After the Hagia Sofia and the Masjid Suleymaniye, it is almost unthinkable that Istanbul could witness an even more beautiful mosque constructed in its midst. However, the Masjid Sultan Ahmet, also known as the Blue Mosque, impossibly outshines all of its predeccesors. No other mosques in Turkey, and few other mosques in the world, can rival the stunning symmetrical perfection of the Masjid Sultan Ahmet. It is the penultimate example of Ottoman architecture, against which even the works of Mimar Sinan pale by comparison. The Blue Mosque is one of only two mosques in the world to have been visited by a Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. It is also the location of the Tomb of Ahmet I, its patron. The Masjid Suleymaniye is part of the Historic Areas of Istanbul UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in the 15th century was a seismic event in world history. However, while it did signal the end of the Byzantine Empire, it also meant the beginning of a magnificent renaissance for Istanbul itself. Istanbul, which had formerly been the enormous but decaying Roman capital city of Constantinople, was already one of the largest metropoli in Europe, though it was long past its prime. Interestingly, rather than establish a new capital city nearby, the Ottomans simply adopted Constantinople as both a pre-made center of trade with the west as well as a window on the European world.
Much of the ancient city was preserved, and what wasn’t preservable was rebuilt in grand style in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Part of the motivation of the Ottoman potentates was the realization that the nations of Europe were on a cultural upswing, and they wanted Istanbul to compete in the international arena with London, Paris, Madrid, Venice and Vienna. The sultans made every effort to make Istanbul into a world economic center and showcase of eastern culture. Almost all of the city’s greatest mosques, palaces and monuments date from this time. The Masjid Sultan Ahmet, Istanbul’s crowning architectural achievement, was completed in 1616 AD.
For the next three centuries, the Ottomans continued to spread their power through Europe, and where they could not, to make their influence felt. But by the 18th and 19th centuries it was becoming clear that the Ottomans were falling behind their neighbors militarily. The Western Europeans and Russians were chipping away at their territories, as were scattered insurgent Muslim groups within their own borders. In the 1850s, it was only the intervention of Britain and France that halted Russian encroachments into Ottoman territory in the Balkans.
Throughout the last years of their Empire, the Ottomans maintained the tradition of the Islamic Caliphate, which they had inherited from earlier Arab and Turk dynasties. For almost five centuries, the Sunni Caliph and the Orthodox Patriarch shared Istanbul in what was probably the longest show of mutual Muslim-Christian tolerance in history. However, in the years leading up to World War I, the Ottoman Empire went into rapid decline. After the war it was dissolved outright, retaining only the modern territory of Turkey. In 1923, the first Turkish President Ataturk moved the capital to Ankara, and a year later dissolved the last vestage of the Caliphate. While the sultans are now long gone, their fantastic architecturally legacy, including the Blue Mosque, remains.
The Masjid Sultan Ahmet is one of history’s greatest architectural examples of the student surpassing the master. It was designed by Sedefhar Mehmet Aga, a pupil of Mimar Sinan. Nevertheless, when the plans were laid for the Masjid Sultan Ahmet, Mehmet Aga looked to the works of Sinan for inspiration, and elements of the Masjid Suleymaniye are definitely evident. The pile of over fifty domes ascends in a pyramid-like fashion, peaking in a massive silvered dome topped with a delicate spire. Six slender minarets grace the outer precincts of the mosque. According to tradition, when it was completed, the Blue Mosque’s six minarets were criticized because of the audacity of matching the number of minarets at Mecca. To solve the problem, the Sultan funded a seventh minaret to be built in Mecca.
Like the Hagia Sofia and the Masjid Suleymaniye, the Masjid Sultan Ahmet’s interior is a wealth of artistic decoration. Massive marble walls and pillars support the soaring ceilings and domes above. Hundreds of windows admit a flood of sunlight during the day. But where the Hagia Sofia is covered with acres of paintings, the mosque features intricate artworks and designs incorporating tens of thousands of handmade tiles. Verses of the Koran adorn other parts of the walls. In addition to his many other reforms, Ataturk introduced the use of Turkish into worship. The tomb of sultan Ahmet I stands just outside the walls of the mosque.
The Masjid Sultan Ahmet is located in the southeastern quadrant of Istanbul’s old city, just down the street from the Hagia Sofia and the Topkapi Palace. It is open to both Muslims and non-Muslims (except at prayer times). There is no cost of admission. Web: https://goturkey.com (official tourism website of Turkey)
As home to the seat of the Islamic Caliphate for well over four centuries, it is not suprising that Istanbul boasts more major Islamic sites than any other sites except perhaps Cairo in Egypt. In addition to the Masjid Sultan Ahmet, Istanbul is also home to the following major mosques: the Hagia Sophia, which was once the world’s largest church; the Masjid Suleymaniye, Mimar Sinan’s masterpiece; the Masjid Eyup Sultan, where one of the Companions of the Prophet is buried; the Masjid Fatih; the Masjid Yeni; the Masjid Beyazit; and the Masjid Ortakoy. Istanbul is also home to one of the world’s largest royal residences: the Topkapi Palace, one of the largest and most lavish in Muslim history (and home to the sacred trusts, the world’s greatest collection of important Muslim artifacts). There is also the more modern Dolmabahce Palace, where the sultans resided during their last few years in power.