Sunday, 20 April 2014

44. Wonder: The Hagia Sophia

(For the Hagia Sophia preview, please click here.)

Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople, is a special city. Spread along the banks of the  Bosphorus Strait and the Sea of Marmaris, it is the symbolic meeting point of East and West, the city where two continents meet, blending European and Asian styles, religions, and histories. It has worshipped Roman Gods, been a centre of Christendom, and been the centre of the Ottoman Empire. By no measures is this a common city; appropriately at the heart of it, an uncommon building dwells. The Hagia Sophia is a legendary building. A dominant part of the historic skyline, it is a very able representative of its legendary city.

On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, I sat with Danielle and Burness - two fellow World Wonder veterans - upon a rooftop cafe and admired the bulky legend before us. There was no doubt we were looking at a heavyweight contender. The Hagia Sophia is a big boy. The central dome reaches a height of almost 56 metres and 32 metres in diameter. It sits atop a series of generously proportioned blocks and half-domes, surrounded with supports and fat walls, a minaret placed at each corner. It looks very, very solid. Tinted a faded reddish colour, with bare stonework visible, it also looks old. Burness and I sipped our £5 beers, Danielle sipped her £8 wine, but it was the view we were paying for. Not just the Hagia Sophia: turn our heads a little and the almost-equally gigantic Blue Mosque was just a couple of hundred hops away; turn our heads back and the sprawling complex of the Ottoman sultans' Topkapi Palace was just a couple of hundred hops in the other direction. Wrapped around all these was the Bosphorus as it turned into the Sea of Marmaris, with the varied masses of Istanbul's buildings piled atop the city's various peninsulas fanning out across the waters. Some cities are identikit grid-plan boulevard and blocks: Istanbul is not. It has the jumbled, sprawling look of a city that has evolved in spontaneous bursts over millennia.

The same could be said of the Hagia Sophia. It very much wears its history heart-on-sleeve. Sure, it was built in 537 AD but most of what we could see dates from other eras, built in the aftermaths of great events. It started life as a Byzantine church, but it was largely reconstructed in the early 13th Century by Latin invaders from Venice, France, and the Holy Roman Empire. This brief Latin rule followed the appalling pillage of the city that masqueraded as the 4th Crusade. From its founding as Constantinople in 330 AD to the 13th Century, the city had withstood something like 17 different sieges from all kinds of different attackers, but it didn't expect to fall victim to Christian Crusaders. The Crusaders had intended going to the Holy Land to fight infidel Muslims but found themselves tearing apart a fellow Christian city instead. Well, oops. They showed their true colours by devouring the city of its wealth; the French knights took three-eighths of the treasure, said to be worth seven times the annual revenue of England at the time. The Hagia Sophia was likewise stripped of its treasures, and the Crusaders had a prostitute dance on the altar. Nonetheless, it was a lucky break. The Latin empire only lasted a couple of generations but brought in a greater knowledge and experience of construction to stabilise the church, which was crumbling after centuries of earthquakes. The buttresses - massive external supports - are a very visible sign of this era.

The minarets, meanwhile, are clearly from a different time: Islam wasn't even a concept when the Hagia Sophia was built. But in April 1453, the Ottoman Turks with 100,000 men and huge siege weaponry encircled Constantinople. The Byzantine Greeks, a faded empire ever since the brief rule of the Venetians and their pals 200 years earlier, had just 7000 men across 14 miles of walls. They had no chance, but held on for almost two months nonetheless. The people gathered inside their massive church to pray one last time. The final Turkish assault began on May 29th at 1.30am and the subsequent slaughter and plunder lasted the customary three days. The Hagia Sophia was thoroughly pillaged and desecrated, those taking refuge inside killed, raped, or sold into slavery.

When the 21-year-old Ottoman sultan, Mohammed II, rode into town, he was now the owner of the ancient capital of the Roman Empire. He renamed the city Istanbul, meaning "into the city", and ordered the Hagia Sophia to be converted into a mosque, now called the Ayasofya (both names mean "Holy Wisdom"). It was the only church converted into a mosque - most of the others were destroyed, with a few allowed to remain as churches (in later years, many of them ended up being turned into mosques). He order the construction of the first minaret - the odd-one-out red brick one. His son, Bayezid II, added a white marble one later in the century; two other marble minaret followed in the 16th century, built by the father of Ottoman architecture, Minar Sinan. If Sinan changed the look of the Hagia Sophia, he also used the Hagia Sophia to change the very face of Istanbul. All the grand mosques of Istanbul and beyond in the old Ottoman empire are inspired by the Hagia Sophia. If today, we think that the Hagia Sophia looks like a mosque, that's because mosques look like it.

