Monday, July 6, 2009

A Grey Bear in a Blue Mosque

To continue with our theme of visiting every mosque in all of Istanbul - at least that's how it feels sometimes - I took my bipedal and god-bipedal attendants to the Blue Mosque (the BM) last week. Strictly speaking, I took my bipedals and god-bipedals to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or the Sultanahmet Camii as it's known in Turkish, but to the rest of us it's that Big Blue One.

It may be the only Blue - so nicknamed for its interior blue tiles -
Mosque in Turkey but it's not the only Blue Mosque in the world: there are at least 8 others in the world, from Afghanistan to Iran. I'll have to add those ones to my list unless my bipedal attendants get mosqued-out first.

So, today's history lesson: the building of the BM began 400 years ago under the watchful eye
of Sultan Ahmet I who doesn't seem to be known for much other than his mosque (where he's also buried), staging a couple of disastrous wars, and for not strangling his kid brother when he came to the throne - as was the Ottoman custom. Later, when Ahmet's son became Sultan, he revived the custom, much to his brother's disappointment. In Turkey, it just didn't pay to be a younger brother.

Anyway, after losing one particularly important war with the Persians, Ahmet decided that if he built a really big mosque - which would conveniently also be his mausoleum - Allah would smile favourably on him.

I don't know if Allah smiled but his legal scholars certainly didn't because Ahmet had no spoils of war to pay for the mosque (having lost most if not all of his wars abroad), and he had to tap into the treasury for the funds - not just to pay for the BM's construction but to buy the private palaces on and near the site in order to raze them to the ground. And you know once word got out that the Sultan needed the land your home was built on, the price of real estate suddenly went up.
Some things don't change too much: it's all about location, location, location.

Ahmet didn't seem to care too much about the grumblings of his scholars and, in 1609, he broke the sod on the site of an earlier Byzantine palace smack-dab across the street from the H
agia Sophia which, at that time, was the most sacred mosque in Constantinople and which Ahmet wanted to eclipse in grandeur. The BM's front doors would also open up to what was the social hub of the old city: the hippodrome, the ancient circus where horse and chariot races took place (and which the Venetians plundered in 1204). I just hope there were no bear fights there!

Built in 7 short years
- during which only one architect was executed - the BM would include a nursery school, a market, a hospital, and a soup kitchen! Too bad Ahmet died shortly after it was completed (he was only 28 years old) but hopefully his widow Kösem - who became the de facto ruler and was one of the most powerful women in all of Ottoman history (at least until she was strangled) - got to enjoy it.

I mentioned earlier that the BM earned its nickname because of its blue tiles. There are over 20,000 handmade tiles in the BM and they all came from Iznik (ancient Nicaea) which was the ceramic capital of ancient Turkey. Just to give you an idea of how special these tiles were, recently an Iznik tile sold at Sotheby's for $600,000!

The Sultan made sure that all of the tiles used were Iznik tiles by fixing the price the potters could charge. Like his legal scholars, this didn't put much of a smile on the potters' faces because their tiles were normally quite pricey. They got even though by producing lesser quality tiles so that many of their colours have faded over time. I doubt that made Allah smile.

Besides its many domes, its Iznik tiles and its 200 stained glass windows (the originals were a gift from Venice - I bet they felt guilty for sacking the city 400 years earlier), the BM is recognizable for its 6 minarets. When news got out about the 6 minarets, Ahmet was criticized for being uppity: after all, the Ka'aba in Mecca - the holiest site in all of Islam - had 6 minarets too. Rather than appearing too presumptuous - or changing his plans - he paid for a 7th minaret at the mosque in Mecca.

Given that it's summer, we were lucky that there wasn't a line to get into the BM. We also took the precaution of wearing suitably modest clothing (no shorts and my female bipedal and god-bipedal had no exposed shoulders) because, as a freelance Goodwill Ambassador, I'm sensitive to these kinds of things. It takes so little effort to keep this world spinning happily.

Of course, there were many less enlightened individuals in line wearing skimpy outfits but they were given scarves to cover up their bare legs and shoulders. My females were given scarves for their heads although I couldn't help but notice that they let them slip the moment they thought no one was looking. I think I'll have to have a stern talk with them. Although I have bare (bear!) arms and legs, I was recognized by the mosque's employees and the religious authorities graciously let me enter as I am: no bear scarves.

Afterwards, we sat in the park (above, left) which sits between the BM and the Hagia Sophia and took advantage of the watermelon sellers there to stave off the afternoon's +35 degree heat. Turks eat such healthy snacks! My female god-bipedal bought me some pistachios from Turkey and Iran as well - what bear doesn't love nuts?!

At sunset, people flock to this park to listen to the evening call to prayer and watch the mosque light up.
Because I'm so easily recognized in Istanbul, I decided not to join the crowds for the evening prayers but enjoy the view of the BM from our hotel terrace. And what's more Turkish than having a cup of coffee in the shadow of one of the world's most beautiful mosques? - well, a piece of baklava would have been nice.


Snowflake said...

You have such a way with your stories! I had a great time living it and now another great time reading about it!

Grey Bear said...

Will you feel the same way when I post the picture of you & my female bipedal wearing your headscarves in the Rüstem Paşa Mosque?

Snowflake said...

You wouldn't dare......

Grey Bear said...

You dare a bear?

sultanahmet said...

It's my dream destination.
It's my super location.