Despatches from Istanbul 4: Aya Sofya


As religious buildings go, Aya Sofya in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district has seen a few career-changes in its time.  Built in the sixth century as the Orthodox Cathedral of Constantinople, it was regarded as the crowning achievement of Byzantine architecture – its influence is even detectable in the design of its near neighbour in Sultanahmet, the Blue Mosque.  After Constantinople fell into the hands of crusaders in 1204, it was turned into a Roman Catholic cathedral, but it reverted to its original creed when the Byzantines wrested the city back in 1261.  Two centuries later, Constantinople fell again, this time to Sultan Mehmed, and the building was converted into a mosque.  Aya Sofya remained thus until 1935, when the father and first president of the modern Republic of Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, had it secularised and made into a museum.  Accordingly, the only religious activities now permitted on its premises take place in a small prayer room allocated for its Muslim and Christian staff.




Entering the building, you are overwhelmed by both the interior’s space and its light.  The huge area of floor – with rigs of small white lamps hovering just a couple of metres above it, like flattened chandeliers – gives you the feeling that you’ve wandered into a giant ballroom and the strains of the Blue Danube almost start to sound in your ears.  Meanwhile, the light is such that the great dome overhead nearly seems to float free of the rest of the structure, an illusion helped by the ring of windows around the dome’s base.



There is also a horseshoe-shaped gallery reached, not by going up a staircase, but by ascending a series of flagstoned, ramp-like passageways that twist around 180 degrees at either end.  After scaling four or five of those, you may begin to feel your age – I know I did.  The gallery not only gives you the best vantage point for taking in Aya Sofya’s grand interior, but it features on its walls some remarkable Christian mosaics from the Byzantine past.  (Now uncovered and restored, these mosaics had been plastered over when the building became a mosque, due to Islam’s prohibition on representative imagery.  However, it should be noted that Aya Sofya’s mosaics suffered at the hands of Christians as well as Muslims – the crusaders who arrived in 1204 removed many of them and shipped them back to Venice, which had sponsored the sack of Constantinople at the time.)




Also worth looking out for in Aya Sofya are a pair of huge, gorgeous round urns brought from Pergamon, which were carved from two great slabs of marble.  And, in the surrounding grounds, you can see some interesting pieces of bric-a-brac like these:




It’s quiet… too quiet?


Following the shenanigans last week in Tunisia, whereby protests against an allegedly ‘blasphemous’ art exhibition in north-of-Tunis suburb La Marsa led to street violence and the imposition of a series of curfews, common sense seems to have prevailed.  A mass post-mosque demonstration, planned for Friday by Islamist groups of varying degrees of moderation / extremism, was finally called off and, come Friday, very little happened.  (  As a consequence, the curfew was lifted on Friday evening.  It’d be reassuring to think that the common sense displayed then will continue, though to be honest I’m not holding my breath.


In particular, it’d be reassuring to think that the ultra-Conservative Salafists will now engage in some reflection and understand that, by creating a ruckus every time they observe something that offends their fragile sensibilities, they are making themselves greater and greater pariahs in Tunisian society.  Just about every Tunisian person I’ve spoken to lately has been heartily sick of their petulant dramatics.  Admittedly, it’s likely that they weren’t directly responsible for at least some of the mayhem that occurred last week.  When the real Salafists get annoyed at a perceived lapse in public morality and hit the streets to aggressively protest, there are plenty of opportunist low-life around who are all too happy to call themselves Salafists and join the disorder too – though rather than shout for the sanctity of the Koran, they head for the local Magasin General, smash their way in and make off with whatever catches their eye in the electrical appliances department.  I’ve also heard conspiracy claims about elements from the old Ben Ali regime, who’ve been crawling out of the woodwork, inciting and rabble-rousing and generally doing their best to make a bad situation worse in the name of destabilising and discrediting the new, post-revolution Tunisia.


Still, whoever the culprits may be, these crimes happen while the Salafists are agitating.  If they don’t like having the blame for everything laid at their door, they should try engaging their brains before they engage their mouths and their fists.


Meanwhile, I’m starting to feel a bit sorry for Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the moderate-Islamist Ennahdha party, who the middle of last week called on his supporters to join the protest march planned for Friday.  This was in spite of the Tunisian government, of which his party is the biggest component, calling for those protests not to take place.  Indeed, as Friday drew near, the government warned that demonstrations wouldn’t be allowed to take place –  I suspect there are now members of Ennahdha who regard Ghannouchi as being like a mad relative that families in old gothic horror stories had to keep locked in the attic for everyone’s safety.


