Tag Archive: mosques


Aya Sofya

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.

After Topkapi Palace we went for lunch at this little restaurant with an insane amount of food per person. The amount of food I ate at this one meal was literally more food than I’d eaten in a week back home. Granted I was starving myself to pay for this trip, but that’s beside the point. There was one noteworthy thing to say at this restaurant though. This was the first time I’d ever tried Baklava. Ivo goes on and on about this particular dessert (which I wasn’t even aware was a dessert) and let me tell you…it is spectacular. I can’t get enough of it. I’m going to have to start making regular time consuming trips to Auburn when I get back to Sydney to obtain this sweet pastry of perfection.

After lunch we went to the Basilica Cistern. Wow! I have to say now that I have felt like an inarticulate 5 year old this entire trip. Everything I have seen is either “Wow”, “Amazing” or “Holy Buckets”. The Basilica Cistern is no exception. This insanely massive underground water holder thing was rediscovered only a few decades ago. It was reopened for the general public in the 1980’s and it is amazing. Apparently, it was built in Roman times (Constantinople was actually the capitol of the Eastern Roman empire, Rome being the capitol of the Western part of the Roman empire) and it has survived to this day with very little restoration. We walked into a very dark and dank area but it had a vast feel to it. It really is very dark in there. When we looked at the “far end” of the cistern it was actually only halfway down.

The story is that this cistern was built however long ago and then for some reason or other the people forgot about it, as they do, and residents would dig down below their houses and reach water and not realise that there was an entire cistern there which was bringing water from an outside spring via clay pipes and aquaducts. When it was “officially” found they cleaned and restored it and now charge people to see it as a tourist attraction and for good reason. It is truly amazing. There are heaps of carp and goldfish in the water and one can also throw coins into the cistern and make a wish, similar to the Trevi fountain in Italy. I will admit that I threw my coins in and made a wish, but I won’t tell you what that wish is. I recognise that the wish is highly unlikely to come true, but a girl can still wish, can’t she?

The columns in the Basilica Cistern aren’t actually all alike. Most of them look very different due to the fact that they are “Borrowed columns”. It was very common in the day to “borrow” columns from the Roman temples by taking the marble columns from other places to build different structures apparently. Keeping what would eventually be ancient Eastern Roman temples intact wasn’t a very high priority at the time. We later learned how they made such nice marble columns, but that will come in a later blog.

It was extremely difficult to get decent photos within the Basilica Cistern due to the fact that I had a cheap camera (compared to the really nice cameras) and it was very dark in there, though I need to say a MASSIVE thank you to my darling Ivo for letting me borrow his camera as it is much, much nicer than mine and I have been able to take extremely nice photos on it. At the back of the Basilica Cistern there were 2 other columns which had a base consisting of the head of Medusa. Everyone should know the story of Medusa, but for those who don’t, she was a beautiful woman with the most beautiful hair. She would brag and boast of having the most beautiful hair until one day one of the gods turned her hair to snakes and everyone who turned their eyes upon her would turn to stone. There are other stories which can be seen here though.

Anywho, 2 of the columns had Medusa’s for bases and one of the Medusa’s was upside down and the other one was turned on her side. One of the reasons for this apparently is because in “ancient” Christianity and the Ibrahimic (Abraham for the Western Christian/Catholic cultures) religions to turn something upside down was to deny it and to say “No, we don’t believe in you and you don’t exist”. To turn upside down Medusa would be to deny the pagan religions of the Roman and Greek gods. Personally, I was a fan of Medusa, but to each their own. I found these column bases absolutely fascinating. I figured that this was the end of the cistern and we would head straight for the exit, but no. There was an entire other section of the Basilica to check out with more columns, more carp, more goldfish and more to look at.

I just find it so amazing all the columns and the arches and how they were able to build this underwater cistern that survived for hundreds of years despite people building buildings over it and houses over it and streets where cars would drive over it and after all that pressure it is still standing in near pristine condition today (though I have no idea how the carp and goldfish got there).