The Hagia Sophia today is a museum, joining the exalted ranks of many ancient edifices by becoming a tribute to itself. In one sense, I find this a shame: it kind of means the building's natural life has come to an end and it has become a mere hotspot for tourists to come and gaze and take lots of photos, perhaps stopping to ponder and say "this must have been amazing back in the day". It's like having a stuffed dog and telling friends, "Yeah, he used to be a wonderful pet." For 916 years the Hagia Sophia was a church (1093 years if you start counting from its first incarnation), and then another 478 years a mosque, and in both cases it served its function pretty damn well. As a church it was a reflection of Constantinople as a Christian city; as a mosque it was a reflection of Istanbul as a Muslim city. In 1923 a man called Mustafa Kemal, but better known as Ataturk ("Father of the Turks") came to power in and he set the country up on its next phase. Looking to the West, he separated religion from politics and made Turkey a secular country: in 1932 the Hagia Sophia ceased to be a mosque and by 1935 was duly converted into a secular museum. And in this sense, I find the Hagia Sophia's role as a museum not a shame at all, it is entirely appropriate. It has moved on with its city and nation. It continues to represent them well.

Calling the Hagia Sophia a museum is probably a little misleading anyway. The Hagia Sophia is simply the Hagia Sophia - it doesn't exactly have exhibits, it just has itself. The people forming the thick queue pouring from the ticket desk out into Sultanahmet Park outside aren't waiting for half an hour for a museum, they're waiting to look around the colossus in front of them. Many of them, I would wager, don't know anything about it other than it's big and old, and is the first attraction mentioned in their guidebook - all very relevant criteria, I would point out, to a Wonder.

Danielle, Burness, and I sat at our rooftop cafe two afternoons in a row, and over the couple of days it was interesting to note their slow changes of view. It mirrored mine, although mine spanned 13 years. In 2001, I visited Istanbul, seeing both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. They were superficial visits, but the Blue Mosque made the better impression. That I visited the Hagia Sophia in a foul mood, hungover, probably didn't help. As any regular reader of this blog will know, I always advocate visiting each Wonder twice, and so my first and second "official" visits on these Wonder travels to both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque were actually my second and third actual visits. Aided by some historical appreciation of the Hagia Sophia, for me there was no doubt early on that it was the true Wonder of Istanbul. It has a commanding presence. But Danielle and Burness, initially, disagreed. For them, the towering domes of the Blue Mosque were more impressive - it seemed brighter, and prettier.

But are Wonders judged on first impressions? Of course not. And just as it had done so for me, for both of them the Hagia Sophia's considerable personality won through in the end.

Just seeing the Hagia Sophia isn't enough, it's somewhere that really needs to be visited. And for 24 lira (£8) and counting (Turkish inflation is high), you can. After you join a massive queue to get in. On the first day in the vicinity, Danielle and I decided "nah..." and just did other stuff instead. The next day, now with Burness in tow, the queue was just as big - we realised we'd have to bite the bullet. Joining a thick mass of people, we waited around half an hour before getting in. The whole time I was wondering, "Is this going to be as stupidly packed as Versailles?"

The answer is yes - but no. The Hagia Sophia is a big tourist draw and it has enough about it to keep the tourists there for a while. It packs in a hell of a lot of people. But unlike, say, Versailles, that's not too big a problem. Because, inside, the Hagia Sophia is cavernous. Even during our visit, which had a large area sectioned off with a dome-high tower of scaffolding, there was plenty of space. Whereas the arrival of a tour group in Versailles would leave you with your body pressed against the wall by a squabble of old people, the Hagia Sophia just soaks them up. Versailles is a series of rooms, whereas the Hagia Sophia is essentially one vast space.

It's so big that, no kidding, during our visit the Latvian president and a large entourage led by a guide wandered in, took a look around, and left, without getting in anyone's way. Except perhaps for Burness, as he was standing in a doorway when they appeared, being suddenly pushed aside by a marauding mass of besuited gentlemen.

