This post is also available in: German
There must be a curse following me around: whenever I visit one of the must-see’s of a destination, there is bound to be some construction going on. Once again, I found myself swearing under my breath, upon entering the Hagia Sophia and seeing the absolutely gigantic construction site in the main hall waiting for me, towering over everything and everyone and ruining just about every photograph.
Once the Hagia Sophia was an eastern orthodox cathedral under Constantine, then a catholic cathedral, afterwards a mosque for a couple of centuries for the duration of the Ottoman Empire and eventually a museum – but whatever the buildings function is, the Ayasofya is still absolutely beautiful. Intricate mosaics turn the walls into artworks, blue and gold patterns sneak along the ceiling and domes and marble glitters in the dim light of the big chandeliers. Lots of marble, the walls and floors are covered in slabs of the stone and make everything sleek, shiny and perfect. The main hall is so big, that people are dwarfed by it. But wherever I turn, corners of the scaffolding sneak into my pictures. For a photographer, this is more than frustrating – wanting to capture the beauty in front of the lens, but feeling that the pictures are getting ruined by something so silly.
The massive dome, which is over 55m high and covering the main hall of the building, is what the Hagia Sophia is most famous for. Even today, the cathedral/mosque is recognized as the height of Byzantine architecture, defining and inspiring buildings for many centuries afterwards. As much as I wished for one grand photo, showing that giant hall under the dome, I finally resigned myself to exploring the lower and upper galleries, walking through the passageways and looking for the famous mosaics on the walls.
While the Hagia Sophia nowadays only serves as a museum, the Blue Mosque right next door is still very much in use as a place of worship. During prayer times, the building is off limits to visitors, but in between those minutes of very loud singing, visiting the mosque is possible. After paying quite a bit to be allowed into the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace, I was surprised to find out, that the Blue Mosque can be visited for free. Women are required to wear modest clothing, which means covering arms and legs and wearing a headscarf. I brought my multifunctional scarf as a coverup, but for those that forget, big pieces of fabric are available without any extra charges. Plastic bags are handed out to keep your shoes in and in general, everything is pretty well organized and the mosque seems to handle the many visitors well.
The Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, gets its more widely known name from the many blue tiles decorating its interior. It was built by Ahmed I in the early 17th century, after an unfavourable war with Persia, in an attempt to appease Allah.
Once you get past the impressive courtyard, the interior of the Blue Mosque reminds a bit of the Hagia Sophia. The same chandeliers hang from the ceilings and the beautiful dome and the artfully decorated walls are just as, if not more impressive. 200 stained glass windows let in natural light from every direction, but the room stays very dim – hence the chandeliers providing some additional light. Visitors are separated from the muslims coming here to pray by a wooden barrier. As beautiful as it is, I found it strangely intrusive to watch the few people trying to find a quiet corner for their worship, while hundreds around me, and I myself, are pointing and clicking our cameras.
But such is the woe of tourism. The Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are must sees on everyones Istanbul-itinerary – just don’t get roped in by the carpet sellers lurking around.