The Hagia Sophia & Blue Mosque

Almost 15 million people call Istanbul their home, making it the fourth most populated city in the world. This is not surprising considering the site was founded some 3000 years ago. It first passed violently to the Greeks from the Thracian tribes in the 7th century B.C. Then to the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, around 196 A.D. Finally, the Ottoman Empire took the city for itself in the 13th century. Although Turkey is considered a Muslim country, Istanbul’s roots make it a city awash with different faiths and cultures.

No better symbol of co-existing traditions is found than in the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque, two breathtaking places of worship which sit together side by side in Sultanahmet, the Old City of Istanbul and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Hagia Sophia - Church of the Holy Wisdom

The Hagia Sophia that stands today, is actually the third iteration of a Greek Orthodox place of worship commissioned in 360 A.D. by the Byzantine Emperor Constantius. Unfortunately, this structure and the next completed by Emperor Theodosios II in 415 AD. were both burnt down due to political unrest and to having wooden roofs!

In 537 A.D., the Emperor Justinian learnt the lesson his forebearers didn’t and avoided using wood in his new construction. Instead his architects, Isidoros and Anthemios built a new basilica using largely fire proof materials from different areas of the kingdom as decreed by the Emperor. Marble came from Eastern Turkey and Syria, bricks from North Africa, and 104 columns from Egypt and the Temple of Artemis from Ephesus in Southern Turkey – once part of ancient Greece.

After 6 years, the building was complete measuring 269 feet long by 240 feet wide, and 180 feet at the highest point of its domed roof making it the largest structure in the world. The impressive central dome was flanked by two smaller, partial domes all ringed with windows and decorated with intricate mosaics from the Christian tradition.

For over 900 years, the Hagia Sophia inspired countless Christians until 1453 when the Ottoman Emperor Fatih Sultan Mehmed transformed it into a mosque adding the necessary minarets, removing the altar and bells, and plastering over many of the mosaics. The new rulers also hung panels or medallions with the names of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, the first four Caliphs, and the Prophet’s two grandsons. Finally, a nave (mihrab) was installed in the wall, to indicate the direction of Mecca.

So it remained, until Ataturk founded the Republic of Turkey and returned some of its former Christian aspects. Many of its mosaics were uncovered and restored along with other original features. Now Christian and Muslim aspects co-exist in this museum visited annually by more than 3 million people of all faiths.

The Blue Mosque

Sitting less than 900 meters from the Hagia Sophia is the Sultan Ahmet or Blue Mosque as it is known. It might seem strange that another mosque was built in the 17th century beside a structure that was already functioning as one but there is good reason for it.

Sultan Ahmet was only 13 when he came to power and to legitimize his reign, the young ruler commissioned a spectacular pinnacle of Islam intended to dwarf the symbol of Christianity which the Hagia Sophia still remained.

Ironically, the architecture of the basilica inspired that of the new mosque. The domed roofs are similar as are the windows and blind arcade intended to bring in outside light, but the Blue Mosque has its own distinctness with the engineering of the dome supports and series of half domes marking it apart from its inspiration.

Another design feature that was pointedly included to best the basilica and create consternation in the Muslim world, was the inclusion of six minarets. The traditional four were added to the Hagia Sophia when it transitioned into a mosque and even the mosques of Mecca didn’t have that amount.

If the Sultan cared, we cannot be sure, but the magnificence of the Blue Mosque implies he would have been happy with the uproar as it proved his creation was the holiest site in Islam. No expense was spared and its shows. From the carved marble to the more than 20,000 intricately painted Iznik tiles. From the once Venetian stained glass to the more than 200 windows.

Sadly, the Blue Mosque was the only thing magnificent about the ruler, an incompetent young man who gave the Habsburg their autonomy and their taxes, could not control the various Ottoman classes, and initiated the decline of the Ottoman empire.

As history shows, and the city of Istanbul attests, empires rise and fall. Luckily, some of their breathtaking structures rise above the skyline of the ancient city.

The Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque were built for the glory of different empires, now long gone, but today we can stand in these two amazing buildings and feel their historical heartbeats.

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