Friday, July 18, 2008

End of an Era

Prior to coming to Istanbul, I only had a vague idea of what the term Byzantine meant. It seemed to conjure images of a far away ancient place very different from my own home. The term Byzantine was often used to describe things such as the US government, which is highly complex and confusing. Really, the only time I had really heard the term Byzantine was in the poem "Sailing to Byzantium."

I now have a much deeper respect for the Byzantines and their culture. The Byzantines were a people who were not afraid to openly borrow from other cultures. They willing took from the Greeks, Romans, and (during the later days of the empire) the Ottomans. The Byzantines' art changed with the times in an attempt to stay one step ahead of everyone else. In this respect, the Byzantines remind me a great deal of the United States. The US is a country built on the foundation of being an inclusive culture. Aspects from other nations and cultures have been added throughout our history in an effort to better our way of life. Today, the impetus to change has lessened, much as it did toward the end of the Byzantine era. Perhaps this is indicative of the United States’ current state of affairs, a pseudo-empire that may be on the verge of collapsing.

In another respect, the Byzantines' inclusion of religious themes throughout their art and architecture is astounding. They were an empire built on Christianity and were not afraid to flaunt that fact. In a way, this also reminds me of the United States, although I would disagree with the statement that America is a Christian nation. Instead, I would claim that we are a nation composed primarily of Christians, rather than a Christian nation. The legacy of Christianity and Western culture permeates all aspects of American culture, much as the historical legacy of the Greeks and Romans as well as Christianity greatly influenced the Byzantines.

The Byzantines lived a grand lifestyle and that lifestyle was reflected in their architecture. Even today, the Hagia Sophia is still an incredible building. From the outside, it appears somewhat short and squat. However upon entering, you are amazed at the feeling of airiness and grandeur contained within. The dome is massive and seems to float in midair as if being supported by some celestial being or perhaps the faith of the millions of Orthodox Christians still around today.

Along with their taste for building grand works of beauty, the Byzantines also built some of the most impressive public works ever constructed. The walls of Byzantium are truly a sight to see. The Yedikule Fortress and the land and sea walls were built to protect the city’s inhabitants from invading armies. Even today, they are being used for the public good as ready-made garden terraces. The hundreds of cisterns, which lie beneath Istanbul, can also attest to the Byzantines' creation of great public works. In order to feed them, the emperors also constructed the most expansive aqueduct in history. The cisterns are quite possibly the greatest metaphor for any dead empire or culture. Though we may not know it, they are always there lying just beneath the surface, acting as a foundation for our modern way of life.

The mosaics and frescoes contained within churches such as the Hagia Sophia and the Chora Church are stunning. The use of gold backgrounds creates the feeling that you are in the presence of royalty. The depictions appear timeless and still hold sentimental value for anyone who might view them today. While the Byzantine Empire is long gone, their works of art still live on. The only thing that seems to be able to destroy them is the slow process of time itself. Thankfully, through modern conveniences such as cameras and videos even when they are physically gone, they will not be dead.

Today while the Turks may not like this assessment, I would say that in a way they have carried on this same legacy. Modern Istanbul is still a cosmopolitan city, a city where ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Christian, and Muslim culture all live side by side. It would be amazing to meet some of the Byzantine emperors and see what they think of their legacies. Would Justinian be surprised that his church still captivated millions of tourists each year or would he simply say, “I told you I was going to create a feeling of heaven on earth?” One thing is for sure, he would be steaming mad that today any average bum could walk through the imperial entrance into the church he built.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


In this blog, I would like to discuss what turned out to be some of my favorite sites in Istanbul: the three different cisterns I toured. Istanbul is home to several hundred ancient underground cisterns. They were created by the Byzantines to provide fresh drinking water to the city. After the Ottoman conquest, many of these cisterns were lost to the world for centuries. While many of the city’s citizens did not know their homes stood atop massive water containers, they did know one thing: for some reason they could drop a fishing line into a hole in their basements and pull up large fish. These stories of magical, fish-producing holes is actually what led to the rediscovery of many of these cisterns in the last century.

