Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Istanbul -- the Hagia Sophia

After an ever-so-brief stop in Dubai, we were off to Istanbul.  Man!  Is that Dubai airport huge!  Dubai is a very modern city.  But nothing there of interest to us.  Neither of us cares about deserts or souks (shopping).  And we could see the tall pretty new buildings from the airport and airplane.  So that was enough of Dubai for us.

Istanbul, on the other hand, was very interesting.  We enjoyed Istanbul from the moment the plane touched the tarmac.  Thanks to Craig and Jan on S/V LONE STAR, fellow Houstonians on a new Amel 54 currently based in Turkey, for their advice on hotel selection in Istanbul.  They had recommended a small boutique hotel called Yasmak Sultan Hotel.  This hotel was perfectly located for sightseeing – half block from the tram (light rail) and only a block or two from all the places we wanted to visit.  Being met at the airport by a man holding a placard with our name on it and riding to the hotel in a well-appointed Mercedes “van” was a welcome introduction to this city.  Our room was fine and the Olive restaurant on the top floor served a wonderful complimentary breakfast.  They served plenty of sweet pastries and breads for Bill to enjoy, and I usually ate the typical Turkish breakfast of olives, cheeses, fresh tomato wedges, and sliced cucumbers.  I eschewed the usual hard boiled eggs in a Turkish breakfast in favor of whatever other eggs were prepared each morning.  With tummies full we then headed out to see the city attractions and simply walk the streets.  Either we walked a lot more than we realized or walking on the steep old cobbled stone streets and sidewalks was tougher than we realized, because by the end of the second day we both were so sore that walking was uncomfortable.  Heck, even sitting was uncomfortable. We managed to hobble around to see the places of interest, but we were feeling our age.
The first place we visited was the Hagia Sophia.  Thanks to my brother Boyd for telling me about this place.  We likely would have found it even if we had never heard of it before, but Boyd’s description gave us reason to search it out.  Turned out it was only 2 blocks from our hotel.  We had a bit of difficulty finding the proper entrance – walked up a very steep narrow street on the rear side, then down a gently sloping street on another side, then a flat street on the third side, and eventually found people queued at what must be the entrance.  If we had simply continued right for another 500 feet instead of walking up that steep cobble stoned street we would have saved our out-of-shape leg muscles an unnecessary work-out!  But then we would have missed the pretty display of oranges, grapefruits and huge passion fruit on the rear side of the Hagia Sophia.

(Note:  I hope the photos I am attempting to upload with this blog posting show up correctly.  Blogger is banned in Turkey.  I can access the Dashboard and write new postings, and supposedly upload photos except that the images are not displayed for my viewing.  Seems that a man was real-time blogging about a football (soccer?) game for which a TV company had exclusive rights.  The TV company found out about the blog.  They sued and won.  As a result, Blogger is banned in the entire country of Turkey.  So I cannot view our blog or follow any of my blogging friends.  Really silly because Turkey still allows Twitter and Facebook and other blogging sites.  Only Blogger is banned.)

We hired a guide for one hour to explain the Hagia Sophia – the Holy Wisdom.  Rather than go into lots of detail, anyone interested can check out Wikipedia and learn all about this fabulous structure.  In brief, there was a Christian church built on this site around 200 A.D., which later burned.  This was replaced by another Christian church in 360 A.D., which also burned but part of this one was saved.   On February 23, 532, only a few days after the destruction of the second basilica, Emperor Justinian elected to build a third and entirely different basilica, larger and more majestic than its predecessors.  The new elaborate stone structure was dedicated as the Cathedral of Constantinople, and it served as such until the year 1453, except for the years between 1204 and 1262 when it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral.  It is most impressive. 

If these photos are working correctly, the image at right or above should be of the mosque altar and a couple of stained glass windows.  The blue center stained glass window is aligned with the image of Christ on the ceiling and faces Jerusalem.  The standing mosque altar faces Mecca.  