At the same time, however, the reactions of several government ministers to last week’s events were shamefully mealy-mouthed – they criticised the rioters, yes, but almost in the same breath condemned Tunisia’s artistic community and talked about introducing new anti-blasphemy legislation.  (  Who, I wonder, would be responsible for analysing each new work of art and judging whether it is blasphemous or not?  The Salafists?  If that were ever the case, I think Tunisia’s art scene would be a bit on the wee side.  Understandably, Tunisia’s Union of Artists is pissed off about this and is calling for governmental resignations:  Also, as well as being craven, the government’s attempts to be all things to all men doesn’t make sense from a law-and-order point of view.  Why give a bunch of religious hotheads at least part of what they want, if you’re trying to stop them from rioting?  Won’t they just riot again when they discover something else – tight jeans, beachwear, DVDs, booze, rock ‘n’ roll music – that raises their ire?


One section of Tunisian society that surely had the right to protest last week were the members of its tourist industry, which employs about 400,000 people directly and is believed to impact upon the livelihoods of nearly a million more.  In fact, at the weekend they did march on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, peacefully, calling for better maintenance of public order than the past few days have seen, so that foreign holiday makers aren’t scared away. (  There’d been signs that the Tunisian tourist economy would perform better this year than it had in revolutionary 2011, especially as the current weakness of the Tunisian dinar against foreign currencies should be reeling in visitors.  God knows what damage has been done now, however.  It can’t even be argued – as had been argued on previous occasions – that last week’s disturbances took place in areas far away from the tourist sites.  For example, La Marsa and Sidi Bou Said are popular stops on the Tunisian tourist circuit and they both witnessed trouble last week.  (


(It’s ironic that Sidi Bou Said should be affected by unrest sparked off by a couple of paintings, considering that one of its biggest claims to fame is Paul Klee’s arrival there in 1914.  Klee was supposedly fascinated by the quality of the light and colours he found in the village.  I wonder if he’d have been quite so enamoured with the place if today’s crop of Salafists had been running around at the time.)


Still, in the midst of all this mess, I suppose there’s one big crumb of comfort for Tunisians.  At least they aren’t living in Egypt.


Tunisia – you’re still grounded!


We have now embarked on a third night of curfew in Tunis.  However, as tonight’s curfew started at 10.00 PM and will only continue until 4.00 PM, I suppose it could be described as a ‘curfew-lite’.  As I said in my previous post, the Tunisian government imposed the curfew following a couple of days of violence where extreme-Islamist Salafists – plus, no doubt, some criminal elements looking for an easy opportunity to do a bit of looting – rioted in response to an art exhibition that they deemed ‘blasphemous’ in the Tunisian suburb of La Marsa.


Government ministers have also responded verbally to the trouble and I’m afraid that what they’ve said has been very disappointing stuff.  They’ve castigated the rioters, true, but they have also talked about bringing in new anti-blasphemy laws to clip the wings of Tunisian artists in future, and talked about prosecuting the organisers of the La Marsa exhibition, and lamented about the immorality of modern, radical art generally.  (


While describing the violence as ‘acts of terrorism’, the Minister of Human Rights, Samir Dilou, claimed at the same time that Muslims — including, presumably, the Salafists — could defend their values if they felt those values were being insulted.  (In Britain, various shitty right-wing tabloids like the Daily Mail insult my values every day of the week.  However, if I reacted by firebombing their offices, I would expect to be arrested.)


Meanwhile, the Minister of Culture, Medhi Mabrouk, denounced the artworks in the exhibition as blasphemous and called for Tunisian art not to be ‘revolutionary’ but to be ‘nice’.  While his words may be the result of an unfortunate translation into English, they seem to sum up what former Tunisian president and former tyrant Ben Ali might have told the country’s artists during his two-decade reign: don’t be revolutionary, just be nice.


