Masterpieces of Light and Space: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, TurkeyThe Hagia Sophia, Cathedral turned Mosque turned Museum

One of the masterpieces of light and space that I most wanted to visit in the world, and one I would love to return to for another visit is the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. I guess it doesn’t take a lot of explanation, but I also know that a lot of Americans might know that before Istanbul was Istanbul, it was Constantinople. They probably may also not realize that Constantinople was named after the Roman emperor, Constantine, who converted the empire from Paganism to Christianity. This early church had a massive effect on Islamic architecture after the Turks invaded the Byzantine Empire and became a design motif for mosques throughout the Islamic world, if I understand right.

Istanbul, TurkeyThese incredible mosaics were made because “graven” and realistic images were forbidden as idolatry

When the Turks invaded Constantinople and took the place over, the Hagia Sophia became a Mosque, and the beautiful decorative elements of a mosque (beautifully scripted quotes from the Quran, repetitive patterns, etc) were plastered directly on top of the existing mosaic decoration. After hundreds of years, some of the plaster has given way, so you get to see the ancient Christian art underneath as well. It’s really a beautiful mash-up of religious art. I particularly like the mosaics – the art style is like…alternatively realistic? Kinda ghostly? Not sure I have the vocabulary to say why it catches my eye so well.
Istanbul, TurkeyThe low hanging chandeliers make the area above seem endless

One design element that is particularly interesting is the chandeliers in the main sacred space. They are hung about 12′ off the ground, but given that the ceiling is like a million feet tall, they make you feel very grounded. It also creates the feeling that the space above you is absolutely endless. Heavenly even.

Istanbul, TurkeyThe bright, golden dome seems to glow in the filtered light

Looking up past the groups of lights, the main dome seems far, far away. I don’t believe that the decoration is original from the building’s construction, but it appears to be Arabic script, so I think it’s probably verses from the Quran. It’s beautiful. It’s also impossibly huge. There’s no way to take an adequate photo of it to convey its scale.
Istanbul, TurkeyWhere else are you going to see the Madonna and Child hovering between quotes from the Quran over a Mihrab? It’s like the biggest sacred art intersection on earth.

As I said, the decorations here are different than what you would see anywhere else. Christian and Muslim are side by side, and the Christian art is Byzantine, so it has an otherworldly look to it if you grew up in one of the western traditions.

Istanbul, TurkeyLooks like Dorne from Game of Thrones, right?

Istanbul, TurkeyI really can’t overstate the height of the dome. This is from the gallery on the 2nd floor looking at the main space.

Istanbul, TurkeyIstanbul, TurkeyThe older Christian Mosaics are breathtaking. I get a backache just thinking about picking up the little pebbles to glue to the wall. Then again, my experience with mosaics largely involve macaroni.

Istanbul, TurkeyThe Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque)

From the Hagia Sophia, you can see the great Blue Mosque across the plaza. It’s pretty easy to spot some influence from Hagia Sophia in the architecture. There’s a reason that the Hagia Sophia is revered as a world wonder, a must-see sight in a country and region full of must-see sights. It’s truly beautiful and the interplay of the oooooooold Christian and Muslim art really illustrates the similarities more than the differences, I think. Then again, my opinions are based on like half a chapter of an art history book ten years ago.


Author: Charlie

Thirty-something husband and father. Aspiring baker. Decent cook. Childish humorist. General enthusiast.

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