Holy Wisdom

by wjw on August 31, 2006

4 April 2006

Holy Wisdom

Gack. Up early, down to the uninspired breakfast buffet, then onto the bus for the hour-long ride to the airport in Izmir. Once there, security checkpoints separated scenes of vast confusion. No one seemed in charge. Somehow we got out bags checked. Somehow we got through security and onto the aircraft, despite Kathy’s ticket once again proclaiming her to be Paul Hedges.

And somehow we got seats in first class. We had champagne and a second, tasty breakfast, and when we saw our friends slumping down the aisle with their stuff, we could look at them in perfect innocence and say, “Oh. Didn’t you get seats in first class?”

The champagne didn’t make me feel better. I had a sore throat, and the sense that there was worse to come. We had spent a week in the viral incubator of the bus, and a lot of people were coming down with the same crud.

The plane came low over the Sea of Marmara, and then we were back in Istanbul. There was more confusion, and we piled all our baggage onto one of the carts mercifully available. Naturally the telescope was on top. Naturally the cart was hit by another cart, and the telescope fell off.

Naturally it broke, though we didn’t find that out till later.

For the day, we had new, temporary buses, and bus drivers. (Our veteran drivers were rolling up the coast and would meet us the next day.) Once on the bus with our bags, our broken gear, and our viruses, we went straight off to Hagia Sophia.

What can I say about Hagia Sophia that hasn’t been said? Possibly I could add that security is very strict, and that everything got patted or x-rayed before we were allowed anywhere near this monument to civilization. I could also add that Turks tend to be a bit puzzled by this enormous church. According to Mehmet, who guides Turks as well as foreigners, he is often asked, “Why is this church built to look like a mosque?” After which he has to explain that Ottoman mosques are built to look like Hagia Sophia, not the other way around.

Our own, Western idea of mosques tend to be based on the Ottoman model— you’ve got very different sorts of mosques in places like India and Indonesia. So it’s not just the Turks whose idea of mosques come from Justinian’s great church.

Hagia Sophia is also called Sancta Sophia (in Latin) and Ayasofia (in Turkish). The name translates as “Holy Wisdom,” not “Saint Sophy,” in much the same way that Santa Fe translates as “Holy Faith” and not “Saint Fay.”
The church was built to replace an earlier Hagia Sophia burned down during the Nika Riots of 532, in which the Emperor Justinian killed 30,000 of his subjects in order to maintain public order and his throne (not necessarily in that order). The Nika Riots have inspired a surprising amount of science fiction, by Pournelle, David Drake, and Guy Kay, among others.

Justinian has a pretty good reputation these days. In addition to building Hagia Sofia, he created the last great Roman legal code, reconquered Rome, Ravenna, and Africa from the Goths, and came within an ace of re-establishing Imperial rule over the West. (The reconquest may have failed due not to any military incapacity, but to a prolonged famine due to a nuclear winter produced by an eruption of Krakatoa.)

Justinian was a lot less popular during his lifetime. His subjects considered him a greedy, penny-pinching tyrant, married to a prostitute, whose claim to the throne was dubious. All those military and building projects cost money, and the Byzantines hated his tax collectors. Justinian, a sincere and orthodox Christian, also persecuted Jews and pagans, and put Plato’s Academy under state control.

The church is topped by an enormous dome over 50 meters tall, supported by a pair of arches and two half-domes. The dome is slightly smaller than that of the Pantheon in Rome, but it’s a lot farther off the ground. Beneath the dome was the largest enclosed space in the world until the Houston Astrodome was built in the 1960s. Back in the Dark Ages, a Russian princess walked beneath the dome and instantly converted, believing that only God could hold up such a building. Justinian wasn’t kidding when he says, on first entering the completed church, “Solomon, I have outdone you!”

Of course such a radical design had its flaws. The first dome collapsed in an earthquake during Justinian’s own lifetime, and was replaced by a taller and more stable dome which nevertheless fell down anyway. Since then, the church has been damaged multiple times, and each time rebuilt. Buttresses added to the outside of the building have somewhat obscured its original form.

Toward the end of the Byzantine Empire, the state was unable to raise the funds to keep the church in repair, and when the Turks marched in, Hagia Sofia was a wreck. The Turks under Mehmet the Conqueror restored Hagia Sofia, and in general have done a fine job of maintaining the building in the centuries since.

Incidentally, Hagia Sofia was Mehmet’s first destination on taking the city. He had promised his troops a three-day sack, but when he heard Hagia Sofia was being looted he galloped through the city gates straight to the church, where he commenced whacking the soldiers with his mace and shouting, “Keep your hands off my property!”

