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Picture taken at the doorway into Hagia Sophia
Into the Mega Ekklesia

Posted on 06 October 2010, 6:19

Flying to Byzantium: Entry 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Photos

Istanbul, Sunday: Up at 7.30, along the gloomy corridor to the hotel lift, and then up, the lift managing no more than a crawl, to the 8th floor. The doors opened and the sun burst in, and we walked out into a rooftop breakfast room floating above the city, with the whole sweep of the Sea of Marmara at our feet.

Tali and I sat dazzled by the light and hardly able to drag our eyes away from the view. The Marmara really is a handsome body of water, with the Prince’s Islands forming beautiful grey silhouettes in the eastern light, 10 miles distant across the silky water. The islands were so-named because unwanted minor royals were often dumped there in Byzantine times, with no access to Hello! or Grazia and the other essentials of celebrity.

Breakfast over, we took the tram to the Sultanahmet (the ‘Hippodrome’) district of town, which is the historic centre of old Stamboul. There we went straight to Hagia Sophia and entered the gardens on the west side, which have been turned into an orchard of ancient stone columns, each dug up at various sites around the city.

I could hardly bear to go into the Mega Ekklesia (the ‘Great Church’ as it was known almost from the time it was built in the 6th century), as I’ve imagined the moment for so long, so we loitered around the gardens first, admiring beautiful pieces of long destroyed buildings, some of them in such good nick they might just have come out of the sculptor’s yard.

But then we turned to the imposing doors and passed through the outer and inner porches and on into the church. The interior is such a delirium of space I had to lean against the doorway for the first few minutes to drink in what I was seeing.

Below, a polished marble floor of vast expanse; above, the dome ringed by its 40 windows, sailing weightlessly into heaven as it has done for 14 centuries; around me, a hundred arms raised… not in worship, but holding digital cameras. In the centre of the church, huge chandeliers hanging from the heights above to hover within touching distance of the people below, creating intimate pools of space.

Unlike all the domed cathedrals I’ve visited, here the dome is immediately visible from the church door, and so the visual impact of Hagia Sophia arrives at once, in a single, overwhelming instalment.

In the 10th century, a Russian prince sent ambassadors to Constantinople in search of a faith to replace his paganism. When they arrived in Hagia Sophia, they said, ‘We knew not if we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth.’

A thousand years on, and even though the church is now stripped of the Christian worship which once made it live, I can understand what they meant. Its vast spaces, its beauty and antiquity, even its faded grandeur and tangible sadness, all evoked in me the mystery and eternity which belong to God.

We walked up an ancient spiral ramp to the gallery, which gives stunning views down into the church. At this level you can see how the eight large medallions bearing Islamic calligraphy are constructed, each of them with a wooden framework. The medallions were only put in place in the 19th century by the Swiss architect tasked with restoring the building.

They complement the calligraphy right up at the highest point of the dome, which carries a famous verse from the Qur’an: ‘God is the light of the heavens and the earth’ (Surah 24:35). No Christian could argue with these words, but there is controversy over whether the calligraphy should be removed as it’s believed a much older mosaic of Christ lies beneath it. Christians of a more Puritan temper would probably side with Muslims on this one.

Beyond a marble screen in the gallery, I found the luminous icon of Christ which has been made famous on a thousand postcards, book covers and printed icons. The 14th century mosaic is next to a window and is thought to have been damaged by rain, so large areas of the jigsaw of tiny mosaic pieces are missing, but the heads of Jesus, plus Mary and John the Baptist, who stand on either side, are intact and beautiful. Each of them is shown against a glowing gold background in the world of eternity.

I was lost for a while in thought and maybe even prayer, standing before this noble and searching image of Christ. Just to stand before it is to be given dignity. And then I rejoined the crowd there, snapping like paparazzi before one of the surviving glories of lost Byzantium.

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