Photography, The Cork Board

Istanbul and the building that took my breath away.

One of the better aspects of living in Europe is that some of the worlds most charismatic cities are within easy distance. If you live on mainland Europe they are only a drive away. Berlin. Amsterdam. Florence. Rome. Milan. Barcelona. If you live in the UK there’s a stretch of water to navigate but we can still be in Paris in a couple of hours by rail. So it was, after rising very early last Sunday, we were strolling in Gulhane Park in Istanbul with other Istanbulus enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon with their families and sweethearts.

We sat looking across to modern Istanbul and enjoyed Turkish tea as the evening mist came in over the Bosphorus. Istanbul is the only city in the world to straddle two continents, Asia and Europe, and sits at the gateway to both, of course.

...across the Bosphorus....

The city has been a Christian capital and an Islamic capital and the heart of the Byzantine empire in it’s previous guise as Constantinople. It’s easy to say. Easy to read. Neither of us realised that the city would have the impact on us that it did.

Our first evening meal was our first brush with the history around us.

Beneath the excellent food served in the Albura Kathisma restaurant in the old part of the city are centuries old cistern caverns.

...below the Albura Restaurant...

Diners wander freely, often between courses, and wonder at the notion that here, just feet below the feet under your table, are the ghosts of Constantinople. We slept soundly. They are gentle ghosts.

...The Blue Mosque...

Morning brought rain, rain and more rain but no matter, we had things to see. The Blue Mosque, named as such due to the tiles in the interior,  imposes itself on the Istanbul skyline. Minarets reach into the grey sky, proud, immovable. There are several entrance points to the Mosque itself and after removing our shoes and slipping them into plastic bags we stepped inside, to crane our necks with the crowd at the domed ceilings and walls.

The mosque is indeed impressive and I confess I can’t read Arabic, I guess that’s no surprise, but I am mysteriously drawn to the swirl and graceful line of the scripts that adorn the walls of such monuments. I find the intricacy of the patterns and line quite mesmerizing.

I liken it’s attraction and mystery to those strange soundscapes  you find during “Space” in a Grateful Dead show. It apparently makes no sense but can be sublimely calming.

Across the paved park that is the Hippodrome in the city, and directly facing the Blue Mosque, is Hagia Sophia, or Aya Sofia. For almost a thousand years this building was the largest enclosed space in the world. From the outside it could be the Blue Mosque’s brother or sister. You turn one way, Blue Mosque, you turn the other way, Hagia Sophia.

...Hagia Sophia...the building that took my breath away

The tourist queues were quite long when we arrived, on a cold February morning, but we persevered. Fresh booths were opened and we went through rather quickly. We dodged the school party and went straight to the entrance archway. The large cobbles are uneven in places and I was concentrating on where I placed my feet as I stepped over the worn marble slab that was the threshold to the building. Consequently I took two or three strides inside before lifting my head. What I saw took my breath away. I was so moved I choked a little, completely taken by surprise. Aya Sofia is….breath taking. But don’t take my word for it. This is Judith Herrin in her book “Byzantium”….

“If the exterior of the building amazes, its vast interior is awesome. Lit by the sun through the windows of the dome and at gallery level, the distant heights of the church reflect the glowing gold mosaics, while the lower levels remain darker…………….”

“Cavernous” doesn’t do it justice. But not just cavernous…absolutely beautiful. Its power undimmed. There were hundreds of people inside and it looked like a quiet day.

There are moments you’ll never forget. Emotions that curl up against the fire in your heart. Timelessness. Moments of utter peace. Hagia Sophia. I’ll never forget that first moment.

I stared dumbfounded like a child in a sweetshop.


...across to the other side of the gallery...

The twisting walkway up to the gallery must have been designed to ride your stallion to the top and the gallery itself, circumnavigating the vast space, wide enough to prance and tether up.

The mosaics are centuries old, not just one or two, but, I mean, CENTURIES old. And then I paused here and it hit me.

...left to right...Constantine..Madonna and Child..Empress Zoe...