The Hippodrome

After leaving the Basilica Cistern we went to see the Hippodrome, which apparently literally translates to “the place where they race horses”. The Hippodrome now is actually just sort of a giant public square with 3 sort of obelisks (2 obelisks and one small spiral thingy) and the Blue Mosque, or Sultanahmet mosque falls smack dab in the middle of it.

So in trying to picture a Hippodrome I think of it as a horse racing arena. You see the horse races and they contain a track, which goes around a fence and there is a giant grassy knoll in the middle that no one really touches. As I understand it the obelisks are what the horses would go around (where the grassy knoll was) and the stands or stadium seating was where the 30-some thousand spectators would sit to watch such exciting entertainment of the day.

Way back in the day, there were public uprisings and protests regarding the lower class of peoples, and Emperor Justinian, in all his might and glory, was pretty ticked off about people not being pleased with his rule and he actually waited until the Hippodrome was full with about 30,000 people waiting for an exciting horse race (think Ben Hur) and had the doors locked and had his army slaughter, yes slaughter, the 30,000 civilians in the stadium. Word has it that this took no longer than 3 hours. Talk about efficient. To be insensitive and completely inappropriate, I don’t think even Hitler was ever that efficient.

The Obelisks (and random Greek thingy) in the Hippodrome were also very interesting. The first obelisk that we saw was actually an Egyptian obelisk. It has Egyptian hieroglyphics and everything and was apparently only one third of the obelisk brought over from Egypt. How the Egyptians built such tall, slender structures without them falling over with the slightest wind is beyond me. The second “obelisk” was actually just this random Greek spiral, brought over from Greece and was the middle of the 3 obelisks. It literally looked like a spiral noodle only green and buried about 3 metres down, but that just shows how far the hippodrome has been buried since the thousand  or so years that it was used. The third obelisk we didn’t really get to see as it was under construction and I don’t really know what it was or anything about it, so I’m really sorry about that, but you’ll have to look it up.

Sultanahmet Mosque/ Blue Mosque

So the proper name for the mosque is Sultanahment Mosque. The Turks, I am told, hate the fact that it is commonly known in the Western world as the (in my opinion appropriately named) Blue Mosque because it takes away from the cultural heritage of it. I can understand why it is called the Blue Mosque though.

Before we entered, the outside looked like most every other extremely large Turkish Mosque. We actually entered from the side of the mosque, not the front of it, which I thought was quite bizarre as the front was no busier than the side, but whatever. I’m not sure how familiar most of my American friends and family are with mosques, but when you enter a mosque (especially for prayer) you are expected to be clean, because cleanliness is next to Godliness. They have a thing before prayer called abulations where you cleanse yourself in the fountain outside the mosque. There are very specific rules on this which I think I touched upon in another blog, but if not you can Wikipedia it.  Part of this cleanliness is that you don’t wear shoes in the mosque. You are also supposed to cover your head in the mosque if you are female and they provide scarves for you if you don’t already have one.

So we took our shoes off and wandered into the mosque and let me tell you, my 5 year old inarticulate self is saying “Wow!” and “Amazing”. There are literally thousands of tiles covering the interior of this mosque. It has the usual 4 pillars holding up the dome and these are also covered in tiles. All these beautiful hand painted tiles are painted with tulip patterns which are the symbol of the Ottoman empire. As I said previously, these tiles are HAND PAINTED. I’m sorry, but I can’t get over that bit.

When Özcan was telling us about the history of this mosque I had to eat my words about the sultans of the Ottoman empire being completely jaded. I maintain that they were somewhat jaded, but apparently the sultans where expected to be educated and learn a specific skill. The sultan who had the Sultanahmet Mosque built apparently specialised in architecture. Mosques all have minarets (even the tiny ones, and I have seen some tiny ones in rural Turkey) and Sultanahmet Mosque is no exception. Each minaret at Sultanahmet has 3 balconies, which is nothing special until you realise that there are 3 different staircases leading to each balcony and none of the staircases ever meet.  Nothing special until you realise that the minarets aren’t really more than 2 metres across. To fit 3 staircases in such a small space and making it so they never meet is an amazing feat. To this day, engineers, with all their sophisticated technology can not figure out how the Sultan managed to do it. I mean, it’s not exactly like they can just tear it apart to figure out how they work.

