The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, is an Ottoman-era historical mosque situated in Istanbul, Turkey. Built during the reign of Ahmed I between 1609 and 1617, it continues to operate as a functioning mosque. The Blue Mosque draws in numerous tourists and stands as an iconic and renowned example of Ottoman architecture.
The mosque boasts a classic Ottoman design featuring a central dome flanked by four semi-domes above the prayer hall. The structure is preceded by a commodious courtyard and complemented by six minarets. Enriching the interior are thousands of Iznik tiles with painted floral motifs that bear a predominantly blue palette, thus earning the mosque its popular moniker. The mosque’s külliye (a religious complex) encompasses Ahmed’s tomb, a madrasa, and several buildings that vary in preservation state.
The mosque sits adjacent to the former Hippodrome and faces the Hagia Sophia, another renowned tourist destination. In 1985, the Blue Mosque was included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site register under the title of “Historic Areas of Istanbul”.
Blue Mosque History
Following the Peace of Zsitvatorok, which was regarded as a major setback to Ottoman prestige, Sultan Ahmed I made the decision to erect a substantial mosque in Istanbul with the intention of seeking favour from God. As both Murad III and Mehmed III before him had neglected to construct their own imperial mosques, Ahmed I became the first sultan to do so since Selim II, who died in 1574.
The mosque was constructed on the southeastern side of the former Byzantine Hippodrome, near the Hagia Sophia (the Ottoman Empire‘s most significant mosque), at a site of notable symbolic prominence that affords it control over the city’s skyline. The original location of the mosque was where the bleachers and the emperor’s box (where the emperor sat while attending events) of the Hippodrome stood. During early 20th century excavations, archaeologists unearthed a number of antique seats situated in the courtyard of the mosque. Sultan Ahmed’s ambition was likely to construct a building that would rival or even surpass the magnificent Hagia Sophia, given the mosque’s location, size and abundance of minarets.
Before construction, this location was home to the palaces of a few Ottoman viziers such as Sokollu Mehmet Pasha and Guzel Ahmet Pasha. This caused a costly process of expropriation. Furthermore, the empire experienced economic stress which resulted in protests from the ulema (Islamic legal scholars). They claimed that sultans should only finance the creation of an imperial mosque with spoils of conquest. Ahmed I was unable to procure any significant victories and thus had to divert funds from the treasury to finance this costly project. The ulema even went to the extent of prohibiting Muslims from praying at the mosque.
Despite facing opposition, the sultan proceeded with the project. Construction commenced in 1609 and concluded in 1617, with the opening ceremony taking place. However, inscriptions on the mosque indicate the year 1616. Ahmed I passed away around the same time or shortly after in 1617. According to scholar Godfrey Goodwin, the last financial records for the mosque’s development were approved by Mustafa I, who succeeded Ahmed I. This implies that Ahmed I had passed away before the finalization of the project.
Ultimately, the impressive size of the mosque, its opulent decor, and the extensive public events that Ahmed I arranged to commemorate the project seem to have influenced the public’s viewpoint and resolved the original dispute surrounding its construction. Consequently, it became one of the most widely admired mosques in the city. The mosque’s monumental significance is evident in its naming of the neighbourhood that envelopes it, the distinguished Sultanahmet district.
In 1883, new stencilled paintwork replaced much of the painted decoration inside the mosque, causing alterations to the original colour scheme. Outlying structures of the mosque complex were damaged or destroyed by a significant fire in 1912, but then restored.
Blue Mosque Restorations
A major restoration of the mosque was carried out in the 21st century. During preliminary work in 2013, it was uncovered that the northwestern minaret of the mosque had shifted 5 centimetres (2.0 in) over time, posing a prospective danger to its overall structural stability. Initiatives to rebuild and fix the minaret had already begun in 2015. The mosque’s comprehensive restoration programme started in 2018 and was successfully completed in April 2023.
The mosque’s architectural design takes inspiration from the preceding Şehzade Mosque, developed by Great Architect Sinan during the commencement of the 16th century. The prayer hall measures 64 by 72 metres (210 by 236 ft) in area, with a 23.5-metre (77 ft) central dome. Additionally, four semi-domes encompass the main dome, each including three smaller exedrae or semi-domes. The prayer hall is adorned by four smaller domes positioned at its corners. Additionally, the mosque boasts six minarets, ablution amenities, and a spacious courtyard located in front of the prayer hall. These features are documented in references 19 and 20.
The architect of the mosque, Sedefkar Mehmed Agha, combined the ideas of his master Sinan, with the aim of creating a grand and magnificent structure. The mosque is considered to be the peak of his career, as stated by his official biographer. The structure, which reflects the classical Ottoman style of the era, incorporates elements of Byzantine architecture from the nearby Hagia Sophia, along with Islamic architecture. It is reputed to be the final great mosque of this classical period.
