Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Travelogue Turkey: Beautiful Sophia

I stand under the great dome of Hagia Sophia, inhale deeply and subtly wipe the tears from the corner of my eyes.

Yeah, cheesy. But seriously, I do cry. A bit.

My sentimental value towards this building is akin, presumably, to a die-hard Manchester United fan from Malaysia finally stepping inside the glorious Old Trafford. A guy who spends his whole life watching the games in front of the idiot box thousand of miles away from where the action really is, wondering how awesome it would be to be one of the spectators in the stadium. He knows the arena and its history inside out, and probably can recite all the notable games ever played there. He has never been to Old Trafford, but he has always been there, you know? Thus on the day when he finally steps on the green pitch of the stadium, it is as if he is returning to someplace familiar.

Istanbul and its architectural wealth have long fascinated me since I took a couple of History of Art classes at Brown, specializing not only in Jewish and Christian tradition, but particularly in Islamic art and architecture of the different dynasties – the Mughals in India, Nasrids in Spain, Safavids in Iran and Ottomans in Anatolia. The slides came alive with wonderful imagery of Islamic wonders – the manuscripts, the mosques, the palaces and the gardens.

After some semesters watching slideshow, writing papers on the subject and taking tests, I embarked on a European backpacking trip on my last winter as a student. My main goal was to trek down, much like a field trip, as much as possible the architecture I’ve been learning in the class. I walked under the arched ceiling of the Great Cathedral of Sevilla, enjoyed the serenity of the beautiful garden in several monasteries, and feasted on the architectural style of an ancient Jewish synagogue. In Granada and Cordoba of Spain, the great palace of Alhambra and the Cordoba Mosque were, finally, no longer a mere picture on my textbook. Now, after a five-year hiatus, I finally made my way to Istanbul to resume the Ottoman-part of the ‘field trip’. Hagia Sophia is the first stop.

A surge of emotion rushes through me, as I walk into the dimly lit building. It is exactly how I remember it from my class. Huge scaffolding looms over the visitors, disrupting the awe factor, but beyond that it is exactly how I imagine it would be. The huge, round medallion inscribed with the words Allah, Muhammad, the four caliphs, Hassan and Hussein are there. The mimbar is there. The stained-glass window is there, shimmering in the afternoon light.

Hagia Sophia is currently listed under World Monuments Watch list of the 100 most endangered sites, and that explains the scaffolding and all the renovation work being carried over. A UNESCO report in 1993 called for a major overhaul to protect this important monument that had been fairly neglected. The admission ticket into Hagia Sophia is a steep 20 Turkish Lira (roughly RM 40), which I later discovered is the standard price for almost all museums in Turkey, but I considered that as my small contribution as a world citizen to preserve a part of history.

What is interesting about Hagia Sophia is typical of many other buildings in regions that have witness the power struggle between the Muslims and Christians. After a successful war, buildings were expropriated by the new conqueror of the city. Depending on the religion of the winning force, a mosque was turned into a church or vice versa, usually incorporating the former structure into a new purpose. As example, in Hagia Sophia, the mimbar was built directly where the altar used to stand. Mosaics depicting angels, Jesus and Mary co-exist with Arabic calligraphy.

The Hagia Sophia is certainly a grand old dame who stood the test of times despite many wars and earthquakes. It had went through countless rebuilding and reinforcement, and saw marching past it many emperors and sultans. The building as we see it today was built in 532 by Emperor Justinian I. It became the principle church for the Byzantine empire and the main seat for Orthodox Christian for many hundred years – it even became the biggest church in the world for almost a thousand years. But when the Muslim Turks marched into the city in 1453, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. Four minarets were built around the mosque, and Islamic elements such as the mihrab, mimbar and calligraphy was incorporated into the structure. It was later declared as a museum by Kamal Ataturk in 1935.

Quite a history, isn’t it?

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