In Turkish it’s known as the Aya Sofia Cami. Haghia Sophia is the Greek term, and in English it’s the Church of Holy Wisdom. There are saints known as “Sophia” in the Byzantine tradition, but this isn’t one of them. It’s not like the “Church of St. Gladys” or “Church of St. Aretha.” The first iteration of the church burned down in 404 A.D., and it perished by fire again in 532. Both times, mobs set it alight. What you see here is the church that was constructed in 537.
In the early 20th century, an American, Thomas Whittemore, helped uncover the formerly-plastered-over mosaics we see today, like this one in the apse depicting Mary and the Christ child. This was a tough photo to get!
A detail from the enigmatic marble Gates of Heaven and Hell. The gates predated the conquest, but little else is known about them. No rope separates you from it, and you are free to rub your hands over this priceless antiquity.
On the east wall of the south gallery is a magnificent Deesis showing Jesus in a gesture of benediction, touching his ring finger to his thumb. There were some cool magnets in the gift shop showing a close-up of this move.
Vikings visited in the 9th century and left graffiti. The runic lettering is a giveaway they were from Scandinavia. Some idiots in the 20th century thought they would immortalize themselves, too. A fuck-stick named “Bobino” carved his name into the railing in April 2010!
Another mosaic, this one of the 12th-century Byzantine leader Johannes Comnenus, at left, holding a bag of cash, and his wife, Irene, holding some kind of tax-exemption scroll. Mary and an intensely focused baby god occupy the middle. It’s from the 1100s. Comnenus tried to hold Byzantium together in its last years. He was always getting messed with by Turks from Asia Minor. Fed up, he became a major military leader during the Crusades. A benevolent leader, good on the battlefield, and generally a fascinating cat.
Here’s my take, and I realize I’m spitting into the wind. If you win a war, you get to call the shots — nobody disputes that. But do you get to appropriate the culture, too? Were all the Shinto shrines in Occupied Japan converted to Episcopalian chapels? No, that would be a denigration of those sites. So what’s different here? Don’t get me wrong. Lacking a religious molecule in my body, I have no skin in this game. But the Haghia Sophia is the Church of Holy Wisdom, an essential component of Christianity, a second Jerusalem, and to see these placards demanding submission to Allah … well, it makes my stomach churn a bit.
Ataturk did the right thing secularizing the place in 1934. That’s partly why he’s a towering, almost Churchillian, figure of the 20th century. It was a step in the right direction. I fear Prime Minister Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known widely as the party of “Islam lite,” is waiting for the right moment to undo Ataturk’s legacy. Before he was elected in 2002, Erdogan wore his Islamic convictions on his sleeve. Will he be able to hold fundamentalism in check? Does he want to?
Press and religious freedoms are eroding here while they expand in the rest of Europe (London is a sea of minarets, for instance). The Eastern Orthodox Halki Seminary in the Princes’ Islands, an hour’s ferry ride from Istanbul, has been shut down by the Turkish government and not allowed to reopen. The Ecumenical Patriarchate is under constant attack.
By some counts, Turkey has imprisoned more journalists than any country on Earth. The author of the article, Yigal Schleifer, has an excellent blog, “Istanbul Calling.” Whaddya know? You can’t view it online in Turkey. In the past month or so, Schleifer has left Istanbul to live in D.C. If I’m a referee deciding on admission to the EU, my judgment is that this country is not ready for prime time. Hope to be proved wrong.
What an amazing place. It was built by Justinian in 532 A.D. to store water for the Great Palace of Topkapi. After the Ottoman conquest, the people who lived here seemed to keep the place a secret, because it wasn’t rediscovered until 1546, when a French dude name Pierre Gilles heard about people in this neighborhood lowering buckets through holes in their floors to get water. Some of the residents even caught fish through the holes, and the fish remain to this day.
Watch your step. Water drips through the ceiling and the walkways can be slippery. The water is about 18 inches deep. I estimate about 10 football fields could fit into this space, which is supported by 336 columns. Wait, did somebody say 336? Sounds familiar. … Anyway, this is one of the more unusual columns.
The explanations for their orientation seem strained. “Well, they’re not upright because this way it dissipates Medusa’s evil ability to turn you into stone.” Shit like that. Really? Really? Allow me to wave a little Occam’s razor your way. The ancients put them there in these positions to fuck with you. Can’t say for sure, obviously, but I think they would be laughing their asses off at the ludicrous interpretations cooked up in the guidebooks.
The place is packed, but with Eastern Europeans. Could be good or bad news, who knows? I love biting into the heads of the little minnow guys and the sea bass is OK. But it’s not “$30 good,” you know what I mean? Everything is fried to some degree and I leave with a lighter wallet and vaguely unsatisfied.
I’m grateful to see them. I’d rather live in neighborhood filled with beer swillers than in a place occupied by one single meth head. It’s my roundabout way of saying I hate — hate — the kilim sellers and their insidious proxies. Are you listening, Istanbul?