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  • Writer's pictureJoel Butler, MA

A Brief History of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul

What is the Blue Mosque?

The Blue Mosque is a large Ottoman imperial mosque constructed by order of Sultan Ahmed I in the early 17th century.

Blue Mosque

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Blue Mosque History

There is an oft-repeated myth about how the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque, came to have six minarets (the slender towers at the edges of the complex). The architect Sedefkâr Mehmed Ağa was a former student of the great 16th-century architect Mimar Sinan. It’s said that Mehmed went to Sultan Ahmed I for instructions on what he wanted from his new mosque, and that Ahmed replied he wanted an ‘altın minare’ (a golden minaret). Knowing this was impossible, Mehmed instead decided he would pretend to have misheard the sultan and build a mosque with six minarets – ‘altı’, without the ‘n’, meaning ‘six’ in Turkish.

This is, of course, an amusing but completely fictional story. Sedefkâr Mehmed Ağa in fact went about designing the last great mosque of the Ottoman Classical Era and deliberately tried to make it as grand as possible, by the inclusion of six minarets. It has a prime location on the Hippodrome here in the centre of historic Istanbul, and its architecture deliberately incorporates and plays on elements evident in the neighbouring Hagia Sophia. The site was previously that of the Byzantine Great Palace, though this had largely been abandoned since the days of the Latin occupation of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, a period in which the ruling Catholics looted all they could from the city. Thus, what remained of the palace that hadn’t already been knocked down and used for other buildings was said to be overrun with ghosts and djinn (or invisible spirits).

The great mosque that sprang up on the site under the guidance of Sedefkâr Mehmed Ağa was without doubt grander than the buildings it replaced and was officially djinn-free. However, it was not built without several religious controversies, reflecting the difficulties that the Ottoman Empire experienced during the reign of Ahmed I, with the young sultan’s often clumsy expressions of devotion to a revivalist Islamic trend. The first problem was that Ahmed had just concluded the Peace of Zsitvatorok, bringing to an end the Long War against the Austrian Habsburgs, as well as suffering humiliating defeat to the Shi’ite Safavid Persians. With no loot to finance his great mosque and revive the image of the Ottomans and Sunni Islam, he broke with tradition and dipped into the imperial treasury to build it, infuriating religious leaders.

A second controversy surrounded Ahmed’s fury and despair on realising he had disrespectfully constructed a mosque with the same number of minarets as the great mosque of Mecca (Ottoman imperial mosques typically only have four). His despair turned to relief when his Şeyhülislam (his chief religious law adviser) pointed out that he could resolve the problem by having a seventh minaret constructed in Mecca.

The mosque itself is a beautiful specimen of Classical Ottoman architecture, a commanding landmark with significant architectural synergy with the Süleymaniye Mosque and with the nearby Hagia Sophia. The exterior is of typical Ottoman white stone; it’s the interior from which the mosque derives its ‘Blue’ nickname, with more than 20,000 hand-painted Iznik tiles lining the walls and ceilings. The upper levels feature blue paint and over 200 stained-glass windows. The quality of the ornate decorations decreased over time during construction, however, as the price to be paid for each tile was fixed by sultanic decree – though this is almost unnoticeable against the incredible grandeur of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque.

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