One full day in Istanbul. Amanda and I arrived last night, the jet touching down only half an hour
before the sun set. Our transit from the airport to the hostel was surprisingly easy, and the only
downside was the loss of the sun by the time we arrived. We left the tram only a ten minute
walk from our hostel at a stop called Sultanahmet. We wasted little time however, dropping off
our things and quickly getting back out. We stumbled upon a small bazaar near the Blue
Mosque, and after buying some Dolma and Turkish Delight washed down with Flower Tea, we
relaxed in an outdoor courtyard, watching a Whirling Dervish spin himself into a trance while a
three- piece group played accompanying Turkish music.
The city is littered with religious monuments and mosques. Ever been to Rome? Yes, this is the
Islamic equivalent. Massive mosques with bulbous domes are everywhere and seemingly on
every city block. Istanbul has a lot of hills and yet the Minarets of the towering mosques poke
into the sky from all directions. And like Rome, they contain some of the most startlingly
beautiful architecture of the city. Several of them are musts. The two most famous sit in
Sultanahmet on the tip of the peninsula in the heart of old Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia and
The Hagia Sophia is a converted Byzantine church, the signature monument of
Emperor Justinian the Great who ruled in the sixth century, and the Blue Mosque, officially
known as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque was one of the crowning architectural feats of the Ottoman
Empire, constructed more than one thousand years after the Hagia Sophia, which sits only a
few hundred yards away across an open and heavily traversed courtyard.
The beauty of either one is staggering and just plain ridiculous. The Blue Mosque is known as
such because of the thousands of cobalt blue tiles that decorate its interior along with
thousands of other beautiful and colorful intricacies. The Hagia Sophia needs little introduction
but is no longer a practicing mosque like the Blue Mosque, and is essentially just in a tourist-
infused retirement. Most of the building is still covered in Islamic rhetoric and scripture, but in
select locations the paintings and Quran citations have been scraped off of the walls revealing
fifteen hundred year old frescoes of Jesus and Emperor Justinian in a chilling clash of culture,
history, and religion.
The weird juxtaposition on the walls of the Hagia Sophia reveals so much about the depth of
history in Istanbul and how convoluted and infinitely interesting it is. A city that straddles three
different cultures and has had three different names, having also been the capitol of three
different empires. This is the stuff that gives me goosebumps and makes me want to nerd-out
forever. I could get lost in this city and its history for the rest of my life, and even then barely scrape
After Amanda and I visited both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia we sat in the courtyard
between the two, admiring both monuments and wondering aloud about how damn lucky we
were to do so. As we relaxed, the call to prayer commenced. I still remember my first time I
heard one, biking through Shkoder in Northern Albania as the loudspeakers from a bright blue
Mosque shrieked at me. That moment in the past has never lost its power or resonance, as I’ve
always found the call oddly mesmerizing, both for its melismatic tonality, so different from any
and all music we’ve been raised listening to in the past, and how foreign and exotic it seemed to
everything I’d known up to that point.
That mesmerizing power has never waned, when in Sierra Leone it woke me at 5am signaling
the end to the nights full of thieves, or in Erbil where it always seemed to hum in the distance.
But this experience was truly unique. Amanda and I sat between the two buildings as they
engaged in a call-and-response call to prayer that lasted ten minutes. The Blue Mosque would
call out, and the Hagia Sophia would respond. It sent chills down my spine. The two seemed to
be having a conversation back and forth and it gave the two buildings an almost haunting
liveliness as they had a conversation with each other. A five hundred year old Mosque talking to
its 1,500 hundred year old predecessor. It felt like we were sitting in the most spirited and
charged corner of the Muslim world. It was an experience I will never forget.
After having what felt like an almost transcendent moment between the two buildings we visited
the Basilica Cistern. The underground structure felt more like a catacomb, and I was almost
expecting to see a gravestone or burial site sitting under the foot of water at the bottom. The
lights that illuminated the cistern reflected off the ceiling and water casting shadows and making
column reflections in the water, giving the cistern the feeling of immeasurable infinity.
We spent a lot of time wandering the city in no direction in particular, up and down any street so
long as it looked interesting. We did make sure our wandering eventually pointed us in a set
direction, whether it was to the Grand Bazaar, Valens Aqueduct, or Suleimaniye Mosque.
Suleimaniye Mosque sits atop one of the many hills that Istanbul is sprawled over, and provides
one of the best vantage points of the entire city. The view looks north towards the
neighborhoods of Galata and Besiktas across a narrow stretch of water called the Golden Horn,
and east across the Bosphorus strait to the Asian side of Istanbul. Amanda and I took our sweet
time at a cafe right across the street from the mosque, enjoying the view with a light meal.
There was no need to rush ourselves, no need to move quickly at all with such an unbelievable
The Suleimaniye Mosque is the largest in Istanbul, if only just slightly larger than the Blue
Mosque or Hagia Sophia. It doesn’t have the splendor of either one, but has an amazing
location, and is the burial site of Suleiman the Magnificent, considered to be the greatest of the
Ottoman Emperors, who ruled over the empire during its era of greatest strength and almost
largest size in the sixteenth century. One thousand years after the Hagia Sophia had been
constructed, and fifty years before the Blue Mosque would be constructed… the history here
gives me goosebumps; the thought that something like the Blue Mosque is relatively “young”
when compared to Byzantine Empire or even Greek structures through out the city. Or even
Roman. Or Egyptian. Outside the western entrance of the Blue Mosque stands a 20 meter
obelisk from Egypt that dates to 1450 BCE during the reign of Tuthmosis III (nephew of Queen
Hatshepsut). The Obelisk was brought to Istanbul in 320 CE by Constantine the Great,
considered the last great Roman Emperor, and the man for who Byzantium was renamed
Constantinople, eleven hundred years before it was renamed and re-founded again, as Istanbul.
This city, like the emperors that have reigned from it and lived in it, is magnificent. It exudes
imperial charm and power, and is both cosmopolitan and grungy. And I’ve seen only a fraction
of a fraction. To really explore the unseen corners and full scope of Istanbul’s history and culture
would take a life time. I’m only going to spend two or three more days here and that seems like
an insult if not a crime for how much this place has to give and show. So many things I wont get
the time to see. The nightlife, the Asian side, football stadiums and sport culture, the islands, the
countless museums, the old city walls, most of the Grand Bazaar, the fresh fish… it goes on.
Hell I spent most of this blog post just talking about three mosques. I’m going to attack as much
as I can in the next few days. Here’s to hoping I make as big a dent in that list as I possibly can.