Old Familiar Places

Sunday, 9th December, 2012
Istanbul: Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Cisterns and Bosphorus

For all photos for 9th December, click here to view them on my dropbox site. If you don’t have Dropbox, use this link to sign up and you and I will both get a bonus amount of free storage space.

The traffic outside our window was quite noisy overnight, and woke me again in the morning at about 6:30am. We were starting the day at 9am, so I had some time to go up to the 11th floor landing after breakfast and do a bit of writing while having the first pipe of the day. It was pretty chilly up there – today will not get any warmer than 14 degrees. I have to keep reminding myself that we are heading into a European winter now. The days are quite short, with the sun only coming up at about 7:30am and setting around 4:30pm. As I may have commented in a few places, the tourist crowds are not that heavy, so there is little waiting in line for entry to places, and the hotels are far from full (in some cases we have been almost the only guests). That and the good exchange rate on the Australian dollar means that we are really getting value for money on this trip.

I resolved at the beginning of the day not to take too many photographs, as I had visited each of today’s destinations twice before. I decided to take everything a little bit more slowly, learn new facts, and see corners and details that I have not seen before. We went first to the Hippodrome. There isn’t a lot to see of this any more except the shape and outline of the old stadium – most of it is buried under about 10 feet of modern Istanbul. When I was here last, the Hippodrome was still a long U-shaped roadway, but this time I discovered that the whole area has been repaved as an open walkway. There is still space for vehicles to drive if necessary, but it appears that a working road it has been closed off. The main attractions in this area are the Kaiser’s fountain, the 3,500 year old granite Obelisk of Thutmosis III (which Emperor Theodosius brought over from Egypt in 390AD), the so-called Walled Obelisk built in the 10th Century by Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus (which was originally clad in bronze plates – but these were nicked by the Fourth Crusaders), and the Serpent Column (about 2,500 years old, nicked from Greece by Constantine the Great, and originally a tripod, consisting of three intertwined snakes holding a bowl at the top – only the column base remains today – although one of the snake heads is in the museum we went to yesterday). These all stand along the “spina” or spine of the race track to mark the centre of the arena.

We moved then to the “Blue Mosque”, which is really a foreign nickname for what is officially the Sultan Ahmed Camii, named after the Sultan who commissioned it and completed in 1616. You can read the details anywhere on the web (just google it – there is a good summary at http://www.istanbultrails.com/2008/05/the-blue-mosque-once-of-the-most-famous-misunderstandings/). Geographically and architecturally it is related to Hagia Sophia on the other side of the intervening park, even though there is about a 1000 years between the two. Personally, I quite like the mosque – despite the superficial similarities, the mosque and the church are two very different buildings. Some draw attention to the fact that the architect of the mosque needed to rest the dome on four gigantic pillars (the “elephants feet”) whereas the Hagia Sophia dome appears to be unsuspended, but the way the HS dome holds up is with the incredibly ugly and bulky buttresses on the outside of the building which were put there by the Ottomans. Despite the pillars, the overall effect inside the mosque and out is of light and space. Having been in the Blue Mosque several times in the past (once memorably for dawn prayers on my 2009 visit with our Muslim fellow pilgrims), I decided to spend our “free time” in the building by sitting in a back corner and saying morning prayer.

We then passed through the park to the Hagia Sophia “museum” on the other side of the park. Again, if you don’t know anything about this church – google it. What you need to know is that it was built by the Emperor Justinian, and consecrated for use in 537AD (there were two previous buildings on the site by the same name, but both were destroyed by fire – bits of the second one are lying around on display in the yard around the current building). It was the seat of the Patriarchs of Constantinople, and the largest church in existence until the building of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome in the 16th Century. By then, Hagia Sophia had begun her second career as a mosque, as the Ottomans had conquered Constantinople in 1453. She began her third career as a museum under Ataturk in 1935. Her greatest architectural attraction, beside sheer size, is her dome, which, while it never held the record for the largest in existence (that belonged to the Pantheon in Rome), was the largest masonry dome and the first and largest “pendentive” dome (ie. not directly supported by columns, but by segments of domes “hanging” of the sides). The interior of this dome once sported a magnificent mosaic “Pantocrator” icon of Christ. Perhaps it is still there – under the plaster and paint of the Muslim decoration. We shall never know. The authorities are not about to start ripping off the venerable design that is there in the hope of finding something else underneath it.

In actual fact this is the first time I have visited Hagia Sophia when there has not been scaffolding in the centre of the church working on the dome and the side designs. Today, for the first time, I was able to appreciate the sheer immensity of the building in all her glory. One new thing: there are four cherubim (Hakan called them “archangels” but there usually are only three archangels in tradition, and these have six wings, so I reckon they are the cherubim) in each of the “pendent” corners of the dome (they would originally have encircled the Pantocrator). The faces of these cherubim were covered with brass pieces by the Muslims, but one has recently been removed to reveal a face done in quite intricate mosaic work. I revisited all the mosaic pieces in the top southern gallery of the church. I could never tire of looking at these (see the photos for all the detail). Again, I found myself in the situation of having seen all I wished to see in the building, and so found a quiet corner in which to sit and pray the Office of Readings. I was intrigued to watch, out of the corner of my eye, a young man also sitting cross-legged nearby, deep in thought. He had a book at which he would occasionally glance, but he had an air of great recollection about him. I would have liked to have taken his photo, but felt that this would have been an intrusion on his meditation. Like the Blue Mosque, it is possible to pray in Hagia Sophia despite the crowds of tourists. It is a place that inspires awe and leads to contemplation. (Note: Add to the list of things to do before you die: visit Hagia Sophia. And if you already have, make sure you visit one more time before you die.)

