Tristan Davis is an NYU student, currently studying abroad in Israel. He studies Politics, Human Rights, and Middle Eastern/Islamic studies. Check out his blog for more on nightlife and VEG food around the world!
Istanbul is an ancient city, where many empires have reigned throughout the centuries, each leaving their mark. The Romans built aqueducts, the Byzantines built churches, and the Ottomans built mosques.
The Sultans of the Ottoman Empire sought to raise the largest and most impressive mosques the world had ever seen, and they accomplished their mission. Today, the minarets of the Ottoman mosques still pierce the skies, as the call-to-prayer reverberates through the city.
The Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque are among the Top 3 best things to do in Istanbul, on every list, however, many tourists don’t seem to be interested in seeing the insides of them. From the outside, they are simply buildings, but on the inside, they are magical.
Even those for those who are non-Muslim or non-religious entirely, the grand mosques of Istanbul are breathtaking to behold. The skill of Ottoman architects, like the great Sinan, is unbelievable for their time. How Byzantines in the 6th century were able to create the massive Hagia Sophia, which is almost completely hollow, is a true marvel.
Even for those uninterested in history, the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Suleimaniye Mosque, are worth a visit inside– just for the sheer beauty. Also, other than the Hagia Sophia, entrance to mosques in Istanbul is free, so why not check them out?
The Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia was originally an Orthodox church under the Byzantines but when Constantinople fell, the Ottomans added the minarets and declared it a mosque in the newly-named city of Istanbul. To many, its appearance is strange, like a “Frankenstein” of multiple periods and styles, which deters many from entering. Inside however, the Hagia Sophia is unlike any other.
The mix of Christian (Byzantine) and Islamic (Ottoman) styles seems bizarre but fit together perfectly.
Christian mosaics depicting Jesus and other biblical scenes are embedded into the walls. Christian paintings are on the ceilings amidst Muslim floral designs. Dimly-lit iron chandeliers hang from the 180-foot (55-meter) ceiling, while giant golden plaques of Arabic calligraphy (the names of the 4 Islamic Caliphs) hang on the meticulously carved marble walls. This mixture is something that truly cannot be found anywhere.
The Blue Mosque
Right across from the Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque, built by the Ottomans in 1609. The nickname is derived from the mosque’s, blue-tiled walls, however, there is much more inside than simply that!
The inside is smaller than the Hagia Sophia, but the paintings are more ornate, and the light streams brilliantly through the stained-glass windows in the afternoon. Thousands of single-bulb lights hang from the ceiling, which creates a wonderful effect, like stars.
Tip: Hangout in the park in between the two mosques for the Azan, or Call to Prayer– listening to the two Azan back-and-forth is beautiful and harmonious. (It happens five times a day, so chances are, you’ll catch one of them if you visit both mosques!)
The Suleimaniye Mosque
The Suleimaniye Mosque was commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent and designed by the famous architect Sinan.Architecturally, it is very similar to the Blue Mosque, as the architect of the Blue Mosque was a student of Sinan, and the two are both in high Ottoman style. However, visiting the Suleimaniye mosque is a less-touristy experience, and there’s a perk– there is a great view of the city from the Mosque’s garden.
Suleimaniye Mosque can be seen from a distance, as this massive mosque is perched on a hilltop near the Spice Bazaar. Personally, this was my favorite mosque, even though I did not get a chance to see the inside because it is undergoing some restoration.
View of Istanbul’s Beyoglu district from the Suleimaniye Mosque
There are more grand Mosques in Istanbul, however, these three are the most famous and most impressive. There are also several smaller mosques, and modern ones worth seeing. I would’ve visited more, had I had more time! In a developing neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul, I stumbled a modern mosque still under construction This is the ceiling.
Religion was an important aspect of the Ottoman and Byzantine empires, and these empires’ religious buildings are some of the finest in Istanbul. Even for those who are not religious, they are incredible sights to see and should not be missed!
Note: Mosques are closed during prayer times, except the Hagia Sophia since it is no longer in use. Dress conservatively if possible, but if not don’t worry; these mosques provide scarves and ankle-length dresses for anyone in summer clothing.