ISTANABUL __ Today was a great day. We started the day off like any other, heading over to the student union for breakfast. I was not only successful in ordering a coffee on my own in Turkish, but I also had the barista teach me how to say “black coffee” and “thank you”. The language barrier is beginning to break down. I continued my breakfast routine by heading to the breakfast line and pointing at the meat pastry that I enjoy so much. We tried to linger in the student union this morning because like most other days since we have arrived, it was thundering and rainy out.
Our first field trip of the day was to the Hagia Sophia. If you don’t know, the Hagia Sophia is one of the key destination points in Istanbul. The structure is a huge religious site that served first as a basilica and later as a mosque. Today, it’s a huge cavernous monument that features elements of both the Christian and Muslim religions. Standing inside of it, one cannot help but be humbled.
My entire life I have been taking history and art classes that glaze over many prominent buildings throughout time and I always knew that somehow, some way, I would get to go and see some of these masterpieces at some point in life. During these lessons, however, the Hagia Sophia seemed a little out of place because when you learn about these buildings, you learn that there are five in England, five in Italy, five in France, and so on and so forth. Learning about this mosque always seemed a bit random since we were never taught about other major commissions in Turkey. Who would have thought that of all these prominent buildings, the Hagia Sophia would end up being the very first that I get to visit in real life!?!
After a guided tour of the Hagia Sophia by Prof. Gohkan Celik, the class departed for lunch. Eight of our group members decided to try out a side-street cafe. This is where we learned how European restaurants work, meaning, we weren’t served the food we had ordered until 15 minutes after the designated regrouping time for our class. OOPS. Street food it is the next time we have any less than 2 hours for lunch.
Upon our arrival to the Basilica Cistern, people questioned where our destination was. Oddly, it was just beneath our feet. This cistern, which is a sprawling underground water system built by the Romans, represents the epitome of sustainability and innovation of its time. As we descended down the stairs to the space beneath us, we were in awe at the dimly lit, slippery space we found below. This space is essentially an underground cave structured by massive column and arch systems. Groundwater from above dripped down into the space to provide clean water for the population of Constantinople. Chandeliers hung above the water to reflect the soft orange light, creating a mysterious feeling in the space.
The exact history of how the cistern was constructed is not known. Two columns have a base that is a stone carving of Medusa’s head, one upside down while the other turned to its side. It is unclear as to the exact reasons for this, but I will get back to you on that. One theory is that because it is believed that if you look her straight in the eyes, Medusa will turn you to stone. The other theory is that the buildings did not care about the appearance of the stone, they just had a stone (which was previously stolen) that happened to fit the exact spot needed when it was turned to its side. It is here that I realized that history books need to be written by more creative writers. No book, no Internet article or magazine clipping could prepare me for this.
Finally we arrived at the Blue Mosque, an active place of worship in the heart of the Sultanamhet historic district. It is said that this mosque was commissioned to be better than the Hagia Sophia.
Immediately upon entry to the mosque, we were prompted to take our shoes off. This is because unlike the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is still a functioning mosque. This space was filled with light and color, immediately bringing a sense of happiness and lightness to the building’s users. With a bit more scrutiny, I looked harder at what I was seeing. I tried to look beyond the pretty mosaics and see the building’s architecture for what it really was, and what I found out is that the building is essentially very similar to the Hagia Sophia but on a much smaller scale. I enjoyed the Hagia Sophia because it was dimly lit and had exaggerated shadows, which flaunted the looming ceilings and immaculate construction. While I was in the Blue Mosque, I got caught in the extravagant ornamentation as my eyes followed the patterns across the walls. I felt that I was focused more on the pretty light reflecting off the pretty tiles and the complex chandelier system dangling from the ceiling. I imagined what the building would be like if the walls had just been painted white, instead of being overwhelmed with ornamentation.
I came to the conclusion that the Blue Mosque was a better mosque than the Hagia Sophia because it probably calmed its users down with the delightfulness in the ornamentation but as an architect myself, I have to admit that I think the Hagia Sophia was the real masterpiece. Because the Hagia Sophia had a limited number of decorations, the structural linguistics were able to become part of the experience of being within the mosque. I did notice many of the archways painted, and the paint was not done perfectly. The effects of the lopsided paint gave the arches the appearance of being asymmetrical, which only made me want to study the structure even more. There is genius in imperfection. Perhaps it was the architect in me, but I was forced to stop and study the each arch a bit longer while in the Blue Mosque, I was so busy trying to take it all in that my eyes never got a chance to focus on just one detail.
By Marisa Bottai