Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The One. The Only. Aya Sopia.


I woke up rested and raring to go.  By the time I got out of the shower, Bro was ready to go in. We had a quick breakfast of eggs, bread and jam, yogurt and fruit and tea. It's become our de facto breakfast menu on this trip and even on our previous trip to the Baltics during which we stayed in an Airbnb apartment in Tallinn.



We walked down that steep hill to the Tophane tram station.  Bro was familiar with how to buy our tram tokens.  It's rush and trams ran frequently.  We barely had to wait a few minutes before one arrived.

We're headed in the direction towards Bağcılar.
Today's ride would take us to the Sultanahmet stop.  I knew it well as I had stayed near this stop on my previous two visits to Istanbul.  It's the one you get off at if you want to visit the Aya Sophia, the Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque, and the Basilica Cistern.  Those three cultural heritage sites were on the top of our sightseeing itinerary for today.

Ordinarily, the first place I would have taken Bro to would have been the Aya Sophia. To me, it is THE historic highlight of Istanbul but it's a museum and as such was closed yesterday.  So, today, it's the first place we went.

Although I had not checked to find out what the opening hours were, our timing could not have been more perfect.  We got off the tram about 10 minutes before it was scheduled to open at 9am.  There was already a long line waiting to buy tickets. I assured Bro that the place is more than large enough to easily accommodate everyone standing in line.

Soon enough, we started to move and in no time got up to the ticket booth.  Once again, we had to decide whether or not to get the museum pass or to buy individual tickets.  I had done my homework and this time around, we opted to forgo the museum pass.  Bro handed over 60TL for two entry tickets.

Ablution fountain.

Past the ticket booths and the ablution fountain and we headed towards the front entrance.

Looking back towards the ticket booths.

We stepped inside the narthex, (aka entry hall ) with its magnificent vaulted ceiling; the colors seemingly as vibrant today as they might have been when the Aya Sophia was constructed in the 6th century.  I always get goosebumps just recalling that this amazing building is almost 1600 hundred years old!



When you enter the interior, you pass through a set of massive doors known as the Imperial Gate.  Before you step inside, look up and you'll see the mosaic panel in the photo below which I took on my visit in May 2008.


The mosaic dates back to the 9 or 10th century.  Emperor Leo VI with a halo over his head is giving proskynesis, an act of respect – to Christ, who is sitting on a jeweled throne. With his right hand, Christ is blessing the emperor, and his left hand, he is holding a book with the words, “Peace be with you. I am the light of the world” written on it. On either side of Christ are figures in roundels - on the left is the  Mother Mary and the other is Archangel Gabriel.

Once you're inside the nave, turn around and look at the Imperial Gate, through which you've just entered. You really don't realize how big the doors are are until you watch someone cross the threshold.


I had told Bro that the interior space was massive - larger than any basilica or cathedral that I have ever been in.  It's hard to put that in to perspective for someone else, you really have to be there, stand under the massive dome and look up.


I was a bit sad to see the scaffolding still.  It was there when I was here in 2008.  Understandably, restoration efforts are ongoing and someday, I would love to come back and see the glorious dome, without it being partially obscured by scaffolding.


The main dome is carried on pendentives - four concave triangular sections of masonry which solve the problem of setting the circular base of a dome on a rectangular base. The weight of the dome passes through the pendentives to four massive piers at the corners, and between them the dome seems to float upon four great arches.

Each of the four pendentives is decorated with a seraphim.  The face of the Hexapterygon (six-winged angel) was covered up during the time the painting was being restored but it can now be seen again. It is the most notable of the seraphims.


Another one of the seraphims.


Islamic calligraphic roundels were placed in the 19th century remain in place and they are provide the most obvious points of contrast between the Aya Sophia as a Byzantine church and the Aya Sophia as an Ottoman mosque.  The names painted on the eight wooden medallions are: Allah and Muhammad (flanking the apse); the first four Caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali (at the four corners of the dome); and the two grandsons of Mohammed, Hasan and Husayn (in the nave).




