Famous Istanbul: The Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya

We arrived in Paris yesterday afternoon. Our neighborhood is right smack on the border between the 5th and 13th arrondissements (read: between central and not-as-central Paris), and it’s blessedly quiet, with broad paved streets that are a dream for a heavy rolling duffel like the one I’ve got. We took a walk this morning, strolling through the Jardin du Luxembourg (the second-biggest public park in the city), eyeing the lines at the Musée d’Orsay and across the Seine at the Louvre, and peeking into the windows of chocolatiers and antique dealers (where we saw large chocolates molded in the shape of quilted Chanel-type clutch purses… and some sort of antique educational board game that taught solfège). On our way back home I said, “Do you think Paris sidewalks are harder than the ones in other cities? My feet hurt!” But back in the apartment, I mapped our route and found we’d walked 9 km (5.6 miles)! To my great satisfaction, we have managed to get by with our rusty French, and nearly everyone we’ve met has been quite cordial — from the grizzle-haired Vietnamese-restaurant proprietor who brought us free drinks tonight, to the attractive middle-aged blonde woman with whom we shared an elevator at the train station, who remarked, “What a pain it is to travel with suitcases! Don’t you agree?” (This was in French; I understood it but I can’t remember how she phrased it.) And we have already eaten two baguettes, a croissant, a briochette, and a bag of small financiers. I am liking Paris quite a lot. 🙂

Back to Istanbul, though… I haven’t yet shown you pictures of the most famous sights, which we visited on one of our last days in the city. After reading Alan’s post about the Blue Mosque, I knew I had to go there. We took the tram to Sultanahmet and entered the mosque through the Hippodrome, as the guidebook recommended.

Courtyard of the Blue Mosque

{as always, mouse over images to read my notes, or click to enlarge}

Our visit was on a Saturday afternoon, during Kurban Bayrami, the several-day Festival of the Sacrifice. I don’t know whether that made it a busier time to visit, or the opposite.

Along the sides of the courtyard of the Blue Mosque

We got in the tourist line, behind a man perusing a French-language guidebook, and in front of a trio of young British travelers who were discussing the relative merits of Yelp and Tripadvisor. While we waited, we studied a set of big signs that instructed us (in several languages) on proper mosque-visiting etiquette: no short skirts, no loud talking, women must wear hair coverings, etc. Before long we shuffled through a passageway with benches, where we removed our shoes and put them into plastic bags to carry with us. I unpacked my biggest scarf (an enormous triangle of navy print fabric, which I bought in Toronto) from my purse and covered my hair. Then we went in.

The space was stunning. Upon first glance, I knew why Alan had described the mosque as the building that took his breath away. (Whoops, got that one mixed up.)

Tourists and the prayer area inside the Blue Mosque

I had planned to stay awhile and admire, but found I couldn’t bear to. We were crowded in on all sides, and though we found a quiet spot by one of the big columns, there was a strong odor of unwashed feet. Many of the women tourists hadn’t even bothered to cover their heads, and tour guides waved pointers and made loud announcements to their groups. I felt bad for the worshippers trying to pray; the prayer area was fenced off, but tourists clustered thick around it. I’d thought the Chora Museum atmosphere a touch irreverent, but this was far, far worse.

Crush of tourists inside the Blue Mosque

We squeezed our way toward the exit and popped out into the open air. I’m glad we saw the famous mosque, but I’m also happy we got a quieter experience on the other side of town. One evening, walking by the Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque, we decided to go inside. It was our first mosque visit and I was so nervous I completely forgot to cover my head, but I don’t know if anyone noticed — there was no one around, save two men who were praying. The space was huge, with a high domed ceiling and a thick red carpet, and very dark in the dusk — except for the giant metal circle of lights (like the one in my Blue Mosque photos) casting its golden glow over the deep colors of the carpet and the many arched doorways around the prayer area: a perfectly symmetrical circle of illumination in a vast, symmetrical, richly textured darkness. It was at once one of the most peaceful and most majestic interiors I’ve ever been in. I didn’t even want to disturb the calm by taking pictures, so I don’t have any of the place, except the mental image I’ve just shared with you. When I think of Istanbul’s mosques, it’s this one I’ll remember.

