Pavane For A Dead Empress

The Turkish tour guide arrived early, just as I was loading my toothbrush with toothpaste. My wife at the time was afraid that if we didn't go right down to the lobby, the tour guide might leave.  So I washed my face and we hurried our two kids along and went down the stairs.

Our hotel was in Sultanahmet, near most of the Good Stuff.  Today we would visit the Hagia Sofia, Topkapi, the Blue Mosque, and finally walk to the Grand Bazaar.  The tour guide was a woman.  She was carrying a box of candy that she was going to give to some guy at his hotel that she had guided before and who had come back to Istanbul looking for her.  She clearly wanted to get us out of the way as quickly as possible.  She moved us as rapidly as possible through Topkapi and then we took a short walk to Hagia Sophia, Byzantium's great cathedral.

Hagia Sophia was the thing I came to Istanbul to see.  My wife wanted to tour and eat, my bored son wore a constant chip on his shoulder that said "Amaze me!" and my young daughter spent all her time looking for cats.  But the cathedral was the thing for me.  We entered the door and when I realized that our guide was not going to tell us much about the place and had allocated about ten minutes of her schedule to it, I told her in the nicest possible way to piss off and come back in an hour, at which point I would tell her in the nicest possible way to piss off again.

Some of you have seen The Hagia Sophia and need no explanation from me.  Some of you have not, and all I can tell you is that no photo can capture the splendour, beauty, and the very strange vibrations given off by the 1,500 years of history of the place.  There is incense in the air and blood on the floor.  But there was something else, something I never expected. And I didn't see it until I stood on the green stone of the Empress Loge, the spot allocated only to her in the very center of the balcony facing the altar.  (She had to stay on the balcony with the other women and with the foreigners, because it was a man's world then too).

The Loge of the Empress (throne is missing)

(The Loge of the Empress. Throne is missing.)

From the Loge one gets a full view of the cathedral.  Since I have been to St Peter's in Rome a number of times, it was unavoidable that I would compare this church with that one. In terms of pure architecture, this one has a more beautiful dome that one can completely see without having to walk directly underneath it.  Since the Hagia Sophia is stripped down like a newly cleaned out garage, one can see how it was constructed and if one pinches oneself one can imagine from the remaining decorations, including the ruined paintings and mosaics and the original marble wall tiles and wonderful columns what the place may have looked like a thousand years ago.  My first reaction was awe.  But this was then replaced, to my surprise, by anger.

The cathedral is a museum (for the time being) and fair enough.  But I was also sitting in the Eastern Christian counterpart of St Peter's.  I could imagine at that moment how I would feel if someone stripped St Peter's of its altars, tombs, statues, figurative art, furniture, lighting, priests, and worshippers.  It would still be an impressive structure.  But it would be like looking at a dead light bulb.  And that's what the Hagia Sophia looked like to me from my own purely Catholic point of view.  A raped and gutted church.  I can only imagine what rage and what sadness a Greek Orthodox worshipper must feel.

Does this mean that I am angry at the Turkish Muslims?  Not at all.  They conquered the place and I can say that there are far more surviving churches in the Christian World that the Muslim's conquered than there are mosques in the Muslim world that the Christians conquered.  When they conquered Constantinople, the Turks turned the cathedral into a mosque.  And it was their most important one until they got down to the business for the next few hundreds of years trying to build a better one of their own.  They eventually got it right and now there are lots of large wonderful mosques in Istanbul that would rival any cathedral in Christendom.  As for this cathedral, the Turks converted it into a museum in 1934.  This was done for Ataturk’s secularization project, to remove the cathedral from both Muslims and Christians in order to make it a universal artifact.

And an artifact it has become, but a strange one, since one can easily envision it as an active church.  As such, visiting it is a bit like having tea with the corpse of your great grandmother.  She was once alive and very witty, and you know that face well. But she's also dead.

Both the Greeks and the Turks would love to have the place back.  The Greeks don't have a prayer (no pun intended) and the Turks are now gradually trying to sneak the mosque back in with the support of the government.  This is infuriating the Greeks, but since the Turks seem to be wanting to infuriate everyone in Turkey who isn't a Turk it doesn't matter.  It may end up as an official mosque again, although I don't think that the Turks would ever turn away the tourists and I doubt that they'd paint over or try to strip all the mosaics off the walls as they did in the old days.

Ironically, I think, my anger about the place has made it more "real" for me.  I feel as though it somehow incorporates me into the history of the place more than an abstract appreciation of its beauty might.  For good or bad, it involves me.

unagidon is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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