In reaction to this, some of Tunisia’s artistic community staged a protest in front of the Ministry of Culture building yesterday, though the artists whose work appeared in the exhibition didn’t join them.  Salafist agitators have circulated their names and photographs on the Internet, many of them have received death threats and, for their own safety, most of them are now in hiding.  (


A few words about the exhibition and the artworks that have caused this disruption and mayhem.  I know at least two Tunisian Muslims who visited the exhibition in La Marsa, Printemps des Arts, before the Salafists got around to being offended by it and wrecked the place.  Neither of them felt there was anything on display that was actually offensive.  One painting showed Allah’s name spelt out in configurations of tiny black ants, which the exhibition’s critics have been ranting and raving about since the weekend, but I find it hard to understand how that is sacrilegious.  As a kid in Northern Ireland in the 1970s – a place that was overrun with religious extremists of the Protestant and Catholic varieties, a place where the theatrical debut of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar was greeted by mass protests in Belfast – I remember being told many times to look for the ‘glory of God’ in the natural world around me.  This was reinforced by a syrupy children’s hymn I was made to sing on countless occasions, All Things Bright and Beautiful, whose final verse went:


He gave us eyes to see them,

And lips that we might tell,

How great is God Almighty,

who has made all things well.


You could argue that the Printemps de Arts painting was merely telling us how God’s wondrous handiwork is visible in all things, even in the simplest organisms, such as insects.  However, it is probably a little difficult to discuss the interpretation of an artwork with some fanatic whose philosophy is ‘burn first, analyse later’.


Meanwhile, there is controversy about whether another ‘blasphemous’ picture, depicting the Prophet Mohammed on horseback, was actually in the exhibition at all.  The exhibition’s organisers claim that a mischief-maker falsely included it among the real exhibition pictures when they were posted on the Internet.


Tunisia’s conservative Islamist leader Abu Ayoub has called for a mass demonstration against these alleged blasphemies following Mosque on Friday – tomorrow – which no doubt the Salafists will enthusiastically attend.  However, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the moderate Islamist party Ennahdha, the main player in the governing coalition, has also called on his party’s supporters to take part in the demonstration.  In a confused statement, Ghannouchi regurgitated the line that people should defend their religion against sacrilegious artists and urged people to march – alongside the Salafists, presumably – to ‘protect’ the revolution.  (  If Ghannouchi had been in Tunisia at the time of the revolution, and not in exile in England, he might have been aware that the artistic community played a rather more prominent role in that revolution than the Salafists did.


Thus, the Tunisian government’s message to the Salafists seems to be: you can’t always get what you want… unless you riot, invade art galleries, vandalise property, ransack police stations, throw missiles at the security forces and generally cause such a kerfuffle that curfews have to be imposed on much of the country.  Then you’ll get government ministers singing to your tune and making life difficult for those people whom you took violent exception to.  Needless to say, this will encourage more trouble in a few weeks’ time when the Salafists find something else to be offended by.  And, for them, there are surely many more things in Tunisia that are offensive.  There’s alcohol, produced by the Celtia beer brewery and various vineyards, and sold in shops, pubs, hotels and clubs.  Around Tunis, at least, there are women who don’t cover their hair – who even dye it blonde – and some of the younger ones wear revealing skirts or tight jeans.  There are shops selling DVDs packed with ungodly Western decadence – films that promote sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and the idea that women can lead lives of their own.  There are Tunisian kids who wear heavy metal T-shirts.  And of course, there are tourist resorts full of filthy foreign tourists indulging in every possible form of vice.  Yes, all that needs to be stopped.  You should go out and riot again.  The government seems minded to agree with you, once you’ve generated a little noise.


Rachid Ghannouchi – a man who, until recently, I had a certain respect for – made some particularly mind-melting comments about how the current curfews are damaging Tunisia’s tourist industry, coming as they have at the start of the summer.  If he’s so eager to protect tourism, why is he urging his followers to march next to the Salafists tomorrow?  The Salafists’ antics are guaranteed more than anything else to wreck what’s left of the country’s tourist industry (which has lost a third of its revenue since the revolution).  I was in Scotland two weeks ago when Salafists went on a rampage in the north-western Tunisian town of Jendouba, burning bars and off-licences.  I saw this reported on the BBC.  Jendouba is nowhere near the tourist resorts, but your average tourist won’t know that.  Your average tourist will only get the impression that in Tunisia, if you try to sit at a beachside bar and drink a glass of beer or wine, you will be attacked by a religious fanatic with a beard and robes.  So it’s best not to go there for a holiday.


A few months ago, while the Salafists were campaigning for the introduction of Sharia law in Tunisia, I read an interview with one of their number who claimed that Tunisia didn’t need tourism anyway.  The local economy, said this Salafist, could run just as well on farming.  Well, that’s certainly the way things seem to be heading – and no doubt the Salafists would love to see the country become a place of ten million peasant agriculturalists, since hardship and poverty constitute the best recruiting ground for their brand of religious extremism.


