A tale of two buildings

Istanbul's Blue Mosque

The overnight bus to Istanbul was long and uncomfortable, but as we pulled into the multi-level bus station — where there were at least four hundred million other buses, I swear — and the sun climbed into the sky, we peered from under our sleepy eyelids into the sprawling city around us with excitement. Istanbul’s reputation as a magical city where east meets west preceded it, and as we made our way through the streets to our hostel, we truly felt as though we’d arrived back in Europe. Many of Meg’s reflections on Turkey in this post hold especially true in Istanbul, so I won’t dwell on them too much here. Rather, I want to write specifically about two famous buildings in Istanbul that were the highlights of our visit: the Blue Mosque, and Hagia Sophia.

Courtyard of the Blue Mosque

Our first visit was to the Blue Mosque, which is the newer of the two buildings. On the skyline, it’s a stunning building. 6 minarets soar upwards and frame the gently curving domes as they climb over each other towards the heavens. Built in the 1600’s by Sultan Ahmed I, the Blue Mosque was envisioned to be the grandest mosque of them all, directly competing with Hagia Sophia, it’s neighbour, which sits only a few hundred meters away. From the exterior, it appears to succeed. It is a stunning, soaring, balanced, regal structure. The domes and part-domes of the main building are so numerous that they are hard to count, and the minarets are splendidly slender and tall. As we entered, the arched colonnade that surrounds the courtyard drew us in and shut the city out, leaving us face to face with the mosque proper. It was beautiful. And then…

Inside the Blue Mosque

And then we went inside. It was as if the air had been completely let out of our sails. The inside of the mosque was a complete disappointment in my eyes. How can I best explain this? It’s not to say that the space wasn’t soaring, or the dome high and grand — it was, and it was. It’s just that the inside of the mosque was exactly what you might have expected it to be. There were no happy surprises, no wondrous revelations. Heavy columns divided the central space, supporting the structure above in a seemingly overkill manner. The shape of the interior mimicked the shape of the exterior so exactly that I’d already imagined the entire space before I’d even seen it. It provoked a reaction of “oh, that’s it, eh?” It was like wrapping a bicycle in wrapping paper to give someone as a Christmas present. While I’m sure they’ll like the bike, it won’t be much of a surprise when they see it lying under the tree, thinly disguised by a layer of colourful paper and a few bows. About the only thing left to wonder about would be the colour of the frame.

And so it was with the Blue Mosque, although even the colour of the walls inside was given away by the name. To make matters worse, the interior was hung with some appallingly thoughtless lighting and wiring. Giant, low-hanging chandeliers sporting a large number of burned-out lightbulbs hung down to about 9 feet above the floor, and the wiring and support cables littered the remaining space under the dome. It’s even perhaps too generous to call them chandeliers, when really they were just steel frames for holding the bulbs in place. It was visual clutter, and not much more. All told we spent less than 10 minutes inside the mosque. Thank goodness it was free to visit. Perhaps I should put it in perspective a little: were we glad we went? Sure, of course. Would we go again? Probably not.

Hagia Sophia

Feeling slightly deflated, we made our way across the small space separating the Blue Mosque from Hagia Sophia. Unlike the Blue Mosque, there was a rather steep entrance fee for visiting Hagia Sophia, because it was no longer a working mosque, but had been converted into a museum. Approaching the building didn’t really help us feel any better about forking over the money, either. Compared to the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia is a bit of a jumbled mess from the exterior. This is largely due to two important factors. First off, when Hagia Sophia was completed in 360 AD, it wasn’t a mosque at all. It was originally constructed as an Orthodox Basilica, and served first as the Cathedral of Constantinople and then as a cathedral for the Latin Empire for over 1000 years, until it was converted to a mosque in 1453. Amongst other things, the construction of the minarets largely transformed the exterior appearance of the building. The second factor contributing to it’s haphazard appearance is it’s dome, which was (and still is) one of the largest in the world. It is especially impressive because it is over 2000 years old; but that’s just the problem. The original dome was so ambitious in it’s scale that it actually collapsed in an earthquake 200 years after completion. It was rebuilt with lighter materials and a new shape, but cracks continued to plague it, and further reinforcements and exterior buttresses were added over the centuries until it acquired it’s present shape. As we approached this world famous building, it revealed itself as a non-sensical collection of masses heaped one on top of the other, and capped (as one would expect of a mosque) by a large dome. Four minarets helped define the boundaries of an otherwise senseless exterior space. Our expectations were low. And then…

Inside Hagia Sophia

Impressive mosaic, plastered over when converted to a mosque

And then we went inside. And we stopped. And we gasped. It was stunning. After passing through a wide, tall entrance hallway, we emerged into the space beneath the main dome, where our breath was taken away. The interior was stunning in all of the ways that the Blue Mosque wasn’t. The dome seemed to float above the arched walls, soaring to an incredible height at it’s peak. Secondary spaces crept out of the main space between wonderfully articulated columns and doorways, and a second floor gallery ran around the perimeter and provided an entirely new perspective on the space. The details were wonderful too. The floor was made of old stone, the iron work was ornate, and the mosaics were intricate and beautiful. In fact, there were only a few elements on the inside that distracted from the perfection of the building. When we started to take note of what they were, we were mildly surprised to discover that they were all related to the conversion of the original church into a mosque. Most blatant were eight large discs, each about 20 feet in diameter, suspended in the corners of the main space. The discs themselves were covered in beautiful Arabic calligraphy, but it was the quality of their construction that made them an eyesore. Where everything in the original building reeked of craft and attention to detail, the discs were constructed out of simple wood framing, left exposed, and hung by chains from the railings of the upper galleries. They so badly scream “afterthought” that it offended the eyes. Just because the conversion happened 1000 years after the original construction, it doesn’t mean that it couldn’t have been done with a little more thoughtfulness. Other offending elements were more along expected lines. Beautiful, original mosaics had been plastered over. Similarly distracting steel “chandeliers” were suspended in the main space, just as they were in the Blue Mosque. But unlike the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia overcame these blights. It inspired silence and reverence, and I don’t mean in a religious sense at all. It was simply a magnificent human achievement: a brilliant feat of architecture and engineering that despite it’s age and history continues to shine in the eyes of the beholder. So here’s the final perspective on this one: are we glad we went? Hell yes. And we’d go back in a heartbeat.

Backside of one of the Islamic disks

The extreme contrast of these two visits led me to speculate a little on other churches and mosques that we’d visited on our travels. I found it was curious, yet nearly universal, that we’d been regularly blown away by the interiors of churches, and regularly disappointed by the interiors of mosques. As neither of us are particularly religious people, I don’t believe that this observation is coloured by any type of religious preference…it just seems to me that there is a very different emphasis in the construction of each building type. One of the primary differences that comes to mind is that Islam forbids the representation of the prophet Mohammed or Allah, which effectively rules out frescoes, mosaics and statues in their religious buildings. Since Christianity has a very different view on this matter, churches tend to be literally saturated with decoration of this type. But beneath this “surface” layer, I still found a much higher attention to detail in church architecture when compared to mosque architecture. Has anyone else noticed this? Or am I way out on a limb here? I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on why this might be…


  1. Bruce the Moose

  2. Interesting observations. Agreed on those big discs in with the Arabic (Turkish?) writing on them. I wonder what they say.

    A very good thing Sophia was not torn down as a Christian relic.

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