After we regrouped we got a map and good directions from the innkeeper. We also discussed where to have dinner and he very helpfully called restaurants for us until he found one that had a table open for that night. I knew from my Lonely Planet book that we wanted to have dinner at a meyhane in the Beyoglu neighborhood.
We set out, in better spirits now without our backpacks (except Brian stuck always with his big camera bag) and walked through a nearby bazaar up to the square with the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya. We planned to visit the Blue Mosque the next morning so went directly to the museum of Aya Sofya.
Ayasofya (Holy Wisdom) was the greatest church in Christendom until St Peter’s Basilica was built in Rome a thousand (!) years later. The mere age of this structure boggled my mind. Emperor Justinian the Great is said to have stood in the Imperial Door in 537, gazed at the cathedral which he had built, and exclaimed, “Glory to God that I have been judged worthy of such a work. Oh Solomon! I have outdone thee!”
Nearly a thousand years later, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror stood in the same doorway and ordered the church to be converted to a mosque. After another five centuries it was proclaimed a museum by Kemal Atatürk.
You can know all this academically, and know it is one of the greatest buildings in the world. But knowing just doesn’t prepare you for your first sight once inside the massive domed structure. I couldn’t pick a place to set my eyes on — they danced from the great dome to the Arabic scripts to the recently uncovered mosaics and around and around. There are 30 million gold mosaic tiles covering the church’s interior. How do you know where to look when faced with grandeur such as this?
The four of us split up, each to wander alone absorbing the magnificence of this place in our own way. Could I hope to do it justice I would try to describe for you the experience. I can not, but Edmondo de Amicis in Constantinople can. (In two sentences!)
The first effect is certainly quite overpowering, and for some moments we remained stunned and speechless. In a single glance one is confronted by an enormous space and a bold architecture of semi-domes which seem to hang suspended in the air, enormous pilasters, mighty arches, gigantic columns, galleries, tribunes, arcades, over which floods of light are poured from a thousand great windows — something I hardly know how to define of theatrical and regal rather than sacred; an ostentation of size and strength; a look of worldly pomp; a mixture of the classic, barbarous, fanciful, arrogant, and magnificent; a stupendous harmony in which, with the formidable and thunderous notes of the pilasters and cyclopean arches, recalling the cathedrals of the North, there mingle soft, subdued strains of some Oriental air, the noisy music of the revels of Justinian and Heraclitus, echoes of pagan chants, the choked voice of an effeminate and wornout race, and distant cries of Goth, of Vandal, and of Avar; a mighty defaced majesty, a sinister nakedness, a profound peace—St. Peter’s shrunken and plastered over, St. Mark’s enlarged and abandoned; a quite indescribable mingling of church, mosque, and temple, severe in aspect, puerile in adornment—of things old and new, faded colors, and curious, unfamiliar accessories: a sight, in short, so bewildering, so awe-inspiring, and at the same time so full of melancholy, that for a time the mind cannot grasp its full meaning, but gropes about uncertainly, trying to find first what it is, and then words in which to express it.
With little time to absorb these wonders we checked our watches and left for the Basilica Cisterns (Yerebatan Sarayı ) nearby. I had read, of course, about this, the largest of the ancient cisterns in Istanbul built by Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century, forgotten for a thousand years of the city’s history. But shortly before our trip we watched a fascinating episode of “Cities of the Underworld” on the History Channel in which the host explored these mysterious cisterns. I was particularly intrigued by the theory he shared about the 336 9-meter tall marble pillars (recycled from Greek temples throughout the city) that support the cistern. Two of them have heads of Medusa for bases — this could be because they were just the right size and shape. Or it could have been the new Emperor’s way of showing that the pagan ways were over — burying Medusa not only underground and underwater, but also upside down and sideways.
This utterly fascinated me. Entering the cistern I was not disappointed. Red lighting gave the entire 2.4 acre place a haunting and mystical feel. Water dripped and classical music played as we made our way along the walkways. I have to return to my friend de Amicis again for a proper tribute.
I entered the garden of a Muslim’s house, descended to the end of dark, humid steps and found myself under the domes of the Great Basilica Cistern of the Byzantium, which was unknown by the Istanbulers how it ended. The greenish water that is partly enlightened by washing-blue light – which further increases the horror of the darkness – vanishes under the dark domes while the walls shine with the water running down thereon thus dimly discovering the endless rows of columns everywhere like the trunks of trees in a pruned forest.
After we shot our dozens of Medusa head photos we left the cistern, all too aware of the travesty we were committing in trying to see so much in so little time. We engaged in some map-consulting and Brian asked for directions from the nearby Tourist Police, who advised we simply walk to the Grand Bazaar rather than take the tram. And in fact, it was only about a 20 minute walk, though we made it longer with assorted food stops — roasted corn from one of the many street vendors (it was only 1 lira, but stuck to the teeth like you wouldn’t believe), Turkish Cola (vigorous swishing dislodged some of aforementioned corn) from another stall, and finally baklava – fantastically rich and delicious baklava from a pastry shop. Thus sustained, we arrived at my own personal mecca — the Grand Bazaar.