Saturday, May 10, 2008

Istanbul. The Magnificent Hagia Sophia.

I took this iconic photo of the Hagia Sophia from Sultanahmet Park.

reetings from Istanbul.  We arrived yesterday and today was our first full day exploring Istanbul.

Some people say you should save the best things for last. Well, maybe that's true for somethings in life but for me, as a tourist, I always want to see the best things first.

When I planned the itinerary for Istanbul, the top item on my list was to see the Hagia Sophia known as the Ayasofya in Turkish. It started out as a Byzantine church and then became an Ottoman mosque. Today, it's a museum. Whatever purpose it may serve through time, I don't think here's a more magnificent structure in all of Istanbul.
We started our first full day in Istanbul with breakfast at the Kybele Hotel. Bless her heart, Lei knew how much I wanted to get to the Hagia before the rest of the crowds so we devoured our food as quickly as possible. We didn't realize how close we were to the Hagia Sophia until we started walking - from the hotel, it was less than 10 minutes.

The original Hagia Sophia was built by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine. Following the destruction of Constantine's church, a second church was built on the same site by his son Constantius and the emperor Theodosius the Great. This second church was burned down in 532 AD. In 532 AD, construction began, under the supervision of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, on the current and third building.

For over 900 years the Hagia Sophia was the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople and a principal setting for church councils and imperial ceremonies. The structure was severely damaged several times by earthquakes. The original dome collapsed after an earthquake in 558 AD and its replacement fell in 563 AD. There were additional partial collapses in 989 AD and 1346.

In 1204 the Ayasofya was sacked and stripped down to the bare bones by the Crusaders, a desecration that robbed the church of precious relics and definitively divided the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.

In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks and Sultan Mehmed II ordered the building to be converted into a mosque. The bells, altar, iconostasis, and sacrificial vessels were removed, and many of the mosaics were eventually plastered over. The Islamic features - such as the mihrab, the minbar, and the four minarets outside - were added over the course of its history under the Ottomans. It remained as a mosque until 1935, when it was converted into a museum by the Republic of Turkey.

We bought our tickets and headed for the entrance. Nothing much to admire from the outside - I knew the splendor was all inside. Huge metal doors greeted us.

As you enter, your eyes are immediately drawn upwards to vaulted ceiling.

 The main interior entrance is the Imperial Gate which was only used by Byzantine Emperors to enter the church. Just before I passed through it, I looked up to see a beautiful golden mosaic of Christ known as the Deësis Mosaic. The mosaic that dates back to around the 9th century and . To the left of Christ, is the Archangel Gabriel (founder of the church), depicts a triumphant and kingly Christ (known as "Christ Pantrocrator"), flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. Surprisingly, the faces of the figures had not been damaged as I had expected since Islam prohibits the use of figurative imagery. Perhaps under current restoration efforts, they are being restored to their former glory.

My first reaction when I entered the nave of the church was to awe. A huge cavernous space, beautifully decorated from wall to ceiling and gently lit by sunlight streaming through windows high above. The main eye catcher is the famed dome. Unfortunately, scaffolding obscures part of the view.

Reminders that this space also served as a mosque is immediately evident with the huge plaques bearing the names of Allah, the Prophet Mohammed and the first four caliphs.

The massive dome sits atop four pendentives which are concave triangular sections of masonry. The weight of the dome is transferred through the pendentives to four massive piers at the corners. The result is that the dome seems to float upon four great arches.

A figure of a seraphim is painted on each surface. I don't know exactly what the seraphim represents. An angel? Some other type of celestial being? Byzantine arches and pillars also adorn the interior.

On the two sides of the nave stand two large urns that were brought in from the ancient city of Pergamon during the late 16th century. A stray cat had decided to make it his resting spot - tourist after tourist, including Lei, could not resist the urge to pet the cat....forgetting all about the beautiful urn!

....and before we got caught up in snapping more photos of the beautiful room, we decided to have one taken of the two of us. Our first photo together!

Looking back towards the entrance, above the Imperial Gate, is the Loge of the Empress which is where the empress and the court-ladies would watch the proceedings down below. At the other end of the room are the Loge of the Sultan which is where the sultan prayed and the mimbar which is where the imam preached from - akin to the altar in a church.

From left to right: The Loge of the Empress, the Loge of the Sultan, the mimbar.
The flat wall interior walls are called tympanums. Each tympanum has 12 large windows in two rows, seven in the lower and five in the upper. Below each tympanum are seven archways.

Next, we headed to the upper level. Access is via what can only be described as a dimly lit, spiral, unpaved stone walkway. Such a rough visual contrast to the ornately decorated room that we had just left.

The upper level is laid out in a horseshoe shape with the bottom of the "U" at the entrance. The ceiling is vaulted and painted a brilliant mustard yellow color. Mosaics provide pattern.

A view of the lower level from above

From the upper level, you can get a better view of the Virgin and Child mosaic that decorates the dome above the church apse. This mosaic is the oldest surviving mosaic in the church.

A view of the Virgin and Child mosaic taken as seen from the lower level.

Back outside, more was waiting for us. In an adjacent courtyard laid remnants of the 2nd church - dating from 406 AD - 532 AD.

On our way out, we passed the fountain used for ritual ablutions.

As we exited the complex, all I could think of was just how magnificent and grand the Haghia Sophia is. How incredible it is that it has survived nearly 1500 years - serving both Christian and Muslim worshippers in its time. Words can do it no justice - you really have to be there in person to appreciate and understand the experience.

Next stop. The Blue Mosque.