Amongst the grandest of Istanbul’s historic mosques, Sultanahmet Camii or Sultan Ahmed Mosque sits in the midst of Istanbul’s UNESCO-listed old city. Sultanahmet Camii is more commonly known amongst English speakers as the Blue Mosque, a name that refers to the blue tiles lining the walls of its interior. The Blue Mosque is a popular tourist attraction; outside of prayer times, visitors adhering to the dress code are welcome inside for free.
Built from 1609 to 1616 during the rule of the Ottoman emperor Ahmed I, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is impressive. By the time of the Blue Mosque’s construction Ottoman imperial architects had evolved a more or less standardized general plan for Istanbul’s grand mosques. The Ottoman’s mosque design was influenced by the architecture of the Byzantine Empire’s basilicas. For the Blue Mosque, the style connection is easy to see; the Sultan Ahmed Mosque sits near the magnificent 6th Century Byzantine basilica, Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia, converted to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, served as an archetype for the Ottoman imperial mosques.
The outside of the Blue Mosque is more refined, more finished than Hagia Sophia. A symmetrical pyramid of domes cascades from the top. On one side, as is typical of imperial mosques, there is a large courtyard centered by an ablution fountain. A vaulted arcade provides shade at the edges of the court.
The Blue Mosque has one unusual feature; there are six minarets. Mosques endowed by Ottoman sultans usually have four minarets. (Princes and princesses were permitted two minarets; others only one.) The Internet says that the Sultan Ahmed I directed his architect to make gold (altin) minarets, which was misunderstood as six (alti) minarets, an explanation that seems hard to verify. No matter the reason, at the time of completion the Blue Mosque’s six minarets were a matter of contention; the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca, Masjid al-Haram, had just four minarets. Order was restored when the Ottomans added three minarets to the Masjid al-Haram bringing its total to seven.
The interior of the Blue Mosque is its namesake feature. Over 20,000 handmade blue tinted tiles decorate the inside of the mosque. It is these Iznik tiles that give the Blue Mosque’s interior its distinct appearance. Unlike Christian churches there are no decorations with pictures of people or animals. Instead the inside is ornamented with repeating patterns and Arabic calligraphy. The combination of the cavernous space and the stylized decorations is breathtaking. There is little doubt why the Blue Mosque is one of Istanbul’s top tourist attractions.