Thursday, October 23, 2014

Hagia Sophia: Church, Mosque, Museum

Hagia Sophia

It appears regularly in movies, usually east-meets-west spy thrillers or Dan Brown-esque conspiracies where a certain Christian-Muslim-secular mystery and intrigue is required. The Hagia Sophia is Istanbul's tourist zone bookend to counter the Blue Mosque. As such, it's as equally thronged as the Blue Mosque and the nearby Topkapi Palace. It owes its frequent cinematic backdrop to its intriguing history, which also makes it worth braving the crowds to visit.

Hagia Sophia, sometimes also written Sofia and meaning "Church of Holy Wisdom", was built by the Emperor Justinian in the mid 500's. It was intended to be a grand cathedral for the home of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. It replaced two earlier structures which dated back to the time of Constantine, the first of which was burned down by rioters as a result of a conflict between the Patriarch of the time and the emperor's wife, the second of which was also burned down during a political uprising. Wisely, the third structure was built of stone so still stands today.

Hagia Sophia was a Christian church until 1453. It was the cathedral of the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople for all of that time except 50 years or so during the early 1200's when it was used as a Roman Catholic cathedral. When the Ottoman empire conquered Constantinople in 1453, they converted the Hagia Sophia to a mosque and renamed the city Istanbul. It operated as a mosque until 1931 when it was closed; it was opened four years later as a museum, which it remains to this day.


That history--as church, mosque, and museum--makes for a fascinating blend. Restorations have uncovered some of the first, earliest Christian motifs: frescoes and mosaics of New Testament figures that were covered for centuries while the structure was used as a mosque. In what is one of the most interesting architectural views in the world, the image of Jesus sitting in Mary's lap is flanked by large Arabic Islamic medallions, the one to the left bearing the name "Mohammed", the one to the right "Allah".

If, like we blogged about a few days ago, Turkey is the east-west crossroads of Christian-Muslim culture, captured in a successful, modern, secular society (that is, by the way, a politically and economically stable democracy), then Hagia Sophia is its epicenter.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

On Visiting Mosques

With Sunglasses On, She Looks Like Katherine Hepburn

You should have no reservations about entering a mosque, but you should observe some simple, polite etiquette. In many ways, we wish the Christian churches of Europe enforced a similarly high level of decorum that Istanbul's mosques do. There are plenty of guidelines for visiting a mosque in guidebooks and floating around the Internet, but most are checklists that don't actually explain why it is that visitors are doing what they're doing, so here's our spin on how to accept the offer of being a guest in these sacred spaces.

First of all, you should think of these buildings as just that: sacred spaces. They may not be holy to you, but they are to your hosts and it's only polite and respectful to treat them as such. Try not to visit on Fridays and for a half hour or so before and after calls to prayer on any day. While in the mosque, speak softly if at all. Don't point. Don't interrupt or talk to people in prayer or bound for prayer. Stay behind any barriers to separate visitors from people at prayer. Pictures are ok, but turn off your flash, avoid taking direct pictures of people in prayer, and remember that this isn't a photo opp: you're not at the mall or an amusement park, and this isn't a great place for a selfie.

You should dress appropriately for Muslim mores while in a mosque. This means a difference--like it or not--between the way men and women dress. Men should wear long pants (though we saw plenty of men wearing short pants) and remove hats and sunglasses. Women must cover their heads, shoulders, and knees. Lori wore a jacket, pants, and carried a scarf around with her for when we visited a mosque. If you don't meet these standards, don't worry: mosques (at least the big destination mosques) often provide wraps and scarves for you to use.

There are a few special rules about shoes and feet. Neither men nor women wear shoes in the mosque, so you'll have to take them off. It's okay to go barefoot if you're wearing sandals, though you'll probably feel a bit more comfortable wearing socks. As you approach the entrance, you'll likely spot a slightly raised, felt-covered platform just outside the door: it might even have a "no shoes" emblem drawn on it. Find a spot nearby to remove your shoes. If there are shelves and cubbyholes around you, they're for placing your shoes in; if there are plastic bags, place your shoes in a bag and carry them with you (you might find cubbies just inside the mosque to place your bag-o-shoes in). While in the mosque, should you decide to sit on the floor (you'll likely see other people sitting, and it's perfectly acceptable), make sure you don't point your feet--especially the bottoms of your feet--at the wall the Muslims face when they pray; when in doubt, either don't sit or make sure your feet point at the door you came in through.

Some of the areas outside the mosque are considered part of the mosque, i.e. more sacred spaces, the courtyard and gardens in particular. Men and women should use the same dress guidelines here as in the mosque, except that you wear your shoes. Near the entrance of the mosque you'll find fountains. Some are mere pedestals with faucets, some are beautiful marble-domed structures. They are for a Muslim pre-prayer ritual cleansing called ablution, and not for any use by visitors. Watching prayer-goers at ablution is fascinating, but as it's a prayer ritual, it would be incredibly impolite to interrupt someone in the process or to snap their pictures. Simply put, respect their time at prayer and observe silently from a distance.

