My Trip to Europe. Day 5. Wednesday, October 8. Istanbul.

Today I take an abbreviated tour of the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul.  Or Constantinople if you will.  With some Byzantine pieces to serve as Coin of the Day.

Coins of the Day:  

Justinian Follis, 527-565 CE

08-001 08-002This coin, as “recent” as it is, dates back to the Emperor Justinian, who was a Byzantine emperor ruling in Constantinople, now Istanbul.  He attempted to reconquer the Western Roman Empire after it had fallen in 476.  He did manage to gain Italy and northern Africa, but Spain, Gaul (France), and Brittania (England) eluded him.

He also had to deal with the Nika riots, which fundamentally were over chariot racing.  Supporters of the Green and Blue teams were just as rabid, if not more so, than any sports fan today, and a riot erupted in 532 CE, due to a combination of high taxes, and the arrests of some members of the Green and Blue teams for murder, that killed approximately thirty thousand people.  That’s not a typo.

Constantinople had gone through two major basilicas now.  The first, built in 360, had been burned down in riots in 404 (hmmm, seems to be a common theme here), the second was built in 415 and had just been torched in these Nika riots.

Justinian resolved to build a third church on the site, and the result was the Hagia Sophia.  So this coin is a perfect choice for the Coin of the day.

Heraclius solidus, 610-641 CE
08-00308-004This is my other Byzantine coin.  (I can hear Prue Fitts in Boston, screaming, all the way over here in Colorado, as I write this.  Yes, Prue, I only have TWO Byzantine coins.)  It doesn’t have much to do directly with the Hagia Sophia, but it was minted in Constantinople, by an Emperor ruling there.  He died just about the time a new religion was being founded just outside his empire, in Arabia…


Today was my day to do Istanbul, then hop a plane for Athens.  OK.  I hear more screaming.  “Istanbul deserves more time than this!!!”  True.  But I am on a tight schedule.

I ended yesterday by stating it would take about forty five minutes to get to Sultanahmet, the area in Istanbul where the Hagia Sophia (along with lots of other interesting things) is,
but that turned out to be a lie.  It ended up being more like an hour and a half, only some of which was due to me fumbling with an unfamiliar system.  I doubt any experienced commuter could have done it in less than an hour and fifteen minutes.

As a consequence I missed my tour.

I was able to join a different tour, which had gone to the Topkapi (Ottoman) palace, first, once they got out, and at least see the Hagia Sophia.  My hopes of also seeing the inside of the Blue Mosque and the cisterns were dashed, but I did also see the hippodrome (where those chariot races happened).

So Istanbul is also on the “go back” list.

As I stated before, the Hagia Sophia started out as a Christian church, intended to be the most prominent in the (Byzantine) Roman Empire.  After the city fell to the Turks in 1453, it was converted into a mosque, and many of the Christian artworks were covered with plaster.  Much more recently, it was decommissioned as a mosque, and turned into a museum, and many of the Christian artworks were restored.

The Hagia Sophia was a groundbreaking architectural achievement in its day, as they solved the problem of putting a round dome over a square base for the first time.  Domes up to this point had to be supported all around their circumference with either walls or pillars; somehow this one seems almost to float above you.  Far above you.  But I get ahead of myself.

08-005From the outside, this building doesn’t look like much. It even looks like it’s hunkered down.  It’s very squat, built like a mountain rather than a tower, becuase the whole structure buttresses the central chamber.

08-006The first thing the tour did was take us to see remnants of the prior churches.

08-007Then into the foyer.  You can see the height of the main room here (but only get a hint of the big dome).

08-008 08-009 08-010The ceiling of the entry area.

08-011A detail of the Jesus illustration above the doorway into the main room.

08-012Finally, entering the main room.  Unfortunately a huge area was covered by scaffolding.

08-013 08-014The floor.  Floors in such buildings tend to have extremely fancy marble work in them, or perhaps even something more spectacular to the informed (like purple porphyry inlays) but people tend to ignore them.

OK, now where do you begin to photograph all of this?

Maybe, to set the context, I should try to explain how the main room is set up.  At the most basic level there are four main supports set in a square.  Each side of the square is surmounted by an arch.  But the areas between the arches are filled in by curved surfaces, ending in a circular opening at the top.  The big dome is set on top of this.  Thus, that dome doesn’t have any direct support.

Two of those big arches are simply filled in by walls.  The other two actually have semicircular apses off of them, topped with half domes.  Of course this is a simplification.  This larger plan is huge, and there are all sorts of “little” (“only” three or four story tall) side niches, etc to make the whole thing very complex.  And since it’s all very large and you’re close to it, any photograph is going to lose all sense of where it was taken and what part of the structure it’s showing.

