One of the first, and lasting, impressions of Istanbul – ancient capital of empires – is the call to prayer. It rings out simultaneously at the appointed times from various mosques, old and new, that dot the city. Though the tone and pitch of the voices of the muezzins might vary, they share a quality of passionate intensity that inspires a response in all those that hear it.
For those of the faith, the call is to drop their work of the moment and turn to God. Because it happens at regular intervals through the day, one could say it is really a ‘return’ to God. One spends one’s time doing whatever one is required to do, personally and professionally, but five times a day, for a few moments, one turns within. It is a remembrance not only of God but of one’s own true nature, which one is liable to lose touch with in the busy-ness of one’s day.
Walking through the old quarter ofIstanbulthat stretches along the Bosphorus Strait towards the Sea of Marmara, one cannot help but marvel at the fact that this geographical area has been in constant human habitation since 660 BCE. Because of which it has also been a repository of diverse faiths and wisdom traditions, from the Greek and Roman religions, to Christianity, and since the fifteenth century, of Islam.
In old Istanbul, this multilayering of faiths and their parent civilisations is most apparent in the architecture. While the obelisks in the Hippodrome bespeak a Greco-Roman past, and the Blue Mosque and the Suleymaniye Mosque its Islamic Ottoman ancestry, the Hagia Sophia (‘Church of Divine Wisdom’) which started off as a church, moulted into a mosque, and is now a secular museum, mirrors the city’s own history.
Stepping into the Hagia Sophia’s cavernous central hall, one is filled with a sense of infinite space. The neck arches and the head tilts backwards to take in the expanse of the giant dome that caps the building, as the eye attempts to focus on the wisdom etched in golden calligraphy at its centre. The experience is not unlike that of childhood wonder at the immensity of the night sky studded with innumerable stars. Cocooned in awe, one can easily ignore the milling crowds of tourists and return to an interior space that can feel as vast and deep as the soaring silence of the domed space above.
It is said that all the later mosques of Istanbul were built in the style of the Hagia Sophia. Indeed, one feels a similar sense of space in the Blue Mosque just across from the Sophia. It is an active mosque, and so its centre is blocked for worshippers, with visitors being restricted to the periphery by a wooden railing. As the faithful congregate, one too can join in, in one’s own way, using this outer sanctum to retreat into the one within, igniting one’s consciousness with prayerful remembrance.