Friday, July 18, 2008

Wandering the Grand Bazaar

So when I thought of the Grand Bazaar, I had visions of the Disney movie Aladdin. I envisioned, wrongly, people plying their wares like individual infomercials calling out features of their products in five languages and so on. Well, I was partially correct, but mainly wrong. 

The guys (I didn’t see that many women trying to encourage me to shop at their shops) spoke several different languages and would greet me in about four of them. I tried to become Spanish, but then they switched to Spanish like changing a gear in a car they’d driven for years. I tried every trick in the book to blend in, but I soon discovered that few Turks actually shopped at the Grand Bazaar. But I digress.

The Grand Bazaar was established by Mehmet II following his conquering of the city in 1453. I liken the Grand Bazaar to the biggest flea market I have ever been to. I joked to a few folks from Connecticut that I went to the flea markets in Tennessee in preparation for coming to the Bazaar, and they laughed.

As soon as you enter the Bazaar, you are greeted by the smell of people and the buzz of electricity as people bargain. Walking around trying to get my bearings, I got hopelessly disoriented and found the same row of shops over and over again until I found my way around. But I did make some friends. Some guy named Mehmo helped me find a pair of jeans, and I became John Clark, a Californian who lives in San Francisco and grew up in Freemont. It worked well for me. I befriended a waiter at a café near the Bazaar, and when I returned he remembered me and took care of me/John like an old friend.

While hard bargaining is not my forte, I got suckered into buying a pair of "designer" jeans because the guy I was negotiating with met my price after I tried the pants on. But they are a nice pair of pants. I can’t wait to go back. The hustle and bustle and energy is contagious, and I want to try my hand at bargaining again--but I will bargain harder this time.

The Sheer Beauty


Something has to be said for coming to a land whose history goes back to one of the greatest civilizations that has ever conquered the known world. The Byzantine Empire controlled the area of what is modern day Istanbul from the fourth century AD to the fifteenth century AD. Then the city fell under Ottoman rule until the end of World War I and is now one of the pre-eminent cities of the modern country of Turkey. The history in this place is so rich that people devote their entire lives to studying it, and I have only dabbled in its knowledge during my five weeks here.

I’ve learned a lot here. I have a better grasp on what was once Rome and its history but that became Constantinople and the history of Byzantium. I have learned what it means to have lived in the capital of the eastern Mediterranean world. Before coming here and looking into the history, I had thought that places like the Hagia Sophia were constructed as mosques. I never realized that many of these buildings were actually built as basilicas for the Orthodox Church. Color me uninformed. In all honesty, the Christian gig has probably given me more trouble than anything else. I just never thought that this place had been the seat of the Christian church while it was in its toddler statge and Zeus was still the king of the gods.

I had always considered events like the Crusades to be scenes from movies and games until I saw the physical evidence of their existence. Seeing the Egyptian obelisk (even at only one-third of its former glory) with its hieroglyphics brought Egypt alive for me. I have never, ever felt time like that. Even if I have said it here before in these web-logs, I’ll say it a zillion times: I have never experienced history like this before, and nothing I have ever done before could have prepared me for it.

After visiting the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts and seeing what the capabilities of the peoples who conquered Byzantium were, I stood in awe. This started with seeing the progression of art from the early Byzantine, with its squatty and non-descript portrayals of men to the re-emergence of human details in later Byzantine artwork. The motivations for the changes, I think, are progressions of society that occur with little explanation.

Walking through the Topkapi Palace, home of the sultans who supplanted the Byzantines, and going inside all of the little museum areas there was astounding; these museums housed artifacts that ranged from an 80+ karat diamond (that is spelled A-B-I-G- R-O-C-K), to John the Baptist’s skull, to a foot print of the Prophet Muhammad, to a bunch of china from China that dated back to one of the –ing dynasties! I cannot put into words how small and young I felt.

I looked at the marble work in the Hagia Sophia where the revetment slabs were split and mounted giving the walls an odd Rorschach pattern reminiscent of the cross section of a brain. I was ashamed to be humored by such a random and juvenile thought.

I can now walk around Istanbul and look at an ancient structure and recognize it as Byzantine and from what period it came from. Does the roof line wave? Are the bricks red with lots of mortar in between? Does that church have a massive bell tower? Then it must be Palaiologan.

The architecture of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque with their domes and graceful lines just takes my breath away. I sat on a railing at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art and just looked across the Hippodrome at the Blue Mosque for almost 45 minutes while my legs went numb from the railing just so I could drink it all in.