When Islam arrived, it was decided that this church was too beautiful to destroy as most Christian churches were destroyed when Islam swept across a country.  It was decided to modify the structure to conform with Islam rather than tear it down.  All crosses in the cathedral were removed and all faces painted over and more domes were built and minarets were added.  Crosses that were made of stone had the 2 horizontal straight sections removed.  This left what could be construed as a sword pointing upwards.  A sword pointing towards heaven was okay with beliefs of Islam.  Basically, a mosque was built over and around the cathedral.  The structure served as a mosque from May 1453 until 1931, when it was secularized.  The Hagia Sophia opened as a museum on February 1, 1935.

One tidbit I found odd was that American craftsmen were used to restore much of the Christian items found inside the mosque.  On the ceiling near the largest dome originally were painted 4 angels.  The Muslims painted over the faces of the angels because no human images are allowed inside a mosque.  When the structure was changed from a mosque to a museum, the paint was removed from one of the angels and the face again looks down on visitors. 

The same is true for the images of Christ and the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, as well as several paintings on the ceilings and walls throughout the original church.  This is a very impressive building.  One thing we found particularly interesting was a large wooden door on the right side entry.  The guide said this  10-foot high, very thick door is made from cedar.  It supposedly dates back to 200 B.C. and came from Egypt.  I have no idea if that is true or not, but it is an impressive door.  There are many carvings on each side.  Amazing that it can be in such good condition and be that old.  Attribute that to the climate (which is so dry that my skin feels like paper!).

Near the door inside a secluded courtyard on the right side of the church were several stone burial crypts and a H-U-G-E marble baptismal font.  There were steps up the left side and a flat section on the rear to walk to the right side, where steps led down inside.  This was a full-immersion baptismal font – like the one I was baptized in at Lamar Baptist Church when I was 11 years old, except this one was not plumbed, of course.  This surprised me quite a lot.  I just assumed that baptisms in this church would have been the sprinkle method from a small bowl of water as is customary in the Roman Catholic Church.  This was made from one huge solid piece of marble.  It was about 15 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 6 feet deep.  It was very obvious that this baptismal font was placed in the courtyard before the stone building was constructed around it.  

Hagia Sophia
Stained glass was left in place in several windows behind the altar.  This might be the only mosque in the world with stained glass windows.  The stained glass was covered by windows of plain glass on the outside.  So from the street one does not see the stained glass unless you strain to look very, very closely.  The glare from the plain glass makes the stained glass seem to disappear when looking from the outside.  From inside the building, the stained glass still looks bright and colorful.

One final tidbit about the Hagia Sophia.  The altar of the Cathedral of Constantinople was a semi-circular stone ledge, the center of which faced Jerusalem.  Centered above the altar painted on the ceiling were images of Christ in the center, with John the Baptist on the left and Virgin Mary on the right.  These were painted over when the cathedral became a mosque but in 1931 were restored to their original condition.  Now the interesting part.  When the cathedral became a mosque, the “altar” was changed to face Mecca.  A newer stone section was added.  It appears ever so slightly off-center against the original semi-circle stone ledge altar.  This is one of those things one probably would not notice.  Our guide pointed it out to us.

If you visit Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia is a “must-see.”

I have uploaded several photos with this posting.  Uploading is not working correctly and I have no idea where the photos are placed within this blog posting.  Sorry.  I have lots more photos but am tired of dealing with little squares and not being able to see what is going where.


  1. I don't think the sprinkle method was always popular in the roman catholic church.

    I remember my visit to Pisa on my highschool trip to Italy, and there is a building built behind the cathedral in the square of Pisa where the leaning tower is.

    The Baptisty was very large and had a very large baptismal font. It was a really cool building as it a near perfect echo in it. A tone would echo for 2-3 seconds after you stopped, so you could sing chords solo.

    The history proffessor I traveled with indicated the echo effect of the Baptistry was pure accedent and was not the intention of the architectural design (though his family later claimed it was).

    I honestly found that building fare more interesting than a tower with a bad foundation...

  2. BTW your picture worked fine

  3. Your blog and the pictures look fine to me. What impressive architecture... glad you're enjoying Istanbul!


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