Byzantium by bus

And so, 30 years after I first conceived the ambition while turning right at Thessaloniki, I came not sailing but on a highway bus (aware, always, of the tyre-tracks of history) to Istanbul-Constantinople-Byzantium. The rain had cleared and we descended across the still-damp, undulating Thracian plain, dotted with distant factories. The Sea of Marmara was a pewter platter away below us to the right, spackled with shafts of light, extending towards distant hills. Then the hills grew tighter and began to sprout roads, project housing, billboards,  industry; planes drifting overhead left to right, traffic thickening into (once again) the largest city of Europe. At length we pulled off the highway and into a bus station – tunnels, ramps, subterranean galleries – that seemed a city in itself. Somewhere in this Byzantine labyrinth it spewed us out onto a pavement from where, by luck, I found a metro station among the sprawl, and rode towards the city centre. At the terminus the escalator emerged into a confusion of grey roads, crowds heading in all directions. I followed signs, and was in turn followed by an old tramp who insisted on taking my money and buying me a ticket for the tram.  I tipped him the change; he scowled disgustedly – but then shouldn’t he have spotted that I was capable of looking after myself?

The tram, packed with students, moved forward through tightening streets along a mosque-dotted route filled with shoppers, brand names, and more shoppers.  At Sultanahmet, I alighted and walked across cobbles to the  Blue Mosque: another grand, prepossessing structure, apparently based on the Selimiye version by which I had just remained relatively unmoved in Edirne. This one – six minarets – was on an epic scale too, but blue-tiled inside (thousands of tulips) and glittering with light:

Striking, but just a prelude to the great original dome: the emperor Justinian’s 6th century extravaganza, for 900 years the gold-encrusted omphalos of Orthodox Christianity. And then (according to Wikipedia), May 29, 1453:

Shortly after the city’s defenses collapsed, pillagers made their way to the Hagia Sophia and battered down its doors. Throughout the siege worshipers participated in the Holy Liturgy and Prayer of the Hours at the Hagia Sophia, and the church formed a refuge for many of those who were unable to contribute to the city’s defense. Trapped in the church, congregants and refugees became booty to be divided amongst the invaders. The building was desecrated and looted, and occupants enslaved or slaughtered; a few of the elderly and infirm were killed, and the remainder chained. Priests continued to perform Christian rites until stopped by the invaders. When the Sultan and his cohort entered the church he insisted it should be at once transformed into a mosque. One of the Ulama then climbed the pulpit and recited the Shahada.

Hence the minarets. From the outside, what surprised me most was that it is built, like some Victorian warehouse, of brick:

This, though, is like one of those portals – Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole, the wardrobe in Narnia – where another world is concealed inside a plain (though in this case hardly inconspicuous) exterior. For a start, what’s different about this from most later Christian domes – St. Peter’s, St. Paul’s, Melk, Esztergom, say – is that they are round-topped cylinders placed almost as an addendum on a rectangular structure, while in Justinian’s basilica the dome is the space, and you are glowingly inside it from the moment you step in the door:

entrance to Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

The church – though it is no longer a church, having been for nearly five centuries a mosque, and then sensibly converted by Ataturk into a secular, historical space – is an old lady now; her floors are weathered and crumpled, and in the broad gallery, from rear centre of which the empress used to watch the show, listing like a ship in restless seas. Fragments of the old golden mosaics – many of them battered – remain in places around the walls, in uneasy juxtaposition with the four giant circular lozenges bearing the names of the prophet and his successors in fiery gold on black:

Christian and Islamic iconography, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Some of the remaining mosaics are quite spectacular, like this one over the doorway of the emperor bowing to Christ:

Imperial Gate mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

But the giant pantocrator icon of the dome is gone, overlaid with Islamic patterning far less distinguished than that in Edirne or the blue mosque; and the mihrab where the altar used to be reinforces the dissonance, angled towards Mecca at several degrees to the south of the main east-west axis:

view from the gallery, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

The hotch-potch is understandable, and indeed admirable given the competing claims of history, yet the wistful question still hangs in air: what would it have been like to have seen this incredible space in its full glory – the shimmering golden trance of Vatopedi on a hundred times the scale?

Ever since Thessaloniki I had had the rising sense that Byzantium is less of a place or a historical reality than a golden vision creeping in the air, everywhere and nowhere, with mere traces – Meterora, Nikolaos Orfanos or Agios Dimitrios in Thessaloniki, the meditations of Vatopedi – interfacing with the physical plane five-and-a-half centuries after it lost its chief anchor there. Here at the place of that anchor, in Hagia Sophia, the vision, though broken, remains both most powerful and best set in context. Cynics on the internet grumble about the TL20 ( 8)admission charge, but that seems cheap to me: access to this world is priceless. As Judith Herrin says of this edifice: “While it stands, Byzantium will always be present.”

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