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Middle East Kavitha Dispatch

Into the Blue Mosque
March 1, 2000

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Hanging out with all our Turkish friends in Istanbul, sometimes it's easy to forget that this is a Muslim country: They go out dancing 'til the wee hours of the night. The girls don't cover their hair, and they've got boyfriends and girlfriends, just like we do back home. Their language is written with the same Roman alphabet we use, etc. etc. In fact, Turkey is 99% Muslim! This is a far greater percentage of the national population than any country we've visited yet on the Odyssey. Even Egypt and Palestine -- where most women covered their hair, most men wore galebias or khafias, and people spoke in Arabic -- don't have such a high percentage of Muslim people.

Turkey wasn't always a Muslim country. In the beginning of the 11th century, the Seljuk's posed a threat to the Christian Byzantine Empire and created the Great Seljuk Turkish Empire. Islam has been a prevalent force in the area ever since. After the decline of the Seljuks, Turkey went back and forth between Christianity and Islam -- enough to make your head spin. Take three centuries of weak Empires rising and falling, and throw in the Crusades -- any country would get a bit confused! Finally, around the 14th century, the great Ottoman Empire moved in -- and these guys weren't messing around! The Ottomans took Bursa in 1326 and made it their capital. In 1453, Mehmet the Conqueror took Constantinople, turning the last Christian stronghold in Turkey into a shining symbol of Islam's rising prominence. Istanbul was created.

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Definitely NOT singing the "blues" after our visit to the Blue Mosque.
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Today Istanbul is a beautiful mix of old and new. There's the fast paced, cosmopolitan side, with high buildings, nightclubs, offices, and trendy restaurants; but there are also ancient palaces, ruins, and signs of the glorious capital this city once was. No matter which direction you look, you are bound to see a beautiful silhouette of a mosque, with tall minarets topped with a crescent moon surrounding a stout dome, that was probably built hundreds of years ago.

The most famous of the many mosques of Istanbul is by far the incredible Mosque of Sultan Ahmet, or the Blue Mosque, as it is more commonly known. Even though I've walked by the Blue Mosque every single day that I've been Istanbul's Old City, I still find myself in awe over its beauty! Sultan Ahmet I had the Blue Mosque built with the intentions of overshadowing Justinian's architectural marvel, the Aya Sofya, which sits directly across the street. Walking between the beautiful church and mosque, I'd have to say Sultan Ahmet achieved his goal. The Aya Sofia is beautiful, don't get me wrong, but the Blue Mosque's dizzying display of domes and minarets, harmoniously melding together, immediately draws your attention away from what once was the greatest church in Christendom. The Blue Mosque is awesome.

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This beautiful Mosque battles for beauty with the Aya Sofia which is just across the street!
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The architect, Mehmet Aga, ingeniously crafted the mosque to be a spiritual experience from the moment you set eyes upon it. As you enter the gates through the front entrance, your eyes are instantly drawn towards the heavens. Above are the beautifully painted domes of the entrance gate, designed with intricate Ottoman patterns. Ahead is the incredible Blue Mosque, whose semi domes are revealed, one after another, surrounding the mammoth central dome as you ascend the stairs leading up to the mosque. With rays of light hitting the Blue Mosque through the breaking clouds, the draw is almost mystical.

Since the Blue Mosque is such a popular tourist attraction, they allow non-Muslims to enter the mosque, but only through a side entrance, and not during prayer times. This can make things a bit difficult since Muslims pray 5 times a day! When Brian and I first arrived at around 11:20am, the doors were already closed for the midday prayer. The sign posted the opening and closing times, but it was obviously not strictly adhered to, since it said it closes at 11:45am for the midday prayer! So we left to visit Topkapi Palace, and returned at 3pm, since the sign said it would re-open around 3:15pm.

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Looking up towards the heavens in the Blue Mosque.
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Many Muslim people were coming for the prayer, and they all warned us that the mosque was closed for the prayer, but we said we would wait and walked around to the north side where the tourist entrance was. As it turns out, there was already a bunch of other tourists waiting to get in, too! After the prayers were finished, we were finally allowed inside. I couldn't wait to get out of the cold! We took off our boots and put them in the provided plastic bag, which we carried inside (you can't wear shoes in the mosque!).

Unfortunately, the inside wasn't as amazing as the we expected. First of all, it was still cold! Its massive, dark, stone halls were almost as cold as the outdoors! Secondly, the Blue Mosque's secrets are instantly revealed upon entering. Although the Blue Mosque was built over 1000 years after the Aya Sofia, it's not the architectural masterpiece of its predecessor. Unlike the daring Aya Sofya, whose gigantic center dome is free standing, the Blue Mosque's center dome is held up by four massive pillars. The inside is still beautiful, and the stained glass windows diffuse the light to create a serene glow on the blue tiles which line the walls (the blue of the Blue Mosque). But any serenity the Blue Mosque is supposed to instill in the visitor is ruined by the spectacle of flashes as tourists struggle to get a clear photo of the intricate paintings on the high domes. No wonder they keep us out during prayer times!

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The Blue Mosque stands as a symbol of perfection.
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Sultan Ahmet may not have surpassed Justinian in surpassing the Aya Sofia architecturally, but his legacy lives on. From the outside, the Blue Mosque still stands as a symbol of perfection, and today the entire area surrounding Istanbul's top tourist sights, including the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque, is now known as Sultanamet -- You won't find a neighborhood named after a Justinian in sight!

Kavitha

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...kavitharao@bigfoot.com
 

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