The first cistern we visited is also the most famous: the Yerebatan Sarnıcı, or Basilica Cistern. The Basilica Cistern is the largest of all the cisterns in Istanbul. This particular cistern was built during the sixth century by Emperor Justinian I. The cistern contains 336 marble columns. The columns were taken from other rundown buildings in and around the city, making for a rather hodgepodge look. The most impressive columns are the two Medusa head column bases found toward the far end of the cistern. In addition to these, several of the columns have circular patterns carved into the side. Supposedly, placing your thumb in the center and tracing a complete circle without removing your thumb will bring you good luck. Another interesting feature of the Basilica Cistern is the presence of some very well fed carp swimming in the water still contained there.

The second cistern I visited was actually located under a modern day carpet shop called Nakkaş. The owner of the shop discovered the cistern during construction and rather than covering it up, decided to renovate it and make it accessible to tourists. While some may feel somewhat apprehensive about walking into a carpet store solely to view an underground cistern, the employees are very understanding and will gladly show you to it. Of the three cisterns I visited, this one was certainly the most personal experience. The cistern is not very large and is also devoid of tourists. This makes for an incredibly intimate experience.

The third and final cistern I had the pleasure of seeing was the Cistern of Philoxenos, known in Turkish as the Binbirdirek Sarıncı or Cistern of 1001 Columns. This cistern was much better illuminated than the Basilica Cistern as well as being pretty much free of visitors. However, the Cistern of Philoxenos has been extensively renovated and lacks the same kind of feeling that you get in the Basilica Cistern. The biggest highlight here were the scale replicas done of several of the Byzantine buildings. These models were done by a German man who runs a website known as While only seven models have been completed (the Arc of Theodosios, Boukoleon Palace, Antiochos Palace, the Porta Aurea, the Saints Karpos and Papylos Martyrion, Chora Monastery, and the Hippodrome), they are incredibly detailed and beautiful. The artist also has several other projects in the works--not bad for a non-funded, not for profit venture.

Yedikule Fortress and the Byzantine Walls

On an optional excursion we visited the Yedikule Fortress and saw a long expanse of the ancient Byzantine walls. The name Yedikule refers to the seven towers which make up the fortress. Yedikule was originally constructed by Emperor John I Tzimiskes and completed by Manual I Komnenos. During this phase of construction, the fortress only had five towers. The original fort was destroyed during the Fourth Crusade and subsequently rebuilt in 1350 by John VI Kantakouzenos. As part of this construction, the fortress was expanded to include seven towers. The fort was rebuilt a third time after the fall of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmed II in 1457. During the Ottoman period of occupation, the fort was used as a treasury and a prison.

Today, the fortress is still an imposing structure. Much of the walls leading up to the fortress are in a very sad state. However, this is to be expected of anything which has stood for roughly fifteen centuries. The towers offer amazing views of the city as well as the Sea of Marmara. It is very intriguing to stand on top of one of the towers and imagine that you were a Byzantine soldier present when the Ottomans seized the city. The view of an entire army amassed outside the walls as well as a massive naval presence in the Sea of Marmara would have been absolutely amazing, not to mention horrifying.

The grounds also had several Ottoman cannonballs which had to be at least two feet in diameter. The sound that cannon would have made would send shivers down any man’s spine. These cannonballs today line what was known as the Via Egnatia, the original Roman road into the city of Constantinople. It is very hard to describe the feeling someone gets when walking on a road that has seen centuries of duty from ox carts to invading armies to modern day tourists.

Expanding out from Yedikule are the ancient Byzantine land and sea walls which kept the city safe for centuries. While most of these walls are incredibly run down today, there are still several portions which would do the original designers and laborers proud. The most interesting thing concerning these walls today is the fact that well over half a millennium since their construction, they still provide practical use for the people of Istanbul. On the terraces which the walls create and inside what was once the city moat are now small gardens where modern day Turks grow vegetables for sale on the road side. In spite of its age, the walls still have life. Perhaps this is the greatest compliment which can be paid to the Byzantines who constructed them.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Question of Iconography

Today, I wanted to address the iconography and symbolism contained in Byzantine art and my personal feelings and observances of it. The symbolism which I find most intriguing in Byzantine art revolves around the difference between it and the symbolism contained in Western European art. When I speak of Byzantine and Western art, I am referring specifically of the iconography contained in Christian art.

