Hagia Sofia's History and Highlights Cheatsheet

DSC_0094 Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya is probably the must-see historical site in Istanbul; a city that's full of them.

The Name

In Greek, it means Holy Wisdom and the building served as a Greek Orthodox Church when it was ordered to be built by Emperor Justinian close to 1,500 years ago. It was the Byzantine's 3rd attempt at a grand church after the 1st two were taken down by fires and riots.  Completed in 537 AD, it stands as a landmark of the area's Christian, Muslim, and imperial history. It was converted into a Mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and has been a Museum since 1935.

There's a lot to process when you get in there. So, I'm going to give you a little help with some of the most important locales. Whether you don't want to pay for the audio tour or guide, just want to impress someone with your knowledge of near eastern history, or you aren't in Turkey and want to see what you're missing out on. Here is a view of some of the most impressive sites in the world.

Imperial Door

The first thing you'll notice when you finally get inside (Get a museum card, so you don't have to wait in line!) is the Imperial Door. This massive bronze door opened only when the Emperor arrived and sat beneath one of the most impressive mosaics, which I'll mention later and opens up to a majestic view of the lower gallery where most of the attractions stand. This is because churches at this time focused on the east side of their corridors. This trend continued when it became a mosque because Mecca is south-east of Istanbul and therefore the mihrab and other vital facets are located in this area. Above the door sits one of the more famous mosaics, which I'll talk about later. Also, when you enter, there are two massive indents in the floors that were caused by two statues that stood for close to 1000 years.

    Minbar

Where the Imam would lead Friday services, it sits on top of about 40 steps where you can allegedly see the imprints from the original chair. It has an epic stature next to the altar and overlooking the coronation block. It also stands near the mihrab (formerly the altar) in the apse area. When you visit, you'll notice the mihrab is slightly off center. This is because it pointed straight to Mecca (south-east of Istanbul) and was altered from its centered position during the Mosque conversion. Above the altar is a mosaic of the Virgin Mary and another one of the archangels Michael and Gabriel (though these images are hard to discern nowadays). The minbar is just an aspect of maybe the most fascinating part of the museum, the apse.

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Apse

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The apse that is mentioned and the picture above incurs quite the crowd in front of it. It was the central area for spectacles at Hagia Sophia. The throne directly faced another area that is of particular importance: The Omphalion.

 The Omphalion

Ostensibly, it's just a spot on a marble floor with different color tiles and doesn't appear to hold any importance, besides the fact that it's roped off. In actuality, it's the spot of the Byzantine Emperor's coronation. This exact spot was the place for emperors such as Basil I & II, Irene, Zoe, and Alexius, to see their ascension to power.

The Omphalion. The throne was placed in the middle circle.

I find this to be such an important site because even though it has an unimposing appearance. It is the exact spot of the transference of authority for the most influential person of the most potent empire for about 1,000 years.

Calligraphic Roundels

The Islamic calligraphic roundels that hang from the walls amongst the numerous Christian mosaics are another fascinating aspect of the Museum and provide a contrast between Christian and Islamic history. These roundels are the largest calligraphy plates in the world and spell the names of Allah, Mohammad, and six of Mohammad's brothers. They were apparently placed during Aya Sofya's transition into a mosque and illustrate the separation from Christian art and architecture.

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Mosaics

Christ as Pantocrator

What Hagia Sophia is maybe most known for are its mosaics. Just like looking at a Rembrandt painting can tell you about the Dutch Golden Age or Baroque Age, these mosaics fill you in on beliefs and ideas from the Byzantine heyday, as well as their decline. The first mosaic you'll notice (and there's lots of them) is the Christ as Pantocrator (Ruler of All) above the Imperial Door.

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Here you'll see Christ seated with (who's probably) Leo VI kneeling before him. Gabriel is on the right side of the frame and Mary on the left. My shitty photography makes it difficult to recognize the book in Jesus's left hand, but the Latin inscription reads, "Peace be with you. I am the light of the world". (John 20:19; 20:26; 8:12). This mosaic dates back to the late 9th or early 10th centuries.

