Exploring Istanbul — The Blue Mosque

Our otopark camping spot is working out really well, especially for seeing the sights in nearby Sultanahmet (old Istanbul). Our first stop was the Blue Mosque, whose six famous minarets dominate the horizon from our parking spot.

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque is the first mosque I’ve ever set foot in.

After a 15-minute walk along the old Roman fortifications, past numerous stray dogs, up a windy cobblestone lane and across the old Byzantine Hippodrome, we entered the courtyard through a gauntlet of carpet sellers. “Bonjour! Hola! Where you come from? England? Canada? I love Canada. I take good care of you.” No, thanks. We shook them off and headed for the entrance.

Visitors are welcome but with restrictions. They may not enter during the five daily prayer times, are required to use a side door, and once inside must remain behind a low fence that separates the praying area. Officials at the front handed out plastic bags for shoes and blue scarves to cover women’s hair and shoulders, as well as all legs, including those of men wearing shorts. We had worn appropriate clothing and brought our own scarves, so we didn’t need the blue ones.

Inside, a scarlet wall-to-wall carpet covers the entire floor. It’s patterned with a subtle linear design so that (on crowded days) worshipers can arrange themselves in an orderly and efficient way.  We picked a spot on the carpet in front of one of the building’s massive pillars and sat down to take it all in.

The interior with it’s 20,000 Iznik tiles is absolutely stunning. It’s less dramatically blue than I expected, but to be fair I was envisioning something positively aquatic. The patterned higher-up tiles do have a lovely blue color-scheme.

The building consists of a central dome supported my massive fluted pillars and ringed by smaller semi-domes. Suspended from the lofty ceilings are huge circular iron chandeliers that hang about 10 feet off the floor. Once the thousands of glass lamps were filled with oil and flame, but today they hold electric light bulbs, only about half of which are working. Imagining the chandeliers filled with smoking oil transported me in time back to the days of the sultans, but afterward the blasted things made photography in the mosque extremely difficult. The lights and cables, which hand down like jungle vines, wreak havoc in most shots.

The Blue Mosque made a strong impression on Scout, who whipped out her writer’s notebook and began scribbling furiously as soon as she sat down. We had a moment of drama (tears, hysteria) when her pen went dry, but fortunately Mark produced a spare and the kid was able to continue writing.

After I’d had a good look at the building itself, the people in it gradually came into focus.

Through it wasn’t an official prayer time, a couple dozen men were praying up front and about as many women doing the same in the women’s section at the back. While their fathers prayed, several young children scampered about in the men’s section, doing cartwheels and generally cavorting. No one seemed to mind.

Of the visitors, I was astonished that quite a few women weren’t bothering to wear their headscarves.

These were mainly the gals with the blue scarves provided by the mosque, since anyone who’d brought their own scarf was obviously sensitive to the rules to begin with. Whether these women were making some kind of statement or just being thoughtless, I don’t know. My feeling is that we are guests in the mosque, and when you are a guest, you act respectfully toward your host. Period. I noticed that nearly all the East Asian women, both young and old, disregarded the headscarf rule, though many of the western women did too.

The rudeness seemed to come in waves. Sometimes I would look around to find nearly everyone wearing their headscarf, but other times I might see 20 or so women without them, their blue scarves draped carelessly around their necks. Though mosque officials were firm as they handed out the scarves outside, no one said anything once people were inside, though I did notice the eyes of many Muslim guests flicking around to the bareheaded non-Muslim guests. There are several signs asking visitors not to enter the front prayer area, but of course some did, strolling around and snapping photos with their point and shoots.

We lingered for an hour or so. While Mark soaked up the atmosphere, Scout and I took photos and wrote in our travel journals. Scout had a strong reaction to the Blue Mosque, and even after we left the building, she needed to stop and write more.

The strength of Scout’s reaction to the Blue Mosque surprised me. She counts it among her favorite experiences of the trip and asked to come back again, something we were able to do several times since we were camped so close by. On those return visits she either wrote in her journal or read on her Kindle. Bottom line, Scout just enjoyed being in the mosque.

Worldschooling Pays Off

I’m so grateful we’ve been able to take Scout on this odyssey through Europe. She’s seeing things that she’ll never forget, and her understanding of world history is expanding and deepening weekly. Scout will never forget the Blue Mosque. She loves that building. And getting to know it as well as she did has helped her understand the history of Istanbul and the Byzantines and the Ottomans in a way that will stick.

She knows the Blue Mosque was built as a mosque (not converted later like the Ayasofya), which means it was built after the Ottoman invasion of 1453. Anything built before that would have been Byzantine, meaning Roman, meaning Christian, and therefore a church. She’ll recall the Blue Mosque’s lovely patterned tiles and remember that Islamic art forbids human representations.

Yes, one can read about these things, and Scout has read about them, but seeing it all with her own eyes made it real and, hopefully, unforgettable.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Clélie August 28, 2011 at 8:08 pm

Wow. What an amazing place. Beautiful images, Renee, thanks for putting so many of them up. So glad you were able to go so often, and how very nice that Scout just liked being in it. I can relate to that. Some places, you just want to stay in and breathe the air for a while, just being there. I bet you’ve come across a few of those. Good post!


2 Renee August 29, 2011 at 5:35 am

Clélie, thanks so much! A “good post” from you is high praise indeed.

The Blue Mosque is certainly a stunner, but I think mosques in general are appealing for kids. They’re carpeted, everyone sits on the floor and it’s great people watching. What’s not to love?


3 YouKnowWhatMama August 29, 2011 at 12:03 am

As always, beautiful to my eyes and to my heart. Thank you for your generosity in sharing this life (:


4 Renee August 29, 2011 at 5:38 am

Hey there, Mama! Glad you made it by. I’m really pleased you like the blog. Comments mean a lot to me, so thanks for taking the time to leave one.


5 elaine August 31, 2011 at 5:17 pm

amazing photos Renee! I feel so serene just reading this. That’s fantastic that Scout was really taken by it too. glad you guys are enjoying instanbul.



6 Renee August 31, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Oh thanks, Elaine. 🙂 Yes, I’m always pleased when something resonates with Scout. And Istanbul is wonderful. So much to love here…


7 Anonymous September 4, 2011 at 9:48 pm

That is really great you were able to take your daughter to see such a grand structure. It would annoy me too to see many disrespecting the headscarf rule. That is what gives many of us around the world a bad name. I love all of the details you have captured in your photographs.


8 Renee September 5, 2011 at 9:33 am

Thanks, Suzy. Yes, the headscarf thing was driving me batty. What’s the big deal? Just put it on for ten minutes, already. I guarantee the lack of headscarves was being noticed by the locals…


9 Renee September 9, 2011 at 7:31 am

Thanks, Suzy. I appreciate the comment. And I’m glad you agree about the head scarfs. So very annoying and disrespectful to others.


10 Montecristo Travels March 31, 2013 at 6:07 am

Can’t wait to see this … I know my husband and I will have to do the doggy hand off … one waiting outside while the other visits inside but it will be worth it!!


11 Renee March 31, 2013 at 9:50 am

Haha, yes the doggie hand-off. We’re so familiar with it. 😉 The Blue Mosque is wonderful, as is everything in Istanbul. We’re seriously talking about moving there for a few years.


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