Sunday, 20 April 2014

43. Wonder: The Blue Mosque

(For the Blue Mosque preview, please click here.)

Some places in the world are famous because of the impressive weight of history that surrounds them. Like an aged and cultured gentleman, they have a gravitas that can only be acquired with many years of experiences. A haze of fascinating stories surround them. They have depth. One such place is the 1500-year-old ex-church, ex-mosque of Istanbul's legendary Hagia Sophia. The thick line of sightseers queuing to get in are testament to its importance. Stand there, look at its grand old face, immersed in age, crowned with a dome, flanked by four minarets. Wow, you think, what a building. Then turn 180 degrees, and walk around 180 metres. Wow, you think, what a building - but this time a different behemoth dominates your view. Compared to the Hagia Sophia, it is a historical lightweight: in its 400 years of existence, it's barely even made a cameo in the city's history. But, the crowds flock to see it. It is just as massive, crowned with a dome and a cascade of half-domes - and it has six minarets. It doesn't need depth, because it has looks. This is the Blue Mosque.

There are, according to Wikipedia, nine different Blue Mosques in the world. Many are older, some are bigger, most are bluer, but none have the appeal of Istanbul's gigantic series of domes and minarets that form a key part of its historic skyline. As with all the other Blue Mosques, it has a real name, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, named after the sultan who commissioned it. The "blue" appellation is a western one, coined in the 19th Century by European visitors, and is probably one of the first things European visitors in 21st Century comment on - "But it's not really blue." Not on the outside - it's kind of grey - but inside are 20,000 tiles, mostly blue. Kind of Grey Mosque doesn't quite have the same ring to it though.

Whether blue or grey, it looks pretty great; whether a historical lightweight or not, it's an essential part of every Istanbul tour. Wonders are judged on many things, but ultimately they need to have some sense of grandeur - the Blue Mosque has it in spades. When Sultan Ahmed I, a sultan whose achievements ranked somewhere between "none" and "once thought about doing something", decided to build a colossal mosque in the heart of the city, right next to the Hagia Sophia (then in its mosque phase and called the Ayasofya) it was a pretty bold move. It was a hugely important, symbolic, and important location, and he had to pull down old Byzantine palaces and buy up land, at considerable cost. It was 1609, and he was 19, overseeing a weakened empire and a very corrupt court. His motives, so it is claimed, were to please God; I personally think he just wanted to show off that he was the big man. Did he want four minarets to equal the Ayasofya? Of course not. Five? No, that still wouldn't presumptuous enough. Just as fancy razors keep upping the blade count (Gillette is on five, but a company called Dorco are now on six), Ahmed wanted six minarets, equal to Mecca's most holy Masjid Al-Haram! This caused more than just a few murmurs within the empire - what exactly was this young punk trying to say? So with all the magnamity he could muster, Ahmed agreed to fund a seventh minaret for Mecca's main mosque. Today, you'll be pleased to hear, the Masjid-Al-Haram has eleven minarets - Gillette has a lot of catching up to do.

Grand mosques were usually built back then to commemorate an important victory, often funded with booty money from the battle. The Blue Mosque was the first example of an Ottoman sultan doing it just because he felt like it, despite lack of funds, and at the cost of other public facilities. No question about it though, for Ahmed, it worked. It saved him from the obscurity he probably deserved. In 1617, aged 27, he died of typhus. The Blue Mosque had been finished just the year before. His legacy had pretty much been restricted to building a giant mosque to celebrate his legacy. Probably, he's spinning in his grave that most foreign visitors don't even know its real name, but at least he can take heart that the entire district is now named after him - Sultanahmet, the most famous and visited district in Istanbul.

The Blue Mosque was the first great imperial mosque in 40 years, since the golden age of master architect, Mimar Sinan, and Ahmed's architect was a student of Sinan's, a man called Mehmed Aga. Sinan was the man who defined the Ottoman style of mosque architecture. Taking the Hagia Sophia as his obvious starting point, he had built huge squat domed beasts, as vast as cathedrals, topping them with wide domes and half-domes. He regarded his best work as the Selimiye Mosque in the northern city of Edirne, but his most famous work is certainly the gigantic Suleymaniye Mosque, also in the Old City of Istanbul, assuming a very prominent position in the city. Take a look.

And take another look at the Blue Mosque.

