Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul Copyright 2000, C. Schmelling and L. Holmes
We spent a week in Istanbul, but we could have stayed twice as long without being bored. It is chock
full of mosques, museums, markets, palaces, steetcars, churches, and carpet-dealers. History is
everywhere, but so is hectic, teeming modern life. It truly is one of the great European metropoli.
Our first order of business in Istanbul was exploring its rich tradition of Byzantine and Ottoman
architecture. Above all, that meant churches and mosques.
Several churches from as far back as the sixth century have survived in Istanbul. Among them is the
granddaddy of all Byzantine churches, both in size and influence, the Hagia Sophia. We made it the
first stop on our church-touring itinerary.
The basic form of the Hagia Sophia is quite simple -- a square ground plan with a central space
covered by a vast dome. From outside, we saw just a plain, blocky mass of rusty-red brick surrounded by a
clutter of buttresses. Once we were inside, though, we could appreciate both the size of the central dome --
it spans an area a bit larger than a baseball diamond -- and its ingenious construction. The scarce
light makes it a bit gloomy inside, especially since most of the brilliant original mosaics have long
since been lost or destroyed. Still, it is an amazing sight.
Besides Hagia Sophia, we visited three other Byzantine churches in Istanbul. The older ones,
Hagia Irini and the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, bore a fair resemblance to Hagia Sophia.
The latter is actually popularly known today as Little Hagia Sophia. The 11th century Church of the Chora, however,
was a bit different, since it was rather small and laid out on a Greek Cross plan. The Chora also
has an almost complete collection of original Christian mosaics.
We visited over a dozen Ottoman mosques in Istanbul. Throughout, we found two nearly ubiquitous presences.
First, there was the influence of Hagia Sophia. Especially in the great imperial mosques,
there is a sense of a variation on a common theme. The central dome on penditives is nearly always there,
it is just a matter of what combination of semidomes and filled arches is used to surround it.
Leander's Tower, Istanbul Copyright 2000, C. Schmelling and L. Holmes
The second constant is Iznik tile. In some mosques it is used selectively and for emphasis; in
others it covers nearly the entire wall surface. But this blue and white tilework always seems to
find a place.
Istanbul's most famous mosque, the Sultanahmet, shows off both of these features. It is commonly known as
the Blue Mosque because of the prodigious quantity of fine Iznik tile used to decorate its interior.
The architectural debt it owes to the Hagia Sophia is also plain, and is emphasized even more by
its close proximity -- it mirrors the grand old Byzantine church from across a park.
About half of the mosques we visited in Istanbul were designed by a single architect, the justly famous
Mimar Sinan. Although Sinan absorbed the heritage of the Hagia Sophia, he was not imprisoned by it,
and sometimes struck out on different paths altogether. The first of his mosques on our Istanbul
itinerary, the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha, illustrates his independence. Since it is built into a hillside,
the central hall had to be relatively shallow. Sinan opted to support the central dome on a
hexagonal base of arches, using squinches to round off the corners, thus making the most out a space
much wider than it is deep.
Another of Sinan's designs, the Suleymaniye, is the largest mosque in the city. But its beauty and
elegance are even more memorable than its size. Even the fountain in the courtyard
in front of the mosque is a typically understated touch. The design draws much from Hagia Sophia, with a central dome
supported by penditives springing from four large arches and half-domes front and back. The overall
feeling is one of simplcicity and restfulness. The best feature of this mosque, however, is its
exquisite mihrab. A mihrab is a niche in the back ball of a mosque indicating the direction of Mecca.
It is supposed to be the focal point of a mosque. In the Suleymaniye Mosque, the niche is made of rich marble, and it is surrounded
by delicate Iznik tile and intricate stained glass windows which irresistibly draw one's eyes.
Ortakoy Mosque, Istanbul Copyright 2000, C. Schmelling and L. Holmes
Sinan's Mihrimah Mosque was one of our favorites. A little visited mosque near the old city
walls, the Mihrimah has a large central dome on penditives, but it is surrounded on all four sides
by filled arches rather than semi-domes. The outer walls are thus brought in right up against the central
space of the mosque. These walls have nearly as much glass as solid surface, and as a result the
mosque has a remarkably light and airy feel inside.
We took a day trip to the nearby city of Edirne to see Sinan's most famous mosque, the Selimiye.
Here, once again, Sinan came up with a novel design. Here Sinan built his largest dome on top
of an octogon of piers and arches. The resulting covered space is remarkably harmonious.
We also made a point of taking in Istanbul's museums. Although we enjoyed the Topkapi Palace and
the archaeological museums, our favorite was Istanbul's Mosaic Museum. The museum displays over
a hundred square meters of continuous mosaic from the Great Palace of Constantine in its original
location. The workmanship is first-rate, too: the artisans produced amazingly life-like scenes of
hunting and pastoral life.
We spent a lot of time just looking around the city, too. We stopped in at the big public markets in the
old city, which is a great urban experience if there ever was one. While absorbing the hustle and bustle
at the Spice Market, we bought some tulip-shaped Turkish tea glasses -- a perfect souvenir, since
tea-drinking is an absolute mania in Turkey.
We strolled all around the city, and found some memorable
neighborhoods. In the Galata district, we joined the crowds on Istiklal Caddesi, an avenue lined
with swank shops where everyone goes to see and be seen. We also found our way to the nearly untouristed
Balat, a district near the Chora Church winding streets, 19th century houses, and crowded shops.
On our last day in Istanbul, we took to the water, travelling by ferry along the Bosporus.
We first hopped on the ferry to Uskudar, a district on the south side of the Bosporus. There, we strolled
on the seaside promenade crowded with weekend fishermen, and stopped to gaze at the the nearby Tower of
Leander. After that, we returned to Istanbul and caught a ferry that goes up the Bosporus almost
to the Black Sea. We had an outstanding view of all the palaces and castles on both
sides of the strait. It was a great way to end our stay in Istanbul.