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Many decades ago a movie called Midnight Express (1978) made a bit of a splash, it was the story, a true story we were told, of an American tourist Billy Hayes who spent some time in jail in Turkey for drug smuggling. Some 30 years later the truth came out and the protagonist of the movie confessed that he had in fact dealt drugs and was guilty as charged and he invented a fanciful story for a movie and book deal to make money. At the time Turkey got a black eye out of it, the country was seen as corrupt and dangerous, not a place to go to and it fuelled all the usually silly story from uninformed tourists about any and all countries they might travel to including innocuous Liechtenstein.

I travelled to Istanbul for the first time for my 40th birthday and spent a week there. I was living in Jordan at the time and it was an easy direct flight a little over two hours. The weather was cold being March but Istanbul has the most spectacular geographic location in the world. With the Sea of Marmara, the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus at the border of Asia and Europe, it is magical. Istanbul the former Imperial Capital of the Ottoman Empire and before that known as Constantinople, the New Rome of Emperor Constantine, a city that was created for greatness from the beginning, it is reflected in its architecture and history. Turkey is an ancient country with a rich culture and history full of exoticism. As a diplomat I always wanted to be accredited to the Sublime Porte, though the Turkish Foreign Ministry is no longer known as that since 1923.

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La Sublime Porte (today)

Porte is French for “gate”. When Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent sealed an alliance with King Francis I of France in 1536, the French diplomats walked through the monumental gate or Bab-ı Ali in order to reach the Vizierate of Constantinople, seat of the Sultan’s government. French being the language of diplomacy, the French translation Sublime Porte (the adjective being unusually placed ahead of the word to emphasize its importance) was soon adopted in most other European languages, including English, to refer not only to the actual gate but as a metaphor for the Ottoman Empire.

The particular term was used in the context of diplomacy by Western States, as their diplomats were received at the Porte. During the second constitutional era of the Empire after 1908, the functions of the classical Divan-ı Hümayun were replaced by the reformed Imperial Government, and “porte” came to refer to the Foreign Ministry. During this period, the office of the Grand Vizier came to refer to the equivalent to that of a Prime Minister, and viziers became members of the Grand Vizier’s cabinet as government ministers.

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King Francis I of France and Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent

Istanbul as a former capital has a lot to offer and much to visit, art, culture and good restaurants. I remember staying and walking in the older part of the city, Sultanahmet neighbourhood where you find the Topkapi Palace, the Sultanahmet or Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, the Hippodrome and numerous museums and of course the Grand Bazaar.

I always chose an hotel in Sultanahmet because it is the neighbourhood to stay in when visiting Istanbul. I stayed on Yerebatan Caddesi because it is central to everything. Istanbul is a huge city, I could either walk of take a taxi to my destinations, however you have to be mindful that car traffic, in this city hugged by the sea on so many fronts, is horrendous in the full sense of the word.

On this first visit some 19 years ago, I visited the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) this great church built by Emperor Justinian in 532 A.D. or C.E. as we say today. This great Cathedral was far larger than the original St-Peter basilica in Rome or the Lateran Cathedral of Rome, it was the first church in all Christendom. In its 1400 year history it was a church, then a Mosque and now a Museum. Its dome is 108 feet in diameter or 33 meters, its crown rises 180 feet or 55 meters above the floor. The building is 270 feet long or 82 meters and 240 long or 72 meters wide. A huge building for its time considering that none of it is steel, all brick and mortar. The architects were Isidore the Elder and Anthemius, it was completed in 6 years. You have to consider that centuries later it would take 100 years to build any great cathedral in Europe.

It is to this day awe inspiring and magnificent to see. The Sultan Mehmet II came to pray here upon entering the city in 1453. He was very impressed with the structure and decreed it be converted into a mosque.

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The Hagia Sophia as it looked as a Christian Church (prior to Ottoman additions)

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Hagia Sophia as it looks today

The Hagia Sophia has two levels, the ground floor and a gallery above. The presence of the two levels mean that people were organized according to gender and class when services were held at the cathedral. In Hagia Sophia a part of the gallery was used as an imperial lodge, from which the empress and occasionally the emperor attended the services.

The central or Imperial Door was reserved for the use of the emperor and his attendants, and provides the most perfect approach to the interior of the church.

The decorations within the Hagia Sophia at the time of construction were probably very simple, images of crosses for instances. Over time this changed to include a variety of ornate mosaics.

“There are a number of mosaics that have been added over the centuries, imperial portraits, images of the imperial family, images of Christ and different emperors, those have been added since Justinian’s day. Many survived to this day the conversion to a Mosque. The Apse Mosaic in the Hagia Sophia shows the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus.  Dedicated on March 29, 867, it is located 30 meters (almost 100 feet) above the church floor.

In 1453 the Byzantine Empire ended, with Constantinople falling to the armies of Mehmed II, the Ottoman Sultan.

The Byzantine Empire had been in decline for centuries and by 1453 the Hagia Sophia had fallen into disrepair, the Christian cathedral made a strong impression on the new Ottoman rulers and they decided to convert it into a mosque.

Outside the church, four minarets would eventually be added, these four slender pencil-shaped minarets are more than 200 feet (60 meters) tall and are among the tallest ever constructed.

Changes occurred on the inside as well, after the Ottoman conquest the mosaics were hidden under yellow paint with the exception of the Theotokos [Virgin Mary with child] in the apse. In addition Monograms of the four caliphs were put on the pillars flanking the apse and the entrance of the nave.

The style of the Hagia Sophia, in particular its dome, would go on to influence Ottoman architecture, most notably in the development of the Blue Mosque, built in Istanbul during the 17th century.

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The Sultanahmet or Blue Mosque. (it is called blue because of the blue tile decoration inside) 

In 1934, the government of Turkey secularized the Hagia Sophia and turned it into a museum. The Turkish Council of Ministers stated that due “to its historical significance, the conversion of the (Hagia Sophia) mosque, a unique architectural monument of art located in Istanbul, into a museum will please the entire Eastern world and its conversion to a museum will cause humanity to gain a new institution of knowledge.

To be continued… 

Some photos of the stunning Christian Mosaics remaining inside the Hagia Sophia. The Ottoman Turks did not destroy the Christian art of the building when it was converted to a Mosque.

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Mosaïque de de la Porte impériale, Sainte-Sophie (Istanbul, Turquie)

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Hagia Sophia

Click on photos to enlarge

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