A Further Bit of Istanbul

I have to apologise for an unannounced three-week hiatus here. The simple explanation is that teaching restarted, I’m afraid, but there were also a couple of very full weekends, one of which did itself generate some medievalist photography which some day I may get round to here… But in the meantime, firstly this weekend there is time for blogging and secondly, next week is looking good too because as you may have gathered the UK’s Universities and Colleges Union is coming out on strike again, for ten days discontinuously this time, and joined some of those days by both the National Union of Students and, perhaps more significantly (because the NUS has different goals) also Unison, the union of the administrative staff. We’re approaching actual university shut-down at some places in the UK, in fact; it’s way off yet but it’s almost the only way left that this can escalate. Exciting times! But also, freer time, if also unpaid time. I’m not going to promise a post every day of strike as I did last time, but I’ll aim for a good few. And where better to start than where we so profitably left off a few weeks ago, to wit, camels?

Gravestone of John, camel-driver and goldsmith, at Ankara Roman Baths Museum

This is a Byzantine gravestone, and its text, according to the signage, translates as, "Here has been laid to rest the servant of God John, a goldsmith, the friend of all, who was also a camel-driver. He died on March 15th in the Indiction…" It is Ankara, Roma Hamamı, 17-5-90.

In late 2018 I was once again in Ankara, this time as part of someone else’s funding bid. My now-colleague and long-time collaborator Rebecca Darley had got funds from the British Academy to hold some workshops in Turkey whose aim, somewhat colonially awful though it was, was to train up scholars in the non-West to be able to publish in Western academic venues. No-one would argue that there’s an access problem there, I imagine, but whether sending out missionaries to convert people to the right way of supplicating the English-language altar is the best solution… well, is a bigger question and any answers would take more money than we had. But we had students from Bilkent Universitesi in Ankara itself and Ain-Shams University in Cairo, and some of those students have remained friends and contacts – one being on a study visit to Leeds right now in fact – and have indeed in a couple of cases got their target articles published in Western venues, so we did make it work. And while we were in Turkey we did a little tourism as well, because you gotta. I don’t actually have any photos from Ankara on this stay, but I forgot to use the above when I did the last Ankara post, and as it turns out it’s an ideal bridge between the last post and this. The Roman baths at Ankara are quite a large surviving site—of which for some reason, probably failing battery, I have no pictures, but you can see some at that link—and have at their entrance a kind of gathered field museum of epigraphy from around the city, which basically means a load of decontextualised Roman and Byzantine tombstones standing together out of their now-lost original positions. There were a number of good ones, but the above caught me especially because of John’s combination of trades. You wouldn’t think they went well together, would you? You can’t really do goldsmithing on camel-back, or while on the road, and if you were handling that much gold you wouldn’t think someone needed an alternative income stream. So did he do them sequentially, and if so which way round? Short of saintly powers like Patrick’s to raise the dead man and ask him—which, given he was a Christian, even Patrick would not have done, I imagine—we’ll never know, but it is again proof that you didn’t need to be in the Arabian desert in the early Middle Ages for camels, sometimes, to be the answer to your problems.1

The Yerebatan Üskübi İbrahim Ağa Cami, Istanbul

The tower and exterior of the Yerebatan Üskübi İbrahim Ağa Cami, Istanbul, an old mosque that on this occasion I could only pass by, weakly, as will be told

But our main destination this trip was actually Istanbul, the aim being to show the novices in the party some of the highlights and to pick up one or two new things for ourselves. Now, it’s just as well that was the plan because on the journey there I ate something which disagreed with me badly and was quite ill for the next two days. The terrain we were crossing was amazing, because of course the Taurus Mountains lie between the two cities, and I have seriously never been anywhere as empty. But, though I had enough wit about me to wonder if there was anyone who knew these lands in the familiar fashion of someone who walks them most days of their life, or if they were just a moonscape humans sometimes land on or fly through, I was evidently too miserable to try and photograph anything through the bus windows. Then I spent a day abed feeling equally miserable and by the time I surfaced, most of the big hits had been visited. But there was one new one I got to go to as well, which was this.

