Tuesday, March 13, 2012

2.28 Aya Sophia (or Hagia Sophia)

The Turks are tough. They do not complain about the weather. They move about the streets in ungodly blasts of wind and freezing rain from the Bosphorus, which has conveyed the depths of the Siberian winter down upon our unsuspecting near-spring excursion to this Capital of Fantastic Cities. They go about their business like the citizens of the busy cities of the north, I am thinking of Londoners here, who race through their underground shelters like the secular, deadline-conscious money-loving capitalists the world knows them to be. But what does the world know of Istanbullus?
Nobody here apologizes for the ferocious winds and day-long driving rains of our first full day in Istanbul. They do not huddle inside cafes and whine to one another about the beastly weather like self-respecting Mediterraneans. They do not wear hats in the rain and snow, as if permanently traumatized by the loss of the fez under Ataturk. A few have umbrellas; not a high percentage. A much higher percentage of tourists do have umbrellas, such as our little party: 3 for 3.
Waking to the dark squall on the second morning, we borrow three transparent umbrellas from our the hotel. One is hidden on us later, so we buy a third from the man who stands outdoors in the rain all day selling them, holding his own in frozen fingers over his rain-swept body. Street-vendors throughout the city stand out of doors, unsheltered, all day; looking less miserable than I did after five minutes of wind-driven rain in my puss. Later one of our umbrellas self-destructs, bursting into a million pieces as we stride down Istiklal Caddesi, the main drag of the new “European” city at the height of the evening torrent. We toss the broken remnants into the nearest trash bin.
The next morning it snows. (Cue the snow on the Blue Mosque photo.)
This is the day we go to Aya Sophia, one of the world’s oldest and best buildings, which so defies any single identity that it has an array of names, all of them correct. It was Hagia Sophia, under the Byzantine Christians who built it and worshipped in it for almost 1,000 years. In Greek, the church’s full name means Church of the Holy Wisdom of God. Sophia is the Latin alphabet transliteration of the Greek word for wisdom. When the Western Europeans of the Roman Church took over the city’s rule for a brief, troubled episode in the 1200s, they named it Santa Sophia, as if Sophia were a saint.
The current name, Aya Sophia, is the Turkish language rendering of Hagia Sophia.
After the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, they used Hagia Sophia as a mosque, making changes to the interior, adding Islamic elements such as the great calligraphic seals that still hang there and plastering over the old mosaics. According to the guide books, the original wall treatment included 1,000 gold mosaics, the Byzantines having the reputation of the world’s greatest goldsmiths perhaps since so much of the stuff in ancient times ended up there. The gold and other mineral wealth of the city was long gone by the time of the conquest, having been looted by Western crusaders in the 1200s.
The church was built around 525 AD under the emperor Justinian (sidetrack: there’s a Justinian Street in Beirut too near a Lebanese Army checkpoint at the same place used for that purpose by the Romans 2,000 years ago). The great dome astonished, and still astonishes all who see it because of its enormous open space unmarred by interior structural elements such as columns or beams to hold up its domed roof, in addition to the interior ornamentation, precious stonework, golden mosaics, etc.
The great interior swallows up its visitors. It was lightly snowing and very cold the morning we visited on Feb. 28, but with tour groups included we must have amounted to a few hundred inside. You don’t step on anybody’s toes. You don’t hear their voices. Unlike the Blue Mosque, where chatty oblivious tour groups mar the presentation, Aya Sophia seems to laugh off visitors. Its heart is unreachable. It’s in heaven.
Its grand domed ceiling illuminated like some living book of the world, Aya Sophia feels like a building that lets the universe pour inside, its great open wound dressed with beauty. Much of it still bleeds beautifully before us because it’s not perfectly preserved. Some parts of the original surfaces are partially restored. Other touches, such as the trompe-l'oeil columns and windows seen up close from the balcony (you walk through a twisty stone passage to get there) emerge in the guise of arty-smarty pants games played for the ghostly eyes of millennia watchers, a kind of na├»ve ruse offered to the heavens. The church persists through the grace of good fortune and the generosity of centuries of rulers, who both let be and restored. It survived earthquakes, requiring various repairs and structural upgrades throughout the centuries. It shows its age.
Today the Aya Sophia doesn’t look like it did in 525, but it does look and feel like a building that’s been around for 1,500 years. It benefited from massive restoration work by the Turks, who turned it into a museum in the 1930s (under the secular Turkish Republic) and another recent facelift, but the work does not impose a new surface or make it look clean and pretty. It’s beautiful with wounds still showing, the old bones in evidence, and the workings of history clearly visible in the giant Ottoman seals, calligraphic inscriptions suspended high upon the walls from it’s a half a millennium as a mosque. Romans were here. The Greek-speaking Eastern Orthodox Byzantine Empire used it as its Vatican. Ottomans were here, preserving the building and trying to equal it with the great mosques built during their reign. Turkish nationalists found the old mosaics under layers of plaster and were able to restore some of them. The place endures.
The high place of honor, located behind the altar and high up toward the top of the dome, is given to a colorful iconic painting of Mary, who emerges from all this history and love as eternity’s representation of divine wisdom.
And in human terms, equally applicable here to the divine, Mary looks like a conventionally veiled woman. She looks like a Turk. She pays no attention to the weather.