Friday, 1 July 2011
Today, July 1st, was the first day I began to feel like myself again. First a gastrointestinal infection robbed me of my ability to eat, and then a common cold eliminated my ability to taste. Most recently, an inflammation of my tonsils has made it difficult for me to swallow (or talk very much). Now, at last, the three plagues standing between me and the good food I’d like to eat have started to pass. And I even have the energy to go out and do what I want to do.
What I wanted to do today was to see the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, the two religious and architectural masterpieces of Istanbul.
The Blue Mosque is about 400 years old, built near Hagia Sophia and with the ambition of rivaling the latter’s glory. It has six minarets and is known as the “Blue” Mosque because of the extensive blue-colored tiles (more than 20,000, all handmade) which adorn its interior.
The first photo is from wikipedia, but the rest are mine:
Despite being a massive tourist attraction, the mosque is still a functioning place of worship – though not the kind I’d want to frequent, with crowds of frenetic tourists and flashbulbs going off.
A glimpse at one of the columns upholding the roof. My guess is that it would take 12 people to fully encircle one.
And a last look, this time a blurry one at all the tiles inside.
The Hagia Sophia obviously has a much longer and more illustrious history. The third version is the one that now stands; it was completed in 537, so it’s nearly 1500 years old – older than most empires, and its history intersects with some of the most famous and most important empires in history – the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire (a continuation of the first under a different name), the Ottoman Empire. Justinian built it and most likely stood inside it, and later Byzantine Emperors were coronated inside it. It served as the principal mosque of Istanbul – and the Ottoman Empire – for more than 500 years, and that AFTER it was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years, and one of the most important – the place, for example, where the Great Schism between Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholicism Christianity began. And its place in the history of architecture is no less impressive, considered one of the most revolutionary buildings ever built.
That said, its history has also been marked by setbacks. The first Hagia Sophia, dedicated in 360, was burnt down in rioting following the exile of the Patriarch of Constantinople in 404, who’d made enemies with the wrong people (namely, the Empress). A second version didn’t last much longer; it also burned, along with half the city, when Justinian was nearly overthrown (if you want to know more, you can read all about it here). Parts of the second remain, uncovered in excavations that were quickly halted lest they disturb the existing Hagia Sophia. These remnants are displayed in situ just outside the entrance:
The third Hagia Sophia itself had difficulty, this time because of its massive dome. It collapsed in an earthquake in 558, after prior earthquakes in 557 and 553 had riven it with cracks. But the earthquakes weren’t really responsible for its collapse, which may have happened eventually anyway, thanks to the design of the dome itself. When it was rebuilt, the height of the dome was elevated 30 feet (it was too flat before) and lighter building materials were used. Here’s what the dome looks like now, from the inside:
And here’s what the rest of it looks like, from the inside:
If you’re wondering what architectural wonder this is, it isn’t. It’s just a cat, though granted one which seems to enjoy the limelight. Istanbul is absolutely filled – crammed full – of stray cats, incidentally, and has its fair share of dogs too. Some are plump, overfed, and have obviously worked out how to exploit the system (maybe thanks to their brawn or guile). Others are thin, scrawny, and look at you piteously. This seems to be the former variety.
Just in case you were wondering where all those Byzantine Emperors were coronated, this is the place. You can’t walk on it. You’re not an Emperor.
Hagia Sophia just completed a year of restoration work, in which it was wrapped in scaffolding. Now it’s “restored” but – let’s face it – still very old. For a building, it’s been through a lot, and for all its fabled beauty, I didn’t find it all that beautiful. Mostly, the place looks tired. Not that I mind – I came for the history; to stand in the place of history, and in that respect it did not disappoint.