And for extra credit, learn this simple bit of Arabic: wa aliakum assalam ("WAH uh-LIE-uh-kum AH-suh-lahm). It means, "And peace be upon you". Much like some Christians greet each other with "Peace be with you" and the response "And also with you", Muslims greet others by saying "Peace be upon you" in Arabic: Assalam aliakum (AH-suh-lom uh-LIE-uh-kum). If you're greeted this way and you respond properly, you will earn a smile and a respectful nod.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Three Mosques of Istanbul

The Nuruosmaniye Mosque

Once we got to Istanbul, it took us a few days to go into a mosque. It wasn't for lack of opportunity: it seems there are as many mosques in Istanbul as there are churches in Rome. We had never set foot in a mosque before, and the abundance of respect we seem to have for sacred spaces (which we blogged about yesterday) worked against us. We ruled out Fridays because it's the Muslim day of prayer, and our first Thursday in the city we bought 3-day museum passes that had to be used before they expired, so it was Monday before we visited our first mosque.

Any trepidation we might have had quickly faded. We found the attendants entirely pleasant, affable, and helpful. Now--like we pointed out yesterday--if only all the visitors were actually respectful. We visited three of Istanbul's top "destination" mosques plus a few others. Here's a quick account of the three mosques in the order we visited them, but if you get to Istanbul be sure to include visits to a few of the smaller mosques too.

The Nuruosmaniye Mosque

(Picture at the top of this blog)

The Nuruosmaniye Mosque was a great first mosque experience for us. It is just to the east end of the Grand Bazaar, so if you visit that Istanbul landmark (and you certainly will) then this beautiful mosque offers a great break from the hustle and bustle of the bazaar. Despite being so close to the throngs of the bazaar, few tourists troop through this mosque, so it manages to retain a quiet, peaceful air.


Sultan Mahmut I ordered its construction in 1748, and it was completed in just 7 years. It has a unique columned half-circle courtyard and two minarets. Mosques are carpeted, and the color and style of the carpet gives the whole space--despite the grandeur of the structure or its decoration--its primary "feel". The Nuruosmaniye's carpet is a pastel blue, and it's wonderfully set off by the white marble and gold-accented walls. The light shining through the windows makes the lampshades in the chandeliers sparkle magically. The Nuruosmaniye Mosque was Lori's favorite.

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque (nicknamed the "Blue Mosque")

The Massive Columns of the Blue Mosque
We'd like to propose that the nickname of the Blue Mosque be changed to the Red Mosque. There is, in fact, very little of anything blue in this grand mosque, except a single row of blue tiles around the main dome's interior and perhaps a very light blue tint to the exterior stone. We had passed by this mosque several times by the time we actually visited. Sitting at one end of Istanbul's "tourist zone", it attracts massive crowds. We saw lines stretching around two sides of the building, through its garden, and out through the Hippodrome and across the street: rumors had the wait time at three hours. If that were true, we'd likely never set foot in Istanbul's most famous mosque.

But the cruise ships require their passengers back on board around 4pm, so 5pm is a great time to visit. We hadn't planned to visit the afternoon we did, but on our way back to our hotel we noticed there was no line. None. So we went in.

The Blue Mosque, with a Tiny Bit of Actual Blue Around the Dome Above

The Blue Mosque was built by its namesake, Sultan Ahmed I, and completed in 1616 (the neighborhood called Sultanahmet derives from Sultan Ahmed also). It's a huge space set off by six minarets. Legend has it that the Sultan told his architect he wanted gold minarets, but the Turkish word for gold is very similar to the word six. Having an accidental half-dozen minarets might be almost as impressive as having gold minarets.

Even though we didn't have to wait 3 hours to get in, the Blue Mosque was still a busy place, packed with the few fortunate tourists like us who came at the right time. It wasn't our favorite of the three mosques, but it was still well worth the visit.

The Süleymaniye Mosque

The Süleymaniye Mosque

The Süleymaniye Mosque is actually the largest mosque in Istanbul. It was commissioned by Sultan Süleyman (known to the world as Süleyman the Magnificent), designed by the prolific and famous architect Sinan, and built in only eight years between 1550 and 1558: when the Ottomans decided to build a mosque, they didn't mess around.

Inside the Süleymaniye Mosque

Sinan designed the mosque with predominantly red decorations which are accented to this day with brilliant red carpet. The space is grand, and being a less-trafficked mosque, it's serene. When we visited, the sun was more directly overhead--not shining directly through any of the windows--which meant that illumination came primarily from the splendid chandelier (which was fully lit as workers replaced bulbs). This was Chuck's favorite of the three big mosques we saw.

At the back of the Süleymaniye Mosque were great informational posters about Islam. Reading them, we were reminded that Muslims--like Jews and Christians--are also the faith descendants of Abraham. It was particularly interesting to read about their views on Jesus: did you know that while they don't believe that Jesus was divine, they do believe He was the Messiah?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Topkapi Palace and Dealing with Crowds



The Topkapi Palace is a sprawling complex that was the royal residence of the sultans of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years from the mid 1400's to the mid 1800's. Here you will see the opulent, tile-covered residence of the Sultans, the chambers of the harem, fascinating holy relics of Islam, beautiful gardens, and meticulously manicured grounds - that is if you can see any of it through the bajillions of tourists swarming the place.

