Returning, while I’m on leave for the vacation, to the blogging backlog brings us back again to Istanbul and to a building already mentioned, the archetypal Byzantine one indeed, except in as much as there was nothing else to equal it; Emperor Justinian I made sure of that when he had it built in the 530s, and as we’ll see its inheritors did their sporadic best to maintain his high standard. I refer of course to the building that was the Church of the Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, which has also in its history been the Ayasofya Mosque and is now, for the moment at least, the Ayasofya Museum. You have to visit it if you’re in Istanbul, probably even if you’re not a Byzantinist, but if you are subsequently faced with saying anything about it, you meet several difficulties immediately. Firstly, this is probably the most over-described building in the history of Byzantium: finding anything new or even very interesting to say is hard.1 Secondly, when you see it, it becomes clear that it is an incredible, nay, amazing, mess of rebuilding, modification, repair and adaptation, cutting across and through each others’ layers in such a way as to make it quite hard to understand what you’re actually looking at.
Then, once you are inside, there’s the further problem that ongoing conservation efforts mean that it’s always principally occupied by scaffolding; you really can’t see it as its makers and users intended, let alone photograph it. The layout of the building already makes it very hard to convey any photographic idea of its towering airy bulk, but the scaffolding makes it more or less impossible.
But you can’t be a historical blogger and not try to say something. I figured that since my actual impression being there was that you couldn’t hold it all in sight and understanding at once, and I had to resort to parsing fragments of it one by one and then trying to assemble a picture, the former process at least would make a blog post. The thing is that the building is in some sense still occupied by many of its historical actors. I don’t just mean the legend that the patriarch who was saying Mass when the city finally fell to the Turks in 1453 is still waiting, hidden somewhere inside, for Christian worship to be restored there once more—though once you have been inside that seems a lot more plausible—but that various users of the space made sure they were instantiated in it, centuries apart from each other.2
Not everyone who left their mark here was quite so elevated, however, even in the imperial gallery…
The interplay of centuries gets still more complex where these actors chose to reflect on each other…
… or to try to eradicate each others’ practice!
What this is all telling us is that this was a place worth making a mark on, because it would be seen by those who mattered; it was a space with centuries of bubbling public flow of the great and good through it, each conscious of the previous centuries accumulating, between which one’s mark now had to be inserted.
Even the Crusader regime that ruled here between 1204 and 1261, although they were, quite symbolically, propping up something they themselves had nearly brought down around them, are very visible indeed in the surviving fabric, albeit anonymous (weirdly, it occurs to me, like their coinage).3
And then of course there were the Ottomans! Because, as I’ve said, for a while this flagship building of the city served in the fleet of its captors, before they could assert themselves with more confidence in a new mosque intended to rival and exceed what Justinian and his successors had done for so long. So there are marks of Ottoman use here too, quite apart from the flags of the modern Turkish state that now remind us whose museum this is.
And now, and for some time, the necessary work of conservation complicates the story still further, by exposing old bits anew!
Sometimes, of course, it just piles them up outside. It’s not completely clear how much of the kind of sculpture park in the gardens of the museum belonged to any version of the building itself, or even its predecessors, but they’re hard to ignore anyway.
None of these various adaptations and programs of improvement are uniform or visible everywhere, however, so one is perpetually being shouted at visually from a different century wherever one is in the building. After a while, you have to cease to try to understand it, at least for a while, and just soak it up by sections and fragments.
I took more photos, but that already seems like quite a lot. I may not have managed to explain it or give an adequate impression of Hagia Sophia then (when?) or now. But if I’ve convinced you you need to see it yourself, this post has done some kind of work anyway…
1. Wikipedia’s bibliography is currently fairly substantial here, and will do better than anything I could put together, but if you want quick reference, for the Byzantine period at least a start is Cyril Mango, “Hagia Sophia in Constantinople” in Alexander Kazhdan (ed.), Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (Oxford 1991), 3 vols, II pp. 892-895; for the more recent struggles over the building’s use, still very much ongoing, see Sigrid Rettenbacher, “Hagia Sophia and the Third Space: An Enquiry into the Discursive Construction of Religious Sites” in Ulrich Winkler, Lidia Rodríguez Fernández and Oddbjørn Leirvik (edd.), Contested Spaces, Common Ground: Space and Power Structures in Contemporary Multireligious Societies, Currents of Encounter 50 (Leiden 2017), pp. 95–112, DOI: 10.1163/9789004325807_017.
2. This legend and more are recounted and even maybe sourced in Henry Matthews, “From the Fifteenth Century to the Present Day” in W. Eugene Kleinbauer, Antony White and Matthews, Hagia Sophia (London 2004), pp. 81-122, but I confess I know that from this news story rather than the actual work.
3. For Crusader interventions, see David Jacoby, “The Urban Evolution of Latin Constantinople (1204–1261)” in Nevra Necipoğlu (ed.), Byzantine Constantinople: monuments, topography, and everyday life, The Medieval Mediterranean 33 (Leiden 2001), pp. 277–297; for the anonymous (and also ugly) coinage, see Michael F. Hendy, Coinage and Money in the Byzantine Empire 1081–1261, Dumbarton Oaks Studies 12 (Washington DC 1969), pp. 191-217.