The skyline of Istanbul is punctuated by the minarets of mosques, large and small, and the early morning quiet is broken as the muezzin sing out the call to prayer. In older times, the muezzin climbed the minaret so their voices could be heard over a wider area. These days, loudspeakers have spared many the early-morning climb. At first light, one can hear the call to prayer begin to echo across the city, seemingly ricocheting from one mosque to the other. For westerners, it is a novel and distinctive sound that adds to the exotic feel of Muslim countries.
The first large-scale structure to be used as a mosque in Istanbul was the Aya Sophia (Ayasofya Mosque), which was converted from a Christian church shortly after the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453. Photos and information about this monumental structure, also known as the Hagia Sophia, appear on a separate page.
The largest and most imposing of Istanbul's mosques built by the Ottomans is the Süleymaniye Mosque, commissioned by Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent and opened in 1557. The mosque sits high on a hill with a commanding view of the Golden Horn and beyond. Süleyman's reign spanned 47 years (1520-1566, the longest reign of any Ottoman sultan), brought the empire to the height of its powers, and was a golden age in learning and the arts, including architecture. The Süleymaniye Mosque was designed by the prolific Ottoman architect Mirmar Sinan (1489-1588) and represented Süleyman's and Sinan's response to the Byzantines' great Aya Sophia. (Sinan, who lived to be 90 and was active to the last, not only built hundreds of buildings in present-day Turkey and established a model of Ottoman architecture that would endure for centuries to come, but built structures in surprisingly far flung places like Višegrad in modern Bosnia and Yevpatoria on the Crimean Peninsula.) Imposing as it is, however, the Süleymaniye Mosque is still somewhat smaller, with a smaller and lower dome, than the Aya Sophia built 1000 years before.
As a mosque endowed by the sultan, the Süleymaniye was entitled to (and has) four minarets, the maximum then considered allowable (though Sultan Ahmet was to later break with tradition; see below). Mosques commissioned by other high-ranking members of the royal family were entitled to two minarets, while all other mosques were limited to one. When it was built, and for centuries thereafter, the mosque was part of a large complex that served not only as a place of worship but as a charitable foundation and a place of public accommodation. The complex included a hospital, a public kitchen said to have served more than a 1000 people a day (Muslims, Christians and Jews alike), religious schools (madrasahs), baths, shops and a caravansary where travelers could find lodging for themselves and their animals. Süleyman himself, his favorite wife Roxelana, and other members of Ottoman royalty are buried in mausoleums on the grounds.
Across a beautifully landscaped park from the extraordinary Aya Sophia, is the spectacular Sultan Ahmet Mosque, completed in 1616 (and later nicknamed the Blue Mosque after the blue tile work inside). The Sultan Ahmet Mosque is easily recognized by its six minarets, said to be the most of any mosque outside of Mecca. Tradition held that a sultan's mosque have four minarets, two fewer than the six minarets that then stood at Islam's holiest mosque in Mecca. The story goes, however, that when Sultan Ahmet ordered that his new mosque have gold ("altin" in Turkish) minarets, the architect thought he had asked for six ("alti" in Turkish) minarets. There were accusations of sacrilege, but the sultan avoided a scandal by agreeing to pay for the addition of a seventh minaret in Mecca. (I personally find this story a bit hard to swallow. It presumes that during the entire construction of the mosque – which certainly did not occur overnight – neither the sultan nor his minions ventured from nearby Topkapı Palace and noticed that instead of four golden minarets, there were six stone minarets rising next to the new mosque.) Like the Süleymaniye Mosque, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque used to be part of a larger complex that included a hospital, schools, baths, public kitchens, and a caravansary.
The interior of Sultan Ahmet Mosque is, in a word, overwhelming. The size of the prayer hall is cavernous. The lower parts of the interior are covered with beautiful İznik tiles, with blue being the predominant theme. The upper reaches of the interior – including the massive dome and the series of half domes, arches and pendentives that support the roof – are painted in intricate patterns that emulate the tiles. In both 1998 and 2005, I stayed in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul. The Blue Mosque was nearby and became a favorite place to visit again and again, even if just for a few minutes, after the bus tours had left. There is a grandeur and serenity to the interior that is hard to describe.
It is a testament to the antiquity of Istanbul that a mosque built more than three centuries ago is still known as the New Mosque (Yeni Camii, in Turkish). The New Mosque gets scant mention in the guidebooks and is generally skipped by the bus tours, but it is one of my favorite places in Istanbul. The mosque was begun in 1597 by the mother of Sultan Mehmet III (who died during construction leaving his mother without influence) and completed years later in 1663 by the mother of Mehmet IV. Although it is a mosque of monumental proportions and was endowed by Ottoman royalty, it was not commissioned by the sultan himself and thus displays only two minarets. The majestic and soaring interior of the mosque is covered with İznik tiles.
While the impact of the New Mosque rivals Istanbul's other grand mosques, the real attraction for me is how lively the place is. The mosque stands in Eminönü, a short walk from the Spice Bazaar, bus station, ferry terminals and Galata Bridge – in short it's a major pedestrian crossroads and meeting place. The large plaza in front of the mosque is abuzz with commuters, shoppers, vendors, people on their way to worship, thousands of pigeons and, by comparison, relatively few tourists. The interior courtyard of the mosque is more sedate, but still filled with local people going about their lives. (For more on this aspect of the New Mosque area, visit the Streets and Markets of Istanbul page.)
Along Istanbul's European side of the Bosphorus are three mosques designed by famous Balyan family of architects in a Baroque style that reflects the family's western leanings. Krikor Balyan (1764-1831), the first member of the family to enter into service as the sultan's architect, designed the Nusretiye Mosque, completed in 1826. Garabet Amira Balyan (1800-1866) and his son Nigoğayos Balyan (1826-1856), who designed the over-the-top Dolmabahçe Palace, also designed the (somewhat) more understated Dolmabahçe Mosque, which stands near the palace. They also designed the Büyük Mecidiye Mosque, completed in 1855, that stands near the Bosphorus Bridge in the Ortaköy section of Istanbul. Together, these three mosques represent a quite different style than the grand mosques of past centuries. The mosques are smaller, and more personal, in scale. But more importantly, they share a look that seems more western European, than Turkish. Finely crafted tiles, the signature material of the earlier mosques, are conspicuous by their absence. In their place, one finds marble, plus faux marble and trompe l'oeil painting that were fashionable in 19th century western Europe.