Monday, June 29, 2009

A GB Riddle: When is a Church Not a Church?

... when it is a mosque.
And when is a mosque not a mosque?
... when it is a museum.

This past week, my god-bipedal attendants came all the way from Rovigo (that's in Italy) just to visit me - and possibly spend some time with my bipedal attendants - so I took everyone for a Grey Bear Guided Tour of Istanbul™ . I know that I keep repeating myself (bears often ramble) but there's just so much to see that I'll confine my comments today to the Ayasofya - which non-Turks know as the Hagia Sophia - Museum.

The Hagia Sophia sits atop the old city of Istanbul - known as Sultanahmet - like a big pink bullfrog. In fact, many of the mosques in Turkey remind me of bullfrogs but most of them are green or white. Like real frogs. Anyway, it has a commanding position and can be seen as you enter the city from the Bosphorus - which is hardly a coincidence. It was built to impress.

Anyway, the Hagia Sophia (or HS from now on) started life out as a church (actually, a cathedral) - its 4 minarets notwithstanding. It sits on the site of an earlier 4th c church (burnt down during riots) built by the son of Constantine the Great and a second 5th c church (burnt down during riots).

A month after the last church went up in smoke (532), Emperor Justinian ordered two geometry professors-cum-engineers (architects worked under engineers back then) and 10,000 workers to construct a bigger, better church - the third and final one, known as the Ἁγία Σοφία or "Holy Wisdom" - which they did in a record 5 years. Hopefully Justinian had the holy wisdom to keep torch-carrying rabble away from his church.

The HS would be religious centre of the Eastern Orthodox faith and the grandest - Justinian claims to have outdone Solomon's temple with his church - and the largest cathedral in the world for almost a 1000 years and was only nudged from the top of the list by Seville's cathedral in 1520 - one of my all-time favourite churches in one of my all-time favourite cities. Its dome was the biggest in the world until the 15th c when Brunelleschi built the duomo of Florence's Cathedral. What was it with Italians and Istanbul??

Now, to go back to my riddle. In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks and its leader, Sultan Mehmet II, decided to change it into a mosque. He had a lot of work in front of him: he had to add a mihrab and minber - necessary things in a mosque - and rip out those inconvenient Christian bells, altars, icons, and religious vessels. He also defaced, destroyed or whitewashed over the mosaics. Today you aren't allowed to use flash when photographing the mosaics. Of course, some people do - like you Mr. 60-year old Philistine with the Canon digital camera and the bright red pants. You know who you are.

Earlier in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, marauding Crusaders stripped the church of many of its golden mosaics and carted them back to Venice (more Italians!). The crusade was organized and led by 90-year old and blind-as-a-bat Enrico Dandolo, the 39th Doge of Venice. He was buried in the HS but the grave marker you see (above, right) was added by some Italians in the 19th c. He's not really there: Sultan Mehmet II made sure of that when he seized the church.

Anyway, back to the HS. What strikes the visitor today are the golden mosaics (some as early as the 9th c), its sheer size (the Statue of Liberty's torch would scrape the top of the dome), and the eerie light within the church (thanks to its many windows and the porous brick the builders used which comes from the island of Rhodes). Eight giant leather-wrapped wooden medallions (top left) with Arabic calligraphy still hang from the upper gallery - there used to be more - bearing the names of Allah, the Prophet Mohammed, his grandchildren, and various caliphs.

You can also find the Column of Saint Gregory (bottom right) who was a 3rd century miracle worker. His column was believed to sweat holy water and this water could cure miracles. If you put your thumb (or paw) into the hole, turn it 360-degrees, and it comes out damp, your prayers will be answered. My paw wasn't damp - and neither was my female god-bipedal attendant's - so I guess we shouldn't quit our day jobs yet.

Below left, you can see one of two amazingly huge 2nd c marble jars which the sultan "borrowed" from the ancient city of Pergamon (in Turkey). On the side is a tap to provide drinking water for its worshippers. The urns were carved out of a single piece of marble. I wouldn't have wanted to be one of the water-bearers who had to fill those up every day!

Now, to go back to my riddle again. When is a mosque not a mosque? When it becomes a museum. The HS was a working mosque until 1934, when Atatürk removed the prayer rugs, started scrapping away at the whitewashed mosaics, took down some of the medallions and secularized the HS, turning it into the Ayasofya Museum.

I really hope my god-bipedals enjoyed their visit to the HS. Living in Italy, they got "churched-out" a long time ago and are fast on their way to being "mosqued-out" in Turkey. And I feel badly that I got recognized while we were there. It can be so embarrassing. There are still so many fans left over from my international fashion model days and admirers of my work as a freelance Goodwill Ambassador ... they even set up a phone for me with a direct line to take important calls from world leaders (Mahmud Ahmedinejad has yet to return my call) during my visit. I know that Atatürk wanted the HS to be modern and all that, but I bet he didn't have a bear-phone in mind.

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