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.

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