Travel with me #119 : The Sultan Ahmed and Cistern Basilica, Istanbul!
Dear Steemit Friends:
On my adventures with you today we're going to explore Sultan Ahmed Mosque, located in Istanbul, Turkey. You will see that this mosque is not only impressive for its sheer size but also its beauty. It still functions as a busy centre for religion with thousands visiting daily for their prayers.
First build between 1609 and 1616 by Sultan Ahmed the 1st, Sultan of the Ottoman empire from 1603 - 1617. Ahmed I first came to the thrown of the Ottoman empire when he was just thirteen years old and was born to Sultan Mehmed the 3rd. At the time, it was common for the eldest son to take the thrown after his father and then kill all of his brothers so he no longer had competition. Ahmed I was the first Sultan to break this 'tradition' by leaving his brother alive.
He reigned for just 14 years but the Sultan Ahmed Mosque still stands today as his lasting legacy to the world and the Islamic faith. Otherwise known as The Blue Mosque, it is one of the largest in the world. The nickname of 'Blue Mosque' comes from the hand painted blue tiles that line the inside of the walls, which you will soon see with me, as well as now being lit with blue lights at night.
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is an extremely popular tourist destination, as you can see here. Millions flock to the impressive structure each year, to experience the grandeur and architecture and of course also for religious reasons.
I couldn't wait to start exploring. The mosque is absolutely huge - it has a capacity of 10,000 people and its largest dome stands 43m high into the sky with the tallest minarets (towers) being 64m high. The Blue Mosque has five main domes with six towers called minarets. There are also another eight smaller domes on the structure. There is an interesting history to the minarets. According to a little bit of legend, the original architect thought that the sultan had asked for six (altı) minarets when he actually said gold (altın) minarets. An easy mistake to make when you look at the words from the original language.
This presented a major problem because the only other mosque in the world that has six minarets is the Prophet's mosque in Mecca. Ahmed I felt that this was a serious insult so remedied the situation by building a 7th minaret in the Prophet's mosque.
The grounds around the mosque are beautifully maintained, creating a wonderful contrast between the grandeur of the building and the greenery of nature, tamed and manicured by man. It's good that there was plenty of space around the building because there were thousands of people visiting and it meant it didn't feel too crowded. As I approached in awe, I felt ready to enter what I had been told was one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.
Entrance to the forecourt of the Blue Mosque
At front of Sultan Ahmed Mosque is a large forecourt, which is actually about the same size as the mosque all over again. Surrounding the forecourt runs a covered arcade and in the centre lies a small fountain. You can see that even this outer wall of the forecourt is impressive, with its large minarets on each corner.
Architecturally, the entrance is very unique. You can see this amazing inverted stone work, made with geometric shapes. I was so in awe and I hadn't even entered yet! On the western entrance to the forecourt there was a chain hanging across the entrance. Historically, only the Sultan was allowed to ride on horse back into the court and the chain was hung in such a way that he would have to duck while riding on horse back. It was a sign of respect and humility that even though he could ride on horse back he would still bow when entering this holy place.
The spectacular interior of Sultan Ahmed Mosque
If you thought the outside of the mosque was impressive, wait until you see the inside. There were so many aspects of the inside that caused my jaw to drop. First, I didn't expect nearly the entire interior to be the size as the exterior - I had thought there would be a few small rooms inside the impressive dome. But in fact, it was just one large vaulted space. I felt so small under the enormity of the cavernous space.
However, the real jaw dropper is the mosaic tiles all over the inside of the domes. Every column, every vault, every dome has thousands of tiny tiles all over them in intricate patterns. There are over 20,000 hand made tiles in the Iznik style, a famous style of ceramic design from the town of Iznik in my beloved Anatolia Region of Turkey.
In the higher levels of the central rooms are found over 200 stained glass windows which admit plenty of daylight, illuminated the beautiful, predominantly blue paint, of the tile work. I have to say, and I hope you can tell why from the pictures, I was completely in awe. Have you ever had one of those moments where your mind cannot seem to understand what your eyes are seeing? That's what it felt like for me. I just couldn't believe what I was seeing.
