It was a 15 minute walk from our hotel down Ordu Caddesi (Turkish for street) to what became my favourite place in Istanbul: Sultanahmet Square. There’s so much history that my head was sent spinning a few times. Where else can you sit down for a rest next to a column built in AD330 to celebrate the inauguration of Byzantium? Constantine Column is located in Ҫemberlitaş not too far from the Grand Bazaar.
Istanbul has a long and interesting history. According to legend, Greek colonist Byzas founded a colony in 667 BC known as Byzantion. In 64 BC it was incorporated into the Roman Empire as Byzantium. In AD 324 Constantine the Great became emperor and moved the capital from Rome to Byzantium, which became known as Constantinople. On May 29, 1453 Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror invaded Constantinople after a long siege. He later rebuilt the city, which was from then on known as Istanbul.
Further along the street from Constantine Column is Sultanahmet Square on the right and Hagia Sophia on the left. I had been looking forward to seeing Haghia Sophia for a long time. Luckily for us, there were relatively few people queuing up outside (it was late December). We bought a museum pass (MüzeKart) for 85 Turkish liras, which is valid for 72 hours at all public museums and, most importantly, helps you avoid long lines.
The interior of Hagia Sophia (first a Christian church, then a mosque and now a museum) is striking. There are so many amazing things to look at: the calligraphic roundels in golden Arabic script, the upper galleries, the upper galleries, the mosaics, the painted ceilings, the marble columns and the light. It was a sunny day –the only sunny day of our week long stay- and beams of sunlight shone through the windows creating a magical effect.
Haghia Sophia, the church of Holy Wisdom, was built in the 6th century AD and inaugurated by Emperor Justinian and used as an Orthodox Christian place of worship. In the 15th century, the invading Ottomans converted it into a mosque. They added the minarets, fountains and mausoleums. In 1935, President Atatürk decided to convert Haghia Sophia into a museum. 14 centuries of history, art and religion are contained within these walls.
I am thankful that the Ottomans decided to conserve the mosaics –or at least they didn’t set out to destroy them- although they are Christian symbols. Despite the ravages of time, these mosaics are still beautiful. I find it bewildering that someone had the ability to paint such stunning images with small colourful tiles: Byzantine emperors and empresses, Christ, the Virgin Mary. On a personal note, these mosaics reminded me of art class at school. The teacher had taught us the Byzantine mosaic technique using tiny paper squares. We had to draw a picture, cut up the paper squares from magazines and paste them onto the picture to colour it. It made me appreciate the Byzantine artists a lot more.