I still maintain the sultans were jaded to a degree however.

So back to the spectacular interior of the mosque. Thousands of gorgeously painted tiles and people praying. There were women in there who took off their headscarves (Europeans) and people who were speaking loudly and I was absolutely embarrassed. I will be the first to admit that I am not religious or spiritual in any way, but I am a firm believer in respecting the place you are in and the women taking off their headscarves was so disrespectful. I was truly embarrassed. The floor of the mosque was covered by (in my opinion) beautifully woven carpets with a tulip pattern, but apparently these carpets are mass produced as they used to have beautiful hand crafted Persian carpets in the mosque but someone broke in and stole them (who steals something from a place of worship? That’s just begging for bad karma). As my knees and hips were still hurting from the previous day I sat down fairly quickly and just decided to people watch with our trip advisor. Suleiman mosque is truly a magical human creation and attracts all walks of life as it is in such a tourist area. I watched those wretched European women who were wandering around without their headscarves off, I watched lovely old Turkish women with their children and grandchildren praying and marvelling at the architectural wonder that is this mosque. I watched men crossing the boundary meant to keep tourists from the main prayer area to pray to Allah for whatever it is the religious pray for (as an atheist I don’t really know what the religious pray for). Thankfully, the mosque is closed to the general public during prayer so that scheduled prayer time goes uninterrupted.

After visiting the mosque it had actually been a very long day and we decided it was time to go back to the hotel. While it may seem that it wasn’t that long of a day, can I say that we didn’t get back to the hotel until about 3ish or later. Some of us actually went to Istiklal to just check out the “main drag” of the younger generation before settling at some random cafe down a side street. I ordered the infamous Turkish Elma çay (apple tea) which was delicious and I have recently become addicted to while some of the group played backgammon and we enjoyed the “view”. It was amusing as we chose a table that we could all fit at and by the time we were settled in we noticed that two of the girls had a wonderful view of “WC” which means “water can”. I find this interesting that every “toilette” is labelled as “WC” as there isn’t actually a W in the Turkish alphabet. There were actually separate toilets for the bay and bayan, men and the women, but as the men seemed to be using them both (and not closing the door) this didn’t seem to matter much. I couldn’t keep myself from laughing every time I looked over there.

At one point during an intense game of backgammon some kid who couldn’t have been older than 13 passed with his friends, stopped and said something in Turkish.  Sara, one of the girls on the trip and my roommate who happens to be Australian-Turk said to him in Turkish “What’s wrong”. The look on his face was priceless. His jaw dropped and his eyes were wide as saucers and he bolted. Being as most of us were obviously not Turkish it would seem he was trying to scam something from us. He wasn’t a terribly experienced thief and I hope it stays that way. Frankly, I’m not sure what he could have stolen from any of us as the only thing on the table was the backgammon board, but whatever, it was still hilarious, though sad at the same time.

On the way back from this cafe place there was a very cozy bookshop that reminded me of the bookshop that Audrey Hepburn worked in in the movie Funny Face. This bookshop was mostly full of books written in Turkish (understandably) but there was an English section and then there was also a section of books by Turkish authors written in English. They had popular Turkish authors and books, but they also had books on politics and religion by Turkish authors written in English as well. This section is the one I was really interested in. I didn’t get any fictional books by Turkish authors (I may when I get back to Istanbul if I have enough money) but I did get a fascinating book on secularism and state policies on religion with a focus on the US (passive securalism with a very religious demographic), France (aggressive securalism with a less religious demographic) and Turkey (aggressive securalism with an even more religious demographic than the US). I also wanted a book written by a Turk about the Armenian Genocide (acknowledging the Armenian genocide) but it was about 40 Euro’s. For those of you who don’t know about the Turkish/Armenian relations, the Turks completely deny the Armenian genocide, which the rest of the world acknowledges as genocide, if not ethnic cleansing. Needless to say, I will be back at this bookstore if I have any money left over at the end of the trip.

After this bookstore we went back to the hotel for dinner and discussed all the interesting things we saw before going to bed so we could prepare for an extremely busy next day.

Pictures can be seen in this facebook album here.