I recently spent a weekend in Istanbul, one of my most beloved cities. My hotel was based in Fatih, the run down section of the old town, and it overlooked the Little Aya Sofya mosque – also spelled Sophia, or Sofia. The morning before I flew, I thought it would be the perfect moment to visit this nearby sight. I had a feeling I would like it, and I was not disappointed.
I entered a walled courtyard, built around the mosque known as the Little Hagia Sophia (Turkish: Küçük Ayasofya Camii). Surrounded by cloisters, there was a tree-filled garden in the centre in which a marquee had been erected and where men were sitting on trestle tables, drinking coffee and conversing. I put my rucksack down before visiting the mosque and asked them if they would watch it for me. They asked me how long I would be, I said about 10 minutes, to which they said that would be fine.
The little Aya Sofia mosque is nicknnamed after its larger sister, the famous Aya Sofia in the heart of Istanbul, as it is believed that the latter was modelled on it. Originally a church built by the Roman Emporar Justinian, in 527 this small jewel was dedicated to St Sergius and St Bacchus, who Justinian credited to saving his life by appearing in a dream to his uncle who was planning to put him to death for an attempted assasination that he was implicated in. The Ottomans later converted it into a Mosque during Bayazid II’s reign.
I took off my shoes at the entracnce and put on my headscarf. On entering, there is a feeling of lightness, tranquility and peace. The proportions of the building are so pleasing, the blue, white and green interior so soothing, that it is a pleasure just to stand in the entry, take a deep breath and gaze.
You do not feel overwhelemed or overpowered as you do in some larger mosques and churches; you feel somehow as if you are being held in the palm of a hand, nurtured, nestled, safe. Moving further inside, I was able to experience the play of the light, which was able to enter from all sides of the building, giving luminosity all around, yet you were shaded from it.
Although feeling well that morning, I felt a deep relaxation take over me, a sense of peace, and a desire to just sit, and be. The feeling within this place that had been standing for 1500 years was so good, so positive – the energy was incredible.
The Imam seeing my pleasure at being in this place (my face being lit up with a smile of pure joy) encouraged me to go up some stairs, which took me to a small platform which gave me views of the whole building. Here I sat, took in the beautiful domed ceiling, decorated with Islamic geometrical designs and flowers, and soaked in the atmosphere. The feeling of joy moved me to pray, which I did as always, in my own own way and which made my heart soar.
On coming back down the narrow stairwell, I took another staircase up to the platform running above the collonades. From here I was closer to the ceiling and could look right down over the gold pointed minbar where the Imam sits for the prayers on Friday and just soak it all in.
From the windows I could look across the train tracks, that have been built right next to the mosque across the sea to the Islands. Pacing slowly, I could feel underneath the carpets, how uneven the floor was and imagined how many people had walked these floors so long ago, and looked out over this view when there was nothing but a strip of empty land separating the site from the sea.
I came down, and spoke briefly to the Imam who told me that the building was in dire need of financial aid, and that it was suffering. Not enough funding is being put into its upkeep. This made us both sad. I thanked him and left, and stepped into the full daylight. Putting my shoes back on I was able to admire the exterior of the mosque and its decorated portico.
As I was about to pick my bag up to leave, I noticed the fountain in the centre of the courtyard and a goose happily sipping from the water on the flagstones. It was a perfect photo, of nature and spirituality dwelling hand in hand (well they are one and the same aren’t they) but I could not capture it, and perhaps that was for the best.
Taking my bag, I was drawn to the cloisters surounding the mosque. Some beautiful music was coming from one corner and I could see art work on the wall. I recongised it as sufi music, being played on a ney (a reed pipe). The haunting melody makes your heart ache, but in a way that brings it both pain and joy. I wished to purchase it but it was not for sale, perhaps, just as before it was a moment that was too perfect to capture.
All the separate cloisters were owned by artisans, producing calligraphy, ceramics, or selling spiritual books. They were all exceptionally polite, working on their craft, or having a bite to eat together. The aura of the place was of calmness, and gentleness, and I decided to stay a while. I passed another small shop and asked if they had coffee.
The owner told me to take a seat and I sat in a chair, leaning against the wall and took in the view. The mosque to my left and the red tiled cloisters on the remaining sides, my gaze fell on the trees in the centre, with their golden and multicoloured autumn leaves dancing gently to the rhythm of the wind under the mild warming sun.
You could see that in spring many flowers would grow here, and the box trees that lined the courtyard paths reminded me of my grandfather’s house. My coffee arrived with water next to it, as always. As I sipped it and breathed the clean air, I felt an incredible sense of peace and contentment.
There were people around me, but nobody was questioning me or encroaching on my space. We were all sharing the same peaceful space in unison. Later we began to speak, with the owner of the shop, and a man sitting nearby. We spoke of humanity, how every person in this world is special, how even those doing bad things in the world are special and important but have just lost their way and their true sense of self. These conversations just arose naturally, completely organically.
The little Aya Sofia mosque is most certainly a sacred site. In the cities full of manmade business and anxiety few places remain like this, an oasis peace and tranquility in the desert of industrialised modern society.
For more green (and romantic) adventures in Istanbul read:
10 Best Used Clothing Shops in Istanbul
Visit This Secret Forest Outside Istanbul
The Song Lovers of Istanbul
Read All Istanbul Stories on Green Prophet here
Nesrin Everett lives in Geneva, Switzerland and is an explorer of countries, nature and human hearts. This began as a small child – each year she would travel with her parents across Europe and encounter a myriad of individuals and environments.
Being English and Turkish by background, her passion is for unity between peoples, cultures and faiths and to help individuals reconnect with themselves and with the natural environment. In her spare time she loves being in the mountains and forests, trying to live an organic life and brewing delicious teas. Nesrin can be reached at [email protected]
Little Sofia Mosque image from Shutterstock