marker of the 30,000 seat capacity of the Hippodrome finally gave us a sense of scale.
Sokullu Mehmet Paşa Camii
Skipping a few of the smaller sights on the route, we arrived at another of Sinan’s mosques, Sokullu Mehmet Paşa. Built in 1571-2 on the site of a former church, we entered through a long outdoor corridor into the serenity of an empty courtyard and an all but empty mosque – a far cry from the bustle of the Blue Mosque earlier!
We loved the quiet serenity of this mosque, and the 3 reasons why it features on the stroll:
- It’s built by Sinan, that automatically gets attention but as there almost 100 of his structures left that doesn’t guarantee a place. The book describes this as “one of the most beautiful of the smaller mosques of Sinan“
- The Iznik tiles in the mihrab are exquisite, and
- There are 3 fragments of black stone from the Kaaba in Mecca embedded into the walls: one above the main entrance, another above the entrance to the mimber and the last in the centre of the mihrab
At first glance we weren’t sure we’d found what we were looking for when we entered a small park and children’s play area and spotted an old stone square fenced off in the corner. On closer inspection it was, as our book describes, the last remaining namazgah within the city walls, and one of 3 left in Istanbul.
So what is it? Well, a namazgah is an outdoor prayer area. We thought it was a really interesting thing to see, and it was a shame we couldn’t get closer than the surrounding fence.
SS Sergius & Bacchus
Approaching the sea, but not yet past the defence of the sea walls, we arrived at SS Sergius & Bacchus, which, like many of the mosques in Istanbul was once a Christian church and subsequently converted to a mosque. Our guidebook introduces it thus:
“SS. Sergius and Bacchus were two Roman soldiers martyred for their espousal of Christianity; later they became the patron saints of Christians in the Roman army. These saints were especially dear to Justinian because they saved his life some years before he came to the throne, in the reign of Anastasius. It seems that Justinian had been accused of plotting against the Emperor and was in danger of being executed, but Sergius and Bacchus appeared in a dream to Anastasius and interceded for him. As soon as Justinian himself became Emperor in 527, he expressed his gratitude to the saints by dedicating to them this church, the first of those with which he adorned the city.” – Strolling through Istanbul, p123
Just like Sokullu Mehmet Paşa earlier, we found SS Sergius & Bacchus to be quiet, and we were encouraged to do something we’ve wanted to do in every mosque we’ve visited with an internal balcony – go upstairs!
The late afternoon light through the windows was lovely, we loved the light airiness of the decoration and the luxurious sky-blue carpet which felt decadent to walk on.
Byzantine Sea Walls and the Palace of Bucoleon
The route then ducks under the railway lines which once carried the Orient Express, and through the old sea wall defences to highlight some of the oldest parts of the city.
The highlight of this section for us was the huge marble window frames of the Palace of Bucoleon, which was part of the original Grand Palace of Byzantium, once the heart of Constantinople, and sadly all that remains of it above ground. Even though little of this palace remains, it gave us a sense of scale and grandeur.
After the Palace, we passed ruins of old gates into the city, a marble pavilion and the foundations of an old church. A lot of the old vaulted sub-structures and gatehouses are being used for temporary shelter, and while we felt perfectly safe wandering along the sea walls, the smell of impromptu toilets did prevent us from inspecting some of the vaults more closely.
Grand Palace Mosaic Museum
The walk ended just behind the Blue Mosque at the Mosaic Museum, which doesn’t look much from the outside but it’s mentioned briefly in our guidebook, and the reviews we’d read elsewhere highly recommended it.
After passing an unkempt garden of old stone columns and capitals, we entered what looked like a temporary shed and found ourselves on a 1st floor catwalk overlooking the restored mosaic peristyle of the Grand Palace.
Thought to date from Justinian’s reign (527-65), and believed to be the floor of the north-east portico of the Grand Palace, the mosaics were uncovered during excavations in 1935 and have since been restored a couple of times.
The mosaics are wonderful – we weren’t expecting such detailed work or such an extensive collection. The most recent restoration effort is explained in fascinating detail along with what is known about their history in panels throughout.
It was a nice end to another day of strolling, and something quite different to mosques and old walls.