Turkish Street Furniture

You might not be surprised by Istanbul’s charm. A little square between buildings in Fatih with a swing and a teeter-totter makes a decent playground for the neighbourhood’s children. A few benches are scattered around for parents who are too tired to stand. And someone has painted a cheerful canary on the blue wall of one of the buildings which encloses the area. Charming? Sure. Surprising? No.

But in Galatasaray, two dolphins rearing up on their tails holding telephones in their plastic bellies is a touch of whimsy that one does not anticipate. We’d watched dolphins fishing in the Golden Horn. Here, a kilometer or two away, a telephone company had decided to use them as a symbol. Nice thinking.

Between the two, in the Eminönü district, a tap at the German fountain still works. Tourists and locals drink the water it dispenses. There is no sign saying which sultan had it placed here, but supplying potable water to citizens was a task that the Roman empire took very seriously, where in its first capital, or in the successor capital, Constantinople. We asked the locals about the tap water. They do not recommend it to tourists, but they drink it themselves. So we followed their example now and then, without getting into trouble.

On our drive through the town of Selçuk we saw an avenue lined with lions. This was quite surprising, and I hopped off the car to take a quick photo. I haven’t come across a description of this before, nor an explanation. Is it recent? Not recent enough for it to be made of concrete poured into moulds. The columns were made of stone. Sometime, somewhere I suppose I will eventually find the history of these lions standing on two paws.

Seats and water fountains are probably as ancient as the very notion of a city. Telephones have had their day, and phone booths are now quaint reminders of the twentieth century. It was comforting to walk by the Halic and see a line of ATMs waiting patiently. I didn’t have to use them, but after spending a week wandering through Anatolia, it was nice to be reminded that one was back in a city.

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Down to a sunless sea

Constantine founded the new capital of the Roman Empire in a promontory jutting into the Bosphorus because it could be defended so easily. Draw an iron chain across the Bosphorus and you deny ships access by sea. Build a defensive wall at the western end of the promontory, and you deny access by land. This was impeccable military logic, and it was a thousand years before an enemy could enter the city.

The lack of drinking water did not trouble Roman engineers, who were experts at building networks of the gently sloping aqueducts which would bring water to a city through a system powered only by gravity. While rebuilding Constantine’s city two centuries later, Justinian built huge underground reservoirs to store water even if an enemy could break the aqueducts. The immense cistern (it can store 800 million liters of water) had a water filtration system, and remained in use until late Ottoman times.

We walked across from Sultanahmet square, stood in a short queue, and then walked down the damp and slippery steps to the bottom of the cistern. Fortunately there is anti-skid bump tiling, and railings on the steps. In the past you could take boats through the cistern, but that more romantic custom stopped in 1985. The two Medusa head columns have become minor wishing wells, as you can see from these photos. The vaulted roofs, the dim lights, the occasional sculpted “hen’s eye” columns, all make this piece of Roman engineering a very photogenic place. So it is not a surprise that several movies have been shot here.

Fifty shades of blue

The best view of the exterior of the Sultanahmet mosque of Istanbul comes from the south gallery of the Hagia Sophia (featured photo). This is the last of the great works of classical Ottoman architecture, completed in 1617 CE, just at the beginning of the three century long decline of the empire. You can see the main dome and two of the four semi-domes supporting it, as well as several of the lower supporting domes, and four of the six minarets. You can probably see more of the structure from the ground, but then the building looms over you and distorts the perspective of the domes.

This is a working mosque, which means that there is no entry charge, but you have to be dressed appropriately. When we reached the mosque it was time for prayers and tourists were being asked to come back in an hour. That gave us an opportunity to walk along the hippodrome, and walk downhill to see the little Hagia Sophia. When we came back from the charming district of Fatih the gates had opened again. Tourists enter through gate B next to the Hippodrome. You can’t wear shoes into a mosque for a very good reason, but you are handed plastic bags to carry them in. We were happy to see that there is a bag collection point at the exit.

The first view of the inside is stunning. There is a sense of light everywhere which is quite different from the experience of the Hagia Sophia. The classic Ottoman style skillfully blends older Turkish architectural styles with Byzantine to produce a light and soaring architecture. This is a prefiguring of modernity, like the two centuries of Ottoman political dominance in the Eurasian continent. This mosque was built at the precise point in time when Ottoman society could not make a transition from the medieval into the modern. The Ottoman army had been reorganized, the navy had fought down the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean, and controlled the spice trade, but the infusion of large volumes of silver from the Americas destabilized the Ottoman economy before a mercantile class could rise.