Deesis Mosaic

The Deesis Mosaic is probably the most famous and is located in the upper gallery. It marked the beginning of the Renaissance of Byzantine art. It was completed in the 13th century and is notable because of its attention to detail in facial features, vibrant colors, and because it was ordered to be created to mark the end of Roman Catholicism in Constantinople. It shows the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist pleading with Christ Pantocrator for humanity's salvation.

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Empress Zoe Mosaic

Another illustrious design is the Empress Zoe Mosaic that dates back to the 11th century. You see Christ Pantocrator surrounded by Empress Zoe who holds a scroll to symbolize all her past donations to the Church, with an inscription above her head reading, "Zoe, the very pious, Augusta." Next to her, is her 3rd husband Constantine IX holding a bag of money to show his donation to the Church. His inscription reads, "Constantine, pious emperor in Christ the God, king of the Romans, Monomachus." Above Christ's head are the letters IC and XC meaning, Iēsous Khristos in Latin.  The faces in the mosaic have been scratched off previously and are believed to have been initially created for another Emperor and Empress or just one of Zoe's previous husbands.

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Chamber of Warriors Mosaic

The Chamber of Warriors Mosaic is the last one I'll discuss. There are numerous others to see, like the Alexander or Mary Mosaics. The Warriors' Mosaic is interesting because it flanks Mary, with baby Jesus on her lap, with Constantine I holding a model of his namesake, Constantinople, and Justinian presenting a copy of his most celebrated accomplishment, a model of the Hagia Sophia.

Photo:http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/06/Istanbul.Hagia_Sophia075.jpg

There are countless other beauties to behold in and around Ayasofya, including other mosaics that have as rich a history as the ones mentioned above, remnants of the 2nd Hagia Sophia, Tomb of the Sultans, the Library, the Weeping Column, the Marble Door, and many more. I can only suggest you visit this place yourself to understand truly how it feels.

Why You Need to See It

If you've been on the fence about visiting this place, then you may want to take advantage of the opportunity while it lasts. There has been a big push to convert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, especially after comments from Pope Francis acknowledging the Armenian Genocide. Protests started on the weekend of May 23rd to turn the structure into a mosque again. Causing massive outcries from secularist Turks as well as Greeks who see Hagia Sophia as a significant feature of their religious history.

What this conversion could mean is a few things for visitors. Much like the rest of the famous mosques in Turkey, it will remain open to public visitation (probably) and close only during prayer times. The most significant changes would be the carpeting of the floor, covering items such as the coronation square. Also, the legendary mosaics on the walls will be covered with plaster as the depiction of religious figures aren't allowed. So, some of the more impressive and must-see sights will be forever hidden from view.

While the idea of changing it back to a mosque has been debated for a few years, it's only been talk up to this point so that I wouldn't freak out quite yet. Though, with the current political climate and the rising of Islamist policies from the ruling AKP, I wouldn't put it past them to push forward with this plan.

April Fools Day Come Early in Turkey

Sorry if you think writing about a current events situation two weeks after the fact is too much of a delay, but I was on vacation (thanks, Mom!) and am now just getting back into my daily routine. With that said, I've had some interesting days here in Turkey. With one sticking out as one of the strangest that I've had in Istanbul so far. A nationwide blackout occurred on March 31st from 10 am - 4 pm. And by nationwide I mean pretty much every major city lost power. If you were lucky enough to work in a larger facility your day continued as usual (I wasn't). Otherwise, the country and especially Istanbul was chaotic. Many businesses lack a backup generator which halted production and caused up to millions of dollars in losses according to some estimates. Some people were also stuck in elevators for hours. Outside, the city dealt with its own issues as stop lights and subway lines went out of service for as much as five hours. And in a city spilling over capacity at about 20 million people traffic is already an issue on a normal day. Without work to do and nowhere to go the conspiracy theories began to fly. A conclusive reason has yet to be discovered but there have been numerous ideas ranging from the realistic to the absurd and some preliminary investigations leaking details of a cause, but nothing concrete as of yet. I'll give you a brief overview of the most prominent conjectures and let you make your own decision.

