Known to tourists as the Blue Mosque, nobody in Istanbul would know what you were talking about, as its proper designation is Sultanahmet Mosque. Whatever its name, it is an extraordinary place and should be a must-see port of call on an Istanbul itinerary.
Istanbul seems to be a magnet for cats, and you may well find some apparently cute animal dozing gently on the steps.
The designation 'blue' comes from 20 000 tiles made for it. They're made of 70% quartz, which gives them their colour but also makes them incredibly fragile. A good two thirds were expected to smash before being used, making them an even more expensive decoration to purchase. The majority of the tiles were manufactured in Iznik, that is modern Nicaea, a place usually more famous for its role within Christianity. The tiles show more than 50 different tulip designs. This might seem overwhelming, but they merge in to an astonishing overall tapestry.
From outside the epithet blue seems ridiculous. What you notice first are the tall, thin minarets (six in total) and the immense dome. Why six minarets? Some say that Sultan Ahmet was hubristic enough to have told his architect to build more than any other mosque. This, however, would lead to hubris, outdoing Mecca, which had fewer. Others will tell you that this is a wonderful case of misunderstandings, and what he meant was that he wanted golden minarets but the Arabic for gold and 14 are very similar. Whatever the truth, the appearance is striking.
The mihrab and minbar, the pulpit and sacred niche indicating the direction of Mecca, are both striking and beautifully adorned. Hewn from marble, the mihrab includes a stalactite niche, surrounded by windows. The minbar is visible throughout the mosque so that all worshippers can attend to the sermons. A royal enclosure is marked out in one corner, and there are also separate areas for women, so that what looks like a uniform interior structure in fact includes a range of possible seating areas.
Equally richly decorated is the ceiling. In a culture where depictions of the human form are banned, they instead excel at intricate patterns and designs, which comes through most closely if you take the time to look above your head.
Built between 1609 and 1616 by Sultan Ahmet, the money came from raids on the Treasury rather than the neighbouring territories. It may be an incredible building, but it was not necessarily popular in its own time. Now, as well as being a mosque, it's a madrasa (school) and hospice, a functioning part of the local community as well as a tourist attraction.
The carpets are also gorgeous, the product of Muslim tithing. Apparently silk is preferred as the fibres are durable and lusciously soft, but you can understand why shoes are therefore forbidden.
There is a queue to get in but it moves reasonably quickly so doesn't have to be a problem. Make sure you go well clear of the daily service times though, as the mosque will need to shut for around 90 minutes for these. A good time to go is mid-morning. While you're waiting, you can pop up the side stairs into the main courtyard, which is a magnificent open space, with dazzling colonnades and painted inscriptions.
Women should dress modestly, with their arms, legs and hair covered. If you don't have appropriate clothing with you, the mosque will lend you some items. Everyone needs to take off their shoes, but you will be given a plastic bag in which to carry them.
Over 500 years old, the weight of prayer and devotion in this mosque is tangible in the air. It's an amazing, spine-tinglingly beautiful place to visit, whether or not you're religious. Architecturally, historically, aesthetically stunning, please do pay it a visit.