A few years ago, simply for something different, we jetted off to Istanbul for Christmas. I wanted to see what Christmas was like in a Muslim country. I wondered how westernized they really were, whether or not I’d see a fat man dressed in red, and how many other travellers I’d see there, coming to escape the holiday season.
Okay, so there were a handful of tacky Santa’s in the Grand Bazaar, but after that I saw nothing but a single Christmas tree in a shop window.
Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet, so it’s not as if they don’t know it’s Christmas at all. They just wouldn’t celebrate it, and fair enough.
Was it weird? No, not until you saw the date somewhere or got a Merry Christmas text from a friend. Did it feel good? Yes. I’m not a hater of Christmas by any means, I just like to see life from other angles, other points of view. It makes me happy to see that cultures aren’t being ruined or westernized because of television, the internet, money and corporations, etc. I like the simple things.
Anyway, in my little budget hotel room on Christmas Eve, I decided that to make sure that, like the locals, Christmas didn’t even pop into my mind, I was going to spend the day (or a part of it, at least) in the famous Blue Mosque. With that, my mind was made up (it really doesn’t take much) and I went to bed, waiting for my alarm.
I’d like to add that my alarm was not one on my phone, but the local muezzin. From the minaret (a tower beside the mosque), the muezzin calls the Muslims of a particular neighbourhood, via loudspeakers, to pray at certain times of the day. The first, fajr, being at dawn. It really adds to the whole adventure though, I love little “bonuses” like that.
Christmas Day arrived and I walked to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. There were a couple of local men outside of the grand entrance and they handed me a scarf and showed me how to wrap it securely around my head. I handed them some change for helping me and I walked ahead.
I pushed the heavy red curtain to one side and slid through. Now, I knew why they called it the Blue Mosque as the upper walls were covered in light blue tiles, not to mention the domes outside. The red carpet lay bare as I had chosen a time when the mosque wasn’t going to be too full. I wanted to make the most of it.
There were some people here, men and women, both praying separately. This is simply for modesty as praying involves kneeling and bending, which many women would feel uncomfortable doing so in front of a man. The space for the women is usually smaller too, but you see Muslim women are not obliged to come to mosques like the men are. Islam acknowledges that the women may be otherwise engaged, such as being pregnant, looking after their children, unable to drive and live too far, etc. Therefore, there would be less women and so, less space required.
I am not a Muslim, I did not go and pray. I did, however, sit down against a pillar and watch intently. It’s hard to keep your eyes off of them to be honest, the dedication and respect they have is inspiring. When you compare it to Christians who don’t go to church, pray or read the Bible, and here there are elderly ladies determined to walk to the mosque and get down onto the floor and pray for several minutes.
The lights in here really help to create a relaxing atmosphere. It’s not too dim, and not too bright either. There are lights all over the mosque, on large rings overhead. From the distance, they look like candles, but really they’re just basic lightbulbs.
I wandered around this huge space, gazing at the patterned insides of the domes, the stained glass, the beautiful writing on the doors and columns. It’s hard to describe, I want to say it’s minimal because of the lack of furniture and statues, but then at the same time, it’s full of decorative artwork and beauty.
And you know what? I’ve thought of it every Christmas since.