Monday, October 24, 2011

Istanbul II: Sacred Wisdom

I've wanted to see that building since the day I found out she existed. Somehow, though, I felt certain I never would. What with all the Sistene Chapels and Notre Dames and Westminster Abbeys yet to be seen, surely this one church, so far off the usual track, would be beyond my reach. Besides, even though she was once the greatest Christian church in the world, she's hardly as famous now. She isn't a church anymore, and even her time as a mosque ended years ago.

But when we saw those discounted tickets to Istanbul online, Hagia Sophia was the reason I bought them. And when we woke up for the first time in that ancient, fascinating city, she was the only thing I cared about seeing.

We went early to the gates, determined to miss the crowds. I was anxious somehow, as though if we were not fast enough somehow something would prevent me from seeing her. I'd come all this way and I just knew it couldn't be that easy. The gates must be barred to us. There would be a password we did not know, a gesture or look that would mark us as outsiders, not ready to see her now. And if not now, when? Hurry, we have to hurry.

But the gates were not barred. No password required, and outsiders or no, the ticket price guaranteed us admission. And so, we walked through the old walls to stand next to her. Solid, stable, and plain in comparison to the delicate white mosques that surround her. From the outside, in fact, she is just a red-brown giant, dowdy even, next to the frilly, glittery Blue Mosque opposite. But that's outside.

This is inside.
This is the passageway to the upper levels. There was something truly creepy and wonderful about this bare stone passage. Or maybe I've read too much Udolpho.
This doesn't even give you an adequate sense of how massive it is, but it's the best I can do. Look at those puny little homo sapiens down there. So insignificant

Hagia Sophia has been many things to many people in her sixteen-hundred year lifetime, but she started out as a christian church. Her walls and domes were covered in gold-leafed mosaics. Pictures of the Virgin, Christ enthroned with various empirical personages, John the Baptist, angels, seraphim, and crosses glittered on nearly every surface. But all of that changed when Mehmet the conqueror had her turned into a mosque. The massive building with its incredible dome would remain, but the human figures, the crosses, the intricate and masterful mosaics, would have to go. And so they did. Rail at him if you must, but give him this one credit: rather than scrape them entirely from the walls, Mehmet chose to cover the mosaics with plaster. Saving them, partially at least, from total destruction.

And now, centuries later, they are peaking through again. A face here, a wing there. Some glittery pattern above a pillar. The work of restoring her walls to their original grandeur will take time, and she will never be what she once was. Even so, with just these few glimpses into her byzantine self, one can understand Justinian, the emperor who commissioned her, when he said at first entering

"Oh Solomon! I have outdone you!"

I wish I could have taken a better photo of His face here and they way the artist used hints of pink in the tiles to give Christ's face a human warmth.

Plaster next to mosaic. Doesn't the paint look silly next to the original?

I don't have any photos of me here, but that's probably better anyway. I'm sure I looked kind of nuts with my mouth hanging open and tears in my eyes. Mr. Awesome, of course, can be counted on for sanity and calm in any situation.

Looking out toward the blue mosque from an upper window, you can see its minarets in the distance. That's a sultan's tomb seen through an upper window.
Looking back at that same window. Warning: Objects in photo are much more amazing than they appear.
So listen, I won't bore you with anymore drooling over mosaics and such like. Suffice it to say that Hagia Sophia blew my mind, and since I can't adequately describe it for you, you'll just have to go see her for yourself.

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