Gack. Up early, down to the uninspired breakfast buffet, then onto the bus for the hour-long ride to the airport in Izmir. Once there, security checkpoints separated scenes of vast confusion. No one seemed in charge. Somehow we got out bags checked. Somehow we got through security and onto the aircraft, despite Kathy’s ticket once again proclaiming her to be Paul Hedges.
And somehow we got seats in first class. We had champagne and a second, tasty breakfast, and when we saw our friends slumping down the aisle with their stuff, we could look at them in perfect innocence and say, “Oh. Didn’t you get seats in first class?”
The champagne didn’t make me feel better. I had a sore throat, and the sense that there was worse to come. We had spent a week in the viral incubator of the bus, and a lot of people were coming down with the same crud.
The plane came low over the Sea of Marmara, and then we were back in Istanbul. There was more confusion, and we piled all our baggage onto one of the carts mercifully available. Naturally the telescope was on top. Naturally the cart was hit by another cart, and the telescope fell off.
Naturally it broke, though we didn’t find that out till later.
For the day, we had new, temporary buses, and bus drivers. (Our veteran drivers were rolling up the coast and would meet us the next day.) Once on the bus with our bags, our broken gear, and our viruses, we went straight off to Hagia Sophia.
What can I say about Hagia Sophia that hasn’t been said? Possibly I could add that security is very strict, and that everything got patted or x-rayed before we were allowed anywhere near this monument to civilization. I could also add that Turks tend to be a bit puzzled by this enormous church. According to Mehmet, who guides Turks as well as foreigners, he is often asked, “Why is this church built to look like a mosque?” After which he has to explain that Ottoman mosques are built to look like Hagia Sophia, not the other way around.
Our own, Western idea of mosques tend to be based on the Ottoman model— you’ve got very different sorts of mosques in places like India and Indonesia. So it’s not just the Turks whose idea of mosques come from Justinian’s great church.
Hagia Sophia is also called Sancta Sophia (in Latin) and Ayasofia (in Turkish). The name translates as “Holy Wisdom,” not “Saint Sophy,” in much the same way that Santa Fe translates as “Holy Faith” and not “Saint Fay.”
The church was built to replace an earlier Hagia Sophia burned down during the Nika Riots of 532, in which the Emperor Justinian killed 30,000 of his subjects in order to maintain public order and his throne (not necessarily in that order). The Nika Riots have inspired a surprising amount of science fiction, by Pournelle, David Drake, and Guy Kay, among others.
Justinian has a pretty good reputation these days. In addition to building Hagia Sofia, he created the last great Roman legal code, reconquered Rome, Ravenna, and Africa from the Goths, and came within an ace of re-establishing Imperial rule over the West. (The reconquest may have failed due not to any military incapacity, but to a prolonged famine due to a nuclear winter produced by an eruption of Krakatoa.)
Justinian was a lot less popular during his lifetime. His subjects considered him a greedy, penny-pinching tyrant, married to a prostitute, whose claim to the throne was dubious. All those military and building projects cost money, and the Byzantines hated his tax collectors. Justinian, a sincere and orthodox Christian, also persecuted Jews and pagans, and put Plato’s Academy under state control.
The church is topped by an enormous dome over 50 meters tall, supported by a pair of arches and two half-domes. The dome is slightly smaller than that of the Pantheon in Rome, but it’s a lot farther off the ground. Beneath the dome was the largest enclosed space in the world until the Houston Astrodome was built in the 1960s. Back in the Dark Ages, a Russian princess walked beneath the dome and instantly converted, believing that only God could hold up such a building. Justinian wasn’t kidding when he says, on first entering the completed church, “Solomon, I have outdone you!”
Of course such a radical design had its flaws. The first dome collapsed in an earthquake during Justinian’s own lifetime, and was replaced by a taller and more stable dome which nevertheless fell down anyway. Since then, the church has been damaged multiple times, and each time rebuilt. Buttresses added to the outside of the building have somewhat obscured its original form.
Toward the end of the Byzantine Empire, the state was unable to raise the funds to keep the church in repair, and when the Turks marched in, Hagia Sofia was a wreck. The Turks under Mehmet the Conqueror restored Hagia Sofia, and in general have done a fine job of maintaining the building in the centuries since.
Incidentally, Hagia Sofia was Mehmet’s first destination on taking the city. He had promised his troops a three-day sack, but when he heard Hagia Sofia was being looted he galloped through the city gates straight to the church, where he commenced whacking the soldiers with his mace and shouting, “Keep your hands off my property!”
It has to be said that Hagia Sofia shows its age. The outside could use a new coat of paint. It’s a faded red, and Mehmet said when he was young, it was yellow. Inside, the whole building could use cleaning and restoration. This 1500-year-old grand dame is a little shabby around the edges.
Outside the main entrance of the building are remains of the earlier Hagia Sofias and various Ottoman additions, such as a fountain for the faithful to perform their ablutions, a school for boys, and the tombs of assorted sultans (two of which are in the old baptistry). In addition there are the four huge minarets constructed after the church was converted to a mosque. The minarets were not all built at the same time, which shows the rather deliberate progress of any Ottoman renovations. They could have radically altered the building at any time, but instead they treated it with great respect.