It has to be said that Hagia Sofia shows its age. The outside could use a new coat of paint. It’s a faded red, and Mehmet said when he was young, it was yellow. Inside, the whole building could use cleaning and restoration. This 1500-year-old grand dame is a little shabby around the edges.

Outside the main entrance of the building are remains of the earlier Hagia Sofias and various Ottoman additions, such as a fountain for the faithful to perform their ablutions, a school for boys, and the tombs of assorted sultans (two of which are in the old baptistry). In addition there are the four huge minarets constructed after the church was converted to a mosque. The minarets were not all built at the same time, which shows the rather deliberate progress of any Ottoman renovations. They could have radically altered the building at any time, but instead they treated it with great respect.

The building is entered through the narthex, a long gallery, with a barrel-vaulted ceiling, along Hagia Sofia’s western side. The ceiling is ornamented by a gold, blue, and vermilion mosaic in geometric patterns. The colors are on the dull side and I expect it could use a cleaning. The walls are ornamented with great slabs of marble set off in a kind of carved stone frame, as if they were paintings.

There are nine bronze doors leading into the church. Three were for the public, three for those seeking sanctuary, and the middle three for the Emperor and his family. The middle door, which I supposed the Emperor used in person, is much taller than the others, with a heavily ornamented bronze frame. Above the door is a mosaic of Jesus enthroned, flanked by medallions of Mary and Michael, with the Emperor Leon VI bowing before him.

Despite the mosaics, the gold, the massive doors, and the marble, the narthex only gives a hint of the magnificence within.

We entered through the Emperor’s doors (I mean, why not?).

There is a vast open space in the center of the building, softly lit by the windows under the dome. Our view of the dome was marred somewhat by an enormous keel-shaped scaffold used by workers restoring the dome. We noticed the workers don’t actually have to climb this thing to get to work, there are elevators installed.

On the other hand, we saw no workers at all. The scaffold has been in place for over ten years, and apparently little work has been done.

The huge mosaic ornamenting the dome’s underside is of Ottoman construction, replacing (or perhaps placed on top of) an earlier mosaic of Christ Pantokrator.

In general, the Ottomans were very respectful of the original Christian mosaics. Those featuring human figures (traditionally forbidden under Islam) were not destroyed, but covered with a light layer of plaster, easily removed. The Turks went so far as to restore damaged mosaics before covering them.

Though the mosaics of Hagia Sofia are damaged, some quite heavily, the damage was incurred in earthquakes, not as a result of religious bigotry.

Any religious problems seem to have been postponed to the 20th century and its aftermath, as various Orthodox and European figured are presently accusing the Turks of persecuting Christians within their state, and of dragging their feet when it comes to the restoration of Christian monuments such as Hagia Sofia. (That huge empty scaffold did seem like a giant finger pointing to, well, something or other.)

Entering the structure, you can’t help but notice two giant porphyry jars, carved in the form of perfume bottles. These were discovered in Ottoman times in the ruins of the ancient city of Pergamum, and moved by one of the sultans to Hagia Sofia.

The building is constructed in two tiers, with upper and lower galleries running around the vast empty space in the middle. Tens of thousands of man-hours must have gone into carving the arches over the pillars bearing the weight of the galleries. Many of the pillars are taken from pagan temples throughout the empire. The walls are covered with gorgeous slabs of porphyry and marble, also taken from all over Justinian’s empire. In many cases, a marble block was sawed in half, and then opened like a book before being mounted on the wall, creating a Rorschach-like image.

On one pillar is a little hole. Apparently one day Justinian had a migraine, and rested his head against this pillar for a while. The headache was cured, and since then people have been putting their afflicted parts on that section of the pillar, often enough to erode a hole.

Supporting the dome, between the half-domes and the arches, are the triangular load-bearing “squinches.” (That’s the real name, apparently.) On the squinches are dark, intimidating mosaics of vast six-winged beings— cherubim, in other words. These aren’t the cute little putti of Italian religious art, these are clearly dangerous, inhuman beings. (Sometimes they are portrayed as wings with eyes.) These figures originally had a human head in the middle of the image, but the Muslims replaced this with a kind of blaze of radiant light, as if the cherubim were firing a laser show at the people below.

The Ottomans made several addition to the building in the process of converting it to a mosque. The most obvious are the huge medallions bearing the signatures of the first eight (six? ten?) caliphs. These are common to large mosques.

