The mosque was to be built on the site of the palace of the Byzantine emperors, facing the Hagia Sophia (at that time it was most venerated mosque in Istanbul) and the hippodrome, a site of great symbolic significance. Large parts of the southern side of the mosque rest on the foundation and vaults of the Great Palace.
Several palaces were already built there, most notably the palace of Sokollu Mehmet Pasha, so these first had to be bought at a considerable cost and pulled down. Large parts of the Sphendone (curved tribune with U-shaped structure of the hippodrome) were also removed to make room for the new mosque.
The Blue Mosque was commissioned by Sultan Ahmet I when he was only 19 years old. It was built near the Hagia Sophia, over the site of the ancient hippodrome and Byzantine imperial palace (whose mosaics can be seen in the nearby Mosaic Museum).
The original mosque complex included a madrasa, a hospital, a han, a primary school, a market, an imaret and the tomb of the founder. Most of these buildings were torn down in the 19th century.
Inside, the high ceiling is lined with the 20,000 blue tiles that give the mosque its popular name. Fine examples of 16th-century Iznik design, the oldest tiles feature flowers, trees and abstract patterns. The overall effect is one of the most beautiful sights in Istanbul.
The Iznik tiles can be seen in the galleries and on the north wall above the main entrance. The remaining tiles, which have a less delicate design, were made in Kutahya. The Sultanahmet Mosque is the only mosque in Istanbul that has six minarets and this provoked hostility at the time.
Such a display was previously only preserved for the Prophet’s mosque in Mecca and the sultan was criticized for thinking a bit too highly of himself. The Mosque is surrounded by a broad courtyard on three sides entered on each side by eight portals.
The inner courtyard is paved in marble. Rivaks, supported on columns made of marble, granite and porphyry surround the courtyard. In the center of the courtyard is a fountain for ablution, surrounded by six marble columns. This is the only Mosque in Istanbul which has six minarets.
The tiles at lower levels are traditional in design, while at gallery level their design becomes flamboyant with representations of flowers, fruit and cypresses. The tiles were made under the supervision of the Iznik master. The price to be paid for each tile was fixed by the sultan’s decree, while tile prices in general increased over time.
Four minarets stand at the corners of the Blue Mosque. Each of these fluted, pencil-shaped minarets has three balconies (Called Şerefe) with stalactite corbels, while the two others at the end of the forecourt only have two balconies.
Today, a public announce system is being used, and the call can be heard across the old part of the city, echoed by other mosques in the vicinity. On summer evenings at 9pm, there is a historical narrative and a light show at the Blue Mosque.