From the outside, it's clear that it's a pretty big building; from inside, it's something you can really sense. It's one of these places you walk about with your neck craned. Just as the outside is a product of the passing centuries, so is the inside. A lot has changed. Remember these cheeky Crusaders? Well, while they may have strengthened the structure, they gutted the inside. The Hagia Sophia used to be packed with treasures, and back in medieval times there were few greater treasures than the holy relics of saints. Pilgrims were spoilt for choice as to which saint's body part they could pay homage to, with the head of of St Anne (Mary's mother), the blood and, um, milk of St Pantaleon, the skull of St John Chrysostom, and the skull of John the Baptist. These were all premier grade relics. Well, the crusaders changed all that: the above are all now scattered around Europe, and indeed my Wonders. Chartres Cathedral has St Anne's head, the cathedral complex (of which the Leaning Power is part of) in Pisa has one of St John Chrysostom's skulls (he has four, apparently), and of course Amiens Cathedral is one of the many places that now have the astonishingly prolific skull of John the Baptist. St Mark's Basilica in Venice got the lion's share however, with various relics and other riches, including the Hagia Sophia's massive doors, and its famous four bronzes horses from antiquity. If you want to get a glimpse into pre-crusader Hagia Sophia, St Mark's is a good place to start.

So, the riches have gone, but many things remain. And this is a great relief, and a surprise given that it was turned into a mosque in the 15th Century. Islam doesn't go in for figurative art, so if a church covered in pictures of Jesus and Mary and other such people gets converted, you can be sure that these will be the first thing to go. And they did - but not entirely. Although all kinds of pictures and statues vanished, gold mosaics ranging from various eras were whitewashed, but not actually destroyed. In their place, Muslim calligraphy and geometric patterns appeared. The mosaics were forgotten.

Then, in the 19th Century, the Ottoman sultan of the time, Abdulmecid I, decided to make some changes. The empire was liberalising, and he wanted to become more Western. New European-style buildings were appearing; Istanbul was changing. Cracks had appeared in the dome of the Hagia Sophia, and the emperor was keen to avoid any kind of collapse which might echo his slowly decaying empire. Two Swiss brothers - Gaspare and Giuseppe Fosatti - were given the commission to fully restore the former church and current mosque. It was in terrible shape, crumbling for centuries, with large holes in the roof allowing birds to fly in, nest, crap everywhere, and cause the kind of disturbance you don't expect in a mosque. And during their restoration they uncovered the old mosaics. Usually, the discovery of Christian art in a mosque would mean their immediate removal or destruction, but the sultan was an enlightened one, and he allowed the brothers to simply cover up the mosaics once again, to save them. When the Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum in 1935, it was time for the mosaics to make a full reappearance.

And that's what we find today, a huge interior with a fascinating blend of ancient Byzantine mosaic and Islamic art. The Muslim mihrab, the niche indicating the direction of prayer, is placed inside, but at curiously just off-centre angle, as the Hagia Sophia is aligned to face Jerusalem, but the direction of Mecca is a little different.

We also have weird angel things called seraphims side-by-side with massive Islamic medallions with the names of important Muslim figures. It's half church, half mosque, all Hagia Sophia.

And it looks great. Even if you know nothing about the history, the sense of age and significance is ever-present. There is an upper gallery than can be reached, allowing great views down to the main hall, and a closer look at some of the mosaics. It's simply fun to stroll about, being inside the building, sensing the additional gravity a building of this kind has, that few other places do. On this ground Byzantine kings and queens and Ottoman sultans and Christian priests and Muslim clerics and soldiers and crusaders and whores and presidents and popes and commoners from all around the world and from all different eras have stood. The Hagia Sophia has meant a lot of things to a lot of people from a lot of different times.

Which is why it's such a terrible shame that the audio tour is such a pile of bollocks. The Hagia Sophia has such an immense history behind it that it deserves an audio tour that does it justice. The current one does not, and it makes the cardinal sin of making the Hagia Sophia boring. After quickly dispensing with the history in the introduction, the rest of the tour is a tedious trek looking at pictures and objects and listening to dull explanations as to what they are, without ever really tying them together. It's not a problem unique to the Hagia Sophia - many audio tours and information boards seem to focus on interminably dull architectural descriptions or series of dates when the majority of people want to hear stories, they want to have life breathed into the building. They also want clarity. Sadly, the Hagia Sophia audio misses this on all counts.

It even manages to turn the Viking graffiti into a routine description. Viking graffiti! For what's it worth, it's on the upper level and sketched in runes any time from the 8th to 11th Centuries. The Byzantine Army had an elite unit called the Varangian Guards, mostly comprised of Scandinavians, and although it's not certain, the graffiti probably simply says something along the lines of "Arni made these runes." Well done, Arni.

