24 November 2013
Back in May, I closed my post Dream Journey: Part I in Aquileia, in North-Eastern Italy. I said then that my wife and I would be continuing the journey. But somehow, I got distracted by other things. Now the days are shortening and the cold is beginning to bite …
No matter, let’s continue! Even in late Autumn the Mediterranean is beautiful. But we won’t be following my original plan for the second leg of the trip, which was to drive in our open-topped MG from Aquileia to Istanbul through the Balkans following the trace of the old Roman roads Via Gemina and Via Militaris. It’s too cold for that now. Instead, we’ll backtrack to Venice airport, drop off the MG in the airport’s parking lot for the next dream travelers to pick up, and take a plane to Istanbul.
No sooner said than done. With a click of the mouse we have arrived in Istanbul!
Wonderful city, Istanbul. Since time immemorial, a place of passage and trade between Asia to the east and Europe to the west, between the Black Sea to the north and the Mediterranean Sea the south. Where Jason and the Argonauts passed on their way north to find the golden fleece. Where the Persian King Darius I crossed his troops to chase after and subdue the pesky Scythian horsemen to the north. Where more prosaically grain ships from the northern shores of the Black Sea passed on their way south to bring their cargoes to the Greek city states and later to Rome. Chosen by Constantine the Great as the seat of his new capital of the Roman Empire. Later, capital only of the Eastern Roman Empire when the Empire’s western portion disintegrated and disappeared, and later still of the renamed Byzantine Empire. Conquered one thousand two hundred years later by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, to become the capital of the Ottoman Empire, a role it played for another five hundred years. Set aside by Kemal Atatürk as capital of the new Turkey in favour of Ankara. In the last several decades, swollen to bursting by millions of impoverished migrants from Turkey’s eastern provinces. But still a lovely, vibrant city.
In this dream trip of mine my wife and I are only here to visit the city’s early christian mosaics, so we’ll ignore the Islamic splendours of the city …
the breathtaking views of the Bosphorus …
the fun of the covered spice bazaar …
the culinary delights of its restaurants …
No, we tell the taxi driver instead to take us straight to Hagia Sophia.
The edifice started life as the Basilica of Holy Wisdom in 537, was turned into a mosque when the city fell to the Ottomans in 1453, and finally became a museum in 1935. Other than the four slim minarets, it has remained pretty much the same on the outside over the last millennium and a half. The inside has changed more as the obvious signs of its Christian function were whitewashed over or removed and replaced with Muslim symbols. This process of islamicization, together with those natural processes linked to the passage of time – rot, mould, water ingress, along with an earthquake or two – has meant that most of the glittering mosaics which covered every inch of the vast interior have disappeared.
We are left with a few modest shards tucked away in various corners of the interior:
A gentle Madonna in the apse, but so high, so remote:
A stern Christ between Mary and John the Baptist:
The Emperors Justinian and Constantine humbly offering the Madonna the basilica and the city:
The Emperor Comnenus and Empress Irene with the Madonna:
The Emperor Constantine Monomacchus and the Empress Zoe with the Christ:
The Emperor Leo VI prostrate at the feet of the Christ:
And lastly, uncovered just a few years ago, a seraph:
(As I look more closely at his face
I cannot escape the notion that he is saying, “get me out of this stuff!”)
I cannot avoid a certain melancholy as I survey what is left and think of what it must have been. I am reminded of a story from the time of the Ottomans’ conquest of the city. It is said that when Mehmed II wandered around the Imperial palace originally built by Constantine, now lying ruined and abandoned, he murmured some lines from a famous Persian poet:
The spider spins his web in the Palace of the Caesars,
An owl hoots in the towers of Afrasiyab.
Still in a state of melancholy, I click the mouse, and my wife and I are now visiting another, much smaller, church in Istanbul, Kariye Camii (the Church of the Holy Saviour). It still has extensive mosaics, executed in early 1300s. We are entering the twilight age of mosaics; in fact, the church also has extensive frescoes, the medium which eventually triumphed over mosaics. Here are photos of some of the mosaics.
Up in its two small domes:
which give us an idea of what the dome of Hagia Sophia must have looked like.
Scenes of Christ’s Ministry:
Scenes from the life of the Virgin:
And finally the donor, the powerful Byzantine statesman Theodore Metochites, humbly offering his church to Christ:
(I like the hat!)
The church also has some wonderful frescoes. This one is my favourite, a fresco of the Resurrection
Such a dynamic Christ! So different from the stiff, awkward, reserved Christs of this period’s mosaics.
We come out into sunlight of the noisy street outside. It’s time to move on. The next leg of the journey will be in Greece.
Hagia Sophia-exterior: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/22/Hagia_Sophia_Mars_2013.jpg
Hagia Sophia-Deesis: http://www.gradale.com/Media/Deesis.jpg
Hagia Sophia-Justinian and Constantine: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/06/Istanbul.Hagia_Sophia075.jpg
Hagia Sophia-Comnenus and Irene: http://www.turkey4travel.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/hagia-sofia-mosaic.jpg
Hagia Sophia-Zoe and Constantine Monomacchus: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7f/Empress_Zoe_mosaic_Hagia_Sophia.jpg
Hagia Sophia-Leo VI: http://www.cambridge2000.com/gallery/images/P33112366e.jpg
Hagia Sophia-seraph: http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4089/4973697085_028b4ed969.jpg
Hagia Sophia-seraph-detail: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01725/mysteries-2509_1725247c.jpg
Kariye Camii-Christ in the cupola: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/2a/Chora_Christ_south_coupole.jpg/800px-Chora_Christ_south_coupole.jpg
Kariye Camii-Virgin Mary in the cupola: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/00/HSX_Mary_genealogy.jpg/800px-HSX_Mary_genealogy.jpg
Kariye Camii-Christ’s Ministry: http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8069/8213661931_5653c8fd48_o.jpg
Kariye Camii-theodore metochites: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/turkey/istanbul-kariye-chora-pictures/dedication-theodore-metochites-ccc-access-denied.jpg
Kairye Camii-fresco resurrection: http://www.vikiturkey.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/chora-museum.jpg