The incredible tile work of the Sultanahmet mosque gives it the name that tourist guides use: Blue mosque. (In a conversation on a tram I found that Sultanahmet mosque is what Istanbullus say). I would have liked to lie down to look at the ceiling carefully, but that was impossible. We had entered at a time when the interior was really crowded: people were still coming in late to pray but tourists were also inside. The photo above shows the main dome (mainly blue) and the western supporting semi-dome (mainly gold) with a soaring arch between them.

When you look up, it is like falling into a drawing by Escher. The multiple domes and their pendentive arches create a confusion of persepectives, deliciously enhanced by the repeating patterns of tiles. These are hand-painted tiles from Iznik, and I believe that this was the first large-scale use of such tiles. I wonder whether the extreme decorativeness of the interior has anything to do with the fact that the chief architect, Sedefkar Mehmet Aga trained in inlay work before becoming a pupil of Mimar Sinan. Interstingly, this was his first large commission, obtained at the age of 69. He, and his patron sultan Ahmet I, died within a year of completion of the mosque.

I had museum eyes by this time, and could not give this place the attention it deserves. I walked out and sat under a tree waiting for The Family. She managed to take a much more leisurely walk through the interior. I keep missing one of the major things about Turkish mosques, the deeply comfortable carpets needed for prayers. I would not have remembered the glowing red carpet with its interlocking blue and white flowers (notice the tulips among them) if it was not for the photos that she took.

Clouds gathered as I waited. The sporadic rain and shine of the day was building into something dramatic. I was prepared with both a raincoat and an umbrella, and I took them out. The umbrella provided the camera with some protection as I took the photo of dramatic clouds gathering over the mosque. It started pouring within seconds of The Family coming out of the mosque.

We will bury you

After leaving the Hagia Sophia, we walked across an open space towards the Sultanahmet mosque. Amazingly, this space has been open since the founding of the Roman city of Byzantium in 330 CE, when it was called the Augustaeum. Entrance to the mosque was temporarily barred to tourists because it was time for midday prayers. We decided to walk off to one side to see the remains of the ancient hippodrome. Standing just to the east of the now-buried grand palace of the emperors, and west of the Sultanahmet mosque, it is now simply an open space, as you can see from the featured photo.

This late-Ottoman style water fountain at the northern end of the hippodrome was intriguing. It turns out that it is called the German fountain for a good reason. It was financed by the German government to commemorate the visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II to Istanbul in 1898. This was the first thing we saw as we reached the area. We admired the beautiful mosaic work on the inside of the dome before moving on. This juxtaposition of new and old disturbed me, until I realized the tragic hubris behind it; Kaiser is cognate to Caesar, and the same hubris would fester for forty years in a dream of a doomed “thousand year empire”. Planting this fountain here in the center of Constantine’s city must have been a political statement.

At the founding of Constantine’s city, this was the stadium where the emperor watched chariot races along with the rest of the city. It was said to be decorated with statues of the Roman gods, wild animals, and creatures out of legends which were brought from across the empire. Interestingly, in medieval times, after the custom of chariot races had disappeared, this place was still a center of social life, and people began to attribute supernatural powers to these statues. The famous gilded bronze statues of the horses which once stood here were looted by Venetians in the 13th century, and now stand in St. Mark’s square in Venice. Interestingly, this was taken to Paris by Napoleon, and placed atop the arch of the carousel, before being returned after his defeat at Waterloo.

Only three decorations from the early centuries remains in the Hippodrome. One of them is the serpent column which you see in one of the photos above. It was first erected in Delphi to commemorate the Greek victory in 479 BCE over Persia in the Battle of Platea, and brought here around the end of the 4th century CE. It wasn’t erected in a sunken pit though. The pit is part of the normal process of building up a city over centuries. The bottom of the pit is the level of the chariot races of the 4th century CE. The past is always buried under a new layer. We got a better feel of this gradual burial of the past when we walked down a sloping road at the north-eastern end of this vast plaza and passed the curved south wall of the old hippodrome. The second decoration is an obelisk from the Theban temple of Amon, which is one of a pair. One was taken by Constantius in 357 CE to be erected in the Circus Maximum in Rome, the other was brought here by Theodosius in 390 CE (photo above). The third is called the Built Obelisk, and is the one in the foreground of the featured photo. An article by Sarah Guberti Bassett explains very lucidly the symbolism of political power expressed by these.

