You stand first on Atmeydani street, near the two obelisks, and look at the eight small domes and one large dome and the six minarets. The sun is to the left of the mosque because it is morning and you are facing south, but it is hot and there is dust because there are no shops near here, and it is shopkeepers who pour down water every hour to keep the dust away.
The dust is on the flagstone and on the cobblestone, and it covers your shoes, and you get some sense of what is really being said at the first sign, that warns you not to wear shoes inside the mosque. There are many such signs; many helpful mercies to the lost and the pilgrims, but that is the first: a reminder that you will be carrying your shoes in a plastic bag when you step into the Eden ahead.
You are near the sea, but you cannot see it. You can smell it (if you are accustomed to that smell), but it is hidden by the false rise of the ridge; perfectly hidden, in fact: Asia is actually visible on the horizon, but not the sea between you and it. You are near the sea, and in fact above the cistern, but it is very dry here.
The line continues slowly, and you are reminded that tourism in the mosque is closed during salat, and you in fact worry that Asr is soon and you will have to wait. There is an old man behind you, an African hajji in a taqiyah and a robe, who is worried that the young Christian man he is escorting will not make it in time before prayers; his wife says something quietly to him and he calms down. Time presses, but time moves slowly here, and the sun barely inches across the sky as you cross into the west courtyard, and the sun is obscured behind the large dome. The sky is bright and blue overhead, and seagulls are wheeling.
You pass through the courtyard in the line, past the ablution spigots. You consider asking the hajji behind you if one should wash before entering, but he isn’t, so you continue on. The faithful going to prayers wash their feet and the water pours over them, and you understand this washing means something it will never mean to you, because you have lived your life in a place where you can always clean your feet.
Another sign stands before a set of uneven stairs describing the types of clothing that are and are not acceptable in the masjid: from your elbows up, and down to your ankles; women please cover your heads. You are reminded of the church hats you saw on the women in Mississippi growing up, and you bite down on the criticism that is forming in your mouth. The sign is almost lacivious in its depiction of the haram clothing, but it’s only a tank top. You wonder what the girl three people ahead of you wearing the spaghetti straps is going to do.
The hajji behind you is still talking to his friend, about Islam; it’s half in Arabic so you can understand that half. It is apparently the natural religion of man, and the culmination of all prophecies from Adam through Abraham and Moses and Jesus to Muhammed (may peace be upon them all).
You walk, carefully, up the uneven steps and into the west gallery. The inside of the mosque is still closed off to you, but the sun is now covered by the awning, and you are grateful for the shade. The sky remains half of a blue dome to the west, now your left, because you turned around after the staircase. You pass through a door, into the vestibule. You cease worrying about the girl in the spaghetti strap in front of you: they provide robes and shawls to any so lost as to need them. The sky is gone: you are enclosed, but not yet within. There is a demarcation of the space of the mosque, with a sign in several language saying really, seriously, don’t have shoes on past this rug.
You remove your shoes and socks (this is God’s house, and if He wants me barefoot then by God I will be barefoot here) and place them in an autoclaved plastic bag; as your other clothing passes muster, you do not tarry. You step within, truly within, past the final warning rug and through the doorway into the sanctuary itself.
The architects in renaissance Istanbul were no fools; they knew exactly what they were doing. The noise from outside cuts off immediately, and the temperature drops 10 degrees. You are in what as a Christian you would call the nave, though it probably also has an Islamic name. And you gasp.
The mosque is expansive; it is also terribly constrained.
The mosque is expansive. Above you, the domed roof of the mosque stretches up and past you like the sky, but it seems to have grown from its constraint; it feels larger by being bounded and huge than the infinite dome of the sky. It is covered with blue and white tiles, and you can somehow tell, immediately, that even the most remote tile is as ornate and perfectly crafted as the one at eye level with you.
Until now you have moved in line; once you enter the sanctuary, you are free to roam as you wish, only please do not cross the line to where the men and children are assembling for prayer (there are very friendly ushers to help those who don’t grasp what seems like an obvious injunction to you) and do not peer over the wicker screens where the women are assembling for prayer (even the tourists seem to understand that much). You feel the carpet under your naked feet: it is clean, cleaner than any carpet in a public space has a right to be. You curl your toes into it, and place your hand on the marble pillar next to you: it is cold.
The mosque is constrained. Just above your head, about 8 feet above the floor, is an iron grill of electric lights that hang from the ceiling 80 feet above you. Sedefkâr Mehmed Ağa knew how to recreate the sky, but he also knew to keep man from trying to reach for it. You are here, in the community of humans, lit by the lesser lights of one another, until we ascend, at least. And it is still beautiful.
You walk towards the apse, towards the limits of where an unbeliever may stand without disrespect, and see the people assembling for prayer. Some are reading the Qur’an; some are simply resting. There are children in the space too, and they are roughhousing near the platform where the imam is busy preparing something you don’t understand. One falls onto the raised stage after a particularly powerful wrestling move, and looks up in fear. The imam turns around and smiles, and shoos him off to go play some more. (“The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these”, you say without realizing you are.)
The ushers are polite, but it’s clear that prayers are starting soon, and they would like the tourists to be on their way out by the time they start. You pause, you curl the carpet in your toes again, you touch the cold, sweating marble, and you say a brief prayer of thanksgiving to God that such a place exists and is dedicated to Him, even if it’s by another name than the one you know. You exit to the west, through no gift shop whatsoever, and thoughtfully put your shoes back on as the muezzin’s calls begin.