A view of the intricately carved columns of the tympanum (side walls). There are 104 columns like this.



On one side of what used to be apse sits the minbar, the pulpit where the imam (prayer leader) stands to deliver sermons.

Front view of the minbar.

Side view of the minbar.

The mihrab is also located in the apse -  where the altar used to stand.  It's positioned to point towards Mecca.



Located at the east end of the church, at a high point in the apse there is a very special mosaic.  It depicts the Virgin Mary sitting on a backless throne decorated with jewels, and holding child Christ on her lap. The mosaic was inaugurated in 867 but was likely damaged and restored before the 14th century.  The golden background is original.  On either side of Mary and Christ are images of the archangels Michael and Gabriel; Michael is largely destroyed but Gabriel mostly remains.

You can see the mosaic of Mary and Christ to the left of the roundel.

The mosaic of Mary and Christ was just about at the limit that my zoom lens would go so while I am happy I managed to get a photo, it's not the best.


The nave is flanked by the north and south galleries, which we took a look at before heading up to the second floor.


Notice the Byantine Christian cross decorations on the ceiling.


A Byzantine Christian cross rendered in mosaic tile.

From the nave, you have to exit back out to the main entry hall.  On the side, there is a very ancient (probably the original Byzantine) cobblestone walkway that takes you up to the second floor.

Following Bro up.

As on the ground floor, the narthex on the upper level has a beautifully painted arched ceiling.  I love the vibrant yellow color!


Closer view of the relief work and painting on the columns.

It's really only from the second floor that you get a perspective of just how massive the interior of the Aya Sophia is.  The people passing below us looked ant sized!





The Mosaics of the Aya Sophia
On my two visits in 2008, I came up to the second floor but out of sheer ignorance, never realized there were stunning Byzantine mosaics to be viewed.  This visit, I came back with more knowledge of the place so I was sure that we would make our way around to see them.  Despite all of that, we did miss out on one - the mosaic that sits above the Imperial Door.

So, here are a few photos and descriptions of the remarkable mosaics which were largely uncovered in the 1930s by a team from the Byzantine Institute of America led by Thomas Whittemore. Because of its long history as both a church and a mosque, a particular challenge arises in the restoration process. Christian iconographic mosaics can be uncovered, but often at the expense of important and historic Islamic art. Restorers have attempted to maintain a balance between both Christian and Islamic cultures.  Whittemore's team chose to let a number of simple cross images remain covered by plaster, but uncovered all major mosaics found.

Two of the major mosaics are located on the south narthex on the upper level.  The first mosaic we came across was the one commonly referred to as the *Deesis*.  In Byzantine art, a Deesis is a traditional representation of Chist carrying a book, flanked by the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist who have their hands raised in supplication on behalf of humanity.  The mosaic dates back to 1261 and is considered to be a pioneer for the Byzantine art in the Renaissance period with its soft tones, the intense humanity and the emotional realism on the faces of the figures.


I stood as close as I could and used my camera lens to zoom in to take a closer look at the teeny, weeny tiles that went into creating this masterpiece. When I mean teeny weeny tiles, they are incredible small - probably about a 1/4 inch each!  I just could not imagine what it must have taken, in both effort and skill, for the artist to patiently drop each tile into place.  I read somewhere that the estimate of the number of gold tiles alone, in all of the interior of the Aya Sophia, comes up to somewhere around 30 million!

Christ.

St. John the Baptist.

Virgin Mary.

Every now and again, I would spot a mosaic that wasn't labeled as a major one but I found them interesting to look at nonetheless.

A spider web.  I don't know what the significance is in the context of a Byzantine church.

 The south narthex.  You can see the mosaic of the Deesis in the background.

From a window we could look out and see the Sultanahmet Cami aka the Blue Mosque.  It was Bro's first view.

