As previously mentioned, my sister just came to Istanbul for a spring break visit. A few days before she arrived she was at a party and found herself stuck in conversation with a rather insipid girl who was a friend of a friend of a friend. When the topic of spring break plans came up, KJ mentioned she was coming to Turkey and the girl said she’d been to Istanbul herself. What would she recommend for the visit, KJ asked. She thought for a minute, “Well you should see the Hagia Sophia.” I hope KJ refrained from rolling her eyes before she turned away. My sister may be a medical student, not an architect but even she knows that the Hagia Sophia is the no-brainer symbolic center of the Istanbul tourist scene.
In point of fact, KJ and I did not go to the Hagia Sophia together. She wasn’t wild about the overwhelming crowds at the ticket line and I’d been there twice already anyway. We went and visited several functioning mosques instead. I, however, couldn’t miss this landmark from my architectural history classes.
The building looks typologically similar to the grandiose mosques around it with the monumental dome and four towering minarets but is actually much older than its Ottoman neighbors. It is an architectural decedent of the Pantheon in Rome – a monumental structure which was more imperial monument than place of worship. The original church built by Constantine was destroyed by riots in the 5th century AD (those must have been some riots) and the current building was re-built in a new design by Emperor Justinian (and his wife). The church was originally known as the Santa Sophia (Church of the Divine Wisdom) and was the most grandiose church in Christendom until the construction of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Rome more than a thousand years later. It is vast and imposing and makes a person feel tiny, insignificant and yet part of something greater on entering. It really doesn’t disappoint.
The building today is no longer a church. It was saved from destruction after the Ottoman invasion because it caught the fancy of one of the Turkish generals and the new Muslim occupiers converted it into a Mosque by adding Minarets and whitewashing the delicate and precious mosaic tiles. (Islamic religious buildings aren’t supposed to have any representative imagery in them – patterns and script are OK human figures and landscapes are not.) The Turkish Republic deconsecrated it and turned the building into a museum. Ongoing restoration work is stripping off the plaster on the walls to reveal portions of the original tile work. The museum now features an amalgam of the Christian and Muslim styling and decoration. That’s enough nattering. Enjoy the photos.