I saw where, in the Chora Church, the eyes had been removed from some of the mosaics and frescos. This defacing of the artwork added a human element to the transition from Christianity to Islam.

My perception has been dramatically changed when it comes to the Byzantines. I went from not understanding who and what they were to walking where they walked. Coming here and studying their art and architecture, an aspect of human life that I have generally taken for granted, has been truly one of the most rewarding aspects of my trip.

Land Walls

Originally built to keep the city safe from invaders, the wall system was started by Constantine after he moved the capital of the empire from Rome to Constantinople. The walls underwent various periods of expansion and refortification. An earthquake in AD 447 destroyed much of the wall that stretched from the Sea of Marmora to the Golden Horn. However, the walls were rebuilt very quickly under direct threat from Attila the Hun. Its fortifications helped stave off invasion from the Rus, the Bulgars, the Arabs, and the Turks. Roughly 1000 years went by before the wall ultimately failed. It was Mehmet the Conqueror who finally broke the wall in 1453, but the wall stayed in service until the city outgrew it in the seventeenth century. 

The construction of the land walls consists primarily of bands of limestone blocks with a layer of thin, red (very Byzantine) bricks. You can, however, see where some repair work has been done, and in the section we climbed on near the Adrianople Gate, many of the bricks at street level had Arabic markings on them that pointed to new, rather than Byzantine, brick. There was also a bit of modern graffiti on the walls as well that was rather disappointing.

In addition to the part of the walls near the Adrianople Gate, I also went to a section of the wall just up the street from the Chora Church (see previous post). As I stood on top of this structure that helped keep an entire people safe from invasion and subsequently has seen its fair share of blood shed, I looked down and imagined the carnage. I suppose it would be similar to standing on top of the Great Wall of China. But this wall is nowhere near that size, but even so, as I climbed atop the wall and looked down at the terraced landscape on the outer side, I thought of ancient weapons and tactics, and I what came to mind was my very sincere wish not to have to assault this particular hilltop fortification.

Today the view from the wall is amazing. You can see across the Bosphorus to Asia, all across the modern city of Istanbul whose end you cannot see even from this vantage point.

The Hippodrome

So unfortunately the Hippodrome in (what was) Constantinople is no longer preserved as it was when it was first constructed by Septimius Severus in AD 203, and we should be thankful for that. When Emperor Constantine expanded the city in AD 324, he enlarged the Hippodrome to hold 100,000 spectators! The only structural part of the Hippodrome that still stands is the sphendome, the curved part of the U-shaped support structure that allowed for the extension of the Hippodrome to its maximum size.

The Hippodrome dominated social life in Constantinople, and it was the center of many gatherings. Teams of charioteers had huge followings that often spilled over from athletics into political movements. Surely this was a place with a large amount of energy sizzling in the air. The intense athletic and political rivalries amongst the teams and their followers sometimes led to riots, as in AD 532 during what is now called the Nika Riot. More than 30,000 people died as a result of military intervention in this riot, and many of the city’s biggest buildings were damaged during this (to modern eyes) blood bath. For Emperor Justinian, however, this was just the ticket he needed to rejuvenate the aging buildings of Constantinople.

What I thought was really cool about the Hippodrome were the columns still standing there. Three different types of “Washington Monuments” now sit in what was the center of the track, or spina. I was more than happy to take pictures of the different monuments.

First was the Serpentine Column. It originally had 32 coils, and the heads were knocked off by a drunken Polish politician visiting Istanbul in the late 1800s, I think.

The Egyptian obelisk was originally three times as high as it is today, but it was damaged during transportation and only the top third was erected.

The last column was originally covered in bronze, but it was sacked and stripped of it bronze by Crusaders in the Fourth Crusade.

Feeling Humble

I think I may have mentioned before that I have never looked into the history of this part of the world before the time of the Prophet Muhammad, and I honestly had never given a whole lot of thought to the Byzantine Empire. I expected there to be more of an Arab influence on Istanbul, but then again, studying the political and social climate in Turkey since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, I should have known better. But because I know more about Islam and its customs, I’d like to take the opportunity to talk a little about the Islamic tradition of performing ritual ablutions before prayers because that act influences the architecture around the mosques in Istanbul, many of which are converted Byzantine churches.

