Were I to choose my religion based solely on the places of worship, there’s no doubt it would be Islam.
Coming from Rome, with over 400 churches, it’s amazing to see the contrast in Istanbul - the largest city in the middle east, with the greatest number of active mosques (almost 3,000).
When we think of typical mosque architecture, with the dome and minarets, we’re really thinking of Ottoman mosque architecture, developed in the 14th and 15th century.
Normally when I travel, I don’t do much sightseeing unless I can do it with a knowledgeable guide who can help me understand and appreciate it properly. I prefer taking one guided tour on a specific subject that’s really in depth rather than spending a week on my own roaming around sites that I don’t fully connect with. So in Istanbul, to better understand the history of the mosques (which in turn reveals a great deal about the relationship between people and their religion) I went on 3 hour walk by Context Travel (which lasted 5 hours!), focusing on just 2 of the most important mosques designed by Sinan, the great Ottoman architect. We visited Sehzade Camii, dedicated to Suleyman’s son, Prince Mehmet and the complex of Sultan Suleyman “the Magnificent”.
After taking off our shoes, careful to not touch any sacred ground, we would sit and discuss the various elements of each building, using photocopied images from our guide to help put things in context.
The Catholic churches of Italy that I’m so used to – those overwhelming, overly ornate places with so much iconography - don’t always succeed in making me feel closer to God. In Sehzade Camii, my first impression is how nice it is to not have every inch of space covered with images and stories. Instead, there’s beautiful Arabic script flowing along the walls and ceiling.
My second impression is how much what seems to be decoration is really so much more. The Islamic scholars were very advanced mathematically. This geometry is symbolic of the universe – a place of elegance, of sense, of structure, and this sacred mathematics seemingly brings us closer to God.
Visiting the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are of course on everyone’s list of sites to see in Istanbul. I highly recommend visiting Sehzade Camii and Suleyman’s, especially with a knowledgeable guide.
Here’s a little video interview I did of our guide and expert, Yavuz Sezer.