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Blue Mosque

With this mosque, Sultan Ahmet I (r 1603-17) set out to build a monument that would rival and even surpass the nearby Aya Sofya in grandeur and beauty. So enthusiastic was the sultan about his grand project that he is said to have worked with the labourers and craftsmen on site, pushing them along and rewarding extra effort.

Ahmet did in fact come close to his goal of rivalling Aya Sofya, and in so doing achieved the added benefit of making future generations of hotel owners in Sultanahmet happy - a 'Blue Mosque view' from the roof terrace being the number-one selling point of the fleet of hotels in the area. The mosque's architect, Mehmet A?a, who had trained with Sinan, managed to orchestrate the sort of visual wham-bam effect with the mosque's exterior that Aya Sofya achieved with its interior. Its curves are voluptuous, it has more minarets than any other ?stanbul mosque (in fact, there was consternation at the time of its construction that the sultan was being irreverent in specifying six minarets - the only equivalent being in Mecca) and the courtyard is the biggest of all the Ottoman mosques. The interior is conceived on a similarly grand scale: the blue tiles that give the building its unofficial name number in the tens of thousands, there are 260 windows and the central prayer space is huge. No wonder its picture graces a million postcards!

In order to fully appreciate the mosque's design you should approach it via the middle of the Hippodrome rather than walking straight from Sultanahmet Park through the crowds. When inside the courtyard, which is the same size as the mosque's interior, you'll be able to appreciate the perfect proportions of the building. Walk towards the mosque through the gate in the peripheral wall, noting on the way the small dome atop the gate: this is the motif Mehmet A?a uses to lift your eyes to heaven. As you walk through the gate, your eyes follow a flight of stairs up to another gate topped by another dome through this gate is yet another dome, that of the ablutions fountain in the centre of the mosque courtyard. As you ascend the stairs, semidomes come into view: first the one over the mosque's main door, then the one above it, and another, and another. Finally the main dome crowns the whole, and your attention is drawn to the sides, where forests of smaller domes reinforce the effect, completed by the minarets, which lift your eyes heavenward.

The mosque is such a popular tourist sight that admission is controlled so as to preserve its sacred atmosphere. In the tourist season (May to September), only worshippers are admitted through the main door tourists must use the north door. Shoes must be taken off and women who haven't brought their own headscarf or are too scantily dressed will be loaned a headscarf and/or robe. There's no charge for this, but donations for the mosque are requested.

Inside, the stained-glass windows and ?znik tiles immediately attract attention. Though the windows are replacements, they still create the luminous effects of the originals, which came from Venice. The tiles line the walls, particularly in the gallery (which is not open to the public). There are so many of these tiles that the ?znik workshops producing the finest examples could not keep up with demand, and alternative, less skilled, workshops were called in to fill the gap. The mosque's tiles are thus of varying quality.