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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.