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Published: March 30th 2018
Let us through, let us through. VIPs coming your way. Prepare to be astounded by our beauty, intelligence and opulent wealth larding the ground as we go! Our 15 day museum cards seem to do the trick and get us into Aya Sofya or Hagia Sophia skipping the long queues. Our heightened sense of self importance is of course only in our heads. We are mere mortals and feel this intensely as we enter this stunning, grandeose building.
It seems that the Church of Holy Wisdom as it's otherwise known is a bit of a misnomer as at various periods of its history, political controversy has been the overriding factor not wisdom. Some would rather it became a mosque again, as it was in Ottoman times, others are fine with keeping its current status as a 'museum’. Unfortunately this has meant too much arguing and not enough restoring and definitely not the standard of interpretation you’d expect from such an important museum.
It seems this current building is the third iteration, the first burnt down in 404 and the second was torched by the Nika riots of 532. This version was built over just six years and was consecrated
in 537 by some geezers called Anthenius and Isidorus.
The scale of the building is enormous and as you enter the main section you get a crick in your neck as your eyes wander upwards to the spectacular domes skirted by little windows and decorated so beautifully. There is an odd mixture of Muslim and Christian imagery. I recognise the Arabic word for Allah on one of the massive circular wooden panels painted in dark green, but next to this is a painting of Mary holding a young Jesus in her arms. Over to one side is an area for the Imams to do their call to prayer and leading up to the main dome, but stopped abruptly by a wall, is a stairway to heaven.
Unusually we see a little cat, fast asleep in an area roped off from the public. Although the Turkish people love their cats they are not seen as clean so are not kept indoors, particularly in religious buildings, but as this is a ‘museum’ maybe that's why the little kitty is allowed to get away with it.
We climb a sloped area that takes us high up into the building where
we are able to look down on the tiny people below. We can see the circular bits of wood painted with Arabic text and see how massive they really are close up. They must be an incredible weight but are just chained to part of the stonework. Let's hope that stonework is sound otherwise the tiny people below will get mightily squished.
On the walls of this level are some stunning mosaics mostly in gold. There's a funny story attached to one scene, that of the Empress Zoë and her husband. It seems his head was superimposed over that of her first husband, a stable boy seducer whose toy boy good looks bagged him an empress. Giddy on his success he tried to ship her off to a nunnery so he could rule by himself. Instead he was rubbed out of history and his face replaced!
There is another odd mosaic that appears to be Christ being given sacks of money by one of the Emperors and his wife. Since neither were known as time travellers this seems a little far fetched and a tad obvious if they're trying to bribe their way into heaven. They really ought
to have made such a move more covertly. This, by the way, is my personal interpretation of a picture that probably makes complete sense really.
Also up here is a marble screen with a doorway which was put in to separate the Emperor's quarters from the church bods. As I pass through the door I touch the marble as many have done before and think about how different their lives would've been to my own, yet in other ways so similar - after all we all breathe, sleep, eat, shit, see, talk, love, die. Not necessarily only in that order.
When it's time to leave we realise that the heavens have opened and are turning roads and pavements into rivers such is the heaviness of the rain. We decide 'what the hell’ and just go for it, feeble umbrellas providing superficial cover. We arrive back at our hotel completely drenched but laughing hysterically at the stupidity of our situation. We all have so few clothes and shoes with us and now have even less until these ones dry out.
Later my roommate and I venture out into a damp, cold Istanbul to get some food. We wind
up in a restaurant come hookah bar with seats on cushions on the floor and both men and women puffing away on their hubble bubble water pipe thingies. The menu comes with food choices and tobacco flavours, many of them fruits making it seem actually quite healthy, not. We spend the evening discussing politics, families, jobs etc and eating our food in a haze of smoke that doesn't smell bad at all. It must be pretty addictive though as two women spend the entire time we are there sucking away on their hookah pipes.
And so to bed. What an amazing first day in Turkey.
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