Sunday, March 6, 2011

Day one in Istanbul: Aya Sofia and the Hippodrome

I saw a sign today, part of a marketing campaign that said “Istanbul Inspires” which could not be more true. The city is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen. Everything is colorful and full of culture.

I managed to sleep a couple hours past the Muslim call to prayer which is at about 5am. This is how I reckon time these days. After having thrown away my wrist watch in a symbolic show of freedom from my former Korean overlords in the airport at Dubai, I no longer have any sense of time. I reckon the passing of the hours on noticable time landmarks, mostly the Muslim calls to prayer.

This morning I went into the resturaunt attatched to the hostel and they told me it was too early for breakfast so I decided to walk around a bit. I went back to the two magnificent buildings nearby and I finally figured out which was which. The one I originally thought was the Aya Sofia (but later thought it wasn't) is, in fact, the Aya Sofia. In the light of day it is much easier to tell because the Aya Sofia looks like its been ramsacked a couple times. It is, however, still magnificent. I happened to be wandering by at 9:00am and was able to be one of the first in line to go in.

They say that the Emproer Justinian who built it, upon entering the finished church, said, “Glory to God that I have been judged worthy of such a work. Oh Solomon! I have outdone you!” In my opinion, Justinian had every right to be that smug. Inside, the building is one of the most impressive I've ever seen in my life. The Taj Mahal doesn't even hold a candle to the beauty of this place. The Taj may be impressive on the outside, but its small and cramped and rather unremarkable on the inside. It is, after all, a tomb. It wasn't meant to have living people in it.

In the Aya Sofia, the main sanctuary is vast and cavernous, with chandaliers floating just above the heads of the people. Many of the original iconography and mosaics have been destroyed or removed first by the the Byzantine iconoclasts and then, after new images were made, by any number of invaders. The few mosaics that are left are intricate and enchanting and seem to tell a story. There is one of the Byzantine Empress Zoe who was such a BAMF that, even in the age where women weren't worth much, she managed to remain on the throne and make three sucessive men Emporer as her husbands. The portrait is of the Emporess Zoe and her third and last husband, Constantine IX Monomachus, although its clear that the face of the man has been rearranged several times. It is suspected that she had the mosaic redone every time she got married. Her face, too, shows some remodeling and it is said that she was very vain.

Another particularly beautiful mosaic depicts the Emporer Johannes Commenus II, his Hungarian wife, Empress Eirene (Irene), and their son who died very soon after the mosaic was made. I happened to stumble on one of the Emporer Justinian, the first Emproer Constatine (the Great) and Jesus. I say 'stumbled on' because it was stuck in a corner and no one seemed to know it was there. I felt bad that such a beautiful work (which depicted Constantine the Great presenting Jesus with the city of Constantinople and Emporer Justinian presenting him with his great accomplishment, the Aya Sofia) was going unrecognized that I was determined to get people to come and see it. So, I stood right in the middle of the doorway and stared as if entranced (and really, I was) at the image above the door. The first to come see was this little boy who had been following me around and taking pictures of everything I was taking pictures of. Soon, more people started noticing that I was staring at something and came to see what I was seeing. Once I got a decent crowd going I figured my work there was done and quietly made my exit. Your welcome, Emporer Justinian.

I tried to find the hippodrome as it was where most of ancient culture took place in the ancient city of Byzantium, but all I could find were the pillars that had been placed near it. The actual circuit of the course has been paved over and, as far as I can tell, some of it is now a street for cars and some of it is just paved over. The obelisks, one of which was taken from the temple of Ra in Alexadria by Constantine the Great and placed here with an addition of a marble base portraying the scene, were under construction. I was disappointed that the place was more of less off limits and I couldn't see the famous base up close, but of all the things in Istanbul that I would have been disappointed not to see, this wasn't really that high on the list.

Tonight is my last night at this hostel and I had planned to take a trip to Ephesus or Troy or somewhere but now, asfter talking to the tour information guy about the 10 hour bus ride I don't know if I really want to go. As much as I like to see these places, I don't really like to travel. On top of that I just got here and I feel there is so much to see. This is last is really a thin excuse as I will be back in plenty of time to see everything I could hope to see. What's really bothering me is the travel time. I am enjoying not being in a plane or bus right now. But is that enough of a reason to skip out on some awesome sights? What is more important in a vacation? Making the best use of your time? Or relaxing?

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