The Little Hagia Sophia

In the 6th century CE, the Byzantine chronicler Procopius wrote that the little Hagia Sophia (then called the Church of Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus) was second only to the Hagia Sophia in beauty. The construction of this church was started in 527 CE, after Justinian I became emperor, and just five years before the center of Constantinople was burnt down in the Nika riots. It was completed just before the Hagia Sophia, and the architects are said to be the same Anthenius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus who are known as the architects of the Hagia Sophia.

Looking at the structure from outside it was clear that it was not quite like the Hagia Sophia. The dome here is not supported by semi-domes (although there are two), but instead rests on an octagonal base, with large windows on alternate sides. Around this central octagonal column there are other structures whose ground plan, taken together, looks roughly like a rectangle. The church was built out of brick and mortar like most Byzantine buildings of its time.

We entered from a little gate in the north-west. The complex has been used as a mosque since the early 16th century. Right in front of us, on the western end of the rectangle, was a little portico and minaret which were clearly later additions. You can see from the photo above, that they are made of stone and not brick. The main prayer was over, and we were free to enter the mosque. A couple of people washed they hands and faces and said a quick prayer without going in.

As I took off my shoes I happened to glance up, and found a glowing painting on the inner curve of the dome atop the portico. The whole inner surface is plastered and painted white, and the colourful design with its three-fold symmetry was quite stunning. When I looked more carefully I saw an interesting play of numbers here: after the three-fold symmetry of the innermost circle was an eleven-fold symmetry of the next. I wonder whether the ratio 11/3 has some mystic significance.

As soon as you enter, your eye is drawn up to dome. This is where the main similarity with the Hagia Sophia is visible: the dome is ribbed and windows are cut into its base. Apparently this reduces the weight of the dome, and is important to making it light enough to span a large space. This was the first Byzantine building we entered after the Hagia Sophia, and the contrast was immense.

Here the multiple windows in this smaller structure gave it a sense of light and airiness, as opposed to the grandeur of Hagia Sophia’s upper reaches rising out of a deep gloom. As you can see from both the featured photo and the one above, the gallery admits as much light as the dome, and the windows at the lowest level also serve to illuminate the interior. I looked at the stone work of the capitals of the pillars, and the bands running around the gallery and they looked almost identical to that in the Hagia Sophia. Not surprising really, since the two were completed almost simultaneously. The same stone masons must have worked on both.

The Family was mesmerized by the blue carpet. Almost all the mosques that we visited had really deep piles, much better than the carpets we’d been shown in shops. The marble columns were very special; the pair that you see in the photo above were made of Synnara marble brought from Anatolia. Behind the minbar you can see an antechamber; below one of the semi-domes. The stairs up to the gallery were barred; perhaps it would open later. But here, I could admire the wonderful woodwork above my head. I think this is Ottoman, like the painted designs on the wall.

There was no one else around; certainly no other tourists. It was amazingly peaceful and calm. I wondered whether at any time in the future it would be possible to strip away at least part of the plaster to reveal the mosaics which had been praised by Procopius. The train line which runs south of here apparently put the structure under great stress; enough that it was put on the list of the hundred most endangered structures. After extensive repairs a few years ago, it was reopened to the public in 2015. I didn’t know that; lucky we didn’t come here four years before!

Sober cold stone

You enter the Hagia Sophia from the narthex on the west, so that the first thing you see when you step into the square naos is the immense apse right in front of you. It is difficult to tear your eyes away from it, but it is worthwhile later to come back to this place and look at what was behind you. The beautiful west gallery above you is fabulously decorated with mosaics and a carved stone railing between elegant pillars (featured photo). The gallery had collapsed in an earthquake in 989 CE, and the portion which was rebuilt has painted plaster instead of the mosaics of the rest of the interior. You can tell this easily by the fact that the paint is beginning to peel.

The details on the pillars are amazing. I brought my camera down to the pillars that hold up this curved gallery simply because it is there. Time and invaders have been kind to this part of the structure. The details are as razor sharp as they would have been 1500 years ago when they were freshly chiseled out. It is hard to remember that the use of regular geometric floral motifs was deliberate: it would be faster to do this repeatedly.

Above the Imperial Door in the middle of the western wall is this small stone inlay panel. I’m fairly certain that this must have symbolic meaning, but neither my audio guide, nor any references throw any light on it. I could remain ignorant for ever, or I could toss this question out to you (o gentle reader). What is the symbolism in this panel?

