We didn’t have the really early night that Mum probably needed on her first night in Turkey, as after seven months we had a lot of catching up to do. However, being a generally horrible person I made her get up at nine to have breakfast so that we could start our day. I figured that was not unreasonable – I was just trying to get her into the pattern of a new time zone, nine hours behind Melbourne.
Our first stop for the day was Sultanahmet Mosque, for which the tourist district of Sultanahmet is named. If you’re concerned that you missed this mosque in Istanbul, I’m pretty sure that you probably didn’t – it’s much better known as the Blue Mosque. We navigated around a few tour groups in the Hippodrome, huddled around the various monuments listening intently to their guide through the blue earphones everyone was plugged into. We avoided the young men touting Istanbul guidebooks and slipped through the gate of the mosque just in front of a busload of tourists. Not that it really made any difference; once in the courtyard, the line was so long that it actually almost crossed over – it went from the visitor’s entrance to the opposite side of the courtyard, then all around the courtyard until the tail end met the start of the line. Of course, we’d arrived just after 10am. I wouldn’t recommend it – go earlier or later to avoid the queue!
I’d already visited the Blue Mosque on my previous visit to Turkey in 2010, and so very kindly offered to wait in line so that Mum could explore the courtyard and admire the beautiful architecture. That was the last I saw of her for a while – camera in hand she set out to discover every last corner of the courtyard whilst her dutiful daughter patiently queued. Gradually the giant human caterpillar inched forward and soon enough we were taking off our shoes to enter. I’d given Mum one of my scarves to cover her hair and I’d wrapped another around my head – I was used to covering my hair when entering mosques. I was very surprised to see, when we got in, that by far the majority of women had not done so. I remember last time that the attendants were handing out headscarves to women who didn’t have them; I don’t know whether they’ve changed the rules, but I thought this was required and if not, at least the respectful thing to do.
When I was last in Istanbul, I made the mistake of visiting Aya Sofya [Hagia Sophia] before the Blue Mosque and I wasn’t going to do that again. Don’t get me wrong, the Blue Mosque is lovely [if only my third favourite in Istanbul], but the stumpy elephant legs can be a bit of a disappointment after Aya Sofya’s floating dome.
Mum was staring up in awe at the soaring architecture and the intricate blue tiling. This was the first time that she’d been into a mosque, and it was probably a pretty good one to start in. It was also the first time she’d been in a building so old – Australia’s a pretty new country and our concept of ‘old’ is a little out of whack with most of the world. I was just happy to see that the ambience of the mosque was not being interrupted by the mundane whirring of a vacuum cleaner – this didn’t really help the atmosphere on my first visit, although I must admit I was impressed at the length of the vacuum cleaner’s extension cord.
Despite the architecture and the tiling and everything else, what I liked most about the Blue Mosque was the lighting. I love the low-hanging brass rings with the little clear glass lanterns holding the light globes which, in many cases, are energy-efficient globes. They don’t date back to when the mosque was built at the beginning of the seventeenth century, but then neither does electricity. There’s just something about the low hanging rings of light that, for me, brings all the different elements in the architecture and decoration together, and stylistically they seem to harmonise nicely with the much older surroundings. They also make me think of marionettes, as these lights hang from the ceilings on very, very long cables. Looking up, your eyes must navigate the minefield of strings to feast on the beauty of the dome and the painted roof.
We walked past the Blue Mosque, along the Hippodrome, every day we were in Istanbul. We revisited the mosque again in the evening, and there was no queue. Even just staying in the courtyard [we had cups of hot sahlep] was magical – it looked completely different at night in soft, rich golden hues rather than the cold grey of the stone in the day.
It even looks beautiful in the rain. More so if you can see the rain, which you can’t here.
I think it’s safe to assume that Mum liked the Blue Mosque – five days into her time in Turkey it’s the only name she can remember. I can’t keep myself from laughing when she mentions the Satan’s Harem – I’m pretty sure she means Sultan rather than Satan, but that’s just not as entertaining.