Thursday, May 31, 2012

Turkish Travels No. 2

On our second day in Istanbul (Sunday, May 20th), we planned to see some of the more famous landmarks the metropolis has to offer. We woke up early to get in line for the Hagia Sophia before it became outrageous. It helped that Sunday was marked by cloudy skies and occasional showers. The line was mercifully quick.
Outside the Hagia Sophia
On the way, we noticed a strange van parked at the front of the Hagia Sophia selling Museum passes. We didn't buy any, though maybe we should have considering the number of Museum tickets we bought in Istanbul. But selling Museum passes out of the back of a van demonstrates Turkish cultural practice in a key way. It's highly commercialized, but in a different way from the U.S. Everything everywhere is a kiosk; everyone is selling something. It's refreshingly honest and straightforward in its intention. No one seems to pretend the mercantile pursuit is anything other than what it is, or that it's anything less than total in its scope.
Interior of the Hagia Sophia
Anyway, the Hagia Sophia, that fifteen hundred year old Byzantine Cathedral turned Islamic Mosque - what can be said about it, so awesome in dimension, design and detail?
It is, in a way, a physical embodiment of the East meets West cliche of Istanbul: both a church and a mosque, both a tribute to God and a monument to Allah. More importantly, I think it demonstrates how Islam built on and evolved from the other Western monotheistic religious traditions of Judaism and Christianity. When the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in 1453 and renamed it Istanbul, they didn't knock down the Hagia Sophia and build a new mosque in its place. Instead, they build on it by installing minarets, a mihrab and minbar and other Islamic architectural elements. Similarly, Islam does not disregard figures like Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, but rather incorporates them into a tradition of prophets leading up to Muhammed.
Minbar of the Hagia Sophia
This preservationist trend in Islam also manifested itself in the Islamic scholars of the early Medieval period who took great care to protect Western knowledge and intellectual traditions in the form of the Greek and Latin texts that were being discarded or forgotten in Christian Europe after the fall of Rome. This is also incidentally why I believe contemporary Jihadism is a perversion - a mutant strain - of Islam rather than a central component of the religion as Islamophobes claim. Throughout most of history, Islamic civilization has been no more destructive - and often more constructive or preservationist - than Christian Civilization. The Hagia Sophia is a living testament to that fact.
Apse and dome of the Hagia Sophia
What else can I say about the Hagia Sophia. It's gorgeous and astounding and you really have to see it - but how helpful, useful or interesting is that? Perhaps I should discuss the mosaics.
The Empress Zoe Mosaics
The cathedral contains many beautiful mosaics usually combining Christian iconography with tributes to the Byzantine monarchs of the period. The Empress Zoe mosaic is a typical example, combining the central figure of the Christ Pantocrator dressed in blue in between Empress Zoe and Constantine IX. Archaeological evidence indicates the face Constantine IX is a replacement of an earlier mosaic depiction. It is believed that Empress Zoe had the mosaic altered to represent each of her three husbands. Constantine IX, her last husband, is the one that has survived.
Virgin and child in between Emperor Justinian I and Emperor Constantine I
One exhibit within the building worth mentioning is the Arabic calligraphy displays. Completing with the magnificent splendor of the cathedral itself is tough to manage, but the calligraphy displays were just about audacious enough to steal our attention for about twenty or so minutes.

From the Calligraphy Exhibit
In this exhibit, I began to notice the central role text plays in Islamic design and decoration. Their calligraphy is truly beautiful, and the primacy of text is really attractive to a logophile like me. I'll return to this topic when I write about our visit to Topkapi Palace.
I am a fan of the Calligraphy Exhibit
All photographs taken by Cecily Gardner. See more of her work here.

1 comment:

  1. Stunning sights and insights.