I love Turkey. The geography. The people. The history. The beauty. Some of my fondest memories are from time spent living and traveling in Turkey. This weekend, my heart was utterly broken with the news of the double bombing at a peace rally in Ankara, a city I have called home. By way of tribute to the goodness I have known in Turkey, I have decided to recycle and revise this post from a former iteration of this blog…
I am going to Ayasofya tomorrow. I had made up my mind. I lived in Turkey for nine months, during which I made three trips to Istanbul, and I hadn’t yet seen what is perhaps Istanbul’s most famous site. It was going to be my first project during this three-week stay in Istanbul. Yes, I was there for another purpose: preliminary fieldwork. I was expected to establish contacts and conduct some initial interviews to help focus my dissertation topic. But first, I had a form of personal pilgrimage to attend to.
Built on the site of a former pagan temple and two former churches, the structure we know now as Ayasofya (or Hagia Sophia, it’s name means Holy Wisdom) was commissioned by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. In 1453 the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and converted the structure into a mosque. It remained a mosque until the early years of the Turkish Republic. It was closed to the public in 1931, and reopened as a museum in 1935.
In one of my art history classes, we studied this structure, and I remember being immediately enthralled. It was fall semester, 2000. I had had an overwhelming desire to see this place ever since. It nearly took my breath away to just see the outside of the building during my second visit to Istanbul in December 2011. Luckily, after all the self-generated hype, Ayasofya did not disappoint.
The space is vast, it oozes history. I was awestruck at every turn, as I wandered around the ground floor, followed by the upper gallery. And then, it began, “Allahu akbar…” It is difficult to convey in words the utter sublimity of looking out over the grand beauty of Ayasofya from the upper gallery, while hearing the call to prayer from the Blue Mosque. Oh! The awe just engulfs you! How to explain the feeling of being amidst so much spiritual (and, to be honest, political) history? To see its layers around you, and to hear its continuing legacy from across Sultanahmet Park. Amazing.