I slept little during our Istanbul overnight. The day’s excitement and the anticipation of the next day made it too hard to quiet my thoughts and rest. I finally drifted off but awoke with the dawn as the sun lit up our room. My worn-out limbs battled with my mind which demanded I arise to take photos of Sultanahmet Camii, theBlue Mosque, in the perfect morning light.
“Just buy a postcard,” said my tired side argued. “Then it won’t be *my* memory,” my traveller’s soul countered. Naturally the traveller’s side won out. I woke Brian, dressed quickly (I had showered the night before, unable to bear the thought of going to bed so hot, sticky and grimy.) and called to make sure Holly and Chas were up.
“We’re going to the ATM — do you want to go?” she asked, and we were off. The streets were quiet this early and we enjoyed the coolness of the morning air on our stroll the mosque. We saw only a few early worshipers, a cat sunning himself atop a car, and a backpacker on our walk.
Brian and I walked on up to the entrance of the Blue Mosque while Holly and Chas went back to the hotel. A vendor tried with great perseverance to sell us a guidebook, but we were to return later in the morning with our guide so we declined. We made our way hesitantly into the courtyard and gazed around at the striking and foreign architecture. My head was bare as were my arms and I wasn’t sure I should be there, despite the small group of young women in western clothes and no scarves also wandering the courtyard. As we left a man called out to me telling me to cover my head. It was the same man we had declined to purchase a guide from.
We walked back to our hotel to have a rooftop breakfast. Sadly the coffee was more reminiscent of Denny’s than Arabian nights. But we delighted in the view of the sea and of the Blue Mosque. We packed up and went to the lobby to await our guide.
Yosef arrived shortly after 8:30 and we set out on foot. As we walked to the mosque he shared some of the history of the city. Back at the mosque, quite crowded by now, we lined up to enter. Yosef told me I would need a shawl to cover my arms, but Holly, in her long sleeves would not. I told him I wanted to cover my head, and was met with a quizzical look. “But it’s not necessary,” he said. Perhaps not, but as a visitor permitted to enter a place of worship so foreign, I wished to respect their culture. Holly and I borrowed the loaner blue scarves and draped our heads before entering barefoot, our shoes in the provided plastic bags.
I’ve admired many of Europe’s grand cathedrals, but this foray into a mosque was an altogether different feeling. Though I’m Protestant, Catholic cathedrals are still of my heritage. I can marvel at their beauty and architectural wonder yet not see them as alien. A cross is still a cross and Mary is Mary, whether one is confessing to a priest or praying to God. A mosque, however — a mosque with its prayer rugs and separate areas for women and its great mihrab facing Mecca, its Arabic script and floating domes, its very air of a world so unlike my own — a mosque is a glimpse of something that is truly other.
Edmondo de Amici puts this feeling into words for me: One is conscious of a feeling stronger and deeper than mere curiosity. Those monuments that are as it were a colossal marble affirmation of an order of sentiments and ideas diverse from those in which we have been born and grown the skeleton of a race and faith hostile to our own, which tells us in a mute language of superb lines and daring heights, the glories of a God who is not ours, and of a people before whom our ancestors trembled, inspire a respect mingled with awe that overcomes curiosity and holds it at a distance.
Our guide spoke to us as we gazed about us. I remember little of what he said, sadly. I was too intent on trying to take in what my eyes were telling me to focus on his voice amidst the hundreds of other echoing voices. I do remember that each square of the prayer rug is for one person — one man, I should say. I wish I could have observed worship, but the mosque is not open to visitors during the five daily prayer times.
We left after our eyes had had their fill of the mosque — its 200 stained glass windows, its 20,000 tiles from Iznik, its suspended circular chandeliers. I was ready to be rid of the head scarf and shawl. Though it was morning still, I grew far too warm under the constrictive fabric. It was time now to visit Topkapı Sarayı, home of Ottoman sultans and their households, heart of the Ottoman Empire from 1465 to 1853.