The emphasis in Western European, primarily Catholic, art seems to revolve around Christ as the sufferer, the noble lamb who sacrificed himself for the good of all mankind. This manifests itself in the form of iconography revolving around the Crucifixion and the entire series of events leading up to the Crucifixion: the betrayal of Judas, the torture perpetrated upon Jesus by the Roman authorities, and Jesus’ parade through the streets like a sheep led to slaughter. Jesus is often depicted in a sad and pathetic manner, looking wounded and disfigured like an abused animal. Generally when a cross is displayed in Western Christianity, Jesus sits upon it looking half dead.

In stark contrast, the Eastern Orthodox church seems to portray Jesus in a very different manner. The focus on Jesus in Byzantine iconography generally revolves around his resurrection and subsequent return as the ruler and holder of all as Christ Pantocrator. The cross rarely seems to be shown with Jesus hanging from it like a rack of lamb at a butcher’s shop. The iconography in the Eastern Orthodox church seems to represents a much happier and peaceful end to Christ. Rather than focusing on pain and suffering, the iconography yields a more hopeful vision of the world and Christianity.

I find this contrast very interesting. In general, Christian services and liturgy in the United States tend to focus on the happy side like Christ’s triumphal return bringing about the salvation of all mankind. However, the espoused beliefs and focus does not seem to mesh with the art and iconography. On the one hand, we are to praise Jesus for all that he has done for us. Yet on the other, we are continually shown images of pain, suffering, sin, and debauchery. Jesus is credited with bringing peace, salvation, and happiness to man, yet his depiction reeks of torture, imprisonment, and despair.

Many people whom I know in the United States cite these points as some of the reasons why they do not agree with or align themselves with the Christian church. From being here and seeing this difference between the Western and Eastern traditions first hand, it makes me wonder if some of their problems rest not with Christianity in general, but rather with the form and interpretation of Christianity they have been forced into by living in the United States.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Hippodrome

Our trip to the Hippodrome on Wednesday, July 9th, was at the same tıme impressive and a let down. The Hippodrome was originally built in AD 203 by the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus. The structure was modeled after the Circus Maximus in Rome, the largest and most impressive Roman hippodrome. The Hippodrome in İstanbul contained a race track that was 117.5 meters wide and 480 meters long. The building could house 40,000 screaming fans. The main attraction of the Hippodrome was chariot racing. During the Roman period, chariot racing was the most popular sport in the empire. The Hippodrome did not host gladiatorial combat nor the fighting of beasts. İn between chariot races, fans were entertained by jugglers, tightrope walkers, and other forms of what would today be considered circus entertainment.

Architecturally, the Hippodrome is quite the marvel. The structure was built in a valley of uneven elevation. İn order to accomplish this, the entire substructure was built in the valley and then covered over with the hippodrome floor. This allowed the space beneath the Hippodrome to function as the logistical center of the building, keeping everything necessary in maintaining the building and running the events hidden from sight. 

The center of the Hippodrome was known as the spina, and this area boasted several monuments intended to show off the emperor’s power and the Byzantine Empire’s wealth. Originally, the spina contained numerous monuments; among them were a statue of the she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus (the founders of Rome), a statute of Helen, as well as a statue of Hercules--among many others. However, today only a couple monuments remain.

The most well preserved and impressive of the monuments still standing has to be the Obelisk of Theodosius. This obelisk is of Egyptian origin and originally stood near Thebes. The inscription on the obelisk details a massacre of the Syrians at the hands of Pharaoh Thutmose. At the base of the obelisk is a marble stand depicting the Byzantine emperor and his family. Originally, the obelisk stood nearly three tımes as high as its current iteration; however, it was broken in transport from Egypt. 