The influence is pretty clear. Indeed, Mehmed Aga wasn't trying to build something original, he was just taking his old master's principles and making them even bigger and better. At the core, the mosque is box-shaped, but with a towering series of domes and semi-domes piled on top, culminating in the large central dome, which is 43 metres high and over 22 metres in diameter. The minarets are 64 metres high. Inside the core "box", the main hall is almost square, at about 52 by 53 metres. The walls are decorated with abstract patterns and calligraphy and covered in tiles. But in no sense is the Blue Mosque original. It's hardly the only Blue Mosque and certainly not the first, and its hardly a unique style of mosque in Istanbul. In fact, no new innovations were made except for some ablution taps (where worshippers wash their feet before going inside) under an outer gallery - not exactly the stuff of legend. But that's not the point. Mehmed Aga's mosque wasn't supposed to be something unprecedented; rather it was the culmination of two centuries of Ottoman mosque architecture. Sultan Ahmed I's gift to God (apart from himself) was intended to be the finest mosque of all time.

How many of the tourists queuing up to get inside know or care about any of this? Not many, I would venture (I didn't do an exhaustive poll). That's because, unlike the Hagia Sophia, the above is pretty much the sum total of the Blue Mosque in history. It was built: it is grand. It has done its job throughout history as a mosque and has never really tried to be anything more. For the visitor today, there are a few signs briefly explaining who built it, but really, the Blue Mosque is all about looking good. It's very good at it.

I was lucky for my visits of the Blue Mosque to have two veterans of World Wondering with me: Danielle and Burness. Danielle of course has been ever-present since the beginning of these current travels, as well as having visited several others prior - that's the fate of being married to me - and Burness travelled throughout Asia with me a couple of years ago. It was very interesting hearing their opinions. Their initial thoughts matched my impressions when I came to Istanbul 13 years ago: the Blue Mosque looks better than the Hagia Sophia. It's a quick and easy conclusion. Being so close together, the two invite comparison: Sultan Ahmed I was just begging for people to compare his new mosque to the giant of history that was next to it. Both are approximately the same size, but the Blue Mosque's pyramid-like series of domes and semi-domes that support the main dome give it a broader look. It's cleaner and prettier, and more regular that the shabby mish-mash of the Hagia Sophia.

Its front entrance faces the ancient Hippodrome, which was the old Byzantine race track and is now a large open square with a couple of obelisks, and entering from there you enter the main courtyard, via a monumental gateway. The courtyard is surrounded on three sides by a colonnaded portico, that is covered corridors on the side with supporting columns running alongside. Most of the courtyard is open, with a symbolic fountain in the middle, and, oddly, a bronze glass-encased model of the Blue Mosque to the side.

One of the quirks of the Blue Mosque is that most visitors appreciate it side-on. Plenty of visitors will enter through the front, from the Hippodrome, but the majority approach from the side. The Blue Mosque doesn't actually face the Hagia Sophia, it sits side on, as though not quite having the guts to look its older relative in the eye. Between the two landmarks is the pleasant Sultanahmet Park, where visitors naturally congregate when arriving in the district, sitting by the rows of benches, meandering and looking around. Here you can admire the Hagia Sophia, then in a swift turn the Blue Mosque, never giving much thought that you're seeing it sideways. Of course, a mosque is different from a cathedral, and it's not designed with one all-important grand facade but it's nonetheless curious that this is a monument best known from the side.

Danielle, Burness, and I admired the Blue Mosque mostly from its side, and especially from a nearby rooftop restaurant. Istanbul goes in for rooftop restaurants in a big way and we found one perfectly suited for our tastes, ideally situated between both of Istanbul's Wonders - Seven Hills is its name. I'll forgive it for charging 15 Lira (£5) a beer because on a sunny day there can hardly be a better view in the world. In one direction, the Hagia Sophia, the other, the Blue Mosque, and all around the Bosphorous and hilly Istanbul, with its tightly-clustered buildings, stretching into the horizon. We sat captivated by these views for some time, the Blue Mosque being a very significant component.

Visiting the Blue Mosque is easy. If you're a Muslim, you just go in - you presumably already know what to do. For the rest of us, there's a visitor's entrance to the side. Entry is free, so you just queue up, put your shoes in a plastic bag, and if you're inappropiately attired (wearing shorts for men, or showing flesh or too much of your head for women) the mosque offers cover-up clothing. Then you enter, wander around the visitors' space for a while, sit on the soft carpet if you like, and eventually realise there's not much else to do and leave.

That's not to say the interior of the mosque is dull, it's more that as a tourist you're kind of missing the point of the main purpose - to pray. There is plenty of decorative detail in the mosque, but it's of the pretty-pattern variety rather than the varied detail of a cathedral interior. The inside of the Blue Mosque has been renovated many times over the years, therefore it is in excellent condition. The colours are crisp and bright. The tiles are what the Blue Mosque are famous for, lending it its Western name. A town called Iznik was the place where the finest tiles were produced back then, and Ahmed was obsessed with getting the perfect tiles. He commandeered every one of Iznik's potteries to produce the 20,000 tiles. The price paid for each tile was fixed, but as real prices increased over time, the quality therefore began to dip. I can't say I noticed; that's one for the tile connoisseurs I guess. Islam doesn't allow figurative representations therefore it relies upon fancy patterns and elaborate calligraphy, and it's all very nice, but after a while of gazing around, it just becomes a prettily decorated room. It's not too compelling.