The top diagram is a view straight down, big dome in the center, below it is a side view.


08-016Here we are standing in one of the apses, photographing the filled in wall (which you can see actually has a balcony behind it, though the arch itself is filled), and looking into the other apse (which has a bunch of smaller half-domed niches in it).  Very complex, verging on fractal even.

08-017Half domed area cut into our apse.  Note the colorful stones and decoration over the arches in the lower right.

08-018Now looking back across to the opposite apse.
08-019Looking into one of the smaller half-domes attached to the other apse.  The dome you see at upper right is not the main dome, it’s just the main dome of the far apse.

08-020Straight into the far apse; you see part of its half-dome at top.

08-021The other walled in big arch, on the other side of the scaffolding.

08-022Straight up into the Big Dome.  Note angels on the curved walls supporting it, but arabic in the dome itself.  This building, with the original Christian decorations restored, is quite a mix of Eastern Christian and Muslim motifs.

08-023Closeup of one of the angels.

08-024Geometric decorations, I’d guess those were added by the Muslims since that’s characteristic of their artwork.  But then again, they could have been original, too.

08-025I might well be corrected by any Muslim reader, but I believe this structure is used to indicate the direction towards Mecca.

08-026Virgin Mary and Jesus artwork.  I have no idea which branch off of what half dome off of which apse (or side) of the Hagia Sophia this was in, now.  Context is simply lost in something this complex and huge.

08-027Multi-colored stonework; the purplish stuff might be purple porphyry which is extremely rare and hard to work.

08-028I don’t recall what this gated area is for any more but the filligree is interesting

08-029Windows in a side niche.  Somewhere.

08-030A less-restored area, note again all the different types of stone used.  We are being led out the building, out through what was once the entrance used by commoners.

08-031But first there are two of these urns, meticulously carved from one piece of marble.

08-032 08-033One last look into the main room.  Are those pillars porphyry?

08-034I mentioned going out the original entrance.  When you do so there’s a large mirror directing your attention to this piece of artwork that you just walked out under.  On the left, Emperor Justinian offering to Mary and Jesus a model of the Hagia Sophia.  On the right, Emperor Constantine offering a model of the city of Constantinople.

08-035More geometric decoration.

08-036Finally the door to the outside.  The guide’s finger, as he informs us these doors actually came from the first church and therefore date back to the 300s CE

08-037I don’t know much about Eastern Christian iconography.  Does anyone know what this is?

Update 05 Nov, 21:50:  I forgot to mention that the Hagia Sophia is the furthest east I have ever been.

08-038One last look as we head over to the Blue Mosque.

08-039The Blue Mosque is only called that by visitors.  People in Istanbul call it the Sultan Ahmed Mosque.  It was commissioned by him to try to outdo the Hagia Sophia.  It superficially looks very similar, complete with the floating dome.  It has six minarets.  Up to the time this was done, only the mosque in Mecca had six minarets.  Ahmed had to build a seventh minaret at Mecca to ensure it had more than any other mosque.

It’s called the Blue Mosque because the decoration inside uses a lot of blue.  This was a very expensive color in antiquity; the best source of the color was lapis lazuli, which had to be brought all the way from what is now Afghanistan.

I did not get to go inside.  It was nearly 1PM and the Blue Mosque is actually a functioning mosque.  Noon (by the sun, not by the clock which is on summer time) is one of the five daily prayer times; the tourists have to leave at that time.

However it was possible to enter a sort of courtyard (I’m sure there’s a specific name for it in Muslim tradition, but I just don’t know it), and I took the following two pictures from there.

08-040 08-041The tour group I had joined was going to eat lunch then go to the mosque after prayers had concluded, but I unfortunately didn’t have time to do that, I had a date with a plane to Athens.  I did have time to walk over to the former Hippodrome (prominent in those riots).  There are two obelisks there, as well as a bronze column of intertwined serpents.

08-042That column actually used to be in Delphi at the Sanctuary of Apollo, where the Pythian gave oracles, and had been brought to Constantinople by Constantine, and it remains there today.  I’d wager Greece wants it back, and I’d wager Greece won’t be getting it.

08-043 08-044The first is the obelisk of Thutmose III, brought to Constantinople by Theodosius I (the emperor who banned the pagan religions, making Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire). The second is the Walled Obelisk, built by Constantine VII in the 900s.

At this point I was startled by a very loud, sudden, sound.  The call to prayer, played over loudspeakers mounted on the minarets of the Blue Mosque.   And it was time for me to head for the airport, for my flight to Athens.  This time I allowed more than sufficient time for public transport.

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