The Blue Mosque, Sultan Ahmet Mosque or Sultanahmet Mosque (in Turkish Sultan Ahmet Camii or Sultanahmet Camii) is one of the historic mosques of Istanbul. It is particularly known for the predominantly blue ceramics which decorate the interior walls, and have earned it its name in Europe.
IntroductionThe blue mosque was built between 1609 and 1616, during the reign of Sultan Ahmet I. Like many other mosques, it also includes the tomb of the founder, a madrasah and a hospice. The Sultanahmet Mosque has become one of Istanbul's most popular tourist attractions.
It was a starting point for the pilgrimage to Mecca and has the privilege of having six minarets: the Sacred Mosque of Mecca had as many at the time, but has since received a seventh.
History of the Blue Mosque
After the Peace of Zsitvatorok, signed by Ahmet I with Archduke Matthias of Austria, which ended the war with Hungary without a decisive Ottoman victory, the sultan decided to build a large mosque in Istanbul.
It was the first imperial mosque built in over forty years.
While his predecessors had paid for the construction of mosques with their war spoils, Ahmet I had to withdraw the funds from the Treasury, provoking the anger of the ulama.
The mosque was built on the site of the former Grand Palace of the Byzantine emperors, facing the Ayasofya Basilica - Hagia Sophia (at that time, the most important mosque in Istanbul) and the hippodrome: this site was of a great symbolic meaning.
Several palaces, already built in the same place, had to be purchased (at a considerable price) and destroyed, in particular the palace of Sokollu Mehmet Pasha, and large parts of the Sphendonè (the curved U-shaped stands of the hippodrome).
Construction of the mosque began in August 1609, when the Sultan himself came to give the first sod.
He intended the building to become the first mosque in his empire.
He appointed his royal architect Sedefhar Mehmet Ağa, a student and chief assistant of the famous architect Mimar Sinan, for the construction.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque Building Organization
The organization of the work is described in great detail in eight volumes, now stored in the Topkapi Palace library.
The opening ceremonies took place in 1617 (although the mosque door bears the date 1616) and the sultan was able to pray in the royal box (Hünkâr Mahfil).
The building was not yet finished at the end of Ahmet I's reign and the last invoices were signed by his successor Mustafa I.
The blue mosque is part of the architectural policy of Ahmet I to compete with Ayasofya. The aim was to demonstrate that the Ottoman architects had nothing to envy of their Christian predecessors: the plan of the mosque was therefore inspired by that of the Hagia Sophia church built by Justinian almost a thousand years earlier, and transformed into a mosque after the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453. It was also inspired by the buildings built in the previous century by the architect Sinan, in particular the Süleymaniye Mosque (mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent) and the Bayezid II Mosque (mosque of Bayezid II), more directly inspired by their Byzantine model. Its dome, in particular, attempts to approach the dimensions of that of Ayasofya (23.5 m in diameter, compared to 30 m at Ayasofya, and 27.5 m for the Soliman mosque.
This dome is supported by four massive pillars called “elephant legs” and buttressed by four half-domes. 260 windows flood the building with light. The interior is decorated with 21,043 predominantly blue Iznik tiles, from which the mosque takes its nickname.
The mosque was depicted on the reverse side of 500 Turkish lira banknotes from 1953 to 1976
Architecture of the Blue Mosque
The design of the Sultanahmet Mosque is the culmination of two centuries of development of both Ottoman mosques and Byzantine churches.
It incorporates certain Byzantine elements from the nearby Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) with traditional Islamic architecture.
Designed by architect Sedefhar Mehmet Ağa, the Sultanahmet Mosque is considered the last example of classical Ottoman architecture. The architect skillfully synthesized the ideas of his master Mimar Sinan, aiming for a large size, majesty and splendor, but the interior does not have his creative thought.
Sedefhar Mehmet Ağa used large quantities of materials for construction, especially in stone and marble, draining supplies for other important works.
The layout of the mosque is irregular, because the architect had to take into account the existing constraints of the site.
Its major façade serves as an entrance facing the racecourse.
The architect based his plan on the Ṣehzade Mosque (1543-1548) in Istanbul, Mimar Sinan's first large-scale work, with the same symmetrical quatrefoil plan and vast courtyard.
The prayer hall is surmounted by an ascending system of cupolas and semi-domes, each supported by three exedras, culminating in the broad central dome, which measures 23.5 m in diameter and 43 m in height at its central point.
Seen from the courtyard, the profile of the mosque becomes a harmonious succession of domes and half-domes. The overall effect of the exterior on the visitor is a perfect visual harmony that leads the eye to the top of the central dome.
The façade of the vast courtyard was constructed in the same manner as the façade of the Süleymaniye Mosque, except for the addition of turrets on the corners of the domes. The courtyard is approximately as large as the mosque itself and is surrounded by a continuous, rather monotonous process of arched arcades (revak). It has sanitary facilities on both sides.
The central hexagonal fountain is rather small in contrast to the dimensions of the courtyard. The monumental but narrow door to the courtyard is distinguished by the architecture of the arcade. Its semi-dome has a stalagmite structure, crowned with a rather small ribbed dome on a large drum. A heavy iron chain hangs across the top of the courthouse entrance on the west side.
