Situated near Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is another grand structure called the Blue Mosque. Built in 1609, Sultan Ahmet I wanted to construct a mosque that was more beautiful than Hagia Sophia. While I am partial to Hagia Sophia, it is a pretty spectacular sight. It is also the first operating mosque that I have ever been inside.
It is called the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles on the interior. It has a ginormous (yes, it’s huge) light fixture in the center of the mosque, but unfortunately, the millions of cables that are used to suspend it from the ceiling are a distraction. It is also one of the few mosques that has six minarets.
I was very excited about the opportunity to visit a mosque. As we made our way to the north entrance, Stella and I stopped to read a sign giving instructions to those visiting the mosque. We had brought our own scarves to cover our heads and of course, had to remove our shoes before entering. Like Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is grand, and when I entered I couldn’t help but pause and scan the ornate interior. The main area is blocked off for male Muslims, but visitors can stand or sit anywhere in the entry area. I was just excited to be able to visit the Blue Mosque, but was pleasantly surprised when I read that they allow photography.
Stella and I sat off to one side in the entrance area. It was a good spot to check out the interiors but also good for people watching. We were both caught off guard by the number of women who didn’t cover their head. I believe almost more tourists came through without their head covered than those that did. I found it extremely disrespectful, especially considering that there are signs posted, and the mosque offers scarves that you can borrow for free at the entrance.
A couple entered from the side entrance by where we were sitting, and the wife, rather than going behind the covered area for women, came and stood perpendicular, right in front of Stella and I, and began to pray. Her face was veiled and her burqa had rhinestone details along the sleeves. She was maybe three feet in front of us, she had set her purse practically on top of mine, and it was one of those fascinating moments where you get to see culture and religion unfold before your eyes.
Stella and I absorbed the moment, while two women sitting behind us were speaking in hushed, foreign tones. As it turns out, these women were speaking German, and Stella could overhear them. This has happened to us so many times when we’ve traveled together. People hear us conversing in English and don’t realize that Stella speaks German and can understand them. We’ve had people talking about us while on our US road trip with no realization that we can understand them talking about ‘those crazy Americans’ (which is just funny considering Stella is one of them, a German, that they are discussing).
The German women in the mosque were discussing why Muslim people wash before they enter the mosque and are so concerned about hygiene, yet they ‘kiss the floor which is unhygienic’. It was so frustrating to hear Stella relay the conversation. People can certainly claim ignorance, but to be inside a mosque and have a woman praying just a few feet away, and then something like this? It seems like the whole point of visiting a mosque is to discover and to learn; and yet, these women are too busy discussing how they understand things to be instead of just taking a moment to observe. Of course, they didn’t cover their heads either, so I probably shouldn’t hold them to such a high expectation. (Sidenote: This isn’t an attack on Germans; trust me, I’ve heard Americans say plenty of ignorant things along the way.)
The Blue Mosque was my first visit to a mosque that is still in operation. I’m really glad I visited. After Stella and I hung around for half an hour, an employee came through and asked us to leave because evening prayer was about to commence. We exited through a side entrance and walked along a crowded sidewalk on the grounds, as people were arriving for evening prayer. If you are in Istanbul, you should definitely take the opportunity to visit the Blue Mosque. It’s beautiful inside, and for me, it was a new experience of Islamic culture.