The next morning I awoke expecting sunshine and was dismayed to hear rain lashing against the window and a dull grey sky. Any photographs I was going to take would be ruined.
We went down for breakfast. I’d never seen such a selection. Pastries, fried eggs and bacon, deli meat, salad and cheese, cereals, yoghurts and dried fruit. I had some of this with delicious sweet Turkish tea, sipping it under the massive hotel chandelier which took centre stage, glistening even in the gloom.
We headed to the main attraction, the Hagghia Sophia, by way of the Byzantine Hippodrome. The history of it was incredible. The obelisks thankfully had a brief information plaque and were barricaded off. Other relics of a lost age have simply been left where they were dumped, abandoned ancient rubble in amongst the modern tram tracks on either side. The Turks do not seem very interested in the Byzantine history of their country. Apparently Prime Minister, Recep Tayipp Erdogan even bemoaned the “clay pots” and “other stuff”, excavations of which delayed the building of a new underwater tunnel under the Bosphorous. We went on a boat tour of this river, but that is a story for another day.
The Hippodrome was a vast square and we were walking where horse-drawn chariots would have thundered down and around it for public entertainment. The obelisks looked like giant stone fingers reaching into the air, and each one had been carefully engraved. One was stolen from Greece and had hieroglyphics all the way up. Another had Byzantine sculptures on it (above left). Then there was randomly a broken bronze sort of sculpture next to them all. I wanted to know more about the history of these objects, as the plaques really just described what we were seeing. But my boyfriend was not a fan of audio guides.
We walked on to the Haggia Sophia (As I’ve said before, the Turks call it Aya Sofya and didn’t always understand if we said “Haggia Sofia”). We were dwarfed by this beautiful colossal structure. It looks like it couldn’t possibly have been built by humans as the scale is unbelievable. We went towards it past the fountains and trees framing it and it just kept on growing in size until I felt very small indeed.
We queued for some time at the ticket office, but thankfully as it was December and a rainy overcast day, we didn’t have to wait long. The ticket price was very modest without a tour and it would have taken far too long to find out about the former church/mosque and museum as it is so steeped in history. Looking up minarets and domes went up into the sky as far as you could see.
As we entered we were engulfed. Entering through the vast doors a massive painted, columned, domed space opened out before us and took our breaths away. I got a crick in my neck trying to admire the central dome. It had Arabic script in massive gold linear script. Next to it in a marvellous fusion of religious art, was the Virgin Mary and child.
All around the edge of the central dome, light flooded through from windows carved into the stone, framed by orange and green painted triangular tiles. There was a second level almost touching the roof it seemed, with delicately carved viewing screens.
The floor was made up of slabs of marble, worn slightly from the worshippers and visitors over hundreds of years. In fact the main shell of the building is 2,500 years old, the first structure being built on the site around 500AD by a Roman emperor. There is a fantastic programme on the BBC at the moment: Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities which can tell you much more than I can about the history of Istanbul and buildings such as the Haggia Sophia. It really brings the past to life, and without virtual reconstruction scenes in a way which is really quite clever. Let me know if you watch it and what you thought of it. I found the narrator quite amusing with his ironed jeans and fancy sunhat at a jaunty angle.
The main area of worship was dark on this cloudy winter day and this made it all the more atmospheric, the gold Islamic inscriptions illuminated by rows of hanging metal chandeliers. Of course they no longer held candles but odd electric lights in little individual glass jars. They seemed to hang by themselves as you could hardly see the thin chains in the gloom, stretching down right from the cavernous roof.
We then walked out of the doors and up to the royal viewing floor, the “upper gallery”. On doing so you really feel yourself following footsteps of the past as the beauty of the church dramatically disappears and you climb up a rough cobbled stone corridor weaving around and up with stone arching around you.Apparently this was part of a network of secret passageways enabling the Emperors and their families to go to the church/mosque without having to mingle with the commoners.
Suddenly the cramped walkway opened out without warning into a grand open space, the high ceilings completely covered in painted and tiled patterns. This time you could not see the individual slabs of marble on the smooth shiny floor. There was so much history you could almost physically feel its presence in the building. There was even a bit of Viking graffiti reminding you of its age, vertical lines rudely etched into the viewing wall.
There were columns framing the space on the side towards the mosque, intricately patterned at the top. They were blackened up here with the soot from what must have been hundreds, perhaps thousands of candles hovering above the floor below. Every inch of ceiling was carefully painted and the variety of colours and patterns was astounding. In places you could make out where Byzantine church crosses had been painted over after the building was converted (literally). I had never seen mosaics of such scale. The whitewash that had previously covered them had been removed and they glittered even now. The figures looked at you serenely from their lofty perches, exquisitely detailed and done with such care and attention, showing how even their creation was a kind of worship.
The view to the church below was an awe-inspiring sight. Watching the service from this height, royalty must have felt like Gods themselves.
I was in a dream-like daze in that superhuman structure. It is hard to believe it was built just 500 years after the supposed birth of Christ, without the impressive civil engineering technology we have today. I wondered how many slaves had died building it. The scaffolding must have been terrifying.
I don’t think I will ever see anything as beautiful or as incredible as the Haggia Sophia again. If you haven’t seen it yet you must experience it for yourself.