Today the 52 Churches project left Christianity after 12 churches and finally experienced Islam with a visit to the impressive Blue Mosque of Istanbul. This one was not easy, took some courage and persistence, but was well worth the extra effort and I am particularly proud that my introduction to Islamic worship was in such a venerable and magnificent mosque.
Formally known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in English (the Sultanahmet in Turkish), the Mosque was built between 1606-1616 by Ahmed I, whose tomb is located there. There is a detailed history on Wikipedia of course, so I will spare you the borrowed pedantry and let you click the previous link to educate yourself. It’s blue because of the extensive use of blue tiles throughout the interior, particularly in the immense dome, which in many ways mirrors the grandeur of Hagia Sofia, The Church of Wisdom, built 1100 years earlier across the grand plaza to the east. The mosque is notable for having six minarets, the most of any mosque except for Mecca, which was given a seventh minaret to retain its preeminence in the minaret department.
I tried to enter and observe prayers three times over the past seven days and polled several people about the etiquette and protocol of an infidel such as myself entering a mosque during prayers. In some cases and countries nonbelievers are firmly banned from entering mosques, but allegedly, because of the secular reforms of Kamal Ataturk, Turkey does not hold such a hard line and the Blue Mosque in particular is organized as a “tourist” mosque and permits visitors in between prayers.
Each time I tried to enter I was too close to the beginning of the next prayers and the guest entrance on the west side was closed. The carpet touts and would-be tour guides can be brutal and by my final attempt today, with only hours before I left Turkey for China, I resolved to make one last effort despite the warnings of many that I was a fool to expect to watch prayers. It simply isn’t easy and it isn’t like a typical temple or church where a non-believer can just stroll in and have a seat. Indeed, even in the Eastern Orthodox church they have a name for people like me — catechumen – who are supposed to observe the services out in the narthex outside of the nave. That apparently is NOT the case in a mosque, some of which prohibit a non-believer from entering at all. I was growing a bit pessimistic I would ever gain entry or worse, would have to disguise myself and enter in mufti like Richard Francis Burton did when he snuck into Mecca in 1853 disguised as a Pashtun (he also spoke nearly every Indian and Arabic language). I am a huge Richard Burton fan by the way. He was one of the more amazing adventurers who ever lived.
I rode the tram from Kartakoy under the shadow of the Genoese-built Galata Tower in Beyolugu and disembarked at the Sultanahmet stop, making directly for the northern entrance of the mosque through the Hippodrome to avoid the rug touts. Confidence and momentum were the keys to gaining entry, so I zipped up my green coat and tried to be as inconspicious as possible. I took off my shoes, put them in a plastic bag and carried them with me into the mosque.
First impression …. world’s largest carpet. A veritable ocean of red and blue tulip patterned carpet that stretched off into the distance where the mihrab, or altar piece stood. A wooden railing separated the tourists from the worshippers, so I took my place and snapped some pictures and made some short videos. Everyone was toting their bag of shoes like some tourist totem and I noticed no one was leaving them on the shelves provided for that purpose.
I strolled around in my wool socks, gawking upwards at the dome and the hundreds of chains and iron rods that descended to hold up the chandelier — if there is such a thing as a 100′ diameter iron chandelier — encircled by hundreds of blinding naked lightbulbs in small glass vases.
Along the southern side, facing Mecca, a long row of windows looked out at the Sea of Marmara and the branches of some evergreens. Most of the worshippers praying during the tourist time were up in front by these windows or the mihrab. It goes without saying there were no pictures of prophets, imams, etc. A single piece of calligraphy on the eastern wall, which I forgot to snap a picture of, but which I have definitely seen before, and a framed poster by the eastern exit were the only decorations aside from the ornate tulip patterns on the endless tiles and the incredible colors of the stained glass. A small roofed area supported by columns was on one side of the prayer space, and a little pulpit with a tall dunce cap minaret steeple stood next to the mihrab — a perfect isoceles triangle with the staircase forming the hypotenuse.
It was 1:30 pm when I entered and prayers did not start until 3:30 pm, so I immediately had four things occur to me. One: how much I hate being around tourists (it takes one to know one) and Two: how badly I needed to pee. Three: my feet hurt without my Merrill clogs and Dr. Scholl’s mega-gel anti-elevator-plunge survival insoles. And finally, Four: how bored I was.
There was a little sign on the barrier railing that said “Islamic Information Center” with an arrow pointing that-a-away. A little office with glass windows and an “Open” sign was near the exit. Inside sat a young man around 30 years old on one of my competition’s laptops. A notice said anyone was welcome to come in and ask questions. Once a reporter, always a reporter, so I knocked, stepped in and introduced myself.
The word “American” made the man obviously uncomfortable. I saw the shadow pass over his face for a second. Just two hours before, while buying souvenirs, a shopkeeper asked me if President Obama was a Muslim and then proceeded to pantomine his dislike for President Bush by pinching is nose with his fingers and making a sour face. The young man in the white skull cap had the same sort of reaction to my identifying myself as a “Merkin” but I was on a roll and proceeded to tell him about this project, and how I wanted to observe prayers and would I need permission, where should I stand, would photographs be disrepectful, and other small talk. He smiled. Lifted his palms and said: “It isn’t a problem as long as you are inside before prayers begin you are fine. Sit behind the gate and you will be fine.” I was tempted to ask him some theological questions, but remembered the admonition of my editor William Baldwin at Forbes who told me only a moron asks someone a question that simple research could answer. Not wanting to waste the man’s time, I thanked him and went back to admiring the immense piers that supported the dome.