In the end, of course, a Wonder is not just about history. Otherwise a collection of total ruins would qualify, just because a bunch of things once happened there. A Wonder is also about how it looks, its grandeur, and the overall visual impact it makes. Does the Hagia Sophia make the grade? Yes, it does. It looks commanding. Even those who might think the Blue Mosque looks prettier can't really argue that the Hagia Sophia is the city's star attraction. It has the presence of something that has seen a lot of change and has absorbed it. I like the fact that it's a bit of a brute - this is not a delicate structure. It makes people seem small. See if you can spot them in this photo (I'm assuming they were supposed to be there).

But it does have some subtle features - the Hagia Sophia can sip cocktails as well as downing pints of beer. I love the irregularity of the one brick minaret. I love that when you walk around the outside, it's such a higgledy-piggledy jumble of walls and windows and buttresses. If you were to build a brand new Hagia Sophia from scratch, these quirks would never be included. I love the faded reddish tint, but with the inset section of windows a brighter orange, flanked by two walls. Other areas too, for no rhyme or reason, are a deeper orange - it's a patchy-looking building. Are they going to give it a fresh paint and make it all look the same? I sure hope not. I like a patchy Hagia Sophia.

Legend has it that when the Ottomans stormed into Constantinople, a few priests inside the Hagia Sophia began praying. The walls of the buillding opened and let them in, where they will remain until the Hagia Sophia becomes Christian again. Will this ever happen? It's always tempting to think that the status quo will remain, and the Hagia Sophia's life is now frozen as a museum to itself. But its entire existence has been one of flux, and who knows what the future will hold, or how the structure itself will change as a result? That's one of the joys of the Hagia Sophia - it follows its city.

Some criteria then.

Size: 56 metres high and 135 metres wide in all, it's a squat lump of a building, a spread-out behemoth.
Engineering: It's a whole mish-mash of efforts from across the centuries, some better than others, but there's no doubt that building something of this size in the 6th Century in only five years was a truly breathtaking effort. Even if it did partly fall down 21 years later. To have survived for so long is testament to its bulk, some luck, but also some good quality work.
Artistry: Inside, the remains of original art lives on. On the outside, it's more about having a commanding presence than finesse, but it looks great.
Age: 1476 years old, making it the oldest church, the oldest mosque, and the oldest museum on my list.
Fame/Iconicity: It's the obvious number one for Istanbul. Outwith the city, it has attained a quietly legendary status, but isn't one of the world's most recognised buildings.
Context: It's not only in the heart of Istanbul, it is the heart of Istanbul.
Back Story: A wealth of stories, eras, and empires, and effectively telling the story of the city. Wonderful.
Uniqueness: If it looks like the mosques around it, it's because it inspired them. Yet, as a result, visually there are vaguely similar structures. Otherwise, nothing else is like the Hagia Sophia. It really is one of a kind.
Wow Factor: Get yourself onto that rooftop cafe for the main wow, but it still has impact from the ground, although it's slightly more obscured from there by various walls and domes. Overall, it's a grower rather than an instant hitter.

I could sit down and drink ten great whiskies and put them in order from one to ten, and nothing at all would be wrong with the tenth, except there were nine better ones out there. When you get a building of the Hagia Sophia's calibre, it feels petty trying to think of what's wrong with it. Because not much is. There are plenty of more beautiful buildings out there, but that's not really the point: the selling points are history and grandeur - and not much beats it on history. With grandeur, if you look to the likes of the Pyramids or the Great Wall, structures that go way beyond the normal call of duty, then maybe the Hagia Sophia stumbles a little. It could be bigger - and yes, I know, that's a very pernickety point. And although it's an engrossing structure to simply sit and stare at, perhaps it lacks that absolute otherworldliness that some of the world's very best might have. I don't think all visitors will be immediately captivated - it's a grower. Give it a little time, and you'll realise this is a world heavyweight. I'd place it very high, just not quite the highest, a little below the temple metropolis of Bagan, but sneaking ahead of the Sydney Opera House.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Mont Saint-Michel
6. The Eiffel Tower
. The Millau Viaduct

Other Wonders
Angkor Wat
Hagia Sophia
Sydney Opera House

Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
The Blue Mosque
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Shwedagon Pagoda
Forbidden City
Edinburgh Castle
Thiepval Memorial
Tower Bridge
The Sacre-Coeur
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha
Nazca Lines
Marina Bay Sands

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

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