During a recent trip to Istanbul we found ourselves in the Sultanahmet Camii. It was one of those sticky, prickly days when your clothes and skin feel like they’re being laminated together. So it was a relief to be inside the cooling air of The Blue Mosque – as it is commonly known.
The famed blueness of the interior comes from a combination of the decorative schema of over 20,000 hand-made ceramic (Iznik) tiles; and the stained glass windows which modulate the light as it flows inside to give it the quality of a calming mist.
The space was, unsurprisingly, busy and filled with that admixture of the curious and the bored; the informed and the ignorant; initiates and onlookers which you’ll find in any popular tourist attraction. Yet, despite this, it was still and quiet. Almost completely, except for a constant, somewhat melodic drone. A sonorous hum damped down the harsh edges of any noises which didn’t belong in here. It was a meditative thrumming of the air which addressed itself to all the senses - not just the ears – and demanded contemplation.
Perched, as we were, on a platform of almost total ignorance we launched ourselves off into a sequence of speculations. My fellow visitor proposed that this was the reading of sacred texts. Perhaps, we wondered, there is always a reading taking place in here, no matter what time of day, as means by which to retain the sanctity of the place by filling it with words of devotion. Obviously, I argued, we were hearing the prayers of the devout. As I warmed to this theme I imagined that above us sincere acts of adoration were taking place as they had done for hours, days and generations before and which shamed my own irreligion and indiscipline. And how better to worship, we agreed, than through the physical, aesthetic act of giving a public voice to private faith? We weren’t sure what was going on but we knew that it was beautiful and significant.
It was only as we were leaving that a distracted glance caught the source of the sound. A small man was diligently and patiently wheeling a very large, antiquated vacuum cleaner over the elaborate carpets which adorned the mosque. The transcendent had begun with the quotidian; our reverie emerging from collecting dust.