I know, I know, we too are tourists, so I don't have much room to complain. And I wouldn't, except that it just seems as though so many of all those other tourists are just so darn rude. For example, at the very back of the Topkapi compound can be found a small mosque, and when it was time for the call to prayer the day we visited, an imam emerged at the top of the small minaret and began the call in person (most calls to prayer are done over public address systems). During the calls to prayer, we've tried to be respectful and reverent, but at the Topkapi Palace that day, you'd have thought it was no more than a spectacle to point at, laugh about, and snap pictures of.

The Sultan's Harem; a Rare Picture Absent People

This wasn't a limited incident, by the way. We've witnessed some incredibly disrespectful, insensitive, and downright rude behavior all during our trip. The day before we visited the Topkapi Palace, we went to the Hagia Sofia; I was at the window paying for our audio guide equipment, and a woman literally stepped in front of me to stick her head in the window. And just yesterday at the cathedral in Gloucester, England (as I write this, we're back in the UK) I watched as a young woman mounted the cathedral's altar and actually leaned over the altar table with her arms outstretched so her friend could take a photo. I was about to say something when she caught sight of me and scurried away.

The Topkapi Palace is one of Istanbul's top attractions, so naturally it's going to attract hordes of people mindlessly following their tour guide. It's disheartening to see even a small percentage--which winds up being a large number--completely oblivious to the culture and history of the places they wander through, as if the capital of the Ottoman Empire, or (worse yet) the still-active mosque on the site, are nothing more than an opportunity for a peace-sign bearing photo or a place to check off their bucket list.

So how do we recommend you deal with these sorts of people when traveling? Well, start by trying to avoid them. Ask your hotel or your restaurant servers or fellow travelers what days are best to avoid crowds. Ask what time of day is best. If you don't have any options, go anyway and try to offset the jerks and the twits. Shush people who talk loudly in churches and mosques, admonish them for treating other's sacred and cultural places like dirt (even if they're not sacred to you), and try to enjoy the people watching: there's no telling what you'll see.

1 Packing Solution: Wear Everything You Own, Including 2 Hats



Sunday, October 19, 2014

Hagia Irene and the Second Ecumenical Council



Sometimes you visit a place for its beauty, sometimes for its fun, and sometimes for its convenience. And sometimes you visit a place for its history.

When you visit Istanbul, one of the top attractions on your must-see list is the Hagia-Sofia (pronounced HI-ya so-FEE-yuh). We will, of course, blog about this top attraction in due course. Today we're talking about the lesser-known Hagia-Irene.

Like Hagia-Sofia, Hagia-Irene is an ancient Christian church. You'll find it just inside the outer gates of the Topkapi (Sultan's) palace. It is older than the Hagia-Sofia and was commissioned and dedicated by Constantine himself. "Irene" doesn't refer to a saint's name, but instead it means "divine peace"; literally, Hagia-Irene means "church of the divine peace". While it's not as large and impressive, nor as pretty as Hagia-Sofia, an important event in the history of the Christian faith took place here.

We like to think of the history of the church as fluid and consistent, with a (fairly) clean apostolic succession from Saint Peter to Pope Francis, but the truth is that the early church was chaotic and frequently bickering. Bishops exercised nearly complete local power in interpreting scripture and preaching to their flocks, and over the first few centuries of the faith, disputes and differences of opinions naturally cropped up. We know of one such dispute--whether Gentiles could become Christian--from the Acts of the Apostles. Those early bishops didn't have the benefits of modern communications to compare notes, so the only way to resolve their disputes and come to a consensus was to get together in a council (the example having been set in the Acts of the Apostles).

The first such "ecumenical" council was held in Nicaea and achieved the momentous goal of codifying Christianity into a single statement of beliefs, or creed: the Nicene Creed. The second ecumenical council, known as the First Council of Constantinople, was held at Hagia-Irene.

This council of early bishops was called to address a couple of controversies that had arisen in the church. In one case the divinity of Jesus was debated, and in another the divine role of the Holy Spirit was considered. While it's best known as the council to first confirm the divinity of Jesus, because the role of the Holy Spirit was also considered, the complete picture is that it was the council that established the concept of the Holy Trinity.

Within These Walls, the Concept of the Holy Trinity Was Established

Another interesting outcome of the second ecumenical council has had important repercussions through history to today. The council changed the priority of the bishops, with the Bishop of Constantinople achieving second place behind the Bishop of Rome, knocking the Bishops of Antioch and Alexandria out of a privileged position. It was certainly more a political move than a ecclesiastical decree: the new capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul) was an important new city to the Roman empire. Doing such, however, served to further drive a wedge between the western, Roman, church and the eastern churches, a wedge which continues to this day.