Only the sultan was allowed to enter the courtyard of the mosque on horseback. The chain was placed there, so the sultan had to lower his head every time he entered the courtyard so as not to touch it. This is a symbolic gesture, to ensure the sultan's humility in the face of the divine.
The domes are supported by four massive pillars reminiscent of those of the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, another Sinan masterpiece. It is obvious that Sedefhar Mehmet Ağa was timid in taking this exaggerated safety margin, degrading the elegant proportions of the dome with their oppressive size.
These “elephant feet” are composed of multiple convex marble grooves at their base, while the upper half is painted, separated from the base by a band inscribed with golden words.
On its lower levels and at each platform, the interior of the mosque is lined with more than 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles, made in Iznik (ancient Nicaea) in more than fifty different designs. The tiles on the lower levels are traditional in design, while on the gallery level their design becomes flamboyant with images of flowers, fruits and cypresses. More than 20,000 tiles were made under the supervision of Iznik master potter Kaşıcı Hasan, and Mustafa Mersin Efendi from Avanos (Cappadocia). However, builders' prices for tiles were set by decree of the Sultan, while prices for tiles increased over time. As a result, the tiles used later in construction were of lower quality, their colors faded and changed (red to brown, green to blue, white mottled) and the glaze dulled. The tiles on the rear balcony wall are recycled tiles from the Topkapı Palace harem, when it was damaged by fire in 1574.
The upper levels of the interior are dominated by blue paint, but of poor quality.
More than 200 stained glass windows with intricate patterns let in natural light, today aided by chandeliers. On the chandeliers, ostrich eggs were intended to prevent cobwebs in the mosque by repelling spiders2.
The decorations include verses from the Quran, many of which were made by Seyyid Kasim Gubari, considered the greatest calligrapher of his time. The floors are covered with carpets, which are donated by devotees and are regularly replaced as soon as they become worn. The many spacious windows give a feeling of space. The windows at ground level are decorated with the Opus sectile.
Each exedra has five windows, some of which are blind. Each half-dome has 14 windows and the central dome 28 (four of which are blind). The colored glass for the windows was a gift from the Lordship of Venice to the sultan. Most of these colorful stained glass windows have now been replaced by modern versions with almost no artistic value.
The most important element in the interior of the mosque is the mihrab, which is made of finely carved marble, with a niche of stalactites and a double panel of inscriptions above. The adjoining walls are covered with ceramic tiles, but the many windows around them make them appear less spectacular.
To the right of the mihrab is the ornately decorated minbar, or lectern, where the imam sits when delivering his sermon at the time of noon prayers on Fridays or holy days. The mosque was designed so that even when it is very crowded, everyone at the mosque can see and hear the imam.
The royal kiosk is located at the southeast corner, it includes a platform, a loggia and two small rooms. It provides access to the royal box in the southeast of the upper gallery of the mosque. These rooms became the seat of the grand vizier during the suppression of the rebel Janissary corps in 1826. The royal box (Hünkâr Mahfil) is supported by ten marble columns. It has its own mihrabs, which were once adorned with pink and gilded jade and a hundred Korans on the inlaid and gilded lecterns.
The large number of lamps that light the interior were once covered in gold and precious stones. Among the glass bowls one could find ostrich eggs and crystal balls. All these decorations were removed or looted for museums.
The large tablets on the walls are engraved with the names of the caliphs and verses from the Quran, originally by the great 17th century calligrapher Ametli Kasım Gubarım, but they have often been restored.
The Sultanahmet Mosque is one of two mosques in Turkey that has six minarets, the other being in Adana. When the number of the minarets was revealed, the sultan was criticized for presumption, since it was, at the time, the same number as at the holy mosque of the Ka'ba in Mecca. He overcame this problem by paying for the construction of a seventh minaret for the mosque in Mecca.
Four minarets are at the corners of the mosque. Each is fluted, three-balcony (ṣerefe) pencil-shaped minarets with stalactite brackets, while the other two at the end of the esplanade have only two balconies.
Until recently, the muezzin or caller to prayer had to climb a narrow spiral staircase five times a day to announce the call to prayer. Today, a public address system is in use, and the call can be heard across the old part of town, relayed by other mosques in the surrounding area.
Large crowds of Turks and tourists gather at sunset in the park in front of the mosque to hear the call to evening prayer, as the sun sets and the mosque is brightly lit by colorful floodlights.
Visit of Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI visited the Blue Mosque on November 30, 2006, during his apostolic trip to Turkey. This is the second papal visit in history to a Muslim place of worship, after that of Pope John Paul II, to the Grand Mosque of Damascus, in 2001.
The sovereign pontiff conforms to the tradition of his Muslim guests: without shoes, facing Mecca, in a personal “silent prayer”, surrounded by Mustafa Çağrıcı, mufti of Istanbul and Emrullah Hatipoğlu, imam of the Blue Mosque3 .
The sovereign pontiff augurs that Turkey "will be a bridge of friendship and collaboration between the East and the West" and he thanked the Turkish people for the "cordiality and sympathy" that they have shown them throughout of his stay, feeling “loved and understood”