Before entering the mosque to pray, Muslims must wash themselves. They use water to rinse their feet, hands, face, and other exposed parts of their body like their ears. Washing of the feet comes last. All of this is done to ensure purity of the body before entering the mosque. Early Christians had similar practices that were aimed at body purity, but washing is also a sign of submission or humility in Christianity.

I find most religions interesting and admirable in their goals, and this is also true for Islam. Ever since I first began studying Islam, I have been fascinated with the religion and its Five Pillars, the essential actions of a devout Muslim. The Second Pillar of Islam is called salat, the ritual prayer towards Mecca five times per day. The times of the day at which prayer occurs are dictated by sunrise and sunset; these times are referred to as waqt.

The Second Pillar is the daily reminder for Muslims to place Allah (God) above all other actions during your day. This is a humbling thought, and one I find comforting, no matter which god you worship. The act of submission, which is what Islam means, is reflected in the architecture of the mosques (and earlier churches) by the inclusion of an ablution fountain or fountains.

I snapped this picture of a man cleansing his feet before going to perform salat, and when I put the photo on my computer and looked at it again, I found the photo to be very moving for me.

Hagia Sophia, the Building Herself

Think of any major building you have seen being built in modern day. What is one of the biggest pieces of construction equipment that pops into your head? A giant crane lifting large metal I-beams into the air to be riveted into place by guys who eat their lunches sitting atop the bare metallic skeleton of a building in a fashion right out of the 1920’s, right?

But now imagine you are walking into the Hagia Sophia, built in the sixth century AD. See the stone and marble. Understand that behind the cut marble is not concrete-reinforced rebar. Instead, there are bricks and mortar and stone. This is not a modern building of concrete and steel.

The main dome in the nave reaches an amazing eighteen stories high! That’s 56 meters, or 184 feet! Of course, right now there is metal scaffolding going up to the ceiling for repair and restoration work, an architectural wonder in its own right.

Even if we leave aside the sheer size of the Church of the Holy Wisdom, the attention to architectural detail is great! I found myself staring at one of the columns atop which sat an ornately carved capital that helped support an arcade. The leafy carvings held my attention until my neck hurt from looking up.

The amount of open space in the nave of the Hagia Sophia makes one feel very small. The immensity of this place had me wishing for a moment that I could travel back in time so that I could attend a worship service or an imperial coronation.

Going up a rather lengthy series of ramps that would today be considered a staircase, I ascended to the second floor gallery level, and once again I marveled at the size of the space. Unfortunately my view of the dome and nave was disrupted by the scaffolding, but on one side I could see the entire length of the interior, and all I could do was smile to myself and stand in awe.

As I left the inside of the Hagia Sophia behind, I walked about the outside and saw the flying buttresses supporting the weight of the walls and dome, and I examined the minarets added by the Ottomans following the church’s conversion to a mosque. In the presence of such grandeur, I have never felt so humble.


Mosaics in the Hagia Sophia

Anytime I go someplace new, I expect to see things I haven’t seen before. That is the nature of going to someplace you’ve never been. Stepping inside the Hagia Sophia, or the Church of Holy Wisdom, I saw much that I never would have expected. The interior artwork is as visually stunning as it is technically beautiful. I’ve only played in making a mosaic, and that was once upon a time in third grade. But inside the Hagia Sophia's stunning and cavernous space, the mosaic art itself is astounding.

The Hagia Sophia is over 1400 years old. It was inaugurated in A.D. 537 by the emperor Justinian, lasted through the length of the Byzantine Empire, and was then converted to a mosque in fifteenth century by the Ottomans.

One of my favorite mosaics in the church is the one of the archangel Gabriel. It is located in the apse. In Gabriel’s hands are what look like a staff and a globe--the orb of the earth, perhaps? It is difficult to tell since the mosaic is partially destroyed.

Another great mosaic is the southern gallery. This is the Deesis (or "Intercession") Mosaic that shows Christ adorned in imperial blue/purple robes; he holds hold the scriptures and makes the blessing sign with his hand, and a cruciform halo rests on his head. I have trouble putting myself in the shoes of someone a thousand years ago walking into the Haghia Sophia and seeing what even today we consider astounding.

The resources that went into decorating this amazing structure just blow me away. The dome which is now covered in Koranic scriptures was once covered in golden Byzantine mosaics. The timelessness of gold, which is a very Byzantine feature, gives the interior a very old and warm feeling when seen in person--even in a space that is huge and seemingly impersonal. The décor is one of my favorite things about the Church of the Holy Wisdom.