Sultanahmet Mosque, known worldwide as the Blue Mosque, is yet another one of Istanbul’s most important symbols, forming a magnificent piece of the Historical Peninsula’s skyline...
The cascading domes and six slender minarets of the Sultanahmet Mosque (better known as the Blue Mosque) dominate the skyline of Istanbul. The city’s most photogenic building was the grand project of Sultan Ahmet I (r.1603–17), whose tomb is located on the north side of the site facing the Sultanahmet Square.
In the 17th century, Sultan Ahmet I wished to build an Islamic place of worship that would surpass the Hagia Sophia, the masterpiece of the Christian architecture. The two great architectural achievements now stand facing each other in Istanbul's main square.
Being one of the top sights in this historic city, the mosque's wonderfully curvaceous exterior features a cascade of domes and six slender minarets. Blue Iznik tiles adorn the interior and give the building its unofficial but commonly used name.
After the Peace of Zsitvatorok and the crushing loss in the 1603-1618 war with Persia, Sultan Ahmet I, by that time 19 years old, decided to build a large mosque in Istanbul to reassert Ottoman power.
It would be the first imperial mosque for more than forty years. While his predecessors had paid for their mosques with their spoil of war, Ahmet I had to borrow the funds in the Treasury, because he had not gained remarkable victories.
It caused discontent of the ulema, the Muslim jurists. The mosque was built on the site of the palace of the Byzantine emperors, in front of the basilica Ayasofya (at that time, the primary imperial mosque in Istanbul) and the Hippodrome, a site of significant symbolic meaning as it dominated the city skyline from the south. Big parts of the south shore of the mosque rest on the foundations, the vaults of the old Grand Palace (whose mosaics can be seen in the nearby Mosaic Museum).
Construction work began in 1609 and took seven years.
The mosque’s site is politically charged. Unlike other Ottoman imperial mosques, which were placed farther away from the city center to encourage urban development and to take advantage of Istanbul’s hilly topography, the Sultan Ahmet mosque is nestled in between the Hagia Sophia and the Byzantine Hippodrome near the Ottoman royal residence, Topkapı Palace. In fact, the choice of location caused some consternation since it required the demolition of quite a few established palaces owned by Ottoman ministers. But prestige outweighed the enormous cost in coin and real estate. Constructing large mosque complexes for the benefit of the public was part of the imperial tradition denoting a pious and benevolent ruler. Placing the mosque adjacent to the Hagia Sophia also signified the triumph of an Islamic monument over a converted Christian church, a matter of great concern even 150 years after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453.
The mosque was a masterwork of famous Ottoman architect Sedefkar Mehmet Aga, whose unfortunate predecessor was found wanting and executed. Sultan Ahmet I was so anxious for his magnificent creation to be completed that he often assisted in the work. Sadly, he died just a year after the completion of his masterpiece, at the age of 27. He is buried outside the mosque with his wife Kosem Sultan, and two sons – 4th Murat and 2nd Osman.
The original mosque complex included a madrasa, a hospital, a han, a primary school, a market, an imaret and the tomb of the founder. Most of these buildings were torn down in the 19th century.
There are many legends about this mosque; one of them is about minarets. Sultan ordered minarets to be made from the gold to create a different style but there was no money enough. Instead, Sedefkar Mehmet Aga built six minarets to make a mosque unique.
260 exquisite stained glass windows admit the light. The worship area sizes more than 4,600 sq. m and features the diameter of 23.5 m. The Mosque has five main domes, six minarets, and eight secondary domes. The design is the culmination of two centuries of Ottoman mosque development. It incorporates some Byzantine Christian elements of the neighbouring Hagia Sophia with traditional Islamic architecture and is considered to be the last great mosque of the classical period. The architect, Sedefkar Mehmed Aga, synthesized the ideas of his master Sinan, aiming for overwhelming size, majesty and splendour.
There is a heavy gateway made from iron in the entrance of the west yard. The shape of this gateway shows the importance of the mosque because at the time even sultan had to be careful when he came in this gateway. The mosque has a rectangular shape while its central dome is supported by 4 half-domes, 4 different ways.
