The monumental Blue Mosque, more properly known as the Sultanahmet Camii, dominates the southeastern side of the Hippodrome. 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 forms 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, there were objections that planning a mosque with six minarets would be an unholy attempt to rival the six minarets of the mosque at Mecca. More importantly, it would drain state resources, already in a parlous state following wars with Austria and Persia. But Sultanahmet I, after whom the mosque is named, was determined to outdo his predecessors, even if it meant bankrupting his empire – he even helped dig the foundations himself.

Visiting the mosque

The mosque is best approached from the attractive and graceful northwest, Hippodrome-facing side, from where an eleborate portal leads into the beautiful courtyard. Surrounded by a portico of thirty small domes, this has the same dimensions as the mosque itself. It’s also possible to enter the courtyard from the Aya Sofya side of the mosque, through the northeast portal.

Only practising Muslims are permitted to enter the prayer-hall itself via the main southwest-facing door. If you are not a Muslim, and wish to go inside, exit the courtyard of the mosque via the southwest portal, then bear left along the outside of the mosque to reach a side door, where there is often a sizeable queue. Here you must remove your shoes and put them in a plastic bag (provided).

Inside, four “elephant footpillars, so called because of their 5m diameter, impose their disproportionate dimensions on the interior – particularly the dome, which is smaller and shallower than that of Ottoman master architect Sinan’s İstanbul masterpiece, the nearby Süleymaniye Camii. The name “Blue Mosque” derives from the mass (over twenty thousand) of predominantly blue İznik tiles that adorn the interior, though much of the “blue” is, in fact, stencilled paintwork. Most of the glass in the numerous arched windows was originally coloured Venetian bottle glass, but this has now been replaced by poor-quality modern windows.

The richly decorated royal pavilion, approached by ramp at the northeast corner of the complex, gives access to the sultan’s loge inside the mosque. The ramp enabled the sultan to ride his horse right up to the door of his chambers.