Architectural historian Doğan Kuban describes the style of Mehmed Agha as having a more “sculptural” approach, focusing on the details of the building and a willingness to break up its elements into smaller parts, while Sinan placed more emphasis on rigorous spatial designs with relatively restrained decoration. This characterization is based on objective analysis rather than subjective evaluations. Technical term abbreviations are explained upon first use, and precise language is utilized without biased, emotional, figurative, or ornamental language.
The format adheres to established style guides and maintains consistent citation practices and footnote style and formatting features. The language is formal and free from grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, and punctuation errors. Scholar Gulru Necipoğlu asserts that the mosque reflects the increasing trend of extravagance in Ottoman architecture during this period, manifested in its dimensions, the number of minarets, and its opulent utilisation of Iznik tiles. This decorous excess is likewise noticeable in other structures such as the New Mosque (or Yeni Valide Mosque), constructed in the same century.
Although some architectural historians have criticized certain aspects of the mosque’s structure and decoration when comparing it to Great Architect Sinan‘s earlier works, it remains one of the most stunning and widely admired examples of Ottoman architecture.
Blue Mosque interior
The interior of the mosque is centered around its impressive dome and cascading semi-domes. The main dome stands at a height of 43 metres (141 ft) and is supported by four enormous cylindrical pillars. The central dome is seamlessly connected to the pillars by four long and smooth pendentives. Smaller pendentives are also used to connect the semi-domes and their exedrae and the corner domes to the surrounding structure.
The transitions between the smaller exedrae and the supporting walls or arches are instead covered by muqarnas, which are stalactite-like sculptures made of stucco. This technique was employed by Mehmed Agha to create a gradual transition from the rectangular outer walls to the round central dome, resulting in a softer progression.
The prayer hall is supported by columns and runs along three sides with a two-floor gallery. However, it does not extend to the southeastern (qibla) side where the mihrab is located. Two fountains are integrated into the northern pillars of the mosque’s prayer hall similarly to that of the Süleymaniye Mosque. The carpets which cover the floors are donated by the faithful and are promptly replaced as they wear out.
The prayer hall’s central feature, at ground level, is the mihrab, crafted from intricately carved marble and completed with a muqarnas niche and two inscriptive panels above. Numerous windows surround it. Positioned to the right of the mihrab is the lavishly embellished minbar, or pulpit, from where the imam delivers his Friday sermons and holy day prayers at noon.
The pulpit is made of intricately carved marble, topped with a conical cap coated in gold. The mosque’s architectural design ensures that even with a large crowd, the imam can be seen and heard from every corner of the mosque, except the portions behind the pillars. According to Evliya Çelebi, who visited the mosque in the 17th century, a hundred Qur’ans rested on lecterns inlaid with mother-of-pearl, all gifted by sultans and viziers, and were positioned near the mihrab.
The hünkâr mahfil, also known as the sultan’s loge, is an elevated platform located in the southeast corner of the prayer hall, designated for the sultan’s prayer. The platform is supported on ten marble columns, forming an L-shape. It is adorned with a mihrab featuring rich decoration, including a jade rose and gold leaf, historically. An “imperial pavilion”, a large L-shaped structure composed of a covered ramp leading to two resting rooms for the sultan and an enclosed portico overlooking the sea on the south side, provides access to the loge from outdoors. These chambers served as the Grand Vizier’s headquarters while suppressing the rebellious Janissary Corps in 1826. The integration of an auxiliary structure into the mosque’s design, which is not seamless, represents an innovative feature that first appeared in Ottoman architecture here. Following a fire in 1912, it was partially destroyed and later restored.
Blue Mosque Decoration
The mosque’s lower walls, particularly those surrounding the galleries, display Iznik tiles which derive their name from the primary production center, İznik (formerly Nicaea). Ahmed I held these tiles in high regard, and their production for the mosque consumed the entire Iznik industry. Orders for tiles were continuously sent out from 1607 onwards, and in 1613, the Sultan prohibited the production and sale of tiles for any other purpose to ensure timely completion of his own commissions. Inside the mosque, there are a total of 21,043 tiles adorned with over fifty diverse designs.
Some panels were created specifically for the mosque, whereas others appear to have been sourced from other buildings and gathered here. This includes tiles of lower quality that were added during later repairs. Notably, the upper gallery on the north wall features the finest tiles, although most visitors may find them difficult to see today. These findings are detailed in sources and. They represent an exhibition of tile designs from this era, showcasing patterns such as cypress trees, floral arrangements, and a variety of fruits, in hues spanning from blue and green to red, black, and turquoise.
