So unfortunately I have been insanely busy and have not been able to update my blog due to group projects, tests, etc. However, now that the group project and test are done with I’m going to attempt to power through and finish blogging about my trip to Turkey.

This particular blog is about Aya Sofya, Haiga Sophia, Saint Sophia. However you say it, no one can deny that it is a MUST SEE on the list of places to see before you die. I must state up front that nothing I write about this museum and none of the pictures I post can ever do this place justice.

As museums are closed on Mondays in Istanbul (I don’t know why) we had to give this one a miss that day and see it Tuesday before our briefings with the Intercultural Dialogue Platform and the archaeologist from Bosphorus University.

The Aya Sofya is one of Istanbul’s iconic sites and like every other tourist site in Istanbul, requires you to go through two security points, watched closely by armed members of the military. Just satnding outside the building is inspiring. I’m pretty sure I took at least 50 photos before we even entered into the entrance hall.

The Aya Sofya was built by the Byzantian Emporer Justinian in 532. This enormous engineering marvel only took 5 years to bulid and it is still standing. It probably helps when you have thousands of slaves at your disposal, but I don’t think a building of that magnitude could be built in 5 years in this day and age. Originally the Aya Sofya was built as an Eastern Orthodox Church and was the largest cathedral in the world until the Seville Cathedral was built in 1520. It was converted into a Roman Catholic Cathedral from 1204-1261 until it was once again converted into an Eastern Orthodox Church. This only lasted until 1453 when the Ottomans took over and converted it into a mosque.

When visiting the Aya Sofya, one notices that despite being a mosque for hundreds of years, the wall are absolutely peppered with intricate mosaics of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, St Paul and numerous emperor’s and their wives. In Islam, there are no depictions of people in art. It’s a cultural/religious thing. When the Ottomans took over, rather than chipping the ornate mosaics from the walls (though they did do a little bit of that to sell to visitors), they simply covered them with some form of plaster. While I am sure they did not do this in anticipation of a future where millions of people would want to see these mosaics when it was no longer a mosque, this incidental preservation does make one appreciative of laziness for a change.

So from the outer courtyard we went through a set of oversized doors into the entrance hall. This hall in and of itself was insane. The hall was solid marble. Marble floors…Marble walls…probably a marble ceiling containing beautifully ornate mosaic designs. One of the many Christian depictions is still intact over the main entrance from the entrance hall to the main room.When our tour guide was telling us about the entrance hall and a bit more about this history of the structure I was awestruck by the size of the entrance hall. If just the entrance was this large, how vast could the main hall possibly be? I soon found out.

We walked through the second set of doors into the colossal main hall. I was dumbstruck. Completely speechless (not necessarily a bad thing). The floor was solid marble (still). There is so much marble in this country. Everything seemed to glitter due to the natural light streaming in and hitting the marble, the onyx and the shining gold paint of the mosaics. We looked up to see the domed ceiling (iconic Byzantian architecture) and had to bend over backwards while craning our necks upwards to check it out. The height of the room from the floor to the top of the dome is 56.6 metres. The most amazing thing about this is that the Aya Sofya doesn’t have the 4 supporting pillars that other domed buildings have. It is held up by the internal walls, the external walls and small supporting pillars on the second level. While this is a feat of engineering, it doesn’t seem very smart as when we went up to the second floor you can see the walls and pillars leaning from the weight of the dome. Apparently the dome actually collapsed just after they finished building it due to an earthquake. It was obviously immediately restored.

Anyway, the Aya Sofya, in my opinion, epitomises the “East meets West” reputation that Istanbul proudly claims. When you look up at the not insignificant height of the building the four corners of the internal supporting walls depict 4 cherubs, only one of which shows the face of the angel. I am unsure of the significance of this, but I think the other faces were covered by the Ottomans and only one has been uncovered. There was a bit of a debate between the tour guide and one of the girls in the group who’s dad is apparently very into theology about that.

The walls also had the green and gold discs that you find in every mosque containing the names of important people in Islam. It was impossible to get a photo of the scale of these discs because you can’t actually stand next to them, but I tried. These discs would have been about 4 or 5 times my height I’d say. They were the largest discs I’ve ever seen in my life. The area where the alter once stood now contains the mihrab which faces Mecca. Behind the mihrab you can see the stained glass windows that are very popular in Christian/Catholic churches and cathedrals. 

Anyway, we had a gander down on the main level and in 2 corners of the mosque were marble “vases” that a Sultan had brought from Pergamon. These vases, like everything else about this place, were larger than life. 3 people of my size could have squeezed into one of these vases (would have been a tight squeeze). They were huge and impressive. I find it especially impressive that these vases were made of one solid piece of marble. They aren’t exactly light and easy to maneuver.

Rather than hanging around downstairs we went up to the second level. Rather than stairs leading up to the balcony level there is a rather unimpressive stone ramp with very little light that just curls around until you get to the second level. When I say “unimpressive” this is relative to the granduer of the rest of the building. I thought it was actually really cool looking, even if it was a bit drafty and creepy.

The second level contained most of the mosaics that we have been hearing so much about. We started out in the loge, which had painted walls rather than mosaics, but the paintings were still well preserved, intricate and beautiful. I’m not entirely sure on this, but the painted parts may at one time have been mosaics that are now simply painted on as a representation to show what they once looked like.

Outside of the loge we came upon numerous mosaics (and a very random marble doorway to another hall). As previously stated, most of these mosaics are of an adult Jesus, emperors, saints and Mary. The largest of the tiles that we saw was probably about as big as my thumbnail, at the very largest and many of them had some sort of gold guilding. For all I know they may have been real gold (if Topkapi Palace is any indication), but they still glimmered magnificently.

The view from the balcony was just as amazing as the view from below, though a significantly different view. We were able to see the discs up close, and they look much smaller from below, if that is any indication of the size of this place. Eventually, we made our way around to the bottom of the horseshoe shaped balcony and came upon what I thought was the most amazing depiction of Jesus I have ever seen. It was a common theme that all baby Jesus’s had the body of a baby but the face of an adult Jesus. This particular baby Jesus looked like Chucky, the creepy possessed puppet doll thing. It was spectacular! It was at this point that I became extremely upset and disappointed because my camera died. It was very emotional and I don’t want to talk about it.

Anyway, as this balcony actually is similar to a horseshoe (there is about 6 feet that separate the 2 ends and they are blocked off by a giant wall) we had to double back through and go down the other side. The other side didn’t seem to contain very many mosaics for some reason. I’m not entirely sure of the reason why, but the museum had signs up telling about different aspects of the museum and restoration. We went down another stone ramp to get back to the main level and came out near the mihrab and minbar. Once again, East meets West with the minbar and mosaics of Jesus in the background on the upper level. We had another 15 minutes to wander around and check out the place and I decided to give the weeping wall a miss. The weeping wall is a portion of a wall that has a hole in it and it is said that if you stick your finger in it and it comes out wet your ailments will all be cured. I purposefully decided to give this a miss as I didn’t want to stick my finger in it and have it come out dry.

I’m completely aware that this blog just cannot do the Aya Sofya justice or even begin to touch on the size of this place. I do have some photos which can be seen on my facebook album here and here.