The remaining two monuments from the spina are the Serpent Column and the Column of Constantine Porphyrogenitos. The Serpentine Column has certainly seen better days. The majority of the column has withered away and what remains is slowly decaying as well. The Column of Constantine Porphyrogenitos is impressive for its physical size but looks run down as well. İt is also disappointing to know that the entire column was once covered in bronze and all that remains of its sheathing today are random holes from where the bronze was originally attached.

In all, the Hippodrome is a quick side tour from the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. İt is certainly worth a visit if only to watch modern Turks drive their cars and tour buses around the same area which once saw thousands of chariot races.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

İnterior of the Hagia Sophia

While the exterior of the Hagia Sophia is an architectural marvel, the true beauty of the Hagia Sophia is found on the inside. Upon entering the building, the visitor is first confronted with the massive doors of the Imperial Gate. During Byzantine times, this entryway was reserved strictly for the emperor. There is a great sense of satisfaction knowing that somewhere the Emperor Justinian is rolling over in his grave every time a random bum such as myself walks through that door way! Above the gate is a mosaic dating from the tenth century depicting Jesus seated on a throne. On either side of Jesus are circular portraits depicting the Archangel Michael and the Virgin Mary. Bowing in front of Jesus is an emperor.

After passing through the narthex, you enter the nave of the cathedral. This is certainly the most impressive part of the structure. The visitor’s eyes are almost instinctively drawn upwards upon entering the nave. The massive dome and sheer size of the interior space created by it is breathtaking. The combination of the massive cathedral dome and the İslamic script covering its center are the best representation of the building’s historical heritage as a place of Christian and Muslim worship.

All over the interior, the walls and ceilings are covered with ornate paintings depicting flowers and geometric shapes. Many of the original mosaics are now gone. İn keeping with the Muslim religious ban on graven images, many of these were either taken down or plastered over when the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. However, some of these still remain and the ones that do are very beautiful.

To gain the best impression of the interior of the Hagia Sophia, a trip to the second storey gallery is mandatory. From here, the scale of the church and it’s beauty is better comprehended. The second storey gallery is also where many of the surviving mosaics are located. However, no trip to the gallery is complete without taking a picture of the grave of Enrico Dandolo. Dandolo was the commander of the Crusaders' sack of Constantinople in 1204. While his remains are no longer contained here, a picture is necessary simply to record the gall of this man and the Crusaders at large.

The Rustiest Old Barn in All of Heathendom

The Hagia Sophia was constructed between 532 and 537 by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople ın 1453, the structure was converted into a mosque. Finally, in 1935 the Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum by President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. From its completion in 537 until the construction of the Seville Cathedral in 1520, the Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world.

İn this blog, İ wısh to address the exterior and grounds of the Hagia Sophia. Upon first glimpse, it is difficult to discern what the original structure looked like. The original dome collapsed in 558 following an earthquake. Consequently, the dome was redesigned using lighter materials and incorporating a higher pitch to help distribute the weight more evenly throughout the structure. Following the Ottoman conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, further modifications were made to the building’s exterior. Four massive minarets were added as well as massive stone buttresses. The Ottomans also made many changes to the grounds of the Hagia Sophia, adding several mausoleums, a medrese, a soup kitchen, and a fountain for ritual ablutions.

The exterior of the Hagia Sophia is a sight to see. The building has a very squat appearance. This, combined with the use of red stone for the exterior, led Mark Twain to call the Hagia Sophia the “rustiest old barn in all heathendom.” The building no doubt shows its age, and in a world filled with skyscrapers and massive shopping centers, perhaps some of the Hagia Sophia’s majesty has been lost. İn spite of this, the building is still a must see.

One of the biggest annoyances when visiting the Hagia Sophia is not the building's aged façade or the massive amount of tourists, but rather the incredible difficulty one finds when trying to get a good picture. The building's immense proportions, combined with the over abundance of trees on the grounds, makes it nearly impossible. Perhaps the best place to get a good photo of the Hagia Sophia is to take one when you visit the Blue Mosque across the street. The same can be said of trying to get a good photo of the Blue Mosque; wait until you are at the Hagia Sophia.