Aya Sofia and the Big Blue

Aya Sofia and the Big Blue

There’s a huge mosque just the other side of the Galata bridge and another one up on the hill further left, near the Grand Bazaar. These are the attention grabbers as you walk over the bridge and approach the old part of Istanbul from the north and you are amazed when you realise that they’re just mosques, not the big ones. The Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque lie further up the hill facing each other across a huge square and about 11 centuries. Actually, not quite facing. The Blue Mosque looks at the back side of Aya Sofia as they both face east. Good job Jerusalem and Mecca lie roughly in the same direction given that Aya Sofia has had to cover both bases.

On this, my second trip to Istanbul, I wasn’t sure how I would react to seeing these two Istanbul icons again. Things are never quite like the first time, after all! I had tried hard not to big it up too much to Jim but was really hoping he’d see what I’d seen some 18 years ago.

We saw Aya Sofia first. The older of the two, the bigger, the more majestic in its agedness. Built to be the biggest church in Christendom by Emperor Justinian, converted to a mosque when the Ottomans moved in, now it’s neither. As a museum piece it captures in stone the story of west and east and probably does all the other things the guide books say. But the thing that gets you in the gut about Aya Sofia is its sheer size. It’s hard to describe such an audacious project; the scale of it is awesome in the true sense of the word. Even crowded with people and with some scaffolding inside where repairs are being done to part of the ceiling, it is an astonishing place. It’s big from the outside but somehow you don’t get the feeling of its utter, enormous grandeur until you are inside and look up into the dome and have your breath taken away.

We needed a bit of time to rest and reflect before tackling the Big Blue. The Sultan Ahmet square and park between the two was an ideal place, with trees, a fountain, benches and a perfect view of the Big Blue. So we settled in for a spot of sketching and writing. The square was full of other people, many of them Turkish, come to see the sights and pray at the Blue Mosque. The artist was a great attraction as he penned the sketch below. An especially big hit with a family, Mum in black, Dad in civvies and the kids, Mohmet and his sister, Rafia, who wanted to photograph Jim and the sketch. We have pictures of the artist and these delightful children in the can.

The Blue Mosque was a different proposition and, frankly, a let down. The ‘blue’ is on the inside in the beautiful tiles that cover the walls. As you enter the grounds there are notices about the dress code for entering the mosque. We were wearing shorts but had packed the zippy bottom bits for just this eventuality, now renamed ‘mosque shorts’ and quite the rage in our section of the tourist queue. And, of course, I had, in a stroke of foresight, just acquired a selection of scarves. So I got dressed up feeling like Carrie from Homeland (less the angst). If you’re not kitted out, there’s a sort of antechamber where a woman checks you over. And it’s mainly the women who are checked – the rules for the men are much more lax, just cover the knees and you’re passed fit for God and the Prophet. The women who don’t meet the bill get issued with a shawl and a smock and everyone gets a bag for their shoes.

All this hassle and palaver gets in the way. By the time you get into the mosque, all swathed and inspected, you’re already a feeling irritated; the frame of mind you need to enjoy the building and soak in its meaning and its subtle blue beauty has been lost. So, for me, and also for Jim, the Big Blue was a big disappointment. You expect all the stuff about women being treated differently, but when it actually happens, you get cross. All that messing about getting dressed up and inside it’s mobbed with people taking selfies and sending them to their Facebook friends – please! By the time I saw the Women’s Prayer area in a corner of the mosque, a little pen where the hooded women in black gather to be subservient, I had had enough. Religion gets in the way of seeing the Blue Mosque – as ever, it has a lot to answer for.

Sorry to end on a preposition but maybe it’s apt!

The sketch of the Big Blue is in the next post

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