Sunday, May 25, 2014

Byzantine Churches, Ottoman Mosques

Gorgeous Domes of the Blue Mosque
The history of Istanbul/Constantinople is, of course, the history of Rome and the Byzantine Empire, and the history of the Ottoman Empire too.  More recently, it's a contemporary story of nation building, and a secular state.  Here, empires have sometimes mingled, often collided, even coexisted a bit.  Modern Turkey's still trying to figure this out: how to honor the deep religious feelings of some, while maintaining a secular democracy for all.  (It's a challenge not unlike Israel's, it seems to me.)  

Aya Sofia at Sunset in Sultanahmet

On the street, once mighty Byzantine churches -- built in some cases to demonstrate Christendom's mighty conquest -- were transformed by the Ottoman Empire into stunning mosques, testaments to cultural greatness of another sort.

The history isn't always sweet and gracious.  The Emperor Justinian, for example, built his version of Hagia Sophia on the heels of a terrible massacre in the 6th century CE.  It was his way of calming a restless city, an unhappy empire.  

Aya Sofia: Note the 9th c. Mosaic & "Allah" in Arabic

There's a wild atmosphere here: thousands and thousands visiting from all over the world, the inevitable cacaphony of tourism and its beneficiaries.  But the play of traditions, the resiliency of history, the Christian mosaics alongside Muslim script: it's a welcome relief from the high-pitched rhetoric in the West, particularly over the last 15 years.  To see a 9th century fresco of Mary, almost side by side in Aya Sofia with huge Arabic scripts for Allah and Mohammed -- this seems like a sign of what should be, what will be, what may be even now.  God is one. 

The mosaics and frescoes are particularly delightful!  In Aya Sofia, a guide pointed out that the Virgin and Christ Child in the apse is a 9th century work.  As you see from the picture just above, it shines now alongside a 19th century medallion (in Arabic) of the word "Allah!"  
Virgin and Christ Child: 9th Century Mosaic
In an upstairs gallery, we were directed to the 13th century Last Judgment, depicting Jesus with the Virgin Mary on the left and John the Baptist on the right.  Again, our guide pointed out that many art historians consider this particular mosaic as a key moment in Renaissance art.  It points to Leonardo and others, and their treatment of human figures, personality and faces.  Wow. 
Saturday in the Park

Jesus: "Last Judgment"
"Last Judgment" - 13th Century Mosaic in Aya Sofia