In the south eastern corner of the naos the light was much better. The carved capitals of the pillars were as breathtaking as the black, white, and red inlay work in the wall next to it. But all this was outshone by the mosaic above the pillar, with its large fields of gold. This is stone on fire, heady, breathtaking; quite the opposite of stone cold sober.

On another wall we came across panels of marble: Afyon marble, white with purple patches, alternating with Carian marble, red with white flakes. Between the panels ran a band of Tunisian marble with its dark veins running through reddish white. The light from the large windows lit up this wall and the gold tesserae of mosaic above it.

The cubicle that you can see in the photo above is the library of Sultan Mahmud I. We looked through the golden grille in the southern vestibule which separated it from the rest of the space. My audioguide did not warn me to spend time looking at the railing above it, which you can see in this photo. This railing is decorated with a repeating pattern of regular nonagons (nine-sided polygons). Constructing regular nonagons with compass and ruler is an ancient problem, and its solution presented in this railing was a statement about the mathematical prowess of the architect, Mimar Sinan. I must remember to take a close look at it the next time I visit this museum.

Let me end this post with a photo taken in the south gallery, one level above this. Again you see the wonderful carved capitals of the pillars similar to those in the featured photo. The complexity of the mosaic above the pillars is astounding for something made in the 6th century CE. Beyond it you can see part of the central dome, with the some of the forty windows which run around its base, and the forty ribs which support it. This was the main innovation of Isidore the Younger when the dome was re-erected in 563 CE, five years after the earthquake which destroyed the original dome.

Galleries of Mosaics

There was a lot of work going on inside the Hagia Sophia when I visited. The whole of the north section of the naos was taken up by an enormous scaffolding, so you could neither look out of the north gallery, nor get a good view of the inner north wall of the naos. In the south gallery too, there was much work on, so some of the mosaics I wanted to see were not visible. What could be seen was quite stunning.

The mosaic of Komnenos

This large mosaic was probably covered in plaster at some time, because you can see the surrounding layer of thick plaster. It shows the emperor John Komnenos II holding a bag of gold, and his consort, the empress Irene, with a scroll flanking a seated Madonna and Child. The featured photo is a detail of this 12th century mosaic. Some art historians believe that the plaster covering was historically useful, since it prevented visitors or workers from removing the gold tesserae. This mosaic is so well preserved that you could believe it.

Deisis

One of the most famous of the mosaics is the Deisis (or Deesis, the English spelling is ambiguous). No writing about it fails to mention that the icon of Deisis always has at its center the Christ Pantokrator, and is surrounded by other holy figures praying to him. One of the introductory pieces that I read mentioned that this also illustrates a hierarchical style of prayers, where you pray to a saint to pray on your behalf: very bureaucratic and Byzantine.

My first reaction to it was a disappointment: so little of this 13th century work remains! Judith Herrin, in her magisterial book on the Byzantine empire says that there was a superstition that a little stone chip, tessera, from holy paintings could bring you luck, and that there could have been a thriving trade in pieces of this mosaic. Peter Sarris also talks about late Byzantine superstitions regarding images.

Nevertheless, when you look at details of what remains, it is stunning. Byzantine art took a long time to recover from the iconoclast politics. Sarris points out that representational art had not died out altogether, but many of the skills had been lost, and had to be redeveloped. When you compare the Mary here with that in the earlier mosaic on the apse, you can see how much more nuanced this is. Five centuries separate these two mosaics.

The incredible detail on the face and hair of John the Baptist, seems so much more naturalistic than, for example, the hair on the head of Irene in the Komnenos mosaic (featured photo). About a century separates the two. In matters of skill, it is not only the schooling that is important but also the individual.

The Family and I were not the only people who spent a long time in front of this mosaic, admiring little details. There was quite a crowd. And why not? After all even experts in art or Byzantine history devote considerable energy and space in discussing this mosaic.

Marble Door

We came up to the galleries through ramps at the north eastern end of the structure. The gallery on the southern side is divided into an outer part (where the Empress Theodora is said to have sat for the opening of the church in 536 CE) and an inner part (where the Synod council of 1166 CE is supposed to have met). Between them is a door made of marble.

Every door inside the museum is a choke point, through which an enormous number of tourists stream. I waited for a clear shot, but could not get one. The shot that you see above is the best that I could do. I was a little anti-social, and planted myself in the middle of the stream, depending on the goodwill of people to stop. Most did, so I could quickly take this shot and move away.