Taksim station on the afternoon of the 31st.

Cyber Attack - The most conspiracy theoryish idea, so of course a lot of people believe it. The idea is that Iran somehow took out Turkey's electrical grid. I have no idea whether this is even possible but one of the reasons I've heard as to why people think it was an attack from Iran, besides geopolitical reasons, is because the city of Van had no outages and they receive their electricity from Iran. Besides the fact that this detail would make this the most conspicuous covert operation I've ever heard of; it defies simple logic. Of course Van would go unaffected if it's not on the national power grid, but I digress.

Employee Error - Probably the easiest to swallow (and most likely) for most people. Someone in Ankara probably fell asleep at the wheel, so to speak, or plugged the wrong what's-it into the incorrect thingy and the next thing you know an entire nation is contemplating the End of Days.

Mismanagement - Another idea partially attributed by the Minister of Energy, Taner Yildiz. A single company, TEİAŞ, is responsible for almost all electrical production and distribution in Turkey. Yildiz blamed people for being careless and taking risks without his knowledge. This is an incredibly vague description. The company's head, Kemal Yildir, took responsibility and resigned saying it was a technical issue and he should've been ahead of it.

Technical Issues - Yildiz also said that simultaneous work at two different plants on the same grid caused a surge which resulted in the events of the 31st. He stated it was an operational fault and not a supply one, however. The stability of the system and its ability to bounce back after a possible future similar event was supported by Yildiz. Even though TEİAŞ was unable to restore power for almost six hours just a week ago. I'm not an electrical engineer, but appears that Yildiz is doing some political posturing instead of giving an objective assessment on the status of the grid.

Potential for Nuclear Energy - The other talked about theory I've heard from a lot of locals is that this is a power move being structured by the government to garner support for nuclear reactors. Just days ago, banners went up all around the capital of Ankara advertising the building of nuclear facilities. A lot people view the power outage as a crafty maneuver to sway those who fear environmental repercussions from nuclear energy to look past their hesitancies because of the fear of instability and perhaps their biggest fear, the loss of revenue. 

On a more serious note, the largest courthouse in Europe, located in Istanbul, less than a mile from my home encountered a hostage situation simultaneously to the blackout. Two gunmen who claimed to be affiliated with the DHKP-C, a banned Marxist political group that is considered a Terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU, and the US, took the prosecutor of the police officer who shot Berkin Elvan hostage with demands of: a public confession from the officer who fired on Elvan, the public naming of four other officers who were allegedly involved, and the gunmen wanting to ensure their own safe exit. After almost a full day of negotiations shots were fired from inside the office. The two gunmen were killed and the prosecutor was shot and died from his injuries at the hospital.

The courthouse where the hostage situation took place in Istnabul

The whole situation, while being sad, raised a more puzzling question. How were these men able to bring guns into such a heavily fortified building? There's the chance that with the blackouts and general chaos of the day the men were able to circumvent security, but this has pushed others to speculate the two events are connected. I'm not going to make that assumption, personally, because I have no way to verify it, but I can say it was one of the crazier days I've experienced in Turkey.