At its lower levels and at every pier, the interior of the mosque is lined with more than 20,000 handmade Iznik style ceramic tiles, made at Iznik (the ancient Nicaea) in more than fifty different tulip designs. The tiles at lower levels are traditional in design, while at gallery level their design becomes flamboyant with representations of flowers, fruit and cypresses. The tiles were made under the supervision of the Iznik master. The price to be paid for each tile was fixed by the sultan's decree, while tile prices in general increased over time. As a result, the quality of the tiles used in the building decreased gradually.
The upper levels of the interior are dominated by blue paint. More than 200 stained glass windows with intricate designs admit natural light, today assisted by chandeliers. On the chandeliers, ostrich eggs are found that were meant to avoid cobwebs inside the mosque by repelling spiders. The decorations include great tables on the walls inscribed with the names of the great caliphs and verses from the Quran, many of them originally from the 17th century and made by Seyyid Kasim Gubari of Diyarbakır, regarded as the greatest calligrapher of his time.
The floors are covered with carpets, which are donated by the faithful and are regularly replaced as they wear out. The many spacious windows confer a spacious impression. The casements at floor level are decorated with opus sectile. Each exedra has five windows, some of which are blind. Each semi-dome has 14 windows and the central dome 28 (four of which are blind). The coloured glass for the windows was a gift of the Signoria of Venice to the sultan. Most of these coloured windows have by now been replaced by modern versions with little or no artistic merit.
The most important element in the interior of the mosque is the mihrab, which is made of finely carved and sculptured marble, with a stalactite niche and a double inscriptive panel above it. It is surrounded by many windows. The adjacent walls are sheathed in ceramic tiles. To the right of the mihrab is the richly decorated minbar, a pulpit, where the imam stands when he is delivering his sermon at the time of noon prayer on Fridays or on holy days. The mosque has been designed so that even when it is at its most crowded, everyone in the mosque can see and hear the imam.
The royal kiosk is situated at the south-east corner. It comprises a platform, a loggia and two small retiring rooms. It gives access to the royal loge in the south-east upper gallery of the mosque. These retiring rooms became the headquarters of the Grand Vizier during the suppression of the rebellious Janissary Corps in 1826. The royal loge (hünkâr mahfil) is supported by ten marble columns. It has its own mihrab, which used to be decorated with a jade rose and gilt and with one hundred Qurans on an inlaid and gilded lecterns.
The many lamps inside the mosque were once covered with gold and gems. Among the glass bowls one could find ostrich eggs and crystal balls. All these decorations have been removed or pillaged for museums.
The facade of the spacious forecourt was built in the same manner as the facade of the Suleymaniye Mosque (Mosque of Sultan Suleiman), except for the addition of the turrets on the corner domes. The court is about as large as the mosque itself and is surrounded by a continuous vaulted arcade (revak). It has ablution facilities on both sides (şadırvan). The central hexagonal fountain is small relative to the courtyard. The monumental but narrow gateway to the courtyard stands out architecturally from the arcade. Its semi-dome has a fine stalactite structure, crowned by a small ribbed dome on a tall tholobate.
A heavy iron chain hangs in the upper part of the court entrance on the western side. Only the sultan was allowed to enter the court of the mosque on horseback. The chain was put there, so that the sultan had to lower his head every single time he entered the court to avoid being hit. This was a symbolic gesture, to ensure the humility of the ruler in the face of the divine.
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is one of the three mosques in Turkey that has six minarets, which was unusual even for an imperial mosque (the other two being the modern Sabancı Mosque in Adana and the Hz. Mikdat Mosque in Mersin). As legend has it, an architect misheard the Sultan's request for altın minareler (gold minarets) as altı minare (six minarets), at the time a unique feature of the mosque of the Kaaba in Mecca. In an attempt at appeasement the Sultan ordered a seventh minaret to be added at the Mecca mosque proving its primacy over any imperial mosque in Istanbul or elsewhere.
Four minarets stand at the corners of the Blue Mosque. Each of these fluted, pencil-shaped minarets has three balconies (Şerefe) with stalactite corbels, while the two others at the end of the forecourt only have two balconies. Before the muezzin or prayer caller had to climb a narrow spiral staircase five times a day to announce the call to prayer.