Looking up in awe
Walking into the Aya Sofya, all you can really do is look up at the vast space above.
The Aya Sofya is a lot like the Louvre for me, but it has taken me eleven months and five visits to come to that conclusion, and this might take some explaining. It’s not a very obvious parallel. They don’t really have a lot in common.
At the Louvre I am astounded at the sheer size of the place from the outside. The Tuileries gardens make the expanse even more impressive. Walking through the courtyard to the pyramid entrance I am dwarfed by the imposing façades and feel exposed and vulnerable by the empty space around me. The Aya couldn’t be more different from the outside.
From a distance, the Aya Sofya, also called by the Greek name Hagia Sophia, looks big, unless you are far enough away to see it in comparison with the Blue Mosque, which is obviously bigger, flashier, newer and has more minarets. When you get through the gate with your Aya Sofya ticket you are in a busy courtyard, surrounded by the clutter of numbered spare parts, shaded by beautiful trees, which completely block your view. Even if you visit in the winter you will be hard-pressed to see the Aya herself since that
The Strength of Time
This dome has withstood severe earthquakes, invading armies and millions of tourists.
side of the building has been hidden behind bulky brick supports, trying to keep the walls from giving out. The outbuildings and jumble of gardens make the space feel crowded.
Alan Richman, who wrote about his love of the place, called it “an ancient thing, battered and scarred. It rises above Istanbul, yet seems hunkered down, protecting itself from the abuses of nature… To me the Hagia Sophia is the noblest structure on earth, as disfigured as some brutish prehistoric creature of indeterminate age that endures even as others of its ilk have passed from existence.” Strong words, yet I agree. Richman wrote an excellent article which was republished in the book “Istanbul: The Collected Traveler” edited by Berrie Kerper.
In the courtyard by the buildings for the gift shop, café and bathrooms, are remnants of buildings even more ancient. They have been carefully numbered and set in rows like the spare parts I saw in Xanthos and Ephesus, but they are not labeled with the century they were made in, or even a description of what they once were. The one exception is an unimpressive marble frieze of sheep that was part of the 5th
The Upper Galleries
Up a switch-backing tunnel made for the Byzantine Emperors' chariots, you come to the galleries with a view out onto the floor of the main hall.
which burnt down, making way for the “new” Aya to be built in the 6th
century. It’s currently located in a pit to the left of the main entrance. Most of the other remains could have been part of a door, or wall, or window frame, or perhaps even a tombstone. It’s hard to tell now.
In stark contrast to the Louvre, the few informative panels and labels that can be found are brief and were not well proofread before they were displayed. I assume that the Turkish is correct, but the English is disheartening. On the panels at the entrance that give a short history of the creation of the Aya, there are several places where a word or sentence was reprinted and taped up to cover the mistake. Unfortunately, in the upper galleries the carved marble orientation table that identifies the mosaics and other important features has words as simple as “Virgine Mary” spelled wrong.
The Aya doesn’t have exhibits of great paintings like the Louvre; it doesn’t really have many exhibits at all. The fourth time I visited there was an exhibition of Turkish calligraphy, which was beautiful, but it’s the only one that has
Space and Time
What impresses me the most about the Aya Sofya is the feeling of being so small and insignificant in such a vast and ancient structure.
been on display all year. The only sculptures are two massive marble urns that once held holy water. They are beautiful in their own simple way, but don’t catch your eye, tucked back in the corners of the main hall. I didn’t even notice them the first time I visited.
But, like the Louvre, the Aya Sofya has history. Built in the 6th
century, it stands on the ground of a church that burned in the 4th
century. Remnants of the replacement 5th
century church are found on the grounds, although very little is left. What was constructed in just a few years has now stood the test of time. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian inaugurated the church in 537 and it has since seen many emperors crowned and just as many funerals. In 1203 the father-son duo Isaac II and Alexius IV were co-crowned emperors and the same year died there and were replaced by the coronation of Alexius V. The following year the church was sacked by Christian crusaders. Many of the stories are extraordinary and some are downright absurd. Whole civilizations have swept across the Bosphorus, taking the city but leaving the Aya Sofya. Byzantines, Romans, Ottomans,
Style Through the Centuries
The remnants of the mosaic on the near wall shows John the Baptist. Many of the tiles were gold and all the mosaics were from the later centuries of Byzantine rule. The bright yellow plaster was put up by the Ottomans to cover the Christian origins of the building. On the far arches the darker, original tiles from the 6th century.
invaded and defeated each other, each with their own purpose for the same building. They added outbuildings, supporting buttresses, changed the tiles, added mosaics, covered the mosaics with plaster and did everything they could to make the building their own. It is a testament to the dominance of great leaders.
Also like the Louvre, it is overwhelming. Once inside, looking up, the physical presence of the structure is powerful. The central hall is so vast that echoes are lost. I have been there on quiet days, with only a few dozen tourists, and on days with thousands of visitors. On busy days there are so many feet stomping on the stone floor, cameras flashing, guides trying to talk to their clients louder than the competition, cell phones ringing and children crying that I wonder why the whole place doesn’t fall apart. Yet in the main hall it doesn’t seem to make much difference. The side chambers and galleries may feel loud, but the empty heart of the Aya Sofya retains its peaceful calm. It may be too crowded to get through the door, but if you do make it inside, the enchantment will be there, waiting, for the
One of the best preserved mosaics is this image of Jesus with Emperor Constantine IX and his wife Empress Zoe.
next century, the next civilization, still there, patiently waiting.
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