The Turks also added a mihrap (I’m using Turkish spelling), the boat-shaped alcove used to indicate the direction of Mecca. During services, the imam normally stands (or bows, or kneels) before the mihrap, which I suspect helps to reflect and amplify his voice. This mihrap is made of pale marble and heavily ornamented with gold and with Arabic calligraphy.

Another addition was the minber, which is a kind of pulpit, with a conical roof and a long, straight stair leading to it. Imams could use this when they needed to address a larger audience. It’s beautifully made of marble, and is placed next to the “gallery of the sovereign,” an elevated box used by the sultan and his family during services. A gold, lacy screen separates the sultan from his subjects, and also makes it difficult for any assassin to aim at his target. Architecturally, it’s an interesting combination of Byzantine motifs mixed with Turkish ornament.

Another feature of Turkish mosques is the “muezzin loggia,” a kind of house, with open sides, built inside the mosque. The muezzin could hold semi-private meetings inside, or address multitudes from the roof. There are five of these in Hagia Sofia, one of them in the huge open space beneath the dome.

In addition, the Turks added gorgeous tile work in various places, plus examples of gold-embossed calligraphy of the various sultans who donated one thing or another to the building.

Our tour was lengthy but there was a lot we didn’t get to see, including all the mosaics in the upper galleries, so we decided to come back later on our own time.

We exited beneath the famous mosaic showing the Virgin and the infant Jesus being presented with a plan of Constantinople by Constantine I, while Justinian presents a plan of Hagia Sofia.

From Hagia Sofia we walked across the street to the Basilica Cistern, another vast, eerie underground space, where 336 columns, taken from pagan temples, were used to support this addition to the water works of Constantinople. Unlike the Cistern of 1001 Columns, viewed earlier, this still has water in it. A constant rain drips down from the roof, and the reflective water, the underwater floodlights, and the golden rain of water combine to produce an unearthly effect.

The water is only a few inches deep, though there are fish in it that cluster in the better-lit areas. Visitors pass over the water on wooden walkways.

In one corner are a pair of heads of Medusa placed at the bottom of a column. It was widely thought at one time that this was an ideological statement demonstrating the triumph of Christianity over paganism, but it was subsequently realized that during its use the cistern would have been filled to the ceiling, and there was no point in making an ideological statement that only the fish could see. It’s now thought that the Medusas are at the bottom of the column because that’s how that particular block of marble best fit into the structure.

This cistern has been used in movies. James Bond used a motorboat to zoom through it in From Russia With Love, and Jackie Chan had a memorable fight scene here in Who am I? I believe it may also have been used as a Turkish prison in the movie Midnight Express, in which the Turkish authorities inexplicably cooperated in a film demonstrating Turkish brutality (and which, at least in the case of this book and movie, seems to have been entirely invented).

From the cistern, we walked across a wide boulevard and a park to Mosque Sultanahmet, better known in the West as the Blue Mosque.

The mosque was built in the early 17th century by, hey, Sultan Ahmet. As the districts of old Istanbul were known by the nearest mosques, the entire historic district of old Byzantium is now known by the name Sultanahmet.

The mosque is younger than Hagia Sofia by over a thousand years, and looks generally like Hagia Sofia’s smaller, prettier, cleaner younger brother. The exterior isn’t blue, but various shades of gray— the name comes from the blue tiles inside. Even though it’s the most famous mosque in Istanbul, its architecture is not considered particularly distinguished— Suleiman’s mosque, by contrast, is considered the ne plus ultra of Turkish architecture.

You enter a mosque through a courtyard surrounded by a kind of cloister, and which features a fountain for ablutions. As we were entered the mosque proper, we were given a plastic drawstring bag for our shoes. Once again, women were obliged to cover their heads.

As we walked toward the center of the mosque, we passed by a series of lacy cages reserved for women. Women are also allowed in the upper gallery. Though this segregation is not to modern tastes, I have to say that— given the amount of bowing and kneeling going on in a Muslim service— it does prevent the guys from spending their time ogling the women’s butts.

The interior of the mosque is a vast empty space supported by four massive, fluted pillars— unlike Hagia Sofia, where no pillars interrupt the view. Illumination is provided by many banks of stained glass windows, and by huge iron wheel-shaped chandeliers with dim, lantern-like electric lights. The interior is heavily ornamented with mosaics and with the blue tiles that give the mosque its name, though the interior is so dim that it was difficult to appreciate these properly.

The interior is heavily carpeted with big machine-made carpets. Ankle-high shelves divide the open space, places for worshipers to put their shoes. A muezzin loggia is built against one of the big pillars. A few men knelt in prayer here and there across the big carpet.