The time ticked by very quickly, and I had to rush outside to get a few photos of the excavated pieces of “Hagia Sophia Mark II” before making our rendezvous with Hakan at the Baptistery. This is new – not the baptistery, of course, which was very old, but the fact that tourists are now allowed into this part of the building. There is not much to see, but for the huge baptismal font made out of a single piece of marble. Designed along the same lines as the immersion fonts at St Mary’s in Ephesus and St John’s at Selcuk, this font had steps leading down into it on both sides. But this one is much, much bigger, as big around as a child’s blow-up wading pool. Originally embedded in the floor of the baptistery, when the Muslims took over the building, they pulled it up and pushed it into a corner, where they used it to store oil. I guess such a large marble basin would have no leaks to speak of and so was regarded as useful to have around.

Over lunch in a near by restaurant (all the food was displayed in the front window and you pointed at what you wanted – I had some very nice mince-meat-and-mint stuffed tomatoes and zucchini topped with mashed potatoes) we discussed the matter of the bits and pieces that are here, there and everywhere from other places and of which the “original owners” are demanding their return. The most (in)famous case is that of the Elgin Marbles, and Hakan has mentioned quite a number of Turkish treasures that are elsewhere (usually in German and British museums) and which he would like to see returned to Turkey. And yet… what would his reaction be to Egypt asking for the return of the Obelisk in the Hippodrome, or Palestine, Syria and elsewhere asking for the return of the antiquities in the museum we looked at yesterday? Then we fell to the topic of the return of the Hagia Sophia to the Patriarchate for use as a church. “Give them Cordoba in exchange for Hagia Sophia”, suggested my conversation partner. I prefer a kind of “two-state” solution, and would like to think that the old girl could come out of retirement and take up both her earlier careers again: is there not room upstairs for the Muslims to have (for eg.) the northern transept and the Christians to have the (again for eg.) southern transept behind the Marble Door? The rest could remain a museum and everyone could be happy… Well, perhaps not.

Next stop was the cisterns, which really are quite spectacular. Again, google and see the pictures. This location was used in one of the recent James Bond movies. Very cool. Literally.

All day, the rain had been threatening, and despite a few drops while we were out in the Hippodrome, never really came to anything. The afternoon was cloudy and cold, but fine and – as tomorrow has been forecast rainy and windy – it was thought best to use our afternoon by doing the Bosphorus cruise (another one of the standard items on any Istanbul visit) this afternoon. As I have said (I think) about a dozen times, it is off-season here at the moment, and all the cruise boats are moored at the banks of the Bosphorus unemployed. So I was not surprised to see that we had a big craft all to ourselves. You could have played lawn bowls on the deck at the back (although the rocking course would have caused some challenges). Having seen all there was to see on this cruise several times, and having gigabytes of photos at home to prove it, I determined to take photographs of the group members enjoying the scenery. I lit my pipe and sat out back and just let the banks of the Bosphorus flow past.

And so we were back at the hotel at about 4pm – by which time it was already getting dark. I had time to upload the photos, do a bit of writing, wash some clothes, and have a shower, all before our Sunday mass at 6:30pm. Dinner tonight was again served on the 11th floor and again a fixed menu. The menu was chicken tonight, after a mushroom soup, with the same kind of strange un-ice-cream dessert that we had last night. One effect of a “sit-down” meal, as opposed to the usual buffet, is that we all remained deep in conversation and enjoyment of each other’s company much longer than normal.

At about 8:30pm, I returned to our room and kept writing up today’s story. It has turned out much longer than I expected, and is now about 10pm. Fr Peter is just turning out the light, and I think I will too.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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2 Responses to Old Familiar Places

  1. Stephen K says:

    Yes. Hagia Sophia is indeed a place I would love to visit. Where the idea of its rehabilitation as a Christian church is concerned, as much as I generally lament the use of religious buildings for anything other than their original purpose – which must in some way interfere or play havoc with positive auric energies – we have to accept political realities. In an ideal world, architecturally and religiously speaking, both the Mezquita in Cordoba and Hagia Sophia would both be reconverted with all necessary restorations (including completely removing that intrusive “cathedral” from the centre of the otherwise spiritually contemplative Cordoban mosque). However, restoring a mosque to a western and Spanish city and a Christian basilica to the Turkish metropolis would not only not reflect the respective religious demographics but sadly would probably not serve the interests of sectarian peace. For similar reasons, I do not think any kind of “two-state” or multi-purpose approach is feasible. It is in fact sweeter, in a subjective sense, to entertain thoughts of “what might have been”, and perhaps more accurate to realise that part of the charm of both buildings is bound up with history and nostalgia.

    By the way, I haven’t seen recent Bond films, but the cisterns certainly appeared in the early 1963 Bond film “From Russia With Love”. Fascinating stuff. David, you are definitely following in the footsteps of H. V. Morton!

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