About 75% of the walls above the tilework in the mosque feature painted motifs. These motifs are predominantly blue, which is one of the reasons why the mosque is popularly referred to by that name. However, many of the original 16th/17th-century style motifs have been replaced with modern imitations. The painted motifs typically consist of floral arabesques. Additional decorations found at the mosque include calligraphic inscriptions bearing verses from the Qur’an.
These were originally created by the renowned calligrapher Seyyid Kasim Gubari, but have undergone several restorations over time and no longer match the original work of the calligrapher. The floor level is also adorned with opus sectile decoration. As for the interior, the mosque boasts high-quality inlaid woodwork, including the courtyard entrance doors which were crafted by the father of Evliya Çelebi.
The mosque has about 260 windows that allow natural light to enter. Fourteen windows are present in each of the semi-domes, while the central dome has 28, four of which are not open. Every smaller exedra in the semi-domes includes five windows, certain of which are obstructed. Many of the windows have been developed through traditional techniques. They display intricate designs composed of small fragments of coloured glass.
The outer windows were created using locally made glass. However, the bulk of the coloured glass, including that of the windows, was brought in from other places. Some of the mosque’s windows were gifted by the Signoria of Venice after a request from Ahmed I in 1610. However, the majority of these original windows were lost and subsequently replaced with less intricate modern variants. Though the modern windows likely add more brightness to the interior than the original stained glass would have, the new stained glass does not match the beauty of the original.
Furthermore, chandeliers hung from the ceiling provide additional illumination to the mosque’s interior. The mosque’s numerous lamps were formerly adorned with gold and precious stones. Among them were ostrich eggs and crystal balls. Incorporating ostrich eggs into chandeliers was a traditional custom in Near Eastern churches and mosques. According to popular belief in Istanbul, it is used to repel spiders or mice, or as an earthquake warning. Additionally, 17th and 18th-century writers noted that some crystal balls or glass bowls contained other curiosities, including a model of the mosque and a model of a galley.
Blue Mosque Exterior
On the exterior, Mehmed Agha employed a series of domes and semi-domes, along with curved and multi-tiered supportive elements, to develop a gentle silhouette that gradually rises towards the apex of the main dome, similar to the approach he adopted for the interior. This technique varies somewhat from Great Architect Sinan and previous Ottoman architects, who utilised the intentional contrast of curved domes and vertical components to generate a more theatrical impact.
The mosque courtyard is accessible through three entrances: one central entrance located in the northwest and two other side entrances. The central entrance is the most imposing, boasting a tall projecting portal topped by a small dome perched on a drum. An external doorway adorns a muqarnas semi-vault, and two inscription panels grace the entranceway. Additionally, visitors may reach the prayer hall from the courtyard via a striking gate on the southeast side. This entranceway is adorned with its own muqarnas semi-vault and inscription panel. The prayer hall additionally features two lateral entrances on the mosque’s exterior, which are typically utilised by non-Muslim tourists at present.
The mosque courtyard boasts a traditional rectangular peristyle structure with an arcaded and domed portico (riwaq) lining each side. There are 26 columns providing support to the porticos, with 30 domes located above them. In contrast to the courtyards planned by Sinan for the Süleymaniye Mosque and Selimiye Mosque, where the portico facing the prayer hall towered above the other three sides, Mehmet Agha opted for greater uniformity by maintaining the arches of the southeast portico at the same height as the others.
In the courtyard’s centre is the shadirvan, a domed, octagonal kiosk that shelters a fountain formerly used for ablutions. The surfaces of the kiosk’s exterior are adorned with low-relief foliate patterns. Currently, Muslims perform their ablutions not at the fountain but at a number of water taps located outside the courtyard, along the northeast and southwest walls. This feature, which includes the taps under arcaded galleries along the outer walls, was revolutionary.
A substantial iron chain is suspended at the northwestern entrance (from the Hippodrome) to the outer precinct of the mosque. Merely the sultan was permitted to enter the court of the mosque on horseback. The chain was installed to require the sultan to bow his head each time he entered the court to avoid collision. This was a symbolic gesture intended to ensure the ruler’s humility in the presence of the divine.
Blue Mosque Minarets
The Blue Mosque is among the five mosques in Turkey that possess six minarets, including the Sabancı Mosque in Adana, Muğdat Mosque in Mersin, Camlıca Mosque in Üsküdar, and the Green mosque in Arnavutköy. According to a legend, an architect erroneously heard the Sultan’s request for “altın minareler” (gold minarets) as “altı minare” (six minarets), which was previously a distinctive hallmark of the Ka’aba Mosque in Mecca. When accused of overstepping his authority, the Sultan issued an order for the construction of a seventh minaret at the mosque in Mecca.
