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The History of the Hagia Sophia

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Were we excited to visit the Hagia Sophia? It’s just one of the most legendary buildings on the planet. The largest church in the world for a thousand years. The scene of some of history’s most decisive moments. A breathtaking architectural achievement on a scale unthinkable for its day. Yes, I suppose it’s fair to say that we were excited.

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Ever since arriving in Istanbul, I’d been eagerly anticipating our visit to the Hagia Sophia. Scratch that: I’d been eagerly anticipating a visit since 1984 when, at the age of seven, I read about it in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Now the long-awaited day had finally arrived, and it was every bit as amazing as I had hoped. The instant I stepped inside the Hagia Sofia, the Church of Divine Wisdom, I felt transported into another world.

The building we see today is actually the third church built on the site. The first, completed in 360, was destroyed during a riot in 404, and no trace remains. And the second church was burnt to the ground in 513 during the infamous Nika Riots. One of worst riots in history, this popular outburst of rage resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the destruction of half of Constantinople’s buildings. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian, though, emerged unscathed and more powerful than ever. With a free rein to rebuild the city as he liked, he started with the Hagia Sophia.

Completed in 537, Justinian’s new church was immediately hailed as an unprecedented architectural achievement. The empire’s greatest mathematicians and physicists had been brought in to supervise and consult on the construction, nothing on the scale of which had ever been attempted. The Hagia Sophia was by far the biggest church in the world, and would remain so for nearly a thousand years. It’s almost unthinkable. Try to imagine how otherworldly and groundbreaking a modern-day skyscraper would have to be, to remain unsurpassed for the next millennium. I don’t actually think it’s possible, anymore.

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Despite its preeminence, the Hagia Sophia hasn’t been immune to the passage of history. It exists, after all, in one of the most tumultuous capitals on earth, and has had as many masters as Istanbul has had names. First and foremost, it was a Byzantine church and the center of the Orthodox world. For a brief interlude, from 1204 to 1261, it was converted into a Roman Catholic church, following the Fourth Crusade which crippled Byzantine. The marauding crusaders even installed a prostitute on the patriarch’s throne, in mockery of the Eastern faith.

Luckily, the next masters of Constantinople would treat the church with more respect. After sacking the city in 1453, the Ottoman forces under Mehmet II the Conqueror enjoyed three days of pillaging, but the Hagia Sophia was mostly spared. The church had been as famous in the Arab world as in the Christian, and it had been Mehmet’s lifelong ambition to see it converted into a mosque. During the long eclipse of the Byzantine Empire, the church had fallen into a deplorable state, but the Turks restored it to its former glory. For the next 500 years, it served as the most important mosque in the Ottoman Empire.

In 1935, the nascent Turkish Republic recognized that the Hagia Sophia was more important as a monument of our shared cultural heritage, than as yet another mosque. On the orders of Atatürk, it was converted into a museum. A good move, in my opinion. Today, it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world, and certainly among the most impressive we’ve ever visited.

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May 19, 2013 at 2:14 pm Comments (3)

The Kalenderhane & Şehzade Mosques

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Within the immediate vicinity of the Aqueduct of Valens are two worthwhile mosques: the ancient Kalenderhane and the enormous ?ehzade Mosque, built on the order of Süleyman the Magnificent in 1548.


The Kalenderhane Mosque was originally a Byzantine church built towards the end of the 12th century. After the conquest of Constantinople, it was granted to the Kalender Dervishes as a tekke, or lodge. The Kalender dervishes are an Islamic sect whose beliefs demand a life of endless wandering, so it’s unsurprising that they eventually abandoned their tekke. Today, it’s been converted into another of the city’s mosques, popular with students from the nearby Istanbul University.

The Kalenderhane is small, and impressive for both its marble panels and its age. Inside, the oldest known painting of Saint Francis d’Assisi was discovered in 1966. The fresco, which depicts the saint preaching to the birds, is believed to have been painted shortly after his death in 1266, and can currently be seen in the Archaeological Museum.


Near the humble Kalenderhane, we came upon the much larger ?ehzade Camii. A jaw-dropping structure, but that was a given. It’s not as though an “adequate” mosque was going to satisfy a sultan who calls himself “Magnificent”. The ?ehzade Camii (or “Prince Mosque”) was built to honor the untimely death of Süleyman’s oldest son to smallpox, and was one of Mimar Sinan’s first major constructions in Istanbul. According to a plaque outside, the master architect was unsatisfied with the result, calling it an “apprentice work”, but we think he was being too hard on himself. Unlike many of the larger mosques in the city, visitors here are allowed to wander here at will.

