Hagia Sophia, which is currently a museum, is the most visited place in Istanbul with yearly footfall in the millions.
By Tania Banerjee
The sky is lanced by minarets. My eyes trail down from the crest of a minaret to its base, adjacent to which stands a complex structure crowned by a dome 56.6m high and 32.5m in diameter. Gunay, my guide, goes on, “The dome is very important in Islamic culture, it represents the universe.” I am standing in Sultan Ahmet Square of the Historic Areas of Istanbul—a UNESCO World Heritage site— right in front of Hagia Sophia, an edifice which spreads across 74.67 x 69.80 square metres on a Greek cross layout where both Christians and Muslims worshipped at different points in time.
Hagia Sophia – At the crossroad of great civilizations
Hagia Sophia, which is currently a museum, is the most visited place in Istanbul with yearly footfall in the millions. But it was not always so. When Istanbul was still Constantinople, ruled by the Byzantine emperor Constantius, the first Hagia Sophia was commissioned in 360 AD. It was neither a museum nor a mosque, but a church. When it was ravaged by fire a second church was constructed whose fate followed the same tragedy. Emperor Justinian I in 537 AD completed the erection of the third and final Hagia Sophia, the one which has evolved into an icon of resilience. In 1453, Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II transformed the church into a mosque by introducing minarets and other Islamic design elements. In 1935, twelve years after Turkey was announced a republic country, Hagia Sophia transitioned into a museum as per the orders of the first president of Turkey, Mutafa Kemel Atatürk.
The sprawling garden crammed with perfectly manicured trees and sprinkled by a gusty fountain is a fitting facade of the grand structure. A quick photo later, I find my way into the nave of the Hagia Sophia and stand under the central dome flanked by 40 arched windows. Mosaics on the walls are remnants of a Byzantine past whereas the chandeliers were introduced by the Ottomans. A ramp takes me up to the gallery of the Hagia Sophia—a characteristic feature of the Byzantine church architecture. From the gallery I watch the swelling crowd on the ground floor one last time before signing off to my next destination.
Tiles of the Sultans
Pulling the scarf closer to my forehead, I manoeuvre through the jam-packed mosque complex. With six dazzling minarets, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque deviates from the usual four minarets style of mosques. The mosque erected by architect Sedefkar Mehmed Aga under the regime and direction of Ottoman king Ahmed I between years 1609 – 1616 flaunts five main shining domes and eight secondary domes. The nomenclature, Blue Mosque is coined from the dominating colour of the tiles lacing the walls.
The heart of the living mosque is swamped with both tourists and devotees. I sit cross-legged on the carpet and observe the intricate work on the İznik tiles. The tiles adorned with floral patterns exhibit an abundant presence of tulips—the national flower of Turkey. I rummage through my memory and recall an anecdote shared by my guide in Southeastern Turkey, “The Turkish of Tulip is ‘lâle’. If you reverse the word it sounds like ‘Allah’. So for Turkish Muslims, the flower tulip bears deep religious significance.” Shafts of light penetrate through the stained glass windows. Quranic verses are inscribed on the walls. I pick up a free copy of Quran distributed by the mosque authorities to curious tourists like me.
Dwellings of the Ottomans
The stream of crowd flowing from the Blue Mosque takes me to the Topkapi Palace Museum, the dwelling of Ottoman Sultans. Constructed during 1460-78 by Sultan Mehmed II, the palatial compound is flanked by four courtyards. I enter through the imposing gates of the palace—the first one in a row of four—and step on the first and largest courtyard. The presence of the Hagia Irene church speaks of its Byzantine past; the church was converted to a storehouse during the Ottoman rule. It is afternoon and the Sun strikes hard, but the path is protected by shadows of trees, carefully planted, to keep the celestial glare away from the royal passage. The hint of Byzantine architecture is again evident in the crenellated gates with two octagonal towers. It is the second gate, the Gate of Salutation, where I gawk at the Islamic inscriptions encrusted on the doorway before stepping into the second courtyard.
This courtyard is populated with the palace hospital, stables, bakery, quarters for infantry units, external treasury and enormous kitchens stacked with porcelain utensils which employed more than 800 people. With gilded grills, the Imperial Council hosted meetings of ministers, lending this courtyard the name, Council Square or Justice Square.
Through the third gate—the Gate of Felicity—I passed to the third courtyard. An audience chamber, inner imperial treasury, portrait gallery, library, the mosque of Agas, the dormitory of the royal pages, privy chamber and an elaborate harem which sheltered the children, wives, consorts and servants of the royal family are some of the features which make up the heart of Topkapi Palace.
Through the fourth gate of the harem, I reach ground zero of an exhibition field of Turkish architecture. Baghdad Kiosk, Yerevan Kiosk, Iftar Kiosk, Terrace Kiosk, Grand Kiosk and a flower garden later I come across a vast smudge of blue separating European Istanbul from its Asian counterpart—the Bosphorus part of Marmara sea. The strait is textured by white froth created by vessels carrying thousands of commuters who cross continents daily. I relish my last few hours in the city by wondering how my life would have turned out if I was born in Istanbul, a city straddling two continents.
(The author is a well-known travel writer. Views expressed are personal.)