Finally, with government ministers demanding that art should avoid giving offense, I wonder who exactly will draw the line between what is deemed to be offensive and what isn’t.  The answer, of course, will be those people who are most vociferous about being offended – the Salafists again.  However, with them acting as the country’s moral guardians, you can not only forget about art that tries to be revolutionary.  You can forget about Medhi Mabrouk’s ‘nice’ art too.  You can forget about all art, full stop.


Here’s a link to pictures of the Printemps des Arts exhibition that started this whole crisis, in case you’re wondering what the fuss is about:


Tunisia – you’re grounded!


I’ve just been grounded.  So has everyone else in the Tunisian regions of Tunis, Ariana, Ben Arous, Manouba, Sousse, Monastir and Ben Guerdane.  The government grounded all of us by slapping an eight-hour curfew on us last night following two evenings of violence in the capital city and elsewhere.  I only heard about this curfew a little more than an hour before it was due to start, at nine PM, and I was unlucky enough to be on evening duty at my work-place at the time.  A couple of colleagues and I had to immediately clear the building of about 200 people.  That by a half-hour later we’d managed to get everyone out, and those people who didn’t have their own cars safely collected by family, friends and taxis, was something of a miracle.


Mind you, afterwards, at around eight-thirty when I made my own way home, my neighbourhood in Tunis hardly seemed like a place that was on the point of being shut down and taken over by the police and army.  Old fellows sat chatting outside the coffee shops, young families manoeuvred triangular slices of dough and stringy cheese into their mouths in the pizza houses, the customary hip-hop thudded out of the local poolroom, the grocery shop next door to my apartment building traded as usual and I even saw a jogger go plodding past.  In Tunisia these days, familiarity with curfews has bred a stoical indifference.


The trouble-makers over the past two days were the usual ones – the ultra-Islamic Salafists who had found something new to be offended by.  Last year they were up in arms about the broadcasting of the animated French-Iranian movie, Persepolis, on Tunisian TV.  A few months ago they took violent exception to the Tunisian Association for Drama Arts celebrating World Theatre Day on Habib Bourguiba Avenue.  A couple of weeks ago they vented their wrath against bars and shops that sold alcohol in the north-western town of Jendouba.  Last week a few hundred of them protested in the casbah about a Tunisian blogger who’d made some uncomplimentary comments about the Prophet Mohammed online.  And this past weekend their ire was roused yet again by an art exhibition in the northern Tunis suburb of La Marsa that featured works deemed ‘blasphemous’ to Islam.  Not only did the gallery get invaded and its exhibits vandalised and burnt, but a local police station was ransacked too.  Meanwhile, in the hard-pressed town of Jendouba, someone took the opportunity to settle a score with the headquarters of the main labour union the UGTT and their headquarters there were set alight.


It must be tough being a Salafist, I can only conclude.  You seem to spend your entire life seeking out and subjecting yourself to things that will offend you.  I wouldn’t have the endurance to do that.  I know there are plenty of things in the world that offend me – Mitt Romney, Silvio Berlusconi, Simon Cowell, Sarah Palin, Justin Beiber, Mariah Carey and the Daily Mail, to name but a few.  But not having the stamina and go-get-them righteousness of your average Tunisian Salafist, I just try to avoid them.  I just pretend they’re not there and get on with my own life, doing the things I enjoy doing.  I know.  I’m morally weak.


To be fair to the Salafists – which is more than they have ever been to anyone who’s disagreed with them – their leaders have claimed that recent days have seen a conspiracy whereby the violence has been perpetrated by trouble-makers pretending to be Salafists.  Well, I suspect that some of the characters who’ve been trashing La Marsa and other localities have been low-life opportunists, up for a ruck and the chance to do some looting.  But, given the Salafists’ past form in these matters, I’m sure that at least some of them embroiled in the recent mayhem have been the genuine article.


One conspiracy theory that I’ve heard recently that I’m more willing to subscribe to concerns the police.  The cops, from what I’ve read in news report after news report over the past year, have not gone out of their way to stop the Salafists’ violent behaviour.  Various people have alleged that because the police are still riddled with Ben Ali supporters, they want the public to get the impression that the country is descending into anarchy.  By doing bugger-all to prevent the lawlessness, the cops are hoping that the Tunisian people will experience a collective fit of contrition and beg the pathetic old dictator to come back from Saudi Arabian exile (presumably with the hefty share that he plundered of the country’s gold reserves) and restore order.