When we left the Blue Mosque we went across the park to the Aya Sofya, which I remember learning about as a teenager (as the Hagia Sophia, which is its Greek name). The line there was longer and slower-moving than the one at the mosque, but after we’d been standing there for about 10-15 minutes, a man came out and beckoned to a group of us, smiling and saying, “Turkish line! Turkish line!” We looked around at our fellow tourists and shrugged, then followed the man to the entrance. There were indeed two lines, and we were now in a very short one, next to a ticket booth that looked identical to the other one. Who knows what that was all about… but we were grateful not to have to wait so long!

Outside the Aya Sofya

Outside the Aya Sofya

I can’t tell you much about the history of the Aya Sofya — I am unbelievably lousy at looking up, remembering, or even caring about the details of the places we visit (I know, bad historian I!) — but I’ll tell you this: I loved it. When we walked inside, there were lots of tour groups going through into the main chamber, but I remembered the guidebook said to check out the upstairs.

Hallway in the Aya Sofya

The upper gallery was accessed through a winding, stony passageway.

Passageway in the Aya Sofya

Once we got upstairs, there were far fewer tourists and more little nooks where a body could sit and rest and think. I think I really need that, in these marvelous old places that are too often packed with so many visitors that I haven’t an empty spot in which to feel my own response to the atmosphere. But the Aya Sofya had plenty of that, in spite of the crowds.

Upper gallery in the Aya Sofya

The upstairs galleries have the most splendid views of the main chamber, and you can lean right over the balustrades and admire it from all sides. It is a vast, vast space, probably the biggest enclosed space I have ever been in. It would be awe-inspiring even if it weren’t so beautifully  decorated… but it is.

View of the vast main chamber of the Aya Sofya

Another view of the main room of the Aya Sofya

Another view of the main chamber

I didn’t think I’d ever manage a detailed drawing of the space, so I set myself a time limit, and scribbled a quick sketch. I ran out of space to do the whole floor, but I think it’s not so bad.

Sketch of the main room of the Aya Sofya

When we were finally able to tear ourselves away from gazing into this room, we walked around the upstairs some more, admiring the beautiful warm-yellow ceilings. There were also a number of lovely mosaics around the walls, similar in style and age to the ones at the Chora Museum.

Upstairs gallery

Upstairs gallery

Ceilings of the upstairs gallery


Vaulted ceilings

Finally we began to make our way back downstairs, though I paused again and again to admire some more.

View of the upper gallery

One end of a hallway of the upstairs gallery

When we got downstairs we went into the main chamber to see it from that angle. Yep… still incredible.

Main chamber from the main floor

Main chamber from the main floor

The exit was through a smallish passage with some interesting details: an alcove, another mosaic, an ornate door.

Lisa standing in an alcove

Ornate metal door

View of the Blue Mosque from the Aya Sofya

Outside the Aya Sofya

After the Aya Sofya, we walked down the Hippodrome toward another museum, but it turned out to be closed for renovation. I spotted a pretty little cat outside the door, and squatted down with a hand out. “Hello,” I said. The kitty trotted toward me and scrambled up as if I were a stair.

Lisa squatting on the ground with a kitty on her purse

Lisa petting a kitty

Lisa happily petting a kitty

I petted that beautiful cat until I couldn’t squat anymore, and then took my leave. The kitty left dusty pawprints all over my pants, but no matter. If I was ever tempted to take one of Istanbul’s cats home with me… that would have been the one.

We returned through the Hippodrome toward the tram stop. On the way we investigated a crowd around a stage… some things translate everywhere. (Before this they were playing “Gangnam Style“!)

Just before we got on the tram, we spotted another lucky member of Istanbul’s feline community.

Cat eating from a fishbone