For someone brought up on Christian churches, East or West, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Protestant, the simplicity of the great Islamic mosques of Istanbul can be both over- and underwhelming.
We’re reminded of a church across Market Street in San Francisco, where the saints’ statues crowd the aisles as thickly as a New York subway station at rush hour. Or the top of the Duomo of Milano, with its hundreds of wise old men in marble raining benedictions down on the city.
Of course, no one really knows what any of the truly ancient saints looked like, so the chances are, you’re praying to a likeness of the sculptor’s father, best friend, or wealthy patron. Still, western churchgoers always seem to be begging some ancient saint or mother figure to intercede with an impatient God.
But then you arrive in the Sultan Ahmet Camii or Blue Mosque in European Istanbul, and all you find is a huge, empty cavern. Beautiful carpets, fascinating tiles and lights, a lovely altar of sorts, and nice stained glass windows (although the Venetian originals are long gone). But no human likenesses of any kind–you just have to do your own talking to God.
Architecturally speaking, the dome itself is the main event, of course. At the time of construction, when Ottoman Turks ruled the world, the domes of these mosques represented an astonishing achievement of world-class science and mathematics. Give or take an earthquake or two, they have withstood the test of time just as well as most great western cathedrals with their long, airy naves and flying buttresses.
In a fascinating bit of history, the basic design for these grand buildings came from the Byzantine Christian church across the park from this mosque, the Aya Sofia. And the Kaaba in Mecca is said to have been built by Abraham, the father of both the Jewish and Christian faiths. It makes one wonder about all of the wars fought and still waiting to be fought between Islam and Christianity.
Still, even a Christian looking for a saint to talk to can’t help but admire the beauty and simplicity of an old man reading the Qur’an and gazing out a window at one of the great human cities of the world while kneeling next to the only decoration in the room, a functioning grandfather clock. Time might be passing, but you’d never know it.