Saturday, November 6, 2010

Starting with the Corner Stone: The Hagia Sophia

After a week of decompression and adjustment, and prompted by the arrival of Colleen O'Donnell, our dear friend and first visitor, we set about seeing the sites of the city in earnest. The moment we had Colleen's luggage in the house, we went to see the Hagia Sophia (said I-ya Sofia.) It is truly the strangest intersection of visual ideas, and unlike any other place we've been. 

The current structure, built in the 500s on the site of two previous basilicas, has had it's awe-inspiring dome replaced twice, survived earthquakes, and seen dramatic changes of rule and religion. While we know that this structure is one of the most important works of architecture in the world, the strongest impression we had of it was not of its austere magnificence but of its chimera-like embodiment of all these changes. It is part soaring cathedral, part swirling mosque, with columns tilting from earthquakes, a watery plane of deeply worn and cracked marble slab floors, viking (viking!) graffiti cut into its interior and huge buttresses added like permanent scaffolding to its exterior. 

One of the main reasons we are here is to see Islamic art, especially the large-scale abstract decorative art of the mosques. Islamic sacred art and architecture creates a swirling, reality-dissolving, enveloping experience, while Christian cathedrals impress monumental scale and the loftiness of the heavens. Mosques evoke a horizontal experience, with huge circles of oil lamps hovering just overhead and thick, soft carpets under bare feet. Cathedrals seem beyond touch, higher than the sky, pointing to a god that is above. To see these two architectural points of view collide in one building is extremely odd. Yet nearly all of the large-scale mosques built here after the city became Islamic in the 1400s are based closely on the Hagia Sophia, and therefore purposefully replicate this bizarre intersection of ideas in a way that we find mysterious and appealing. 

At times it seems like the architects and artisans that converted Constantinople's basilicas into Istanbul's mosques simply didn't speak the same visual language as their predecessors. The large discs of calligraphy, while beautiful in themselves, look like oversized earrings pasted onto a classical sculpture, or even like the huge placards of a political convention. The unchangeable bones of the Hagia Sophia have a cruciform footprint and clean geometric volumes that are all cubes and spheres. These grand volumes of space have been broken and transected by hundreds of lines of chain hanging from the ceiling to support the rings of lamps that hover over the empty floor space. It's original interior, covered in tiny mosaics, would have emphasized its magnitude. These mosaics were plastered over when the building became a mosque, and we wonder if this change of skin made it feel so much more intimate of scale. Notre Dame could fit beneath the dome? Really? The Statue of Liberty, as one guide book claims, could "do jumping jacks" in here? Without a doubt, this dome, which is counted among the most impressive architectural accomplishments of the ancient world, is soaring... but, when standing beneath it, with the tendrils of delicate chains descending from its lofts to the lamps just above our heads, it does feel almost touchable.  

Iznik tiles in a side archway of the Hagia Sophia

Looking down from the Loge of the Empress 

From the upper gallery 

Worn marble threshold 

Restored mosaic in the upper gallery.
Now that the Hagia Sophia is a museum, images from the different eras live side by side. 

Making our first experience of the Hagia Sophia even stranger was the extremely unusual emptiness of the Museum on that visit. Most days this place is packed with people.

Julia and Colleen in the garden adjacent to the Hagia Sophia


  1. I haven't figured out how to fix/change my google profile w/o having to do a ton of work, but it's Jeremy(so you know).

    I think I saw a Documentary on this building awhile back and it was fascinating. If this is the right one, it was so magnifiscent(even for today) when it was built, people thought it was built with the help of God.

  2. Hey Jeremy,

    We just saw this after replying to the newer comment. Nice to see you here!


    Shane & Julia