In a word, conditions are hot. If you required a second word, “humid” would do nicely. Or “sweaty.” Our first morning in Istanbul is a perspiration provoker and the weather forecast signals no imminent relief. Supposed to be in the low 90s throughout our stay.
Istanbul is a city of eleven million which makes it the third largest city in the world. As we step out the door in the morning to head for our first destination – Hagia Sophia – it feels like a sizable proportion of this population is concentrated in our small district.
Hagia Sophia, the church of the Holy Wisdom, is a vast barn of a structure. The present day edifice was erected by the eastern Roman emperor, Justinian I. The present building is actually the third church that was built on this site: the first two failed to meet the fire codes. Hagia Sophia was built in a remarkably short period – 5 years (532-537). The church with its great flattened dome, epitomized Byzantine architecture, and symbolized Roman might for nearly a thousand years.
When the Byzantine Empire fell to Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453, the church was converted into a mosque. The altar was ripped out and all of the gold-leaf Byzantine mosaics were either destroyed or plastered over. Muslim worship was conducted in the Hagia Sophia until 1935, when the state converted it into a museum (which it remains to this day).
You enter the building through the side and pass beneath a marvelous (uncovered) mosaic depicting Christ and the Byzantine emperor, Leo VI. This is the Imperial Gate, so named because only the emperor was allowed to use this entrance to the cathedral. I find it difficult to get a clear shot of this magnificent mosaic as a great crowd jostles for position, waving their camera phones and digital point and shoots. Flash units pop as if a modern day royal, such as Paris Hilton, was about to walk through the Imperial Gate.
One of the most obvious Islamic additions to the cathedral (apart from plastering over all the mosaics) are the eight giant discs affixed to the columns that support the dome. These discs were the work of the seventeenth century calligrapher Kazasker Izzet Efendi. Each disc bears a different name: Allah, Mohammed, the first four caliphs, and the two grandchildren of Mohammed.
The upper gallery, reached by a long, switch-backing ascent up a cobbled ramp, contains the famous Deesis mosaic, which depicts Mary, Jesus, and John the Baptist. This mosaic was a late addition to the cathedral, dating to the middle of the thirteenth century. After the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople and drove the Byzantine emperor into exile, a new Latin Empire was established in the East by the western forces. During the western occupation, the churches of Constantinople fell under the control of the Pope. In 1261, the Byzantine Emperor reconquered his lost domain, and returned control of the church to the Orthodox faith. Many scholars believe that the Deesis mosaic was created to celebrate the end of Roman Catholic rule. It is a significant artistic achievement. The faces in the image are so expressive and finely detailed that it is difficult to believe they are composed of stone chips. Even partially destroyed, it remains a marvel. I could have studied this mosaic for hours.
Across the street from the Hagia Sophia is the Yerebatan Sarnici, the Basilica Cistern, an underground water storage area constructed by the Romans. Once again I am struck by the brilliance of the Romans. Constantinople was designed to be impregnable. It is surrounded on three sides by water, and the land approach from the West is blocked by a series of three defensive walls. It is a difficult city to sack.
As with many Roman cities, fresh water was piped in through aqueducts. In times of war, an army laying siege to a city would cut the aqueducts and interrupt the water supply. The designers of Constantinople anticipated this ploy and created a system of cisterns, built beneath the city, to store water. This allowed the people of Constantinople to weather the sieges.
The Basilica Cistern was originally constructed during Constantine's reign, and then enlarged under Justinian to provide water for the palaces in this district. Like all Roman engineering, the cistern is a magnificent fusion of form and function. It can hold about 80,000 cubic meters of water in a chamber that measures 469 by 213 feet. In comparison, an American football field is 360 by 160 feet. The field would easily fit into the Basilica Cistern with room to spare. Imagine a space larger than a football field, and then fill with thirty feet of water. That's the Basilica Cistern.
The roof of the cistern is supported by 336 marble columns. Fat carp swim around their submerged bases. Lights illuminate the columns, but the rest of the space is cloaked in spooky darkness. I expected the air to be cooler than outside, but it is not dramatically chilly. In fact with the increase in humidity, I am sweating more than I was up in the sun. Nevertheless it is a fascinating place, one that I would strongly recommend to Istanbul visitors (tip: go after 5:00 PM when the crowds thin out in advance of the 6:00 PM closing time. And bring a fishing rod to snag a free dinner).
After the cisterns, we worked our way through the grounds of the Topkapi Palace, heading toward the Golden Horn and our evening's entertainment: an encounter with the famed whirling dervishes.
The dervishes are a group that have splintered off the main Islamic tree. Ascetics in the Sufi tradition, the dervishes worship through music and dance. What I find odd is that the dervishes put on this show for tourists. Religion as spectacle. Moreover, rather than performing their ceremony in the high mountains or a remote monastery, the dervishes whirl in an empty room at the train station, watched by a crowd of tourists who sit in a semi-circle of brown plastic chairs. Feeling the heat, we fan ourselves with pieces of paper and the show program. The weak flutter does little to move the sweltering air.
Then the musicians and choir arrive. The mixed group of men and women wear long black robes. Cylindrical beige felt hats ride like stove pipes on their heads. They play and sing for about ten minutes before the dervishes make their entrance.
The dancers come in from the side, five men dressed like the musicians. Quite a bit of time is spent bowing and standing frozen in place before the dervishes shed their black outer robes and start dancing. It is an impressive performance. They take turns spinning in the center. Those who are not in the center spin at the corners of a square. Their white robes billow outward, glowing in the blue lighting.
Despite the heat and the feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong about the dervishes spinning for cash, I find that I enjoy watching them. The music is interesting and complex, evocative of the mysterious east. All too soon the dervishes finish. The band shuffles away into the bowels of the train station, and we are left to trudge back up the hill to our flat.