Notes from my 2003 trip from Istanbul to Bombay, overland.
When I think of the Hagia Sophia I imagine her as she looked two hundred years after Justinian commissioned her. I imagine all the splendor thinkable after aging, much like a good wine, for two centuries. Her colors are not to bright, the mosaics rich in their vague yet paradoxically intricate detail. The floors are level yet just beginning to settle into unevenness, the result of two centuries worth of pilgramages. I see a magnificent mosaic of Christ, surrounded by a soft gold halo, his face distracted but his eyes intense. Down the back of the upper gallery the Virgin Mary gazes languidly at the pilgrims who've come from all over the medieval Christian world. Emperors from times past fill the other niches, glaring at each other with a silent, but intense jealousy still perceptible inside the 47.7 meter dome.
I sense what the hushed silences of Christian pilgrims who have journeyed from the far ends of the Empire and Christendom must have felt like. Perhaps it was the same feeling astronauts and comsonauts had when they first loked down at our blue home. I felt he first Christian the inner fear of brave monks from far away Hibernia, the lust for power of sycophantic Bishops who spit poison into the ear of the emperor and the forgotten Italians from the recently reconquered peninsula that has been even more recently lost to the barbarians.
Although the Church of Divine Wisdom crouches regally on the skyline of modern Istanbul she is but a shadow of what she once was: no longer the solemn sanctuary from the harsh realities of the world outside; no longer an inspiration, only a showpiece.
Gone are the days when she shone like a beacon in the Dark Ages of medieval Christianity. Gone forever are the days when she inspired Sultans to best her, for the Blue Mosque is close but no Hagia Sophia.
I feel a keen, palpable disappointment each time I tread into her high domed sanctuary. Each entrance like the bitter taste of castor oil, a purge. Each footstep a tear for time lost. She has lost her sacred power and I find that sadness difficult to bear.
It is not because, after the fall in 1453, it became a mosque, nor is it because the walls and towering arches are adorned with the sacred inscriptions of the Koran either. It is how modernity has taken an holy, ineffable mystery and turned it into another 'place.'
As I wandered about inside the church I craved to hear the soft sound of my own footsteps on the worn, uneven marble floors, the soft vibrations of my own breath and the delicate thoughts one has in so sacred a place. Instead I heard loud voices, not the hushed oooos and ahhhhs one hears in the Blue Mosque or the Sistine Chapel. I saw children running and parents yelling after them.
"Just another place," I thought to myself ruefully.
I snapped a few obligatory photos, returned to my hotel room, laid in bed and returned to my dream. Faithfully, the Hagia Sophia was there waiting for me. Just as I always imagined her.