Istanbul has more than 2000 mosques, and its skyline, with all of its domes and minarets, resembles a humped hill punctured by upright spears up and down its seven hills.
Some, like the little one directly across from our hotel window was a little local mosque. Modest and made of rough brick and mortar. The muezzin who perform the call to prayer over loudspeakers for all to hear, each have their own style and certainly quality of singing voice.
I had grown to like hearing the soothing voices singing out over the countryside. It was peaceful and comforting to know that somewhere nearby, people were being pious. It’s actually quite beautiful when you stop and listen to it, and was an effective means of getting Austin to be quiet and calm for just a few minutes several times a day. “One must not speak during the call to prayer.”
But the muezzin across from our hotel in Istanbul, his god bless him, must have been really dedicated because he sounded just horrible. The guy down the street must have known this because if he didn’t manage to get in ahead of him with his singing, he at least tried to sing over him. Five times per day, an epic battle of the Adhan (call to prayer) ensued, competing for who could hold their off key notes the longest and the loudest, and who could manage to get in the last word. And this started at 6 am.
Across Istanbul, other majestic mosques rise above the buildings, the curves of their wide domes creating beautiful confections like moons, rising up into the star of the show, their massive central domes. Competitive spirituality clearly doesn’t stop with the call to prayer, and has obviously been going on for centuries. Each new mosque is built bigger, shinier and more impressive than the last — something that must have been learned from their cathedral building European cousins.
The Blue Mosque is considered one of the great grand mosques, and it’s ornately painted ceilings and tall stained glass windows are certainly impressive. It’s so big that it stands out from its surroundings, but (in my humble opinion), still paled in comparison to the White Mosque in Abu Dhabi. And, despite its imposing exterior, doesn’t hold a candle to it’s neighbour, and the mother of all mosques, the Ayasofya.
Originally built as a grand cathedral in 532 BC by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, there had been a series of churches on this site dating back at least to 300 when Constantine built a church on top of the ruins of a pagan temple. It was reconsecrated as a Mosque in 1453 when the conqueroring Turks came to town.
Also known by the Greeks as the Hagia Sophia, it is a true treasure of the world. The Blue Mosque was built directly opposite the Ayasofya, down a long promenade in order to overshadow her. Perhaps from the outside, yes. But the inside is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
The architects, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus were well known for their mathematical and engineering skills, cleverly built the soaring 32 metre wide dome without the obvious use of supporting columns. The aim was to create a sense of air, of space, and to have achieved that 1700 years ago is still an architectural wonder. Their secret was to hide the supporting columns in the walls, and to decorate the heck out of everything else.
Originally a Christian church and then a Mosque, the gentle restoration respects both aspects of the Ayasofya’s history. The walls and ceilings are covered in different coloured and patterned marble – over every inch. The ceilings are series after series of arches and mini-domes, and every inch has been beautifully painted or decorated with delicate mosaics. Large mosaic christian murals were uncovered during the restoration, and they sit next to muslim symbols, and the royal household’s private chamber.
Sometimes you walk into old cathedrals and are wowed by their opulence – the shiny gold, the valuable treasures and soaring stained glass. But they start to seem the same all over the world – from Mexico to Prague and points in between – gilt, coloured glass, painted ceilings and tiny rows of wooden seats.
The Ayasofya is different. Majestic. Beautiful in an understated way that awes and calms, and causes you to address your own existence. We’re here for such a tiny speck of time, and what beauty do we leave behind? What will future generations – 1500 years from now — see that we’ve contributed to the beauty of the world and look up in wonder?
I have never been so blown away by a single man-made building in my life. Ayasofya is special.
Even Austin felt something there — the spaces were so vast that he felt free to whirl around in circles like a whirling dervish (which we never did see), round and round and round. He looked around in total wonder and excitement, running ahead to see what was around the next corner and then dashing back to tell us. He gave us a full complaint free hour and a half there before declaring that his legs needed to RUN and could we please go outside now and RUN! So we did.
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