My audio guide pointed out various interesting features on the door, including a story that one side of the door represents heaven and the other hell. The only difference I could see was that one side was well-lit and the other a little dark. In any case, this door was plundered from some old Greek structure and brought here, and so probably was not designed to have any symbolic meaning at all.

North wall

At this level you could see some of the mosaic panels on the upper walls of the naos. The view from the north gallery was completely blocked off by a scaffolding, so I could only look out from the south.

I could see only one mosaic which has been disinterred from under a thick layer of plaster. Who is it? A saint, by the halo around his head, and probably a Patriarch, from his priestly clothes. If this is indeed of the Patriarch Ignatios, then the mosaic dates back to the 9th or 10th century, soon after the end of the iconoclast period.

Let it be

Imagine that it is the winter of that terrible year of 537 CE. The sun has been a wan disk in the sky, giving some light but no warmth. It is six years since the riots in which the center of Constantinople was burnt down by a mob, and the terrible massacre of the unarmed rioters thereafter. Belisarius has defeated the Vandals, but his army revolted the previous year. The revolt was put down, but the capital city of half a million people is desperate for food. For two years crops have failed because of the strange sun. It would be one and a half thousand years before anyone realized that the awful weather was due to an immense volcanic eruption whose ashes took time to settle out of the stratosphere, causing widespread crop failure across the globe. Two days after Christmas of that year, the people of Constantinople would enter the Great Church, six years in the making, and gaze in awe around the biggest building in the world. Your imagination doesn’t have to go into overdrive, because even today that space is awesome.

The narthex had seemed crowded, but in the naos the same crowd was diluted to homeopathic proportions. Your eye is constantly drawn up. It took be a while to realize why: light came in through tall windows above us, and the openings in the dome, the lower part of the vast space is relatively dim. The golden mosaics that the Hagia Sophia is known for are far away in the upper regions of the structure. The clever ancient architects still direct our eyes exactly where they wanted it to land. Eight great circular calligraphic panels were made by Mustafa Izzet during the restoration of 1847. The panel on the right (photo above) reads “Allah” and the partly obscured pane on the left says “Muhammad”. The emperor Justinian I wanted this to be a statement about his political power. The statement is clearly visible even today, and was hacked perfectly in 1453 by sultan Mehmet II.

In this profusion of abstract floral patterns, and a few six-winged archangels scattered around the naos, the figure of the Madonna and Child in the apse is very prominent. This was revealed by Patriarch Photius in 867 CE. Revealed is perhaps the right word to use here, because this was newly made, plastered over an older cross which was part of the original artwork from the time of Justinian I. But Photius claimed that it was original, and that the recently defeated iconoclasts had plastered the cross over it. This was another hack of the Great Church for political power. During the iconoclast century the skill required for such a work had been lost. It suffers from comparison with older (or later) works.

I turned around slowly, to take in the upper galleries. The photo above shows the southwestern gallery, where the empress Theodora, wife of Justinian I, and one of the first of the powerful Byzantine empresses, is said to have sat during service. Next to her gallery is the panel inscribed with the name of the third caliph, Uthman. The eight circular panels each have diameters of 7.5 meters, and are said to be the largest pieces of Arabic calligraphy in the world. You can see in these photos how the central dome is supported by half-domes to the east and west (above the apse and the narthex). These supporting domes, and the square ground plan of the naos are important to the stability of a structure which has lasted for 1500 years in an earthquake-prone region.

The entire north side of the naos was taken up by a scaffolding which was being used for restoration work. The Family said “We will have to come back to see this place without those iron bars.” We stepped forward towards the apse. This is a busy place, with people taking selfies. We clicked a few, and then turned our attention to the minbar, the pulpit. This is the work of the 16th century architectural master, Mimar Sinan, who also designed two of the four minarets outside Hagia Sophia.

Right in front of us was the only human-sized element in the whole place, the mihrab, or the prayer niche. It is noticeably off-center, because it has to indicate the qiblah, ie, the direction of Mecca. I haven’t been able to discover whether this is the original mihrab ordered to be constructed by sultan Mehmet II. The two gigantic candle stands that you see here were brought from the cathedral of Buda by Suleyman the Magnificent. The symbolism was hacked again in 1935 by Ataturk, who declared that this place should become a museum, a perfect solution for a secular state.

