On the southeastern side of the Hippodrome is the monumental Sultanahmet Camii, or Blue Mosque. With its six minarets, imposing bulk and commanding position on the skyline of old İstanbul, it is one of the most famous and visited monuments in the city. Viewed from the all-important approach from the Topkapı Palace, it is a striking mass of shallow domes, half-domes and domed turrets, but its most striking profile is from the Sea of Marmara where, elevated above the hillside, it totally dominates its surroundings.
Before construction began under architect Mehmet Ağa, in 1609, objections were raised to the plan of a mosque with six minarets on the grounds that it would be unholy to rival the six minarets of the mosque at Mecca. More importantly, it would be a drain on state resources already in a parlous state following a succession of (unsuccessful) wars with Austria and Persia. But Sultanahmet I, after whom the mosque is named, was determined to try and outdo his predecessors even if it meant bankrupting his empire – he even helped dig the foundations himself.
There are two entrances to the mosque’s prayer hall; at the side facing the Aya Sofya (always very busy) or (despite the notices asking you to do otherwise) through the large beautifully proportioned courtyard to the northwest – itself best entered through the graceful main (southwest) portal. Make sure you are suitably covered (limbs for men and women, heads for women) and take off your shoes and put them in the plastic bag provided.
Inside, four “elephant foot” pillars (so called because of their size) of five metres in diameter impose their disproportionate dimensions on the interior – particularly the dome which is smaller and shallower than that of Sinan’s İstanbul masterpiece, the nearby Süleymaniye Camii. The name “Blue Mosque” derives from the mass (over 20,000) of predominantly blue İznik tiles which adorn the interior, though much of the “blue” is, in fact, stencilled paintwork. The glass in the numerous arched windows was originally mainly coloured Venetian bottle glass, but this has now been replaced by poor-quality modern windows.
At the northeast corner of the Sultanahmet complex is the richly decorated and elegant royal pavilion, approached by ramp and giving access to the sultan’s loge inside the mosque – the ramp meant that the sultan could ride his horse right up to the door of his chambers. The royal pavilion now houses a Museum of Carpets, which traces the history of Turkish carpets through the ages and includes some ancient, priceless pieces.
Outside the precinct wall to the northwest of the mosque is the türbe or tomb of Sultan Ahmet, decorated, like the mosque, with seventeenth-century İznik tiles. Buried here along with the sultan are his wife and three of his sons, two of whom (Osman II and Murat IV) ruled in their turn.