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.

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!

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.