Over my head

I had to try, but I don’t think it worked. I tried to keep people away from the Hagia Sofia, so that I could have the place to myself the next time I visit, but no one seemed to take me seriously when I said it is not worth seeing. So here is the truth, it is worth seeing but it is unhealthy. You’ll walk around with your head turned up, your mouth open, taking shallow breaths, until you start feeling giddy and you fall and hurt yourself. So don’t go to Hagia Sofia. There, that featured photo is of the decoration on the arch just inside the main hall. The number of people who bumped into me as I took that photo is numberless. Now that you have seen it, do you really need to go?

The Hagia Sofia was constructed by Justinian I after riots which nearly caused his downfall. As a show of power, the construction was finished in six years. This was hardly enough time to enable artists to make complicated mosaics or paintings. The result was an innovation: build simple geometric or floral designs to cover huge surfaces relatively fast. Examples are these crosses over the doors in the narthex. They are not from the iconoclast centuries, ie, the 8th century CE on. This is the original decoration from the unveiling of the Hagia Sofia on December 27 in 532 CE. Mind that crick in your neck as you gaze up at them; it will only get worse.

This mosaic, over the imperial door, can really strain your neck. It was stuck on over a mosaic cross in the 9th century CE. The ruler of everything is wearing pretty interesting sandals; on a human it could cause an aching toe. The throne has a back shaped like a lyre, and the book in his hand is open to a page that reads “Peace to you, I am the light of the world.” Mary peers out from the medallion to his right, and the winged archangel Gabriel looks severely at your craning neck from the one on his left. The identity of the prostrate emperor (in nicely patterned socks but without sandals) is a fraught question. I appreciate the arguments which lead to his identification with the Byzantine emperor Leo VI, whose fourth marriage (to the Zoe who would never be recognized as empress) was against church law. Due to this he was denied entrance to the church by the Patriarch and had to grovel in front of this very door on the feast of Epiphany in 907 CE. The mosaic is now widely known as “The Humiliation of Leo VI”.

By now your neck has frozen, so you might as well look up at the ceiling of the narthex, and the beautiful floral mosaics in it. The manufacture of the glass and stone chips, called tesserae, their transport, and assembly, must have been quite an industry. There are reams of scholarly papers written about them. Microscopes have been constructed with fiber optics which allow their study without removing or damaging them. You really don’t need to go there; you can read all about it.

By now the blood will be draining from your head, you might be on the verge of collapse. At this point you will see barrel vaulting made with stones brought from across the empire: red Egyptian porphyry, and green from Peloponnese, black-veined white marble from France, red-veined yellow marble from Tunisia, white marble with purple spots from Afyon in Turkey, white-veined red marble from Caria, white marble from Marmara, and a dark green marble from Thessaly. All this and you haven’t even had time to look at the interior. Save your breath, stay at home, buy a coffee table book.

All that you need to know about Hagia Sofia

“Just crowds of tourists.” I was told. “Needs about 20 minutes.” The Family reported being told. “The sense of the sacred has long fled this place.” A famous travel writer would be the first to know. Take the advise, and don’t spend the couple of hours inside that we did. All you will get is a view from the inside of an engineering marvel from 537 CE, which was the center of the Christian church for a thousand years, before it became an Ottoman mosque in 1453, and eventually, in 1935, a museum.

Instead, take up position between the Sultan Ahmet Mosque and the Hagia Sofia, and take a photo. Pay special attention to the 32 meter main dome, it was designed by Anthemius of Trelles and Isidorus of Miletus. You don’t really need to know that the dome was too grand for its time, and that it collapsed in an earthquake in 558 CE, was rebuilt in 562, collapsed again twice, and was eventually rebuilt on a smaller and more manageable scale in the 14th century CE. Ignore the fact that the present structure was sacked several times before the arrival of the Turks: once by Vikings in the 8th century, and more famously by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 CE. Definitely ignore the minarets; they were added by the Turks (the two that you see on the left in the featured photo were designed by Mimar Sinan, an architectural genius in the time of Suleyman the Magnificent, and the red brick one on the right is the oldest, possibly from the 15th century).

If you really have an urge to go in then briefly take up a position in front of the central door. You have a clear view of two mosaics, one of Christ Pantocrator in the narthex, and the other of the Madonna over the altar. The mosaic of the Pantocrator stands above the 7 meters high Emperor Door, with a bronze frame and wood said to have been salvaged from Noah’s Ark (oh how I Want to Believe), so this is a great place to stand. Another advantage is that you will hear every language in the world as people stream past you.