I recall on my first visit to the Blue Mosque, in 2001, being very impressed. I liked the huge, low-hanging chandeliers, and the overall sense of peace. This time, it made less of an impression. In one zone, tourists mill around, taking photos of each other in headscarves, gazing up at the domes, or sitting on the thick carpet. Separated by a barrier, there is a large open area for Muslims to pray. I can't say I'd be too keen on praying with scores of tourists gawping at me, but I suppose it's the same in cathedrals. I guess there's an inherent pleasure, for some, in worshipping in a grand venue. Although, the grandeur is for men only. Tucked behind the throngs of tourists, away from the grand main hall, is a series of small sectioned-off compartments: sorry, ladies.

Both Danielle and Burness reckoned, upon first impression, that the Blue Mosque was better than the Hagia Sophia. It mirrored my initial impression too, albeit one made years earlier. But by the end of both visits, their minds were changed: the Hagia Sophia was definitely the heavyweight. And this is where my criticism of the Blue Mosque would lie: it's a little lightweight. It's awfully pretty, but I simply don't detect much depth. The interior is lovely but not hugely compelling. Definitely, it is better from the outside, and the mountain of domes and semi-domes looks great, and within Istanbul it's a terrific addition to the historic skyline. But even here, it's not exactly unique - there are a lot of similar-looking giant mosques in the same area. This is one of the things that make Istanbul wonderful - it has loads of vast, cathedral-sized mosques relatively close together and gives the city a distinctive identity. Having lots of similar-looking mosques doesn't do much for the Blue Mosque's distinctive identity though.

Being so close to the Hagia Sophia is great. Both are magnificent buildings, and having them together makes for a world-class setting. But Sultan Ahmed I must have realised that by building his mosque so close to the legend of the city, he was inviting comparison. It is unavoidable - large numbers of visitors daily must say "So which one do you like best?" In the 17th Century, Ahmed's pretty, shiny new mosque was probably viewed favourably in comparison to the battered old gentleman next door. Today, we see things differently, and it's pretty clear the Blue Mosque suffers by comparison. It is the pretty boy next to the experienced gent.

But why compare? Perhaps it's better to just sit back and have a beer on top of a rooftop restaurant, on a warm and sunny day, and thoroughly admire both.

Some criteria then.

Size: 43 metres high, or 64 metres for the minarets, but the Blue Mosque is bulky rather than tall, spreading out to form an imposing part of the skyline.
Engineering: Expertly done according to principles developed a couple of generations earlier by Sinan.
Artistry: Likewise, Sinan's style set the way. It's an attractive building.
Age: Around 400 years old and remaining in excellent condition.
Fame/Iconicity: The Hagia Sophia takes the city's number one spot, but the Blue Mosque has a good shout for second place, with close competition by Topkapi Palace and Galata Tower. However, in the mosque world, I don't think it's particularly revered, and in the wider world there might be a faint awareness but it's never a household name.
Context: A core part of Istanbul's historic centre, it has the Hagia Sophia as a next door neighbour, and a prominent position in a wonderful city.
Back Story: The story of Ahmed I is a mildly diverting one, but you've got to dig to find it. Otherwise, for the casual visitor there's simply no story at all. It's just an old mosque.
Originality: Not at all original or unique, just a little bigger and, possibly, better than other grand Ottoman mosques, many of which are fairly close by. It's a fine example of a style, in other words, rather than the defining example.
Wow Factor: You know, it has got a bit of the wow about it, the sheer mass makes an excellent first impression. That first impression fades a little after further viewings.

The Blue Mosque is like a grander, greyer Sacre-Coeur, being a beautiful bauble within a grand old city, but not matching the actual city in terms of gravitas. It is something to be admired, to be looked at and casually visited rather than thoroughly studied and explored. I like the Blue Mosque, but it doesn't have anything like the gravitas required for a World Wonder. A stone's throw away from the Hagia Sophia, it highlights that a truly great building is more than just size and decor, it's about having a special sense of meaning, whatever that might be. Still, it's a lot better than the Sacre-Couer, and I'd be placing it above the gorgeous but also slightly superificial Akshardham temple, but below the enthralling caves of Ellora.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Mont Saint-Michel
6. The Eiffel Tower
. The Millau Viaduct

Other Wonders
Angkor Wat
Sydney Opera House

Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
The Blue Mosque
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Shwedagon Pagoda
Forbidden City
Edinburgh Castle
Thiepval Memorial
Tower Bridge
The Sacre-Coeur
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha
Nazca Lines
Marina Bay Sands

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

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