Inside, there is of course a very important dress code to show good levels of respect. The head, arms and legs must be covered and the mosque supplies anyone who doesn't have the right clothing with something they can put on during their visit. As with all active mosques, prayers take place five times per day and as a result the place is closed for thirty minutes during each of these times. The rest of the time, however, it's still important to show respect for the religious significance of the building.
The plush carpet keeps the ground soft for those praying within the mosque and was as elaborate and beautiful in its design as the walls and ceiling. It also softens a lot of the sounds and echos that you sometimes get in buildings of this magnitude, giving it an air of solemnity and importance. It just felt quiet and imposing, is a building of this significance should feel.
The water storage cisterns below Istanbul
Just a few hundred meters away from the Blue Mosque, underneath the stones of the city streets, you find the Basilica Cistern. Below the city of Istanbul there are hundreds of ancient cisterns for storing rain water. These structures were built in the 6th century by the Later Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire for storing water in the notoriously hot summers in Turkey.
Located under the previous site of a giant Basilica, that's how this particular cistern got its name. Unfortunately the basilica which once stood above the Basilica Cistern has long since gone. However, the marvel that stands below it, is as impressive as many buildings above ground. Apparently over 7,000 slaves were used to construct this one cistern alone, which is one of the largest in Istanbul and particularly well preserved and maintained.
The cisterns were built to provide drinking water for the grand palace of Istanbul, or Constantinople as the city was known at the time that the cisterns were built. I was astounded by the feat of engineering that it must have taken to create this incredible structure. 138 meters long and 65 meters wide, the space could probably have fit the entire Sultan Ahmed Mosque inside it. The statistics I saw within the Basilica Cistern suggested that it could hold 80,000 cubic meters of water - that's a lot!
Holding up the impressive, beautiful and practical ceiling were hundreds upon hundreds of columns. There were over three hundred, with there being twelve rows of twenty eight columns in each row. It was like walking through a forest of human ingenuity and endeavour. I just couldn't believe the extent of the work that must have gone into this most practical of systems. Each outer wall is over four meters thick and then coated with a waterproof mortar to keep the water in.
Walking down the fifty two steps into the cool of the cistern was quite creepy. The water would have been topped up via an aqueduct, an ancient way of transporting water. Nowadays, there is still some water in here but it's mostly naturally occurring from rain water and isn't allowed to fill up to the top like in the past - because there's tourists like me visiting! Since it can store 100,000 tons of water, I was glad it was quite empty or I would have been very wet.
The platforms built here were put in during a restoration project in 1985 when 50,000 tonnes of mud was removed, though before these walk ways you could visit via boat. Though less people could visit this way, it would have been quite the experience to take a boat around the underground cistern - an opportunity I am sad to have missed. Non-the-less the cistern has been officially opened to the public for over 30 years now and I'm so glad because it's a real marvel of the human spirit.
There are two columns in the Basilica Cistern that have been built by re-using existing carved blocks of stone, which have the face of the ancient Greek myth Medusa. Medusa was a woman in Greek mythology whose hair was made of serpents and if you met her stare you would be turned to stone. No one really knows where these block carvings came from but they sure are impressive. Imagine moving such large pieces of stone to this location, underground, with those dangerous eyes looking at you the whole time.
I hope you enjoyed exploring Sultan Ahmed Mosque and Basilica Cistern with me today. The mosque was truly spectacular. I'm still trying to get my head around the beauty, majesty, complexity and sheer size of the interior with its tiled walls and huge chandelier. The cistern had a kind of rugged power from its pure size - deep underground with the low light, the smell of water and the echos of my voice for company. To think of how many thousands took to build it, so many hundreds of years ago, was truly mind blowing.
Have any of you visited this amazing city and these amazing sights? If you have, let me know and I'd love to compare notes! I can't wait to see you all again in my next blog post, so make sure you don't miss it and follow me if you haven't. Have a wonderful day and I'm looking forwards to sharing in another adventure with you soon.
Check out the full video below!