Let me say this right up front here: I know next to nothing about Islam. If I get something wrong or explain it badly, please forgive me and feel free to correct me. One of the things that attracted me to Istanbul was the chance to experience another culture shaped by a different religion – in this case Islam. I was excited to see mosques, women in hajib head scarves or burqa, and most of all hearing the call to prayer. I read many times that Istanbul is not a Muslim city, however, 90-something percent of people in it are Muslims. The city cannot help but be shaped by it. This is all exotic and fascinating to me. Not scary.
When in Rome, we visited almost every church we walked past. I swear every other building in Rome is a church. When in Istanbul, I tried not to do that with mosques (because in Rome it was exhausting and got tedious), but I read about many and chose a few that sounded interesting to me. I think I went to seven mosques. I learned some things along the way by watching and doing and also from reading pamphlets on Islam that were available to tourists.
- Outside a mosque, on the side or in the courtyard there will be places to sit and wash your face, arms, and feet (aka performing ablutions) to physically prepare for prayers. This is not a tourist thing, this is for the worshipers. It is NOT cool to take pictures of people preparing for prayer, of pictures of them during prayer. Some do it but it’s a real dick move in my opinion.
- Shoes come off before entering a mosque. And don’t be that jerk who walks up onto the carpet first because your feet are too precious to stand on the cold stone without shoes. This is not your house so be respectful of your hosts’ wishes and take off the shoes where you are supposed to. In smaller mosques you would leave your shoes outside on a shelf but bigger mosques have plastic bags so you can carry shoes with you.
- Women must cover their heads. Preferably with a scarf but a hood will do as well. A hat, not so much. Most mosques I visited had a box of scarves for women who did not bring their own. If your skirt is short or you are wearing shorts, you’ll need to wrap a scarf around your waist too.
- Turn your flash off before going in a mosque. I don’t care that you will see other people using their flash. It’s disrespectful. Even if it is not time for prayer (and most mosques are closed during them) there are still always worshipers around who deserve to be in peace. And shut up while you’re at it.
- Men are encouraged to pray in a mosque while women are able to pray where they would like – as long as it is not with the men. I saw women praying in small alcoves in the back of mosques or outside.
- The call to prayer (adhan) happens five times a day, depending on the movement of the sun so it changes with the seasons and your location in the world. A muezzin chosen for his recitation skills and good character recites the call in Arabic and it is aired from the minaret. You’ve all heard it in the movies but to hear it in Istanbul in real life is breathtaking. Especially the call from the Blue Mosque – that guy does his job like nobody’s business. Hearing that for the first time was one of my “holy shit, I’m really here” moments.
So, the ones I saw. They were all beautiful but I’ll finish with my favorites last.
Yeni Camii (New Mosque)
To be fair, I didn’t really plan to visit this mosque but it was right near the Eminonu tram line and it was raining, so the courtyard was a nice place to hang out for a bit on my way elsewhere. Prayers were going on though so I didn’t get a chance to check out the inside.
Sokullu Mehmet Pasha Camii
The cool thing about this mosque was overhearing a tour guide explain the gravestones and what the tops are all about – they’re hats! The type of hat indicates what a person did for a living. The guys at least. I’m not sure what female headstones look like. The inside was dark but pretty, although the caretaker was praying so pictures were a no-no.
The mosque is in a nice quiet part of the city and there is a lot of area around it for hanging out, kids playing soccer, benches to chill on and…OMG…free bathroom facilities. While I waited for afternoon prayers I got to see wedding photos being taken, a row of burqa’d teens gossiping just like regular teenagers anywhere in the world, and over the wall I watched two guys stopped and searched by the police. Why, I don’t know, but it was very calm and orderly. In the US there would be struggling, pepper spray, and screaming about civil rights. Here, there was a thorough searching and the men went on their way. All in all the outside of the mosque was the most interesting part of it.
Ayasofya Camii (Hagia Sophia Mosque)
A lot of people consider this to be the most amazing, must-see mosque in Istanbul. I totally disagree. I do think it’s worth a look because it’s a huge museum (25 lira) and there is a lot to learn. Watch the video showing on a continuous loop, eavesdrop on a tour, learn about calligraphy, there are plenty of things to see inside and out, but I don’t think it’s the most beautiful mosque. On the contrary, I felt it is overwhelmingly gloomy with it’s black and gold interior. I don’t know if starting off life as a church has anything to do with the dark moodiness, but I prefer light and airy and peaceful.
Kucuk Ayasofya Camii (Little Hagia Sophia Mosque)
This is a cute little mosque which also started out life as a church. There is a cemetery outside with a huge wall of gravestone hats without their stones on display and in front is a courtyard with many artist studios you can look through (as long as you aren’t there first thing in the morning). You can go upstairs in this one but be careful on the deadly, worn, carpeted stairs as you go back down in your socks. The caretaker will probably ask you for a donation so make sure you have some lira in your pocket.
Rustem Pasha Camii
The man this mosque was built for died before it was finished, but his wife spared no expense and covered everything possible in beautiful tile work. This mosque sits above a market neighborhood and you have to walk around the wall through the sellers and find the little doorway that leads up the stairs. Extra bonus cool points for the free Qurans they have for visitors. I thought this mosque was really beautiful inside and is actually much more blue than the Blue Mosque is. It’s not too far from the Eminonu tram station and the Spice Market – definitely worth a look.
Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque)
To me, this is not only the most beautiful mosque in Istanbul, it is the most beautiful place I have ever seen. Ever. Better than palaces, better than the Sistine Chapel, the only place to make me cry just because I was sitting in it. I can’t even explain and pictures don’t do it justice. I went back almost every day just to sit and bask in the calm of it. It’s perfect. Except for the tourists with their camera flashes and talking and crinkling shoe bags – but once you get past that, it really is heavenly.