The Hüseyin Ağa Camii. Istanbul

Exterior view of the Hüseyin Ağa Camii

Now, you may well be looking at that and suspecting that it has not always been the mosque it now is, and you’re right. Though it is for some reason badged on signage as the Little Hagia Sophia Mosque, the Emperor Justinian I and his wife Theodora, who put it here, knew it as οι άγιοι Σέργιος και Βάκχος, or as we might prefer on an English-language site, Saints Sergius and Bacchus. It was then converted to a mosque in 1497 by Hüseyin Ağa, then the eunuch in charge of the Ottoman harem in the Topkapı Palace, and it has remained so ever since, with restorations in 1836 and 1956.2 It’s thus one of the buildings in the city used longest as a mosque, for all that it had a 900-year history before that as a church, for most of the time as the church of a monastery indeed. Justinian’s builders seem to have done a good job here.

Entrance to the Hüseyin Ağa Camii, Istanbul

The entrance, which you see here, is one of the bits which got modified during the mosque conversion, and now really gives no clue to the interior

Interior decoration of the Hüseyin Ağa Camii, Istanbul

Nor does the interior paintwork sing out ‘Byzantium’, beautiful though it is

Interior of the main dome of the Hüseyin Ağa Camii, Istanbul

The interior of the main dome shows you, a little, where the signage’s name came from, but still isn’t really apparent as Byzantine building nowadays

Interior of one of the lesser domes in the Hüseyin Ağa Camii

But then, there are lots of pretty ways to paint up a dome

This all makes it fit very well decoratively with some of the other early mosques in the city, which either had also been Byzantine churches or were built using similar techniques. Here they just had a really sound footing, and so it has gone on for ages. That continuity of use, however, means that little effort has been possible to verify claims by Justinian’s contemporary Procopius that the church was originally decorated with a near-continuous scheme of mosaic.3 If any of it’s still there, it’s under many layers of Ottoman and later plaster and paint. However, what there still is are some beautiful coloured marble wall panels, which can surely never have been covered in mosaic, but of which I seem not to have got any pictures…

Marble columns in the interior space of the Hüseyin Ağa Camii, Istanbul

At least these columns are pretty exciting marble, if you’re the kind of person who can be excited by marble

… and quite a lot of decorative sculpture and inscriptions, which betray the building’s origins better than almost anything short of a mosaic portrait of Justinian I could do. (And, you know, arguably there are enough of those.)

Byzantine capitals and carved lintel in the Hüseyin Ağa Camii, Istanbul

Two Byzantine capitals supporting an ornately-carved Byzantine lintel

Corner setting of some of the visible Byzantine stonework in the Hüseyin Ağa Camii, Istanbul

Corner setting of some more visible Byzantine stonework

I mean, his name is still on the building.

Founder's inscription in the Hüseyin Ağa Camii, Istanbul, naming Emperor Justinian I

I don’t know if you can read it, but this says "Ο ΙΟϹΤΙΝΙΑΝΟ", and that C is a lunate Sigma, so this is Justinian’s Latin name in Greek

And yet, outside it, around what was presumably once a baptistery, lie many honourable Islamic burials and their monuments. I guess that there are Christian ones beneath them.

Graveyard and erstwhile Christian baptistery outside the Hüseyin Ağa Camii, Istanbul

The graveyard outside, with the possible baptistery in the background

As ever, Istanbul piles up its history on top of itself in a way that can never be rolled back or restored to everyone’s satisfaction: to whom, to what? Everything involved here has centuries of antiquity behind it. Really, the only thing to do is to wonder what further layers will pile up on top of these…

1. Patrick reputedly raised a lot of dead people, as he testifies even in his own letters, but the one I’m thinking of is in Muirchu’s Life, III.2, where Patrick skips a Christian grave in his prayers and then has to raise the occupant to find out why he didn’t notice it.

2. These details all come from signage at the site. For more detailed background see Jonathan Bardill, “The Date, Dedication, and Design of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople” in Journal of Late Antiquity vol. 10 (Baltimore MD 2017), pp. 62–130.

3. Procopius, Buildings, ed. & transl. H. B. Dewing, Loeb Classical Library 343 (Cambridge MA 1940), I.iv.3-8 (pp. 44-49, with a plan on p. 46).

3 responses to “A Further Bit of Istanbul

  1. Magnificent. As always.

  2. Pingback: A really good way to display coins (in Ankara) | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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