"" Writer's Wanderings: Istanbul - Hagia Sophia

Friday, October 12, 2012

Istanbul - Hagia Sophia

Between the Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque sits the magnificent Hagia Sophia. Construction was begun in the sixth century on what was to be the largest church in the world for a thousand years. It was ordered by Emperor Justinian and took thousands of workers and more than five years to complete. It was later converted to a mosque in 1453 when the city was conquered by the Ottomans. In 1935 it was declared by Kemal Ataturk to be a national monument.

It is a little unnerving to walk into the huge structure and have your guide tell you that the domes are unsupported. Still, they have survived centuries of earthquakes and war and though repaired several times, have never fallen. I figured they might last at least long enough for our tour.

The site of the church actually dates back to the time of Constantine in the 4th century and had another church structure on it. It burned to the ground during an uprising. The next emperor rebuilt it but again it was destroyed. Perhaps that's why Justinian decided on stone and marble.

Sultan Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople in 1453, ordered the church to be converted to a mosque. Architects of the day built several minarets around it and the altar was replaced by a mirab that sat to one side slightly so that those who attended for prayer would know in which direction Mecca lay.

When the church had become a mosque, many of the original mosaics were covered over with plaster. At the time it was a way of ridding the structure of its Christian influence. It actually turned out to be a way of preserving the ancient works of art. When the museum began to remove the plaster, the mosaics were discovered in remarkable condition for their age.

The mosaic over the imperial door that leads to the narthex is one of Christ blessing the emperor. This door was used only by the emperors. The mosaic dates back to the 9th or 10th century. The other mosaic I pictured is of Mary and the two emperors instrumental in building Hagia Sophia, Constantine and Justinian. This mosaic dates to the 10th century and is in the south entrance. You actually see it reflected in a mirror as you exit the church so if you go, be sure to turn around and look at it as those entering that way would have seen it.

Needless to say, I think you can get a feel for the immensity of the inside building. The center dome is 182 1/2 feet high and 102 1/2 feet wide. Impressive when you consider the age in which it was built and its standing the test of time and nature.

Look at the photo of the front of the inside of the church. The golden mirab is sitting off slightly to the right of the center stained glass window where the altar of the church was originally. That is the direction of Mecca.

We finished our wandering on our own and went out to the meeting place in the courtyard where there is a small cafe. I had been seeing carts loaded with pomegranates and the vendors squeezing them for juice. Somehow it just looked really good so I asked for one. Our guide got it for me but neglected to tell me that is would be a bit sweeter if you got it mixed with orange juice. Bob and I drank it and discovered new pucker power. Somehow I remember pomegranates being sweeter than that.

Once our group had gathered again, we were off to find lunch. It turned out to be a real treat.

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