My relationship with Istanbul has been a bit dysfunctional. Most notable was my awkward first encounter with Hagia Sophia, known as Justinian’s Great Church and our grandest inheritance from Byzantium. Surely this was to be expected; I’d seen its online profile one too many times and felt intimately acquainted with it before our meeting in real life, always a recipe for disappointment.
The date went well at first. I spent a few minutes staring at it from afar, glimpsing the dome as it rose over the park and fountain and carefully pruned trees. A closer glance, however, revealed piles of concrete bricks outside and a bright yellow bulldozier. Oh, dear. I waited two days to actually cross the threshold.
Prior to making the acquaintance of Istanbul, I spent two weeks at a graduate student workshop in Cappadocia, the mountainous region of central Turkey. The program description had hinted that we would do “a lot of walking,” but that translated into days of hiking up mountains and down valleys, crossing creeks on homemade bridges, creeping inside Byzantine tombs and crawling on hands and knees through dark corridors. The reward for taking the Physical Challenge was a series of Byzantine structures cut from the volcanic landscape, mounds of dirt and rock on the outside and carefully constructed architecture on the inside. Many of the churches have paintings on the walls, glimpses into the lives and beliefs of long-forgotten individuals and their communities. There’s transcendence in the thousand-year-old narrative scenes that still convey the melancholy of Crucifixion, the joy of miraculous healing, or even the unwavering piety of an anonymous bishop. Many of them damaged and weather-beaten, the paintings fight to hold on to their color and figures, their plaster clinging to the cave walls through snow and dust and visitors. The voice of reason, “holy crap, you’re too old for this,” gave way to the voice of wonderment: “Why am I here? What on earth have I done to deserve experiences like this?” I know that on the coldest days of a New York winter, these will be the images that haunt me, that drive me to keep studying for my next qualifying exam and to get some research funding and tackle that dissertation.
After the exhaustion set in and we couldn’t hike any more mountains, it was time to reenter urban civilization. I spent two days in Istanbul getting harrassed by a variety of pesky street vendors in Sultanahmet. I didn’t realize that staying in this part of town is essentially staying in Times Square. It’s noisy and busy and there’s nothing authentically Turkish about it. Tourism abounds. Everybody knows that the street vendors are just trying to earn a living and even sales clerks who follow you around stores are just practicing a trade. But the really creepy guys are the ones who see you pull out a map and insist on asking where you are going and if you’re traveling alone, even after a polite “no, thank you.” I’ve gotten in two shouting matches with men who were insulting and rude after I declined their help. It’s like seeing the effects of chivalry on steroids, so angry and insecure.
This is not to say that people here are generally creepy, by the way. I’ve made some good friends on this trip. One of them sent my friend and me home in a dolmuş shuttle van after dinner one evening and told the driver that we were his American cousins and needed a taxi to the hotel after the shuttle ride. The driver was generous enough to hail the cab and give directions, and our new cousin waited up for our email to make sure we got back all right. Cousins, kindred spirits, same difference, right?
The vibe of the city got better. I unclenched my fists while walking and learned a few choice phrases in Turkish. Another friend took me to the Ottoman sultans’ Topkapı Palace to see the blue-tiled harem rooms and the jeweled weapons in the treasury. She pointed out that elections had been held recently, hence all the construction work. Newly elected politicians want people to see them accomplishing something. I quipped, “so basically we lose a few inches of Byzantium every time there’s an election?” Essentially, yes. The Hippodrome, a race track since the days of Constantine, got paved in the last year. It’s a common phenomenon amongst Byzantinists, actually, to find the city unnerving at first glance. We know Constantinople and its monuments so well that it’s disconcerting to mentally peel off the layer of modern Istanbul to uncover the remnants of the Byzantine capital underneath. The site of the Chalke Gate, once the entrance to the emperor’s palace, lies somewhere underneath the Four Seasons. I rode under the Roman aqueduct in a taxi.
Armed with an ipod and multiple cameras, I decided at last to enter Justinian’s Great Church. I cranked up The XX’s “Intro” and stepped through the threshold, ready to be brought to tears by its magnificence. Some of the windows in the “floating” dome were blacked out. There was a guy carrying a plastic bag of Krispy Kreme doughnuts and empty water bottles. Much of the ceiling was covered in mustard yellow plaster with a post-Ottoman folk-art-looking floral design. (I felt so stupid for assuming from photographs that it was all going to be gold). It was crowded. Two cats were napping on the sisal carpet that now covers the alter area near which Mehmet the Conquerer rode his horse when he conquered the city in 1453. From the north gallery, there’s a perfect view of an archangel in the apse. His eyes looked forlorn, an expression of how many bizarre events have taken their toll on the structure. The guard looked at me funny when I saw covered mosaics peeking out from a chipped section of plaster and burst into tears.
Avoiding a second rendezvous with Hagia Sophia, I spent hours in the Chora Monastery absorbing the frescoes and mosaics there, and I trekked out to the Pammakristos church with some friends, moseying a long way through neighborhoods whose residents seemed baffled and amused to see tourists at all. Not wanting to neglect Ottoman sites, I went to the Blue Mosque, proud of myself for remembering to quickly remove my shoes and tie my hair back in a scarf and for wearing an outfit that passed the modesty inspection. But as soon as I got inside, my shoes broke through the flimsy plastic bag, falling onto the carpet, and I accidentally stepped on the hem of someone’s burka. Good one, A.L. Way to be culturally sensitive.
A thousand souvenirs later, I had seen the Archaeological Museum, taken a ferry to the Asian side, checked out some mosaics and cisterns beneath hotels and carpet shops, and conquered public transportation. I felt guilty, though, for neglecting a perfectly nice monument just because its accessories looked a little shabby. When my friend teased, “I am walking around with someone who does not like Hagia Sophia,” a do-over was suddenly and desperately in order. Oh, no, no. I can’t get a reputation for that. Disappointment is not dislike. It was time for a second date. This morning there was no demure greeting. I forked over 20 lira and channeled my inner Byzantine.
There’s a long, winding slope of slippery, timeworn stone leading up to the gallery level of the church where empresses and other women attended services. I wondered how much effort it took Theodora to get up there in the sixth century, particularly when she was dying. Did someone help her? Was she carried? Did she—the one who refuled to flee during the Nika Riots, declaring that imperial purple is a good color to be buried in-—insist on trudging up the dreary hall unassisted? Perhaps she just stayed home. It’s interesting that her portrait lives on in Ravenna’s San Vitale rather than here. From her box in the gallery, the various Byzantine, Ottoman, and modern elements have the effect of a summer house that has been in a family for so many generations that the decoration gets ecclectic but sentiment keeps them from being rearranged. I appreciated the lifelike emotion in the mosaic of John the Baptist, the initials in the capitals on the lower level, the sheer height of the dome, a true feat of engineering. The archangel looked bemused today, a weathervane of sorts.
As I write this from my hotel terrace facing the Blue Mosque, there’s a cool breeze and an imminent sunset. Sea gulls are soaring over the Bosphoros and boats in the hazy distance have anchored for the night. Calls to prayer from a variety of mosques are drifting over the horizon, fading in and out as if they’re singing in a round. I’ve made my peace with Istanbul. We’ll remain friends, but Hagia Sophia is not my academic true love after all. It seems I’ve left my heart in Cappadocia.