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Inside the Hagia Sophia

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The Hagia Sophia isn’t just the best-known tourist attraction in Istanbul, or one of Europe’s most cherished landmarks… it’s one of the greatest buildings in human history. This church, nearly 1500 years in age, was once the center of Byzantine faith, later reborn as the predominant mosque of the Ottoman Empire, and today has found a new purpose as one of the world’s most popular museums.

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We spent nearly three hours inside the Hagia Sophia. There’s a lot to see, and all of it is fascinating. This is the kind of place where even the floors, doors and walls have stories to tell. I’m serious: this circular pattern in the floor marks the Omphalos, where Byzantine emperors were crowned. That massive wooden door is the Imperial Gate, reserved for the entrances of the emperor and his family, and rumored to have been made from the wood of Noah’s Ark. And there in the wall, you’ll see one of the church’s magnificent Byzantine mosaics.

These mosaics have survived the centuries in superb condition, thanks mainly to Muslim sensitivities. Human representations are disallowed in mosques, so the mosaics were covered up and thus protected during Ottoman rule. The mosaic above the aforementioned Imperial Gate depicts Emperor Leo VI on his knees before Christ. There’s a wonderful Deesis mosaic in the upper gallery, with Mary and John the Baptist imploring Christ to forgive humanity. And the mosaic of Mother Mary with baby Jesus in her lap, in the dome of the apse, is marvelous. But our favorites were those of the four seraphim, God’s guardian angels, in the dome’s supporting pendentives. During restorations in 2009, one was discovered to have a face hiding underneath its protective golden shield.

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Impressive as the mosaics are, they can’t compete with the church’s dome: a true architectural wonder. Measuring in at 55 meters in height and 32 meters in diameter, with 40 windows that allow in abundant light, this dome was by far the largest ever attempted when it was constructed. Especially with the two half-domes which exaggerate its size, the dome creates an illusion of immense space. Standing down at ground level, looking up, it’s hard not to feel insignificant.

Yes, standing in the center of this church, looking up at the massive dome and its seraphim, admiring the giant Arab calligraphy, considering the number of emperors and sultans who have passed through here, and who have probably stood exactly where you’re standing right now… it’s very hard not to feel insignificant. Because, and it takes maybe an hour inside the Hagia Sophia before you start to genuinely grasp this, you really are insignificant. Look up again at that dome. Think about how long ago it was built, and then try to say aloud “My life has worth”. Ridiculous. You’re a tiny drop in the ocean of human history. You, your silly problems, your proudest accomplishments… they mean absolutely nothing.

Wow. Thanks for ruining my day, Hagia Sophia. But despite the small existential crisis, our visit here was one of the highlights of our time in Istanbul. Unforgettable.

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May 21, 2013 at 1:45 pm Comments (4)

The Blue Mosque

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Popularly known as the Blue Mosque thanks to the color of the Iznik tiles lining its walls, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque dominates Istanbul’s skyline with six minarets. Completed in 1616, the mosque is still used for worship, but due to its grandeur and location, has become a popular tourist attraction.

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From the moment it was proposed by Sultan Ahmed I, the Blue Mosque was contentious; not only did it require demolishing the palaces of powerful Ottoman ministers, but the unusual number of minarets was considered an effrontery. Four had long been the accepted maximum, with only the Grand Mosque in Mecca claiming six. But Sultan Ahmed was a man used to getting his way, and refused to budge. Luckily a compromise was found before any blood was shed: another minaret was simply added to Mecca’s mosque.

The Blue Mosque is stunning, especially when viewed from its courtyard. Perfectly symmetrical and of jaw-dropping size, the curved domes, rounded and hexagonal turrets and towering minarets work with the courtyard’s arches to create a profile of sublime beauty. It’s hard to imagine the impact such a sight must have made on visiting 17th-century dignitaries… or, perhaps it’s not at all hard to imagine. Their reaction must have been the same as mine: speechless awe.

We removed our shoes and stepped inside. Indoors, the mosque is not as cavernous as it would appear from the exterior, but it is exquisite. Over 20,000 blue Iznik tiles decorate the walls, making the room glow, and the central dome is spacious enough to house a large family of pigeons. Four gargantuan pillars called the Elephant’s Feet support half-domes, and the plentiful light filtering in through stained-glass gives the mosque a bright and spacious air.

We loved our visit to the Blue Mosque, and were surprised to be in and out within twenty minutes. There was no wait in line and no admission charge, though a small donation is appreciated, making this surely one of the most magnificent “quick and easy” sights we’ve ever visited.

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March 22, 2013 at 6:18 pm Comments (6)
Inside the Hagia Sophia The Hagia Sophia isn't just the best-known tourist attraction in Istanbul, or one of Europe's most cherished landmarks... it's one of the greatest buildings in human history. This church, nearly 1500 years in age, was once the center of Byzantine faith, later reborn as the predominant mosque of the Ottoman Empire, and today has found a new purpose as one of the world's most popular museums.
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