It's also from the upper level that you can get a closer view of the roundels.  They are stunning in their own right.


The second of the mosaics is referred to as the Comnenus mosaic. It also hails from the 12th century and is thought to have been made during the reign of Emperor John II Comnenus, hence its informal moniker.


The mosaic depicts the the Virgin Mary holding the child Christ.  She is flanked by Emperor John II Comnenus and his wife, the Empress Irene. Child Christ is giving his blessings with his right hand while holding a scroll with left. Empress Irene is offering a scroll that symbolizes the donations to the church, and the Emperor is carrying a purse of gold as a symbol of donations to the church.

The Virgin Mary and the Child Christ.

Empress Irene.

Detail of the mosaic work on Empress Irene.  Amazing!

I had a hard time taking a photo of this mosaic mainly because there's a window on its left side.  As a result, there's a bit of haze to the photo of the Emperor.

Emperor John II Comnenus.

On an adjacent pilaster is a mosaic of the eldest son of Emperor John II Comnenus and his wife, the Empress Irene - Alexius Comnenus. He is shown as a beardless youth, probably representing his appearance at his coronation when he was seventeen years old.


The third of the major mosaics, on the south narthex, is one that is simply named after the Empress Zoe,who reigned as Byzantine Empress alongside her sister Theodora from April 19 to June 11, 1042. She was also enthroned as the Empress Consort to a series of co-rulers beginning with Romanos III in 1028 until her death in 1050 while married to Constantine IX.

Her mosaic dates 11th century.  In it, Christ is sitting on a throne decorated with jewels. He is wearing a dark blue robe, blessing with his right hand, and holding the bible with his left hand. On his left stands Empress Zoe, offering a scroll that symbolizes the donations she made to the church. The face of her consort is believed to have changed three times according to her two previous husbands. The mosaic as it is today, depicts the face of her final spouse Constantine IX. They are both in their formal dresses. Emperor Constantine IX is offering a purse, a symbol for his donation to the church.


There was much too much glare from the sunlight streaming in to the room so believe it or not, I could not get a decent photo of Empress Zoe :-(   But I did manage to take photos of Christ and Constantine IX.

Christ.

Constantine IX.

Closeup view of mosaic tile that makes up the robe of Constantine IX.

From the south narthex, we walked over to the north narthex.


Looking over at the south narthex.

It's from the north narthex that you can get a better view of the mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Christ that adorns the central dome.


Understandably, she's extremely popular, so I had to patiently wait my turn.


It's also from the north narthex, that you can see the mosaic of the archangel Gabriel.


I had to zoom in to get the image of the beautiful mosaic of Gabriel.


After visiting the two narthexes, we were done.  We headed back down to the lower level to do one last walk around before leaving.


View of the north narthex on the lower level.

We arrived with a crowd of people but it was nothing like the mob scene that we passed by when we returned to the lower level.  It was definitely our time to leave.  We didn't even both going back to the south narthex.


People entering in to the Aya Sophia.

Before saying goodbye to this magnificent cultural landmark, we took a look at a few of the ruins that rest in the Aya Sophia's garden.

The current Aya Sophia is third version of the church, constructed on the same site.  The second Aya Sophia church was ordered by Theodosius II who inaugurated it in 415 AD.  The second Hagia Sophia burned to the ground 532 AD during a revolt. After the fire there were several marble blocks that survived. These are now displayed in the garden outside the Aya Sophia.

One of the most famous of the ruins is the relief depicting twelve lambs representing the twelve apostles.




I am so fortunate to have visited the Aya Sophia three times.  Hands down, it is my absolute favorit place to visit in Istanbul!  Each time I have been here, I have left with a richer experience.  But I know I have not yet seen it all so perhaps, if I'm lucky, I'll get to come back again...and again...and again!

Of course, we couldn't leave without at least one of us having our photo taken with the Aya Sophia in the background :-)


But for now, we have another iconic landmark to visit - Sultanahmet Cami!