After a healthy breakfast of oatmeal and apple tea (another Turkish staple), Billy and I are off for our first big day of sightseeing. On our way to the tram we make a detour to try some traditional Turkish coffee. Yeesh! It’s entirely too strong for me but Billy seems to enjoy it. I ask where the restroom is and am directed to go two floors down. I enter the spiral staircase and notice that not only does the building go five floors up, but it also seems to go almost five floors down into the hill. Somehow this makes Istanbul even more exciting for me – think of all of the activity happening under these seven hills!
After just a few short minutes on the tram, we arrive in the historic neighborhood of Sultanahmet. Sultanahmet houses several important sites and my attention is instantly drawn to the miniarets of the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. There is some kind of traditional music performance happening outside of the Hagia Sofia and we follow our ears that way…
A Rebranded Basilica
The Hagia Sophia (or Aya Sofya) is a physical manifestation of the many cultural transformations Istanbul has seen over the years. Originally built as a basilica during Roman rule, it stood – or was intended to stand – as a testament to Christianity’s dominance over other religions. Much later, when the Ottomans took over, the building was converted into a mosque. Today it serves as a museum and, as we make our way through the dark and drafty alcoves, it is still possible to see places where the Christian Cross has been painted over. Much of the material that was used to reconstruct the building is called “spolia.” Spolia refers to fragments of other buildings or monuments, often taken from conquered territories, which are then re-purposed to build a new facility. Basically, we’re looking at a hodge-podge of loot. Neat, huh?
I Get the Warm and Fuzzies
We stroll through a pleasant park en route to the Blue Mosque, dodging eager tourists with selfie sticks as we go. Unlike the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is still an operating house of worship which means non-worshippers are only allowed entry during specific times. I wrap my hair in my scarf and remove my shoes before entering.
The carpet is soft on my feet but my eyes are immediately drawn upward to the kaleidoscope of colors adorning the dome. Light streams in from the stained glass windows while Billy and I listen quietly to the prayer service. The ceiling practically reaches heaven itself, but the chandeliers hang low enough to create a cozy vibe.
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between Christian and Islamic houses of worship is the artwork. While Christians often put likenesses of apostles, saints, or Jesus himself in their churches, the Islamic faith prohibits the creation of any images that portray living beings. The result of this proscription is an array of beautiful geometric patterns. To be honest, I’m a bit partial to this form of decoration. I could never recognize another person in those haloed saints, and the image of poor Jesus on the Cross really bums me out. These intricate and colorful patterns though, they feel like a celebration. They feel like something created from a place of joy. Besides, I like the idea of a deity being mysterious and “unseeable”… but not unknowable. That’s what faith is, isn’t it?
Even though we still have the rest of the day to explore, I’m going to pause here, dear Reader, and let you soak up all of those historical tidbits.