The first photo is of a ceiling mosaic depicting in the center the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child: on the left side as you look at it is a model of Constantine with his new city of Constantinople and on the right Constantine with a model of his new Church.
The above photo and the one after it record the existence of Hagia Sophia in the heyday of the 6th-century Roman Emperor Justinian.
The above photo, as you can see, records a 9th century mosaic panel of the Archangel Gabriel and the last one a dateless marking of the place in the Hagia Sophia where emperors were crowned.
Taken together these photos speak to me, along with the wonders of Byzantine art in the first one, an excessive partnership between Church and State during the Byzantine period. That situation has persisted in many places and is by no means confined to Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Islamic religions.
The Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom of God, or the Logos, or the Second Person of the Holy Trinity) stands close to the Blue Mosque and together the two represent the two great religions of Istanbul: Christianity and Islam. The Hagia Sophia dates from the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (360 AD), was turned into a mosque in 1453, and then, in 1931, a museum. It stood for over a thousand years therefore as a Christian Church, more specifically a Cathedral of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, famous for its interior Byzantine art and its architecture. Even now one is struck by the contrast between the frank humanity of the interior art, mosaics mostly, and the colorful abstractions of the interior of the Blue Mosque.
An Ottoman mosque from the 15th to the 20th century, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum in 1931 by Ataturk, the President of the secular Republic of Turkey. It stands now simultaneously as a moving reminder of the earlier stages of institutionalized Christianity and a popular tourist attraction.
People wishing to enter this or most other mosques must take off their shoes and, if they are women, wear a hat and scarf. It was winter in Istanbul when we were there, and since no place was provided to put your shoes, you simply put them down any place you could find inside the entrance and looked around for them among everyone else’s shoes when you left. At first I found this irritating, much like the endless call to prayer ringing out every half hour or so. But on reflection I began to think of both practices as an Islamic insistence on the presence of Allah everywhere, a presence requiring a sort of thoughtless reverence. After I did that, both the required forgetfulness of shoes inside the mosque and the call to prayer outside blended into the atmosphere of the city and made me feel like I had been, somewhat forcefully to be sure, inducted into the Islamic faith. I found myself, in other words, not so much annoyed as complimented. Certainly neither Mary or I look irritated in the following photo, taken inside the Blue Mosque by our guide.
This mosque, one of the two most famous in Istanbul, is called the Blue Mosque after its blue interior tiles, as in the photo below.
Originally named Byzantium (meaning “the city on the Bosphorus”) what is now named Istanbul was peacefully ruled by Alexander the Great from the 6th to the 4th centuries B.C. A Roman city from the 2nd to the 4th centuries B.C.E, Byzantium was then named Constantinople by (guess who?) the emperor Constantine, who made it the capital of his Empire and the center of Christianity. Constantinople was destroyed by riots in the 6th century of our era under the emperor Justinian but then rebuilt.
The Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in the mid-15th century, built mosques all over the city, and re-named it Istanbul (meaning “the city of Islam.”) Perhaps the best known mosque besides the Hagia Sophia, and certainly a favorite of tourists, is the so-called Blue Mosque constructed, as you can see in the last photo here, by Sulatan Ahmet I from 1609 to 1616. More photos of our tour of the Blue Mosque to follow. Note: The word “Omphalion” in the second last photo means “navel.” It suggests the “navel” or center of the earth, which was thought to be in the Hagia Sophia mosque, about which more later.
The Call to Prayer rang out frequently during our stay. We would hear it first from our hotel room at 6:00 a.m, but by our third day we took it so for granted as to find the sound barely noticeable even though there was a mosque close enough to our hotel that we felt we could reach out and almost touch the minaret from which the call rang.
As a rule business is so pressing in downtown Istanbul that even prayerful Muslims stop reverently for a moment at the call to prayer rather than rush to the nearest mosque, at least during an ordinary day.
Here is a food stand we passed as we heard the call to prayer and a pastry shop from which we heard it as well. The tasty food did not hinder our own moment of reverence.
Western visitors to Istanbul on the lookout for restaurants can feel right at home there. The seemingly universal beer, Efes, is excellent, and so are the dishes Mary and I favored, fish and vegetables:
The historical importance of the geography of Istanbul cannot be overestimated. The city spans two continents, Europe and Asia, and the Bosphorus Strait, which connects the Black Sea with the Mediterranean, has always made Istanbul strategically important from both a military and economic point of view. Oil tankers may be seen making their way along the Bosphorus, and a suspension bridge across the Bosphorus now tightens the connection between East and West. The photo immediately below advertises the tour of the Bosphorus available to visitors. (More about that later.)
Islam is of course central to the culture of Istanbul and has been for centuries. I was impressed nevertheless by the comfort a Westerner feels, or at least did seven years ago, moving around the city. European restaurants abound, and it is natural for European Christians to recognize places familiar to them (Nicaea, Ephesus and Antioch) in smaller surrounding cities. In other words Istanbul, despite it differences, remains a city by no means wholly foreign to us.