We left the building, put on our shoes, and handed in our plastic shoe-carriers. There was a booth cleverly positioned at the exit, giving us a chance to tip the imam. I believe I gave him a lira.

From thence we thrashed our way through the souvenir-sellers to the buses, and were taken across the Golden Horn to Beyoglu. This area north of Istanbul proper has long been a residence for foreigners, and climbing Beyoglu’s tall hill, we passed many toney hotels and shops as we approached our own hotel, the Divan, yet another five-star hotel we would have otherwise been reluctant to afford.

We were on our own for dinner— no more wretched hotel buffets!— so we gathered a group of friends and went to Haçibaba, a Turkish restaurant that’s been in operation since the 1920s. After climbing a narrow stair, we were welcomed with the usual effusive hospitality.

As in many Greek restaurants, the raw food was all on display, and all we had to do was ogle and point. I had something on skewers, I don’t remember what, and a salad. I ordered a bottle of red Turkish wine for the table, and was given a sample to taste. It was horrid. I confess that I didn’t have the nerve to send the bottle back, however, and we all shared in the wretchedness of the stuff. Nevertheless the food was excellent, and we managed to have a merry time.

Returning to the hotel through the large, bus- and tram-filled Taksim Square, with its inevitable statue of Atatürk, we noticed an enormous police presence. There hadn’t been any crime, apparently, but there was a huge exhibit devoted to the Turkish police. Presumably recruiters were active in the crowd.

Once back in the hotel, I relaxed in the spacious lobby, and ordered an overpriced drink to wipe the memory of the awful wine from my palate.

Next day, we would visit the Sultan’s harem.

(Thanks to newmanservices.com for posting so many of the photographs linked to in this memoir.)

HaloJonesFan September 1, 2006 at 5:08 pm

“Justinian has a pretty good reputation these days….[he]was a lot less popular during his lifetime.”

Heh heh heh…I wonder if, in another 1500 years, someone will write(*) something like this about George W. Bush?

(*) or whatever it is they do in 1500 years, maybe they’ll exchange sentient protein molecules contained in a silione mucus medium

dubjay September 1, 2006 at 9:35 pm

My guess is that historians will be appalled by Bush, once all the classified archived material is released and we can see the things he’s managed to hide.

Even sentient protein molecules have reason to be appalled. They’d be more sentient than Bush.

HaloJonesFan September 3, 2006 at 5:31 am

dubjay: Personally, I think that once the classified material is release, people will be wondering why he stopped at Iraq rather than going on to invade Iran, Syria, Jordan, Saudia Arabia, Israel, and France.

A superfluous man September 4, 2006 at 10:41 am

Excellent post.

dubjay September 6, 2006 at 9:34 pm

Except that if the real problem was Iran or Saudi or Israel, why invade Iraq?

Right now we’re creating more terrorists than we’re killing. Last year there were an estimated 5,000 terrorists in Iraq. Now there are 20,000.

It’s not that I’m a fan of Saddam. I just didn’t want Bush involved in his overthrow, because I knew he and his corrupt crew would view the war less as a military effort than an excuse to hand KBR and their other buddies billions of taxpayer dollars. Which they did. 8.9 billion stolen, according to the administration’s own figures.

None retrieved. They just went to a less transparent procurement system and bypassed the auditors completely.

S.M. Stirling September 7, 2006 at 10:45 am

There’s not much sense to the “we’re creating terrorists” by doing X or Y or Z argument.

It implicitly assumes that there was a shortage of potential Islamist terrorists at some point, or that there’s some action we could take which would dry up the supply.

Both these assumptions are flat wrong.

Osama was running five _thousand_ new recruits through his camps in Afghanistan _every year_ in the late 90’s. And he wasn’t the only one in the business.

If it’s one thing the House of Islam is not short of, it’s people who hate us and want to kill us. Nor have the basic attitudes ever been different; it’s just that for historically contingent reasons it’s being expressed more freely now.

The Sudanese Dervishes or the Fulani jihadists of Uthman dan Fodio back in the 19th century said exactly the same stuff, if you read ’em.

Such people exist in every Muslim country (and Muslim community in the West); they’re a substantial minority in _many_ Muslim countries; and they’re a majority in some.

Nor is this a sublimated form of economic protest or anything of that nature — Osama would probably win a free election in Saudi Arabia, which floats on a sea of oil money and where the native Saudis rarely have to lift anything heavier than a pencil.

There are probably at least two hundred million people who sympathize with the basic Salafist worldview — establish Taliban-style rule everywhere under a Caliph; kill the infidels who don’t submit or convert, starting with the Jews.

And that’s being optimistic about the numbers.

