Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Mosque hopping in Istanbul

So you have read my impressions of the Blue Mosque in one of my recent posts about Istanbul. It's the most famous, the most astonishing, but  also the most touristic of mosques in Istanbul. The Blue Mosque is for sure the most impressive of the mosques in the city, but it's also the busiest and the one where its purpose almost gets lost among the endless lines of tourists who queue, take off their shoes, ask for a scarf, take pictures, and so on.

Blue Mosque Courtyard
Courtyard of the Blue Mosque
Mosques in Istanbul are free to enter even for non-Muslim people. It's not like this everywhere: in Morocco, for example, it is not permitted due to a different interpretation of a sura in the Quran. During my five days in Istanbul I also visited Süleymaniye Mosque, and Rüstem Pasha Mosque, and every experience was unique. If from the outside Istanbul mosques look a bit underwhelming, with their grey colour and overall similar appearance, the grounds and the interior are always a surprise.

Süleymaniye Mosque

Süleymnaniye Mosque is a big complex, so visiting is a real experience. You can reach it with a pleasant 10-minute walk from Beyazit Square, following the street that borders the university precints. The mosque was built in the 16th century under the reign of Sultan Suleyman to rival Hagia Sophia, but it also draws on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.  Its architect, the unrivalled Sinan, is buried nearby.

Suleymaniye Mosque
Courtyard of Suleymaniye Mosque

When I visited, the cemetery was closed, so I couldn't visit the tombs of the Sultan and of his wife Roxelana.  However, I managed to peer through the gates and take a couple of pictures. I had never seen a Muslim cemetery, and I was surprised at how different the gravestones were from the ones I am used to.

Tombstone, Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul
Tombstone in the graveyard of the mosque

The grounds of the mosque are really beautiful: there is a peaceful garden, and there is also a restaurant in a building that was once annexed to the mosque and was used as the public kitchen of the complex (imaret). As a matter of fact, Ottoman mosques were also used as charitable foundations, and included things such as religious schools and hamams. After visiting the mosque, which I found harmonious and exquisite, I opted to have a traditional omelette in one of the humble but authentic restaurants nearby. I loved the fact that there were very few tourists in the area and that the owner didn't speak any English and had to show me the price of my omelette on a piece of paper. This was so different from Sultanahment that I could have been in another city! Nobody will harass you in this part of the city, asking where you're from or insisting on showing their merchandize.

Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul
The interior of Suleymaniye Mosque

I'll tell you a secret about the omelette. I had a delicious omelette with tomatoes and minced meat in a Turkish restaurant in Vienna, and I was trying to recreate that experience. I still haven't found a place in Istanbul that does one as delicious as that. Another curious thing is that the road where the restaurant was located is known as "Addicts Alley" because the cafés here once sold opium and hashish as well as hot beverages!

Rüstem Pasha Mosque

Another mosque that I visited during my stay in Istanbul was Rüstem Pasha mosque, and it couldn't be more different from the other two. This small mosque is situated near Eminönü Dock, in the Fatih district. Mind that it is not the big, but somehow unattractive, New Mosque, but another one tucked between some old and slightly dilapidated buildings. I  climbed a twisted flight of stairs to reach it, which gave me the impression of a real discovery. Rüstem Pasha Mosque was built in the 16th century and it's decorated with Iznik tiles. If you're wondering who Rüstem Pasha was, he was a Grand Vizier to Sultan Suleyman and also his son-in-law. The mosque itself is small, but cute. When you are inside, take a minute to locate the mihrab, the niche that indicates the direction towards Mecca. Every Muslim person should pray in that direction!

Rustem Pasa Mosque, Istanbul
The interior of Rustem Pasha Mosque

The courtyard of this mosque is perfect for meditation. As a matter of fact, I sat on the marble in the outside porch and rested for ten or fifteen minutes, thinking about the good vibes of this city and of this building in particular. They were also selling some Qurans, but they were not pushy. Some silly people think that upon visiting a mosque some people would try to buy you into their religion: nothing is further away from the real experience. I love visiting mosques: taking off my shoes and feel the soft carpets beneath my feet, while being careful that my scarf is in the right position!

Rustem Pasa Mosque, Istanbul
Detail of Rustem Pasa Mosque
Which mosques have you visited in Istanbul? I'd love to visit mosques in other countries to see if and how they differ to the ones I saw during this trip!


  1. I love to explore different mosques and churches when travelling and I can see Istanbul has a lot to offer to me. I would definitely visit Süleymnaniye Mosque as it seems to be so big and interesting.

    1. Yes, Istanbul is a destination filled with exciting sightseeing. I can't wait to go back!


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