Crossroads Tour: Ayasofya – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To celebrate, I’m reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text as well as larger and additional photos.  My Crossroads Tour series details my travels to Florence, Genoa and Istanbul in May 2011.

My first stop this morning is Ayasofya. As I entered the building, I passed through a hallway with ceilings that reminded me of the ones outside the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.

Even though this is no longer a mosque, I cover my head and remove my shoes within a few feet of the entrance because it feels wrong not to do so. Once inside, there’s a lot to take in…

This church-converted-to-mosque is among the oldest religious sites in the world, dating to 537 AD. It is also among the most important examples of Byzantine architecture still standing. It is the third church built on this site after the first two were destroyed by fire during riots in the 5th and 6th centuries. Emperor Justinian I assigned two Anatolian architects (Söke/Balat and Aydin) to build a basilica that surpassed Solomon’s Temple. Materials were recycled from various buildings in Anatolia, including the Temple of Artemesis in Ephesus and a pagan temple in Tarsus. Restoration work started almost immediately after the domes suffered damage from earthquakes in 553 and 557.

When Sultan Mehmed conquered Constantinople in 1453, the Ayasofya was converted to a mosque. Great care was taken to preserve the integrity of the structure as well as the sacredness of the space. Four minarets were added between the 15th-16th centuries, two of them built by Mimar Sinan. The most famous restoration occurred in 1847-49, when the 8th century mosaics were uncovered and documented. They were plastered over again as Islamic law bans images, but were restored again in 1932 when the Ayasofya was converted to a museum during President Ataturk’s administration.

The dome (above) would inspire one of the hats I would create upon my return home. Below, the stunning minbar (the imam’s pulpit) dates to the late 16th century and is one of the most beautiful I saw in any mosque in Istanbul. Similar fretwork was repeated in some of the upper galleries where I presume the women or perhaps the royal family prayed.

The columns in this gallery are examples of “Elephant Feet” columns – a weight-bearing architectural detail found in many mosques that allows for large expanses of space to be uninterrupted by columns.

I am smitten by the oil lamps that illuminate much of the space (shown below, now electrified) and hope to find a replica to take home (though in retrospect, I never do.)

Baha told me that much of the glass in the Ayasofya (and I believe also the Blue Mosque) is recycled, though he did not detail the source. The photo at lower right shows windows behind a Christian-made mosaic of the Virgin and Child dating to the 9th century. I try to do the building justice with my camera but the light is wrong and I cannot capture the depth of the details. I resort to drinking as much in with my eyes as I can.

There are runes carved into one of the marble railings from the Viking raids of the 9th-10th centuries. The church was looted during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. During this famous sacking of Constantinople, many pieces from the Ayasofya were redistributed to churches in the West. (I actually saw some of these pieces in the Doges Palace in Venice!)

Historians at the time recorded that “compared to the Crusaders, Arabians are more compassionate…” 

I’m intrigued by a ladder hidden away in a corner, dating to the 19th century. Expandable by ropes, it is still used for cleaning and restoration projects. I was surprised to find a library here, stretching along a goodly length of one of the sides of the main room. It was built in 1739 for Sultan Mahmud I (1730-1754).

I exit the building, and recognize flying buttresses, installed to correct the dome when it started to lean. There’s a grassed in courtyard around the foundation of the Second Ayasofya, which was destroyed by fire in 532. The current Ayasofya is the third building to be raised on this site. I note what appear to be stone sarcophagi in the courtyard – a courtyard under the watchful eye of a tabby in repose among the blooms in an elevated garden. No trip to Istanbul is complete without at least one daily photo of the street and shop cats, who are well cared for here.

On my way back to the street, I stop to admire this multi-sided ablutions fountain just outside the Ayasofya. It’s one of the largest and most ornate ones I saw here.

I also stop at the Timekeepers Room, built in 1853 during the reign of Sultan Abduimecid. It was where the person employed by the mosque lived, whose duty it was to determine the time for prayers.

Speaking of the time, I’m off to find a ferry to the Princes Islands…

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