Time went by slowly. So I indulged in people watching. Little children turned loose on the pitch of the prayer rug all did the same thing when let loose from the parents. They ran, they danced, and they skipped. In that order. Everyone of them. The faces of the parents and grandparents were awesome. Some major moustaches happening, Omar Sharif/Josef Stalin big walrus moustaches. All the women wore silk kerchiefs and long ankle-length winter coats and were sloe-eyed. The men wore Member’s Only sort of jackets, shiny down coats, with strange “Engrish” sayings on them like “Classic Automotive Style Fashion.” I really had to pee and was feeling like Tycho Brahe (interestingly, urination almost uncovered Burton during his Hajj when he lifted his robe to whiz and was seen by a boy who, seeing he did not squat like Arab men, accused him of a being an imposter). I listened to a guide tell a large group of Japanese tourists about the mosque in Japanese with an Italian accent. It was amusing. I was feeling crowded, and my attempts to stand stolid in one spot were thwarted by really aggressive grannies in black kerchiefs who were determined to get a family portrait right where I was standing wherever I was standing. I expect to be in a hundred family photo albums (“Who’s that Infi-Geek Grandma?”)
Finally it was 3 pm. A burly police man started pushing tourists out of the visitors area. He never said “shoo” in English, but his intentions were clear. People started moving for the exits. I stood by the “Islamic Information Center” ready to invoke the permission given to me earlier. I stood still with my hands cross reverentially in front of me as I was taught to do as a Senior Prefect at The Brooks School in 1976 while attending to the Headmaster during End of School, except this time I had a bread bag containing my two size-13 shoes in front of me.
A few more police-like guys in black turtle-necks and boots came through telling people it was time to go. Never once did one directly hassle me but the tension was high. There was no way I was going to bail after 90 minutes of listening to my back teeth sing “Anchors Aweigh.” I started thinking inappropriately of the Clash song, “Rock the Casbah” and its directive to place the bomb between the minarets. Past church infiltrations helped me display the appropriate karma and all was well. Gradually, over 15 minutes, a hush came over the mosque. The tourists were all gone save for me.
Then I heard the call to prayer. It was much softer inside of the mosque, whereas outside it is everywhere. I continued to stand and wait. Men began to file past me with their shoes in bags, they crossed the barrier and walked purposefully to the front of the mosque by the windows. Women were segregated into a penned off area in the back. I couldn’t tell if they were ascending stairs to the balconies or not, but it was only men on the main floor.
The muezzin went silent. An Imam with a white hat crossed the floor and vanished. The Islamic Information man left office and also vanished. An entering worshipper saw me, stopped and pointed at the base of the immense column. “You. Sit there.”
Yes sir. And so I sat. And what followed was pretty amazing.
There is no liturgy and no music save the amplified voice of the muezzin. With no guide I once again have no idea what he sang, but his voice was as magnificent as his mosque. The worshippers crowded together in tight lines. Islam is about worshipping together, in close quarters. There were no solo worshippers. No go-it-alone-prayer makers. Late arrivals rushed into the mosque, dropped their shoes onto a special shoe bench and searched for a place to fit into the prayer line.
Prayer follows a defined series of bows, kneelings, and prostrations. I watched carefully and observed the men begin by standing reverently. Then bending at the waist. Then kneeling. Then kneeling forward and touching their foreheads to the ground. Then rising and sitting back. Then gracefully standing. Whether they spoke something to themselves during this sequence isn’t clear. They were silent as they went through the moves.
The Imam called the prayer. I’ll upload a video of the sequence. It’s blurry but it will give an idea of how the prayers are conducted. They reminded me of well orchestrated calisthenics, or tai-chi in that the movements were well synchronized, obviously second nature to the faithful, and occurred smoothly with a physical sinousness that even the older worshipers managed to display.
The prayers lasted no more than 15 minutes. At one point in the prayers about 20 percent of the men rose and simply left while the others continued. A few more prayers later and then with no fanfare the prayers were over and everyone was heading for the exits.
I followed, stepped outside with a view of Hagia Sofia. Put on my shoes, and dropped seven lira onto a table with a sign asking for donations for the mosque. A clerk counted my coins and then filled out three receipts. One for five lira, and two one lira coupons and handed them to me. I don’t know why. Either I possess three lottery tickets, or tax receipts for my deductible charitable contributions. I figure given the exchange rate of 1.5, that my donation was in line with the typical $5 bill dropped in the basket of the other 10 churches (okay, Grace Cathedral got a $20 for Christmas).
I stretched. Took a deep breath, and booked off in hunt of a men’s room feeling pretty good to have gotten a mosque onto the list in grand fashion.
- This one worried me, I’ll be honest. A few people told me to skip the mosque thing. I’m glad I didn’t.
- I should read the Koran and get smarter on Islam in general.
- It is a beautiful service and a friendly religion when you get close to it. The children dancing on the carpet made me happy, especially since no one scolded them or told them to be quiet.
- It was very touching to see young boys watching their fathers to learn how to pray.
- The view out the windows on the Sea of Marmara was amazing.
- I wonder how often a “regular” Muslim prays? With ablutions and the shoes, and the whole process I wonder if anyone has time to hit all the prayer times? Just once a day? A week?
- I understand the Imam will preach on special occasions from the pulpit. That did not happen today.
- Islam should hold Open Houses to introduce non-adherents. The exclusion thing sets the faith apart from nearly all others. The information offering inside of the Blue Mosque was a very good thing.
Next: I visited another Orthodox church in the morning. I will write that up later. I’ll check for stuff in China — recommendations welcomed. There is a Confucian Temple and the Lama Temple. If I have time I will try.