The day is bright outside after the mysterious dark of the Cistern and for a minute we sit soaking up the warmth of the spring time sun. Now we are going to visit the Ayasofya across the road and we look dubiously at the long queue at the gates, but it moves quickly and soon we are in this strange hotch potch collection of buildings and buttresses, that have been added over time, including the minarets which are said to have stopped the earthquakes that ravaged the great building over the centuries because included in the mortar is the miraculous saliva of Mohammed from when he was a child…..
The Ayasofya (Turkish) or the Hagia Sophia (Greek) as it was originally known, the mother church of Christendom, and the greatest and most influential example of Byzantium, was first built in the 300’s but it was twice destroyed by rioters before this final version was built in the 500’s by Emperor Justinian. Some of the remains of the second building are lying outside the building. The carving on these blocks of stone are really beautiful, depicting the twelve apostles through the symbolism of twelve lambs, the workmanship is incredibly sensitive.
The building is huge – it was the biggest building by far for the next 1000 years after it was built – and the dome must have been one of the wonders of the world. Walking into the old church, the floors, all in marble are so exquisite, moulded by time and thousands of shuffling feet. Above you are the remains of mosaics, fortunately preserved by the covering of plaster when the conquering Ottoman Turks converted the church to Islam in the 1400’s – the workers used to sell parts of the mosaics to pilgrims of the day, as they fell off the walls and especially as they re worked the building after all the earthquakes and fires and time itself.
The mosaics are especially beautiful and all of them have funny little stories to tell, especially of all the emperors who are all depicted bearing gifts to the Virgin Mary and Child as their reign became consecrated. One of the mosaics show Empress Zoe and her third husband. She was suspected of murdering her first husband whom she was forced to marry on her father’s deathbed. Her second husband was her true love, however he ‘died’ within the first year of marriage and finally she ended up with senator Constantine IX Monomachus. The faces have all been reworked or scrubbed out by rioters and were finally fixed up in her third marriage. Feisty people. But the mosaic I love the most is ‘The Deesis (Supplication) mosaic. It is a truly beautiful piece of Byzantine art depicting the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist begging Christ to forgive humanity on the Day of Judgement. The style is much more naturalistic than the other Mosaics, with the finest of the finest mosaics, not unlike the Mosaics of Ravenna. It has been quite damaged by the rising or falling damp as the building fell into disrepair over the centuries.
We are exhausted. It is huge taking in so much. We lie on the grass in the gardens for a while and then get up and amble slowly down to the harbour where we are tempted by all the boats going up the Bospherous and know we have to do it another day when we are definitely going to be here longer! For now it is enough to walk across the bridge. Its lower level for pedestrian walking is full of restaurants on one side and bars on the other. We find a spot on the sunny side, in a bar over the water, and enjoy one of the most delectable dips we have ever tasted – it was the babaganoush, but its flavour was really smokey – the eggplants barbequed over coals – what a taste. Beautiful. And a long cold beer. Hahaha, so happy and sooo relaxed.