Thursday 20 March 2014

Ayasofya

Perhaps better than anywhere, Ayasofya represents the multiple histories of Istanbul. If you close your eyes, you hear a torrent of Greek around you: for members of the Greek Orthodox church, Hagia Sophia is still an important centre of pilgrimage.  Open your eyes and you're as likely to see a sura from the Qur'an as an inscription in Greek (not to mention Viking).  In 1935, under the leadership of Ataturk, the building - formerly a mosque, a Roman Catholic cathedral and seat of a Greek Orthodox patriarchy - became a museum.  

From the outside I found it a little ungainly.  There have been so many additions to the structure over the years (including the minarets added when the church became a mosque in the 15th century) that the famous dome - pinnacle  of Byzantine architecture - is somewhat obscured.  I did wonder at Sultan Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople, deciding to transform the church into a mosque.  I might have expected a conqueror to erase the crowning glory of the city and to build something he regarded as bigger and better - instead, Mehmet ordered that the building be repaired and minarets, minbar (pulpit) and mihrab (niche pointing towards Mecca) be added to convert it for prayer.  Was it a final spitting in the eye of those he had defeated?  I prefer to believe that Mehmet was a man of vision.  (Although I remain unconvinced about the positioning of the minarets.)  The blending of multiple purposes and styles is something I encounter often in my work.  Some of my favourite museums are those that have managed to take an existing building or collection and rethink them for a new audience: preserving elements of the old but imagining them in new ways.  Perhaps Mehmet was a prototypical museum designer!


On the inside, however, all of the elements combine to create a beautiful whole.  The key design motif in the interior is the play between darkness and light.  Perhaps the reason that the space works so well is because this motif is central both to Christian and to Islamic art and architecture.

The passage up to the gallery is mostly dark, with flashes of light.



You emerge into an illuminated space: golden paint, golden mosaics, golden inscriptions.




Some of the mosaics remained hidden from the 15th century to the 20th (Mehmet wasn't so visionary that he would keep Christian icons on view).




Looking down, you see the dark body of the building, lit by hundreds of lamps set into the circular frames typical of mosques.



Ayasofya is a reminder that nothing - not even a monumental building - stays the same.  We change and adapt and so do our holy places (and isn't there something fascinating about the journey from Christian sacred space to Muslim sacred space to museum - the modern world's oxymoronic version of a secular/sacred space?)  It's also a reminder that, with vision, these changes can - paradoxically - help to safeguard our holy places.


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