This wall was rebuilt in the 7th century. Indeed, that goes for the whole building. The mosaics were completed over 1000 years ago. Suddenly the passage of time and the magnificence of it all humbled this mere mortal.

The architectural splendour of Aya Sofia is paralleled by the exquisite notion that this church has been both a Christian capital and an Islamic one. Thus you get Islamic symbols and Christian mosaics displayed happily side by side. It may be the only time you see it but it doesn’t seem odd. It seems appropriate. Perhaps this building should become the site of all pilgrimage. Christians and Muslims worshipping their chosen God together.

I muttered about it all day. Mrs. Monkey nodded knowingly. We took air and wandered a while. Nothing could follow that so quickly.

27 thoughts on “Istanbul and the building that took my breath away.”

  1. Your beautiful photography and your beautiful writing both brought me close to having my own breath taken away. I could get lost in these pictures. I’d love to experience these places, walk through them, smell the air.

    1. Thank you so much, Ré. I think sometimes WordPress is like travelling the world you’ve only got to check the FP and find at least 2 travel posts to somewhere. I’m glad you could get something from the post. It would be great to make a trip one day with all the creative spirits here. Dreams…….

  2. So timely: last night we went to a Turkish restaurant with a friend, and as I ate manti I thought, “We should go to Turkey.” I didn’t realize it was so easy to get there from Europe… and now that I’ve seen your photos of the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia, I’d love to walk through them in person. They look like places from my dreams. Thank you for taking us with you!

      1. The video is great. Thanks, Lisa, and thank you for the kind comment. I would recommend that if you make it to Europe on your travels you have a few days in Istanbul. You’ll never forget it and the people are so friendly.

  3. It’s been 16 years since Huz and I visited Turkey, a place that left a lasting impression on us, enough to make us want to go back again some day. From the quaintness of the little ‘pansiyon’ where we stayed (right next to the Blue Mosque), to the simplicity of our olive-bread-cheese-coffee breakfasts and the view of the misty Sea of Marmara….it was just magical.
    I remember feeling similarly moved as we walked around the Aya Sofia. The tremendous sense of Byzantine and Ottoman history almost felt like my heart would just stop, right there 🙂 And I think it’s so cute that you muttered about it all day 🙂
    Freaky to think of Christians and Muslims fighting over Constantinople over the centuries, Crusades and stuff.
    Now I feel like sharing my stories from 1995….

    1. Please do, Mun. You’re right about the sense of history. It realy is mind blowing, isn’t it? You just rarely find buildings with so much history further north in Europe because man spent most of the 20th century bombing it. Your simple comment took me back too. Planning to return to Turkey next year now.

  4. Wow, such beauty. I love how you tell your stories. I really feel like I’m there.
    From dodging the school children, to standing on uneven tile and gazing agape at all the sights, I’m right there with you! Also, I really love that shot of the Blue Mosque with the left-hand lampposts and the right hand vendor. Great aesthetic, view, and sense of place/culture. Amazing to someone who still hasn’t had his chance to visit Europe. Someday… but until then, thank you! I get to experience it through your eyes.

    1. You’ll get your break, Jared, and make it over here sooner or later. ( and a tip from an Engishman……….. [whispers] London’s fine but European cities are better ).
      Glad you liked the post and thanks for your comment once again. 🙂

  5. Isn’t it just wonderful when you have your breath taken away like that? Enjoyed the trip through Istanbul…it’s long been on my ‘To See’ list…a hybrid city that seems to wear its duality with casual flair…or is that just my imagination? Something I think is because I wish it were so…did you feel that? Or has politics ruined this city too?

    Love the pictures…can’t wait for my own A-ha moment in the Hagia Sophia!

    1. Hi Harsha, glad you liked the post. We thought the city was vibrant and were certainly not aware of any “spoiling” taking place. I do think we wandered around in wide-eyed wonder though. It was the sheer magnitude of the history that grabbed us. One of the key cities if ever you get the chance to visit.

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