The building is entered through the narthex, a long gallery, with a barrel-vaulted ceiling, along Hagia Sofia’s western side. The ceiling is ornamented by a gold, blue, and vermilion mosaic in geometric patterns. The colors are on the dull side and I expect it could use a cleaning. The walls are ornamented with great slabs of marble set off in a kind of carved stone frame, as if they were paintings.
There are nine bronze doors leading into the church. Three were for the public, three for those seeking sanctuary, and the middle three for the Emperor and his family. The middle door, which I supposed the Emperor used in person, is much taller than the others, with a heavily ornamented bronze frame. Above the door is a mosaic of Jesus enthroned, flanked by medallions of Mary and Michael, with the Emperor Leon VI bowing before him.
Despite the mosaics, the gold, the massive doors, and the marble, the narthex only gives a hint of the magnificence within.
We entered through the Emperor’s doors (I mean, why not?).
There is a vast open space in the center of the building, softly lit by the windows under the dome. Our view of the dome was marred somewhat by an enormous keel-shaped scaffold used by workers restoring the dome. We noticed the workers don’t actually have to climb this thing to get to work, there are elevators installed.
On the other hand, we saw no workers at all. The scaffold has been in place for over ten years, and apparently little work has been done.
The huge mosaic ornamenting the dome’s underside is of Ottoman construction, replacing (or perhaps placed on top of) an earlier mosaic of Christ Pantokrator.
In general, the Ottomans were very respectful of the original Christian mosaics. Those featuring human figures (traditionally forbidden under Islam) were not destroyed, but covered with a light layer of plaster, easily removed. The Turks went so far as to restore damaged mosaics before covering them.
Though the mosaics of Hagia Sofia are damaged, some quite heavily, the damage was incurred in earthquakes, not as a result of religious bigotry.
Any religious problems seem to have been postponed to the 20th century and its aftermath, as various Orthodox and European figured are presently accusing the Turks of persecuting Christians within their state, and of dragging their feet when it comes to the restoration of Christian monuments such as Hagia Sofia. (That huge empty scaffold did seem like a giant finger pointing to, well, something or other.)
Entering the structure, you can’t help but notice two giant porphyry jars, carved in the form of perfume bottles. These were discovered in Ottoman times in the ruins of the ancient city of Pergamum, and moved by one of the sultans to Hagia Sofia.
The building is constructed in two tiers, with upper and lower galleries running around the vast empty space in the middle. Tens of thousands of man-hours must have gone into carving the arches over the pillars bearing the weight of the galleries. Many of the pillars are taken from pagan temples throughout the empire. The walls are covered with gorgeous slabs of porphyry and marble, also taken from all over Justinian’s empire. In many cases, a marble block was sawed in half, and then opened like a book before being mounted on the wall, creating a Rorschach-like image.
On one pillar is a little hole. Apparently one day Justinian had a migraine, and rested his head against this pillar for a while. The headache was cured, and since then people have been putting their afflicted parts on that section of the pillar, often enough to erode a hole.
Supporting the dome, between the half-domes and the arches, are the triangular load-bearing “squinches.” (That’s the real name, apparently.) On the squinches are dark, intimidating mosaics of vast six-winged beings— cherubim, in other words. These aren’t the cute little putti of Italian religious art, these are clearly dangerous, inhuman beings. (Sometimes they are portrayed as wings with eyes.) These figures originally had a human head in the middle of the image, but the Muslims replaced this with a kind of blaze of radiant light, as if the cherubim were firing a laser show at the people below.
The Ottomans made several addition to the building in the process of converting it to a mosque. The most obvious are the huge medallions bearing the signatures of the first eight (six? ten?) caliphs. These are common to large mosques.
The Turks also added a mihrap (I’m using Turkish spelling), the boat-shaped alcove used to indicate the direction of Mecca. During services, the imam normally stands (or bows, or kneels) before the mihrap, which I suspect helps to reflect and amplify his voice. This mihrap is made of pale marble and heavily ornamented with gold and with Arabic calligraphy.
Another addition was the minber, which is a kind of pulpit, with a conical roof and a long, straight stair leading to it. Imams could use this when they needed to address a larger audience. It’s beautifully made of marble, and is placed next to the “gallery of the sovereign,” an elevated box used by the sultan and his family during services. A gold, lacy screen separates the sultan from his subjects, and also makes it difficult for any assassin to aim at his target. Architecturally, it’s an interesting combination of Byzantine motifs mixed with Turkish ornament.
Another feature of Turkish mosques is the “muezzin loggia,” a kind of house, with open sides, built inside the mosque. The muezzin could hold semi-private meetings inside, or address multitudes from the roof. There are five of these in Hagia Sofia, one of them in the huge open space beneath the dome.
In addition, the Turks added gorgeous tile work in various places, plus examples of gold-embossed calligraphy of the various sultans who donated one thing or another to the building.
Our tour was lengthy but there was a lot we didn’t get to see, including all the mosaics in the upper galleries, so we decided to come back later on our own time.