There are six minaret towers, each with fluted design and a slender, conical cap. The four minarets situated at the corners of the prayer hall possess six balconies (serefe) and the remaining two at the outer corners of the courtyard have two balconies each. The corbeling supporting each balcony is decorated with muqarnas carving. The minarets have undergone several repairs throughout their history. Previously, the muezzin was obligated to ascend a narrow spiral staircase inside the minarets five times a day to issue the call to prayer.
Other parts of the complex
Other parts of the complex are included in the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the primary component of this vast Ottoman religious foundation. Unlike prior imperial mosque complexes, this particular complex’s other structures lack an organized plan around the mosque. Due to the mosque’s proximity to the Hippodrome, complications arose when designing the complex. As a result, auxiliary buildings were placed in multiple locations near the mosque or around the Hippodrome. Enclosing the mosque is an outer court or precinct enclosed by a surrounding wall.
The mausoleum of Ahmed
The mausoleum of Ahmed I lies to the northeast of the mosque, adjacent to the Hippodrome square. The dome’s diameter is 15 metres. It was initiated in 1619 subsequent to Ahmed’s death and finished by his son, Osman II (r. 1618–1622). As opposed to the majority of Ottoman mausoleums, which characteristically are octagonal, the tomb chamber has a square floor plan covered by a dome, resembling a small mosque.
There is a small, rectangular alcove located at the rear of the chamber, the original purpose of which is unclear. The tomb features a portico with three arches at the front. Inside are buried Sultan Ahmed I and some of his relatives, including his wife Kosem, Sultan Osman II, Sultan Murat IV (r. 1623-1640), and Prince Bayezid (d. 1635).
Blue Mosque Madrasa
The madrasa lies northeast of the mosque’s precinct, outside its outer wall, and was most likely concluded sometime around 1620. Its layout is predominantly classical and comprises a rectangular courtyard encompassed by a domed portico with arcades on all four sides. Behind each portico, there is a row of domed rooms for student sleeping quarters, totaling 24 rooms.
The main differences from earlier madrasas are the absence of a grand entrance and the positioning of the dershane (a bigger domed chamber used as a classroom) in a corner of the building instead of the centre. The madrasa is accessed through a discreet entrance on the northwest side, behind the outer garden wall of the adjacent mausoleum. The outer enclosure of the mausoleum contains a separate square structure, which houses the darülkurra, a school focused on teaching the Qur’an.
The madrasa is accessed through a discreet entrance on the northwest side, behind the outer garden wall of the adjacent mausoleum. The outer enclosure of the mausoleum contains a separate square structure, which houses the darülkurra, a school focused on teaching the Qur’an. The darülkurra was restored in 1935 and now functions as a storage facility for Ottoman archives.
Blue Mosque Hospital and Public Kitchen
Four additional buildings were constructed on the sphendone, the semi-circular southwestern edge of the Hippodrome. The largest and farthest building was a hospital (darüşşifa), which was a square structure organized around an internal courtyard. Its construction began in 1609 and was concluded in 1620, and featured a hammam (bathhouse) and a small mosque.
To the direct northeast of this location, there were three buildings consecutively arranged, which constructed the imaret, also known as a soup kitchen. Construction work for the building set commenced in 1617 and likely concluded in 1620. The three structures consist of a pantry, kitchen, and oven, as well as a dining hall. The kitchen building is composed of four domes and several chimneys, while the other two structures (the pantry and dining hall) are rectangular buildings featuring six domes. Guesthouses used to exist in the vicinity, but they have
since vanished. In the 19th century, the hospital and guesthouses were demolished, and in their place, an academy was constructed. To this day, only the hospital’s hammam section and its courtyard’s marble fountain remain standing. The academy building was destroyed by fire in the 1970s but was later renovated and now houses the rectorate of Marmara University. The surviving buildings of the imaret have been incorporated into it.
The small and uncomplicated primary school (sibyan mektebi) is situated on the eastern side of the mosque’s outer precinct wall. It takes the form of a rectangular structure and was completed around 1617. Unfortunately, a fire broke out in 1912 and destroyed the building, but it was later reconstructed and restored in 15.
To the south, on the other side of a sloped tunnel leading to and from the mosque precinct, a hammam was built, probably in 1617. The hammam is now in a partially ruined state.
The arasta is situated below the southeast side of the mosque precinct, and it was constructed as a component of the complex. It provides accommodations for roughly 200 vendors and was completed in 1617. In 1912, the building was destroyed by fire; however, it was restored from its ruined state between 1982 and 1985. Currently, it is open as a bazaar, catering particularly to tourists.