If you ask “why they hate us”, it’s a complex question but basically boils down to the fact that Osama, Mullah Omar et. al. are correct in their interpretation of Islamic scripture and tradition.

The mainstream of Islam is a religion of aggression, conquest and domination, and has been from the very start.

It’s programatically hostile to any non-Muslim government and can never admit its legitimacy; there can be only struggle between the Dar ‘ul-Islam and the Dar ‘ul-Harb, until the former replaces the latter.

You can twist the source documents to suit other interpretations, but you have to do violence to them to do it. This is why, throughout Islamic history, the militants and rigorists have tended to win out over ‘moderates’ in the end. The Koran and the Hadith support them.

That is, “they’re not Muslims and/or submissive dhimmis” is, from that p.ov., a perfectly valid reason to attack us. In fact, it’s a divinely ordained moral imperative.

Add unto this that we’re rich, powerful and successful, and they’re not, and this is an intolerable affront to the way they think things should be and evokes boundless humiliation, shame, and raging aggression.

Or to put it another way, they’re evil shits full of bestial hate. Sorta like Nazis or Stalinists in turbans — lotta bad memes floating around there — only more numerous and longer-established.

dubjay September 12, 2006 at 7:42 pm

Steve, wasn’t it you who said elsewhere on this blog that it is futile to feel indignation when religious believers affirm the sorts of things that religious believers believe?

Five years ago, after 9.11, the Islamic world was shocked and horrified and stood behind the United States. Even the theocrats of Iran were sending us official sympathy cards.

Now the sympathy is gone, and the hatred to a furious intensity. The difference was the invasion of Iraq and the bungled occupation that followed. We now know that Rumsfeld threatened to “fire the next person” who talked about the need to prepare for a military occupation. As a result of his bungling, the terrorists now have more volunteer martyrs than they can deploy— which was certainly not the case five years ago, no matter how many wannabees Osama was running through his summer camps.

But since I don’t actually have the time to debate this issue online, I’ll just link to today’s editorial from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which states my views pretty well.

S.M. Stirling September 15, 2006 at 3:52 am

“Steve, wasn’t it you who said elsewhere on this blog that it is futile to feel indignation when religious believers affirm the sorts of things that religious believers believe?”

— who’s indignant? I’m just realistic. They’re enemies. To be blunt, I attribute reluctance to believe this to sheer unwillingness to contemplate the implications.

As it says in the Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin: “If a man come up against thee, to slay thee, rise up and kill him first.”

Incompatible basic postulates cannot communicate; they can only fight.

“Five years ago, after 9.11, the Islamic world was shocked and horrified and stood behind the United States.”

— ummm… that’s just so hopelessly not so that I’m left speechless.

There was dancing in the streets.

HaloJonesFan September 15, 2006 at 6:42 pm

“Five years ago, after 9.11, the Islamic world was shocked and horrified and stood behind the United States. Even the theocrats of Iran were sending us official sympathy cards.

Now the sympathy is gone, and the hatred to a furious intensity. “

Sympathy. Christ. Sympathy is meaningless. It is a sop against personal guilt. I count the sympathy of others for what it’s worth: nothing. Like the man said, the sympathy of the world plus two-fifty will get you a cup of coffee.

My heart cries for lost dogs, but I don’t have any illusions that my feeling sorry for them will help them find their homes.

dubjay September 16, 2006 at 7:23 pm

If you don’t value sympathy, then I’ll make a point of not spending any on you.

From the point of view of diplomacy, however, it seems likely to me that it’s easier to get what you want from a people who are in sympathy with you than those who resent you.

HaloJonesFan September 18, 2006 at 4:21 am

“From the point of view of diplomacy, however, it seems likely to me that it’s easier to get what you want from a people who are in sympathy with you than those who resent you. “

You say that as though Iran were willing to give us everything we wanted, right up until we went and viciously conducted a surprise attack on their asshole buddies in Iraq.

dubjay September 18, 2006 at 9:06 pm

I neither said nor implied that. Though I will state that the Iraq war has made us weaker and Iran stronger, and thus made the problem of Iran much harder to deal with.

I will also say that from the point of view of the ordinary soldier it very much matters whether 5000 people are shooting at you, or 20,000.

And now I will bring this dialogue to a halt. We seem to be talking past each other, and I doubt anyone’s being entertained. I have no particular desire to host a political blog. I have political opinions, and for that matter opinions more nuanced than I’ve stated here, but I don’t have the time and energy to make the kind of lengthy, informed posts I see on places like Making Light. I’ve got to work for a living.

sultanahmet December 5, 2009 at 2:49 pm

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