Eskişehir: Turkey's Amsterdam without the Vice and Art Museums

I recently went to Eskisehir, which is a city in Western Anatolia about two hundred miles southeast of Istanbul. Despite Anatolia being known more like a dry grassland plateau, the western section is rugged and green. It's covered in forests and green ridges that contrast starkly with the heavily industrialized Sea of Marmara coastline to the west and the flat urban sprawl of the capital, Ankara, to the east. When I first arrived, I didn't know what to expect, and I was just told it was a fun city and only about a three-hour train ride from my home in Istanbul. It was hyped up by friends as a kind of college town, but I was just looking forward to a weekend away. As soon as we left the train station and made our way down the main street, there was a giant mall. In front of the mall was an, "I 'heart' Eskisehir" sign, much like the famous, eponymous ones in Amsterdam. IMG_1057

At first, I found the structure a cheap imitation. An attempt to make the city seem like a more prominent destination by mimicking a sort of banal tourist stop. I still think about the structures in both towns that way. However, the longer I stayed, the more it accentuated the parallels between the two cities in my mind over the weekend I spent there. Amsterdam's cultural history may be more famous, but Eskisehir's is even more significant. The title means "old city" in Turkish and the founding dates back to 1000 BC. While Eskisehir wasn't home to Van Gogh and Rembrandt or any famous Turkish artists, it does house a Museum dedicated to the artistic glassware that Ottoman art is known for. Amsterdam is probably most well known for its tourist drawing Red Light District, but don't expect anything like that. So, if you want to smoke a joint and buy a hooker, Eskisehir isn't the place for you. For a predominately Muslim country though, you can find a nightlife here that is more open than any other I've seen outside of the typical expat havens and Istanbul. It has a somewhat liberal population, as well as a high number of young people that leads to a pretty big bar scene with quality foreign beers, if like me; you get tired of drinking Bomonti and Efes (The Miller and Miller High Life of Turkey). You can also find pool and ping pong tables at most places, which aren't easy to find in bars in the rest of the country.

Most of these bars run near the Porsuk River. Unlike the iconic Amstel, it doesn't cross every nook and cranny, but still bisects the city. Cafes, restaurants, and various other shops line the river. You can regularly find people sipping on tea or drinking beer or raki with the rattle of dice from a game of backgammon going on. It's an excellent alternative to the packed and expensive tourist trap that is Amsterdam (don't expect to hear people speaking English in Eskisehir as they do in Amsterdam, though). Walking along the river, I couldn't help but feel the same relaxed vibe that I had felt this summer in Amsterdam but with fewer crowds and drunk 18-year-olds.

However, if you've ever been to Amsterdam outside of the Red Light District, you know that much more defines the city than drugs and prostitution. There is an artistic feeling that permeates the air there, and maybe that's what I breathed in while in Eskisehir. Its architecture exemplifies this. When I walked along the river banks, and in the Odunpazari neighborhood I couldn't help but notice the unique houses, similar to the ones that struck me so much when I was in Amsterdam. Amsterdam's homes are noted for their long and narrow style with white trim (seen below).DSC_0960

Odunpazari has a style that is a little different but felt reminiscent of the one in Amsterdam. They looked like inverse images of the typical apartments above. What with them being shorter and broader with inverse color schemes. Nevertheless, I felt like I had stumbled on an older Dutch colony as I walked through.DSC_1378

The structural differences are probably more due to the period they were built, with Odunpazari's neighborhood dating back to about 1000 AD, while the city of Amsterdam was founded approximately 400 years later. There is also more necessity for Amsterdam's tall, thin style because of the need to conserve space, which Eskisehir doesn't have to deal with. Similarly, the Odunpazari neighborhood has numerous mosques dating back to the 1400's and 1500's much like the era most of Amsterdam's classic churches are from.

Westerkerk...tallest church in the Netherlands

Alaadin Mosque. The oldest mosque in Eskisehir

Overall, the cities provide a lot of similarities and contrasts between Turkish and Dutch culture. There's unique architecture surrounding river banks with elaborate bridges connecting the sides. Religious buildings accentuate otherwise unimpressive skylines. There are apparent differences between the Muslim culture that shaped modern Eskisehir and the social democratic doctrine of Amsterdam, but they share common traits. They are two of the most beautiful places to relax, and they embody a friendly and welcoming nature that makes me wish I could go back.