The Sultanahmet Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii) was built between 1609 and 1617 and is also known as the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles used to decorate the walls of its interior. The construction was commissioned by Sultan Ahmet I. The idea was to build a monument that would not only rival with the magnificent Hagia Sophia, but also surpass it…
Sultan Ahmet I wasn’t very successful regarding warfare, to say the least. So he came up with the idea to build a huge mosque that had to surpass the Hagia Sophia (at that time, the most respected mosque) in size and beauty to placate Allah.
He therefore chose to have it built opposite the Hagia Sophia and next to the Hippodrome, in the exact same spot where the Great Palace of the Byzantine emperors was standing, using the existing foundations and vaults.
There was only one drawback to his great plan: it cost a lot of money. Contrary to his predecessors, he had no war booty to fund the project, so he had to withdraw funds from the treasury. An unpopular decision and it wasn’t the only hostility his new mosque would elicit.
The construction of the mosque started in August 1609. The architect in charge was Sedefkar Mehmet Ağa, a student of the great architect Sinan. The detailed workbook of the construction consists of 8 volumes and still lies in the Topkapi Palace library.
Contrary to the date (1616) written on the mosque’s gate, the inauguration of Istanbul’s last imperial mosque took place in 1617 in the presence of Sultan Ahmet I. However, the building wasn’t completely finished by then, since the last accounts were signed by Sultan Ahmet’s successor Mustafa I.
The Sultanahmet Mosque combines the best of two architectural styles. It is a mixture of traditional Islamic architecture with Byzantine elements, taken from the adjacent Hagia Sophia.
Just Short of Spectacular
In order to fully appreciate the mosque’s architecture, you should approach it from the side coming from the Hippodrome instead of entering it through the park. At first glance the Blue Mosque can indeed rival with the Hagia Sophia. There are plenty of elegant curves thanks to an ascending system of domes and semi-domes, the giant courtyard (about as large as the mosque itself) is the biggest of all Ottoman mosques, and the six minarets (more than any mosque in Istanbul) make for a beautiful silhouette, especially when floodlit after dusk.
By contrast, when compared to the Hagia Sophia, the interior is rather underwhelming. The central dome of the Blue Mosque, which is 23,5 meters in diameter and 43 meters high at its central point, is of course impressive. Unfortunately, the architect played rather safe than sorry and installed 4 immense pillars or ‘elephant feet’ to support it all, where the central dome of the Hagia Sophia is seemingly unsupported.
Far more breathtaking are the more than 20.000 handmade Iznik ceramic tiles, in more than 50 tulip designs, that decorate the interior walls of the mosque. Their color gives the place its popular name, the Blue Mosque. The tiles at lower level are traditional in design, while at gallery level they have representations of flowers, fruits and cypresses. Because of the huge demands for tiles, the ones used during the later stages of the construction, vary in quality. The tiles used on the back balcony wall are recycled tiles from the Harem in Topkapi Palace, when it was damaged by fire in 1574.
Good to know
Light inside the mosque is provided by the more than 200 stained glass windows and several chandeliers. They put ostrich eggs on the chandeliers to repel spiders, hence avoiding cobwebs inside the mosque. The floors are covered with carpets, which are donated by faithful people and are regularly replaced as they get worn out.
Noteworthy in the main space are the imperial loge, supported by ten marbles columns, and the mihrab, made of finely carved and sculptured marble.
The legends of the minarets.
The Sultanahmet Mosque is the only mosque in Istanbul that has six minarets and this provoked hostility at the time. Such a display was previously only preserved for the Prophet’s mosque in Mecca and the sultan was criticized for thinking a bit too highly of himself.
According to the most obvious urban legend, this whole issue was the result of a misunderstanding between the sultan and his architect. The sultan supposedly had asked to have altın minare (minarets in gold) and the architect understood altı minare (which means six minarets). A second, less plausible legend is that the architect decided that gold minarets were too expensive and therefore decided to make six of them.
Whatever the true story behind the six minarets is, the sultan overcame the problem by paying for a seventh minaret at the mosque in Mecca.