It’s sad that the Salafists – who, from different accounts I’ve heard, number between 1% and 3% of the Tunisian population, which is between 10,000 and 30,000 out of ten million people – have been able to hog the post-revolution limelight so noisily and violently.  They didn’t even have anything to do with the revolution that has given them the opportunity to parade themselves and express their intolerant views in the open.  When I was on Habib Bourguiba Avenue on January 14th, 2011, the day that the old regime fell, I didn’t see a single Salafist beard or robe among the protesting masses (though admittedly, under Ben Ali, these were things you didn’t show in public).  And though they’ve certainly made the most of the democratic openness that has followed the revolution, the Salafists don’t even want democracy, which they view as a manifestation of decadent Westernism.


I’m beginning to think the Salafists have hijacked the revolution – you certainly feel that looking at the media here, where their antics are pushing surely-more important stories (the economy, unemployment) off the front pages.  Let’s hope the ordinary Tunisian people can hijack it back, soon.


Ray Bradbury: 1920 – 2012


The death a few days ago of American writer Ray Bradbury drew tributes, to both the man and his remarkable fiction, from everybody from Barack Obama to Stephen King.  It seems a bit pointless for the author of a lowly and obscure blog like Blood and Porridge to say more about Bradbury and his oeuvre on top of what’s been said already – but of course, I’m going to say it anyway.


Bradbury I would definitely classify among the top ten writers, and quite possibly among the top five, to have most influenced me – not just as a writer (or an attempted one) but in my whole outlook.  Only last weekend, I was having lunch with a colleague and our conversation somehow got around to what our favourite flowers were.  Promptly and automatically, I said, “Dandelions, because Ray Bradbury wrote a book about them.”  This indicates how deeply the venerable author of Dandelion Wine, the October Country, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Fahrenheit 451, the Illustrated Man, the Small Assassin and so on had penetrated my psyche.


Unfortunately, in the obituaries written about Bradbury during the week, several things were said that I’d regard as misconceptions.  Here are three such misconceptions and my responses to them.


(c) Panther Books 


Misconception number 1: Ray Bradbury, science fiction writer…


William Shakespeare featured a ghost in Hamlet and three witches in Macbeth, but that didn’t make him a horror writer.  Similarly, Bradbury’s stories contained the odd dystopian future, the odd adventure set on Mars or Venus, and the odd rocket-ship, but that didn’t mean he was a writer of science fiction – certainly not if you define the term using proper ‘science’, because Bradbury plainly didn’t give a hoot about making his settings and plot devices in any way scientifically feasible.  His dystopian futures and alien planets might have been fairy kingdoms where he could let his imagination off its leash and his rocket-ships might have been magical spells that transported his characters to those places.  (In fact, his supposed science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s has dated far less than that written by his peers, many of whom had engineering or scientific backgrounds and did try to restrict their plots to what the science of the time deemed possible.)


Two of his most famous works, Fahrenheit 451 and the Martian Chronicles, are often cited as key works in science fiction literature, and they do have a plethora of sci-fi trimmings – mind-controlling totalitarian regimes, populations of citizens kept passive by drugs, wall-sized TV screens, space colonies, alien civilisations, robots – but I actually find them among his less interesting works.   (It’s telling that the most evocative moment for me in the Martian Chronicles comes in the final segment, the Million-Year Picnic, when the human father introduces his family to the Martians by pointing into a canal.  Looking down, they see their reflections in the water – an echo of the famous remark by J.G. Ballard, another great writer who got pigeonholed as a practitioner of science fiction, that the only truly alien world is our own one.)  I much preferred it when Bradbury threw scientific caution to the wind and just got on with things – never more so than in his short story the Kilimanjaro Device, where the hero travels back in time to prevent Ernest Hemmingway from committing suicide.  To do this, he employs a time machine that’s actually a truck.


(c) Panther Books


Misconception number 2: Ray Bradbury, whose sentimental, nostalgic stories recalled his 1920s and 30s boyhood…


There was obviously a lot of sentimentality and nostalgia in Bradbury’s stories, many of which seemed to be set in small mid-western towns with neatly trimmed lawns and white picket fences and porches where people sat in the evenings and courteously hailed their neighbours as they strolled past on the street – and occasionally the tone of these stories threatened to tip over into twee-ness.  But it would be unfair to dismiss him as a literary Walt Disney because on closer inspection you’ll find a great deal of darkness lurking around those lawns, picket fences and porches.  (And incidentally, many of Disney’s cinematic visions contain more darkness than first meets the eye too.)


