Mainly because I’d played a lot of Civilization, the name I knew this monumental building by was the Hagia Sophia. In fact, that’s the Greek name. The Turkish call it Aya Sophia. The Romans who built it called it Sancta Sophia in their fancy pants Latin. Any way you say it, the name translates to Church of Divine Wisdom. And any way you look at it, this is certainly a wonder of the world.
The entire Sultanahmet area of Istanbul is a UNESCO world heritage site. Like the Fes Medina it is one of those wonders of the ancient world that must be experienced to be understood. Take this for example, the dome of the Hagia Sophia is tall enough to hold the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower! But not on top of each other.
The Hagia Sophia was an attempt to move the greatness of the Roman Empire to a new city. It was constructed by the slaves and workers of the Emperor Justinian who ruled from 527 A.D. to 565 A.D.
It was completed ten years into his reign and it is said that at completion Justinian crowed that he had built a greater temple than Soloman’s. It was the world’s largest church from 537 to 1453. What happened in 1453? No, there wasn’t a bigger church. Instead the Muslim Conqueror Mehmet I took the City and made the Aya Sofya into the world’s largest mosque. It remained so until 1935 when it was turned into a museum by Ataturk.
As Hanane and I walked through the ticket gate (20 Turkish Lira each) we were both stunned. We walked around where the tour groups were streaming into the front door and walked into the back where the crowds were fewer. It was the first time Hanane had ever been in a church, of course, it was a mosque more recently too, but I was envious of her experience walking into such a wonder of the world and seeing it with fresh eyes. She surprised me though as she would often do through this trip by stating as she looked at a fresco of Constantine the Great, the Virgin Mary, and Emperor Justinian by saying “I don’t believe it. This isn’t really that old. They’re lying.” Her statement is a testament to the amazing craftsmanship and hard work of restoration that has been going on.
We watched a group of Japanese tourists line up at a pillar and all shove their hands into a hole in it inside the main dome and twist their hands around. It’s a wishing place. If you can turn your hand a full 360 you get your wish. The pillar is considered sacred because it is always wet, Hanane figured it was from the sweaty hands of all the tourists. None the less, we lined up to have a go at the weeping column and I was surprised to see only one in twenty or so people able to complete the full 360. When we got there, I did it, but I was so engrossed in figuring out how to do it, that I forgot to make a wish! They say if your thumb emerges wet it will cure ailments. I wondered if there was a sexual metaphor with the Virgin Mary or St. Sophia attached but no one could answer my question.
It was a nice place for us to start as it is a fine example of Muslim and Western religious beliefs combined. Inside we found beautiful mosaics, amazing architecture, and the scaffolding that is used for the restoration work which so many Istanbul locals have been complaining about for decades.
In truth, I hadn’t realized we would be spending so much of our time visiting churches in this Muslim nation, and the Aya Sophia was just the first of many.
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