As Omicron fears swept through the vaccinated and unvaccinated of Berlin, and the government threatened yet another series of lockdowns, I slipped off to our shambles of a new airport and caught a flight to Istanbul, the city that straddles Europe and Asia, both literally and metaphorically.
My first stop of this Christmas escape could only be a return the Church of the Holy Wisdom. The Emperor Justinian’s basilica, built between 532 and 537 to be the cathedral of the Eastern Roman capital Constantinople, is the pinnacle of Byzantine architecture, and one of the greatest buildings in the world.
The first time I visited Haghia Sophia was on a press trip, guided and prodded through this remarkable place. We only had a few days in Istanbul before bustling on to underground cities in Cappadocia and the ruins of Ionian Ephesus.
When the trip ended two weeks later, my friends and colleagues moved on to Beirut. I had one more day in Istanbul before my flight back to Malta. I spent it in Haghia Sophia, exploring each corner with a rented audio guide, and then just sitting and trying to absorb as much as I could.
That was all ten years ago, and those memories have receded into the hazy distance like the dome of a church now recedes beyond the blur of my book-ravaged eyes.
Designed by the geometers Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, it was the largest Christian church in the Byzantine Empire, but size alone is not responsible for the feeling it conveys of being a small speck in a vast universe.
Over the centuries, this venerable building has gone from church to mosque to museum and back to mosque again.
The Ottoman Emperor Mehmet II reconsecrated Haghia Sofia as a mosque when he conquered Constantinople in 1453, transforming the former into Aya Sofya and the later into Istanbul.
The great secularizer and founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, made it into a museum in 1935. And the populist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan turned it back into a mosque in 2020, much to the chagrin of UNESCO and other international bodies.
Haghia Sophia was a museum at the time of my first visit in 2011, with enormous queues and a high entry fee. This time we had to squeeze our visit between the five times daily prayer sessions of the mosque, when guards would ask the foreigners to leave. But now, entrance is free of charge.
I set my alarm early for that first day in town, struggling out of the molasses of a two hour time difference and walking briskly through the winter chill to be the first visitors past the barricade when the morning prayer session had ended.
The vast expanse of the nave had been covered in carpets, and a curtain was draped across the mosaic of the Virgin and child in the apse. It was supposed to be pulled aside between prayer times, but even with the gaps exposed, it was nearly impossible to get a clear view of her face from any angle.
The mosaics in the great dome were impossible to cover up — four individual figures of winged angels protecting the throne of God — but those are less interesting to me than the glittering world of figurative scenes built with Byzantine golds and blues.
The original cupola fell after an earthquake in 558. This one was built by Isidore the younger in 563, the other Isidore’s (of Miletus) nephew.
There were very few visitors in the great building so early in the morning; they only arrived in a trickle — then a flood — as we were about to leave. That’s the best time to see what is surely the greatest architectural achievement of late antiquity, so you can be lost in the scale of the place.
It was the largest interior space in the world, one of the first to use a fully pendentive dome (a dome where triangular points taper at the bottom and spread at the top, allowing a circular dome to be placed over a rectangular room), and for nearly 1000 years, the world’s largest cathedral.
It’s impossible to get a sense of this from photos. The dome is 33 metres across. The full height when standing below it is 55 metres — the height of a 15-storey building.
It’s a little easier to comprehend from the upper gallery, where you can see how much higher the dome is even there, and how small the people are down below. Unfortunately, the upper gallery was closed to visitors. They said it was due to restoration work, but I didn’t see sign of scaffold or stone.
I was hoping to show my wife the Byzantine mosaics tucked away in the gallery’s darker corners. I particularly wanted to revisit the mosaic of the Emperor John II Comnenus (ca. 1122). It shows the emperor and empress Irene, standing on either side of the Virgin Mary, who is holding the infant JC on her lap.
Rather than express the idealism of the more stylized mosaics created a century earlier, this depicts an emperor and empress with very human characteristics: the dignified expression on the face of John II, and rosy cheeks and grey eyes on the face of his Hungarian wife.
There’s also an interesting bit of graffiti, runic inscriptions believed to have been left by members of the Varangian Guard, the elite personal bodyguard of Byzantine emperors recruited from northern Europe and Scandinavia. Only the Norse name ‘Halfdan’ is legible.
But we weren’t able to go up to the gallery, and no one could tell me if or when the situation would change.
What can I say about this truly incredible building which hasn’t been said so many times before?
Haghia Sophia is the Byzantine Empire’s — and Justinian I’s — most enduring memorial. It represents all that was Constantinople in the same way the Süleymaniye Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent memorializes Istanbul and the Ottoman Empire’s longest reigning sultan.
And on that note, I brought my gaze back down to earth at the small Mosaic Museum tucked into the shadow of the Sultanahmet Mosque. It houses a beautiful collection of Byzantine mosaics dating to the reign of Justinian I (527 -565), unearthed at the site of the Great Palace of Constantinople, the one the emperors abandoned for the Place of Blachernae early in the 11th century.
And when the mosaic gazing was done, we made our winding way on foot to the neighbourhood beyond Istanbul University for a fortifying cup of boza. For those who haven’t sampled this delicacy, boza is a thick drink made from fermented millet, and topped with cinnamon, and Vefa Bozacisi has been making it there since 1876.