Take, for instance, the small town in Bradbury’s short story the Handler where the inhabitants mock and belittle the local undertaker – who secretly gets his revenge on them after they die, by burying them in gruesome conditions that match the foibles they had when they were alive.  (He fills the veins of the town drunkard with alcohol rather than embalming fluid and stuffs the corpses of a couple of inveterate chatterboxes into the same coffin.)   Or the fate of the nagging wife in another short story, the Jar, who is not amused when her simple-minded farmer husband buys the titular vessel at a carnival because it has something strange and indescribable and yet fascinating floating inside it.  The husband eventually snaps at her nagging and what ends up floating inside the jar at the story’s close is not what was inside it at the beginning.  Even Bradbury’s rosiest evocation of his childhood, Dandelion Wine, contains a serial killer among its pages.


Perhaps the darkness in many of Bradbury’s stories eludes readers because he imbues his characters, even the very worst ones, with an ordinariness and innocence.  They’re not the twisted psychopaths that stalk through the pages of modern horror fiction.  Rather, they’re believably everyday characters who, somewhere along the line, often through gullibility or unfortunate circumstances, took the wrong turning – with grisly results.  Yet the innocence of those characters serves only to make the stories more disturbing.


(c) Panther Books


Misconception number 3: Ray Bradbury, with his unique writing style…


And yes, Bradbury was a stylist, but it does him an injustice to imply that that was all there was to his writing.  In fact, his stories would have counted for nothing if there hadn’t been ideas, brilliant ideas, propelling them along while his prose-style brought them vividly to life.


In fact, his work contains hundreds of lovely notions and sparks and fancies.  For example, there’s the short story A Season of Calm Weather, where Pablo Picasso takes a walk along a beach in southern France, then stops and uses a stick to spontaneously draw a masterpiece in the sand – much to the delight of an art-lover who watches the creation of this masterpiece from a distance.  However, the art-lover’s delight turns to agony after Picasso walks away again and the tide starts to creep in…  Or there’s the vignette the Foghorn – the baleful horn sounding from a lighthouse gets answered by a roar out in the mist, which proves to be a last surviving dinosaur mistaking the horn for a mating call.   Or the short story the Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, where a group of poor Mexican lads of similar build and height pool their money and buy an expensive white suit that they believe will improve their chances with the ladies – but then have to figure out how they’re going to share the suit and keep it clean…


Even reading those stories when I was 13 or 14 – an age when I was trying my hand at writing myself – I found myself subconsciously cursing Bradbury.  I knew these were all wonderful story ideas but the old bugger had thought of them first.


At the time of his passing Bradbury was 91, so he certainly enjoyed a good innings.  Mind you, he’d lived for so long and his fans had become so used to him being around that I’d begun to wonder if he was like a character in one of his stories – someone with so much imagination, exuberance and enthusiasm for life that he’d managed to transcend such things as ageing, mortality and death.  I had a notion that he’d be around forever, kept going by the joie de vivre that was so apparent in his fiction.  But life, alas, is never as magical as it is in a Ray Bradbury story.


Here’s an interview with the great man that appeared in the Paris Review two years ago:


Despatches from Istanbul 3: the Blue Mosque


The one problem with the Blue Mosque in Istanbul was that there were too many tourists.  The interior felt particularly crowded, as visitors were coralled into one side-area where adolescent school-parties swarmed around and fleets of small Eastern European-looking old ladies barrelled past the other bodies with no thought given to decorum or good manners, like out-of-control dodgem cars.  But I’m talking as somebody who visited as a tourist, and nobody dislikes tourists as much as another tourist does.


Constructed between 1609 and 1616 (meaning that the 400th anniversary of its completion will come four years from now), the Blue Mosque was controversial in its day because of the six minarets that stand guard around its main dome.  Six minarets were deemed to be two too many – up until then, the accepted maximum had been four per mosque.



Inside, you’ll find a rhapsody in blue that rivals anything composed by George Gershwin.  The dreamy, blue-tinged look of its interior comes from the colour of the 20,000 ceramic tiles covering its walls.  The dreamy atmosphere is enhanced by the acoustics, which reduce the excited jabber of the visiting crowds to a distant, watery murmur.


Light is provided by countless teat-shaped white lamps, borne on patterned metal frames that hover about a dozen feet above the floor.  These lamp-frames hang at the ends of cables that descend from the ceiling, their black lines seeming to cut the domed canopies and curved terraces into many vertical slices.  I’m afraid my limited photographic abilities didn’t capture much of the mosque’s internal grandeur – but perhaps these pictures convey a little of its lighting effects.