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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.

Hagia Sophia HD

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.

Hagia Sophia Postcards

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)

Sunday Morning in Kumkapı

The neighborhood south of the Grand Bazaar, bordering the Sea of Marmara, goes by the entertaining name of Kumkapı. Although it doesn’t lay claim to any major sights or fabulous mosques, we enjoyed the quiet Sunday morning we spent here. And now, we can finally strike “Attend an Armenian Apostolic Mass” from our bucket lists. Another childhood dream accomplished!

Aile-Shopping-istanbul

Despite the rocky historical relationship between Turkey and its landlocked neighbor to the east, Istanbul has always been home to a sizable population of Armenians; today the number is around 60,000, and many of them live in Kumkapı. Armenians are a strongly Christian people, and part of the reason we chose a Sunday morning to explore the neighborhood was to sit in on mass at the church of Surp Asdvadzadzin.

Armenia is one of the world’s oldest Christian nations; the first country in the world, in fact, to have made Christianity its official state religion. Despite the moderate number of worshipers at the large church, originally built in 1641, we enjoyed the atmosphere: the heavy use of incense, the small choir in front of the altar, and the priest almost yelling at his congregation in a language that sounds a bit like Greek.

After sneaking out of the church, we wandered through a maze of streets packed with fish restaurants. This is one of the most popular evening hangout zones for Istanbullus, who spend their nights eating fish, drinking rakı, listening to music, and having impromptu dance parties around their tables. We swore to return on a Saturday night, because if the mess on Sunday morning is any indication, it must be a good time.

We found a couple other churches in Kumkapı, including the massive Greek Orthodox church of Panaya Elpeda. Built in the 15th century, this looked incredible, but was unfortunately closed to visitors. There was a woman at the gate, but she wasn’t about to consider letting us in. We had to lay on the sweet talk pretty thick, before she would even allow us to snap a quick photo.

Location of the Surp Asdvadzadzin

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April 4, 2013 at 3:16 pm Comments (4)

From Sultanhamet Square to Beyazit

Before we arrived in Istanbul, I spent a long time poring over a map of the city. And I needed a long time, because Istanbul is catastrophically huge. The megalopolis has stretched its border (and the bounds of belief) to over 2000 square miles, remorselessly swallowing any unlucky village in its path. I was nervous that in order to reach the various sights scattered about Istanbul, we’d have a lot of long bus and train rides to look forward to.

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The Arch of Theodosius

So the reality of getting around in Istanbul has come as a major relief. The city is far easier to walk than I’d feared, and public transportation is cheap, quick and efficient (if crowded). Most importantly, most of the major sights are packed closely together in or near the historic center. On one of our first days, we walked along the tram line from Sultanhamet Square (next to the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia) to Beyazit: a short, straight walk during which we saw one historic treasure after the other.

We started at the fountain between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Tourist central. Locals have almost entirely moved out of this neighborhood, which is now dominated by foreigners and the people who cater to them. After visiting the Sunken Cistern, we escaped the morass by walking west down the Divan Yolu, or the “Road to the Imperial Council”. As the name suggests, it’s a thoroughfare which has been integral to the city since Roman times.

Column-of-Constantine

Following the tram tracks, we soon reached the Column of Constantine. Known in Turkish as the Çemberlitaş sütunu (Hooped Stone), this is one of Istanbul’s oldest surviving relics, erected in 330 AD, when the city was christened Constantinople and became the capital of Roman Empire. The column was damaged by an earthquake in 416, after which the iron hoops were added, and again in a massive 1779 fire that earned it another nickname: the Burnt Column.

Across from the gate to the university, we found the ruins of the Triumphal Arch of Theodosius. There’s not much left to see; the ruins, only discovered in the 1950s, are laid rather haphazardly on the ground and won’t mean much to the archaeological layperson. But experts have been able to determine how the arch must once of looked.

Perhaps even more than the monuments, we enjoyed the modern city sights: the googly-eyed tourists at Sultanahmet Square (I don’t mean that disparagingly; googly-eyed is the only way to be when flanked by the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque), stray cats lounging on city benches, men hard at work on one of Istanbul’s endless construction projects, and students on their way to class. The 21st century hurrying busily along its path, oblivious to the ancient relics all around. It’s a fun dynamic, and one we’ll be seeing a lot of in Istanbul.

Location of the Column of Constantine | Arch of Theodosius
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March 17, 2013 at 3:49 pm Comment (1)

Impending Spring in Istanbul

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The beginning of our stay in Istanbul coincided with the beginning of March, and the slow onset of spring. The temperature was still cold, but blossoms were starting to appear on the trees and every day was milder than the last. And on the streets, we could sense the optimistic, expectant energy which always goes hand-in-hand with the end of winter.

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March 11, 2013 at 9:46 am Comments (5)