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Hagia Sophia

I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.

-Henry Miller

It’s 9am and my head feels like a jackhammer. That may partially be due to the fact that there is a very loud jackhammer tearing up the road in front of my hostel. The Sultan Hostel, a rat-hole of a place that’s charging me 35 euros a night (the tell me the 10% discount for Hostel International members only applies to online bookings). The hostel operates a bar downstairs that plays music at a shockingly high decibel level, making sleep for any of its guests impossible until about 3am. What follows is about four hours of relative peace and quiet, until the roadwork begins at 7am. I’m on the first floor. It has one shared bathroom, which has no door, and is right by the stairway, and is also the bathroom for the patrons of the bar downstairs. As I’m showering on my first night, one of the bar patrons in to take a shit, and I hear him grunting in his stall as I try to keep my beach towel on a hook and away from the spray of water from the showerhead.
The room I’ve taken is freakishly hot, obliging me to open the floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows to let some air in, which exposes me to everyone on the street. Not so much a room then as a little alcove above the street that has a mattress and an electrical supply. This is easily the worst and most expensive room I’ve rented on my trip. Exhausted, after my first night I resolve to pay an additional 15 euros a night to take a luxury room at a quieter hotel (any hotel is a quieter hotel). Today I am regretting that decision, as the lack of sleep and constant jackhammering as I type this seem in perfect harmony with the vagabond lifestyle. Also, this place is filled with backpackers, all of us clutching our identical Lonely Planet guidebooks at the complimentary breakfast.

Sidenote: The typical Turkish complimentary breakfast includes a hunk of white bread, a hard-boiled egg, tea, sliced cucumber and tomato, sometimes some olives.

In our shared misery we are eager to meet while smoking a nargile. Instant, temporary tour groups are formed as clutches of backpackers aglutinate for protection, for camraderie, for the sake of talking to someone who speaks your language.

My little clutch of tourists left last night at 1am, with promises that we would look each other up if we found ourselves in Amsterdam, London, New York, Australia. We’d spent the day together, three of us, at the Grand Bazaar, haggling for pashminas, at the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace.

The Hagia Sophia. I first see her from a lousy rooftop restaurant, galantly taking the seat that has me staring into the setting sun. It also has me staring at both the Blue Mosque and Sophia. Sophia sits to my right, a central dome over a square building surrounded by towers. She sits above us, we’re to her south, and with the various tombs and buttresses attached to her, the dome seems to be the pinnacle surrounded by foothills. She’s lit from be below by an amber light, which I can see through the smoke of my nargile pipe, through the haze of alcohol I’ve entered thanks to the raki.

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We visit her that afternoon, the church that was the center of Christendom, the greatest church in all of Europe for so long. The interior is cavernous, gigantic, soaring…words fail. For all the Renaissance majesty of the Vatican’s frescoes, she has nothing on the sheer power and simple beauty created by this vast interior space. The effect is dulled somewhat by the presence of an enormous fuck-off scaffolding in the center that’s been put up to help with the renovations, and I struggle to imagine what she must look like without it. Enormous discs with Arabic writing are attached to the tops of the walls, where the dome begins curving toward the center, additions from the conquest of 1453, repurposing Christianity’s greatest architectural achievement as a mosque. Mehmet wasn’t too destructive though, all things considered, and must have had enough of an artist’s eye to appreciate the beauty of the Byzantine frescoes of his vanquished enemy to let them remain. And they are gorgeous. In a few spots you can see images of crosses painted over with abstract Islamic designs, but for the most part the original artwork, though damaged in places, remains.

Bit of Viking graffito left by a Varangian guardsman in the Hagia Sophia

Bit of Viking graffito left by a Varangian guardsman in the Hagia Sophia

Constantinople was considered Christianity’s last bastion against the threat of Muslim armies by medieval Europe, and the Sophia itself quite literally played that role during the conquest. Once the walls of the city were finally breached, thousands of civilians ran to the Sophia as their last hope for protection, barring the doors against the invading army, praying to God to deliver them from their enemies at the final hour. The doors, huge, massive wooden things, must have echoed like drumheads against the vast echo chamber of the domed interior, the sounds of battle still raging outside, a few thousand people waiting for the end to come.

The interior of the Hagia Sophia

The interior of the Hagia Sophia

Sophia is peaceful now, a site of layered meaning, Arabic writing covering over crosses, Viking runes carved into the banister in the upper gallery by a bored Varangian guardman, the church itself built on top of an earlier church that was destroyed during the Nika riots, with chunks of the older building sitting outside her. The Hagia Sophia, the church of Divine Wisdom, is almost fifteen hundred years old. She is not the oldest building I have seen, but I have never seen her equal.

Girl passed out in the upper gallery of the Hagia Sophia

Girl passed out in the upper gallery of the Hagia Sophia

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