Sexual Fables

This article accompanies the fable
Dreaming the Virgin Mary

Leo The Hagia Sophia

The number one tourist attraction in Turkey today is the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya in Turkish), which is a perfect example of the architecture of the divine.  Built in the time of Justinian, between 532 and 537, it was the third church of that name built there - the second was burnt down in the Nika riots of 532 - and for centuries it was the Byzantines' main cathedral. After the Ottoman Turkish invasion it became a mosque and in recent decades it has been a museum.

Ironically, some of the most beautiful language about the Hagia Sophia, like "monuments of unaging intellect," to quote Yeats, was written by people who never saw it. Even today some tourists come away disappointed at experiencing an empty shell devoid of ghosts. One of the frustrations of reading anything about Hagia Sophia today is how few writers get to grip with the religious experience the church’s original architects and clergy attempted to foster.

The image below is an old one from before the recent restoration began in the 1990's, but somehow it captures the magic and mystery better. It's all about the Light.


Architecturally Hagia Sofia's dome sits on four soaring arches and piers mounted on a cube. This striking innovation began what we call Byzantine architecture: the rectangular design of the basilica with the altar at one end was gone, replaced by a central nave with the dome above it.

You can see the Hagia Sophia in the background of the photo below, which is from around 1880. In the foreground is what became of the Hippodrome. Nowadays the entire site is part of Sultanahmet Meydani (Sultan Ahmet Square) and is mostly gardens and obelisks but the past feels absent from it. It probably seemed absent in 1880 too.


But some things remain. The Horses of San Marco, for example, which are now in Venice (below) were taken from the Hippodrome by Venetian crusaders in 1204. They are on display indoors at the basilica while replicas are on the outside. They retain some of their original magic.


Bottom photo: Tteske/Wikipedia

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