We exited beneath the famous mosaic showing the Virgin and the infant Jesus being presented with a plan of Constantinople by Constantine I, while Justinian presents a plan of Hagia Sofia.
From Hagia Sofia we walked across the street to the Basilica Cistern, another vast, eerie underground space, where 336 columns, taken from pagan temples, were used to support this addition to the water works of Constantinople. Unlike the Cistern of 1001 Columns, viewed earlier, this still has water in it. A constant rain drips down from the roof, and the reflective water, the underwater floodlights, and the golden rain of water combine to produce an unearthly effect.
The water is only a few inches deep, though there are fish in it that cluster in the better-lit areas. Visitors pass over the water on wooden walkways.
In one corner are a pair of heads of Medusa placed at the bottom of a column. It was widely thought at one time that this was an ideological statement demonstrating the triumph of Christianity over paganism, but it was subsequently realized that during its use the cistern would have been filled to the ceiling, and there was no point in making an ideological statement that only the fish could see. It’s now thought that the Medusas are at the bottom of the column because that’s how that particular block of marble best fit into the structure.
This cistern has been used in movies. James Bond used a motorboat to zoom through it in From Russia With Love, and Jackie Chan had a memorable fight scene here in Who am I? I believe it may also have been used as a Turkish prison in the movie Midnight Express, in which the Turkish authorities inexplicably cooperated in a film demonstrating Turkish brutality (and which, at least in the case of this book and movie, seems to have been entirely invented).
From the cistern, we walked across a wide boulevard and a park to Mosque Sultanahmet, better known in the West as the Blue Mosque.
The mosque was built in the early 17th century by, hey, Sultan Ahmet. As the districts of old Istanbul were known by the nearest mosques, the entire historic district of old Byzantium is now known by the name Sultanahmet.
The mosque is younger than Hagia Sofia by over a thousand years, and looks generally like Hagia Sofia’s smaller, prettier, cleaner younger brother. The exterior isn’t blue, but various shades of gray— the name comes from the blue tiles inside. Even though it’s the most famous mosque in Istanbul, its architecture is not considered particularly distinguished— Suleiman’s mosque, by contrast, is considered the ne plus ultra of Turkish architecture.
You enter a mosque through a courtyard surrounded by a kind of cloister, and which features a fountain for ablutions. As we were entered the mosque proper, we were given a plastic drawstring bag for our shoes. Once again, women were obliged to cover their heads.
As we walked toward the center of the mosque, we passed by a series of lacy cages reserved for women. Women are also allowed in the upper gallery. Though this segregation is not to modern tastes, I have to say that— given the amount of bowing and kneeling going on in a Muslim service— it does prevent the guys from spending their time ogling the women’s butts.
The interior of the mosque is a vast empty space supported by four massive, fluted pillars— unlike Hagia Sofia, where no pillars interrupt the view. Illumination is provided by many banks of stained glass windows, and by huge iron wheel-shaped chandeliers with dim, lantern-like electric lights. The interior is heavily ornamented with mosaics and with the blue tiles that give the mosque its name, though the interior is so dim that it was difficult to appreciate these properly.
The interior is heavily carpeted with big machine-made carpets. Ankle-high shelves divide the open space, places for worshipers to put their shoes. A muezzin loggia is built against one of the big pillars. A few men knelt in prayer here and there across the big carpet.
We left the building, put on our shoes, and handed in our plastic shoe-carriers. There was a booth cleverly positioned at the exit, giving us a chance to tip the imam. I believe I gave him a lira.
From thence we thrashed our way through the souvenir-sellers to the buses, and were taken across the Golden Horn to Beyoglu. This area north of Istanbul proper has long been a residence for foreigners, and climbing Beyoglu’s tall hill, we passed many toney hotels and shops as we approached our own hotel, the Divan, yet another five-star hotel we would have otherwise been reluctant to afford.
We were on our own for dinner— no more wretched hotel buffets!— so we gathered a group of friends and went to Haçibaba, a Turkish restaurant that’s been in operation since the 1920s. After climbing a narrow stair, we were welcomed with the usual effusive hospitality.
As in many Greek restaurants, the raw food was all on display, and all we had to do was ogle and point. I had something on skewers, I don’t remember what, and a salad. I ordered a bottle of red Turkish wine for the table, and was given a sample to taste. It was horrid. I confess that I didn’t have the nerve to send the bottle back, however, and we all shared in the wretchedness of the stuff. Nevertheless the food was excellent, and we managed to have a merry time.
Returning to the hotel through the large, bus- and tram-filled Taksim Square, with its inevitable statue of Atatürk, we noticed an enormous police presence. There hadn’t been any crime, apparently, but there was a huge exhibit devoted to the Turkish police. Presumably recruiters were active in the crowd.
Once back in the hotel, I relaxed in the spacious lobby, and ordered an overpriced drink to wipe the memory of the awful wine from my palate.
Next day, we would visit the Sultan’s harem.
(Thanks to newmanservices.com for posting so many of the photographs linked to in this memoir.)