I had never entered a mosque until I visited Istanbul. After 15 years of steady anti-Muslim generalizations in the West, I didn’t know what to expect and I was intimidated. My first step in a mosque was at the legendary Blue Mosque, and I was entranced by the size of the edifice, the perfect proportions and the magnificence down to the small ornamental detail. Just like churches in France, the mosques in Istanbul are open all day long, and it takes no time at all to understand the clothing (and footwear) restrictions and the area to which casual visitors are limited. The most beautiful mosques in Istanbul were designed by Mimar Sinan (1490-1588), architect and engineer to several powerful sultans, whose style and whose influence would reach out all the way to the Taj Mahal in Agra.

Colonial Churches

Lenca Highlands – Honduras

The Lenca region is an unspoiled area in Western Honduras, stretching down into El Salvador, and named after its original indigenous inhabitants. The Ruta Lenca is a hopeful touristic notion, akin to several rutas in Mexico and elsewhere, linking several towns and villages where you can enjoy beautiful colonial architecture, spectacular areas of cloud forest, and a welcome break from the trivialities of modern civilization.

Hagia Sophia and Saint Sophia Cathedral

Istanbul and Harbin

Hagia Sophia, across from the Blue Mosque in the old district of Istanbul, was originally constructed as a church between 532 and 537 under Byzantine Emperor Justinian. After 900 years in existence, mostly as an Eastern Orthodox church, it was converted into a mosque in 1453 when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. The bells, altar, and sacrificial vessels were removed and the mosaics depicting Jesus, Christian saints and angels were plastered over. From its initial reconversion until the completion of the Blue Mosque in 1616, it was the principal mosque of Istanbul. Hagia Sophia has been a museum since 1935.

Saint Sophia Cathedral in Harbin is a much more recent edifice, but it shares a stormy history of conversions with the older and larger Sophia. It was built in 1907 after the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway and was renovated from 1923 to 1932 in order to accommodate Harbin’s 100,000-strong Russian population. Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, treaties were signed between the Soviet and Chinese governments that provided for the turning over of Russian churches to Chinese control. Although the cathedral’s sturdy structure survived the Cultural Revolution, its empty hull became a warehouse for a nearby state-run department store. The Beijing government designated the cathedral a national cultural heritage site in 1996 as part of a nationwide campaign to protect historical sites.