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.