Location of the Kalenderhane | ?ehzade Mosque

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April 22, 2013 at 4:00 pm Comments (3)

The Remains of the Hippodrome

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An arena nearly half a kilometer long, packed with 100,000 howling fans. The emperor seated with his family in the imperial loge, disinterestedly following the proceedings. Hundreds of golden statues, columns, monuments and treasures decorating the track. And the thunderous sound of 32 horses, galloping under the whip’s cruel crack. Oh, to experience the Hippodrome during Constantinople’s Golden Age!


Little remains of this once great public arena. The Hippodrome, built in the 3rd century, had fallen into disrepair long before the Ottomans claimed the city in 1453, and the new rulers of Istanbul had little use for chariot racing. But the arena’s general shape survived in the form of Sultanahmet Square, and one chunk of its massive retaining wall is still visible in the southeast corner. So it’s not difficult to get a sense of the Hippodrome’s former size.

Of the many monuments which were once lined up along the track’s spine, only three remain. Coming from the south, the first of these is the Walled Obelisk: 32-meters in height and with the appearance of a mid-game Jenga tower. It had been covered in gilded bronze until the Fourth Crusade, when Europe’s Christian soldiers decided to end their “holy quest” by sacking their Christian brothers in Constantinople. By the time they were done looting, the Crusaders had stripped the Walled Obelisk bare.

Meters away is the Serpentine Column: a strange spiral of weathered bronze. There had originally been three snake heads atop the column, which was taken from Delphi at the command of Constantine the Great. This is one of humanity’s oldest Greek treasures, crafted in 478 BC as an offering to Apollo, following the legendary Battle of Plataea in which an over-matched alliance of Greek states defeated the powerful Persians of Xerxes I. The column’s snake heads were lopped off sometime during the Ottoman regency of Istanbul, but one can still be seen in the city’s Museum of Archaeology.

The Serpentine column’s age is impressive, but the Hippodrome’s third monument is even older. A lot older. The Egyptian Obelisk was originally erected in Luxor sometime around 1450 BC. That’s about three and a half millennia ago. Give or take a century. Made of red granite, it’s in unfathomably good condition, despite being moved to Constantinople by Theodosius in 390 AD and re-erected in the center of the Hippodrome.

The obelisk is covered in bizarre Egyptian hieroglyphs and its nearly perfect condition just adds to its mysterious aura. Many believe it to be imbued with magical powers and, while I’ve never been one to buy into mysticism, it’s hard to remain completely skeptical while in its presence.

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March 23, 2013 at 6:25 pm Comments (2)

The Great Palace Mosaic Museum

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Not much remains of the Great Palace of Constantinople, built in 330 AD and home to Byzantine emperors for over 800 years. After taking the city in 1453, the Ottomans reduced the palace to rubble and eventually erected the Blue Mosque on top of it. But not all was lost. Excavations in the 1920s uncovered some brilliant mosaic patterns which had once decorated the palace’s floors and walls. And these have been preserved in the Great Palace Mosaic Museum.


The entrance to the museum is hidden in the midst of the bustling Arasta Bazaar and we walked right past it a couple times, distracted by the colorful carpets and souvenirs. But once inside, the place is fascinating. As far as possible, the mosaics of the palace have been left where they were found. It’s estimated that there were up to 80 million individually-laid cubes of terracotta and glass. Only a small fraction has survived the tumult of the centuries, but it’s more than enough to impress.

The scenes represented in the mosaics are both natural and mythical, with bears and monkeys joining griffins and chimeras in the patterns. There are fruits, floral scenes, and humans engaged in hunting, fighting and playing. Placards around the museum do an excellent job of explaining each surviving mosaic, enhancing the experience dramatically.

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Great Palace Mosaic Museum – Website
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March 15, 2013 at 3:01 pm Comments (3)
The History of the Hagia Sophia Were we excited to visit the Hagia Sophia? It's just one of the most legendary buildings on the planet. The largest church in the world for a thousand years. The scene of some of history's most decisive moments. A breathtaking architectural achievement on a scale unthinkable for its day. Yes, I suppose it's fair to say that we were excited.
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