Author Archives: Bob

Istanbul, Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene

A few nights ago I had dinner with a fellow couchsurfer. is an organization that helps put together travelers with locals that live in the area they are traveling to.  Often it means kind locals opening their homes to travelers and allowing them to sleep on a couch (thus the name) or in a spare room.  I open my home in North Carolina in this way.   Sometimes it can mean just the opportunity to get together for coffee or a meal.  That’s what happened last night with Erol.   We had dinner at a small restaurant off the beaten path… so small they don’t even have menus, you just look at the offerings in a case near the kitchen and make your choice.  We had a selection of local foods in the tiny little dining room and great conversation.  Later we went to a different dessert place, right off of the main shopping road of Isiklal.  There was large leftist demonstration on the road, complete with a police in riot gear response, but everything remained civil.  I was glad when we ducked into the safety of a little pastry shop, however!  After dessert we walked to still another area and had several glasses of Turkish tea and more long conversation.  It was a very pleasant evening.

Hagia Sophia Mosaic

In the past week or so, I have visited

and Hagia Eirene.  Hagia Sophia is one of the main historical attractions in Istanbul.  A HUGE building, the current building was built as a Christian church by Emperor Justinian I between 532 and 537 and dedicated to the “divine wisdom” (Holy Ghost) aspect of the Trinity.  It was the largest dome in the world for something like a thousand years and even now is only surpassed by four other churches.  It was in Hagia Sophia that Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida delivered a letter of ex-communication from Pope Leo IX to Patriarch Michael I Cerularius, thus sparking the great East-West schism in 1054.

In 1204, during the 4th Crusade, the city was invaded and sacked by Christians loyal to Rome and Eastern Orthodox Hagia Sophia was converted to a Latin church, but the Latin occupation only lasted until 1261, when it was recaptured by the Byzantine army. In 1453, Sultan Mehmed captured the city and Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque.  It has been a museum since 1935.  (And my thanks to Wikipedia for most of the above dates and names).

So… obviously the church has seen some good times and some bad times.  The present structure is the third church to stand on the site.  It is a massive building and a massive dome!  Over the years the interior has been devastated by fire, earthquakes, iconoclasts and human-and-animal-image-intolerant Muslims.  Remarkably… some mosaics from the post iconoclastic period remain.  I’ll post a link to my Phanfare photo album… you can check out the images for yourself.

After a full day of exploring Hagia Sophia, I thought it was a good time to find out if there was likely to be any opportunity to visit Hagia Eirene while I was in Istanbul.  The first church on this site was the first Christian church built by Constantine the Great.   Emperor Theodosius I held the First Ecumenical Council in Hagia Eirene in 381 which upheld the Nicene Creed (Jesus was divine son of God) and tried to hash out matters such as the Arian controversy.  Arian controversy?  I’m just beginning to get my head wrapped around the theological differences of the early Christian church.  Basically, the question seemed to be… if Jesus was both human and God (as agreed upon in the Nicene Creed) how exactly did that work?  What was the nature of Christ?  Were Christ’s God-nature and human-nature separate, like oil and water in the same glass…  distinct, yet in the same container (Arius’ argument)?  Or did the two natures mingle, like water and wine in the same glass as in Nestorius’ argument.  Were Christ’s human and God natures indistinguishable, inseparable?  These things mattered to Christian understanding of the salvation possible through Christ.  (And my thanks to Diarmaid MacCulloch for his DVD series “History of Christianity, the First 3000 Years” for helping me understand the ancient arguments).  So… this was an important historical church. And one I really wanted to see if at all possible.

Unfortunately, the current incarnation of Hagia Eirene (rebuilt by Emperor Justian I after the Nike revolt of 532) is only opened for large groups with special advanced permission… and for the occasional classical music concert.  Much to my great surprise the last concert of the 2012 summer season was that night!  The concert wasn’t until 8:30pm… two and a  half hours away… but I managed to find a volunteer for the concert series milling around, that spoke English, and was  willing to sell me a ticket to the concert for 40TL (about $22).  I went out to eat dinner and returned 45 minutes early to try to be one of the first people in the doors.  I was close to the first.

Hagia Eirene

I don’t have any pictures of the interior of Hagia Eirene of my own up on my photo sight.  The lighting was just too dark to have any hope of my PHD (push here dummy) camera taking a decent picture, but I did borrow one from Wikipedia and stuck it up there there (and right here! ed).  It is remarkable for it’s utter starkness.  Hagia Eirene was itself a victim of fire, earthquake and iconoclasts… Muslims actually left it untouched, as it was never converted to a mosque, but rather used as ammunition storage.  The original Byzantine mosaics, that must have been beautiful, were removed and destroyed during the iconoclast era in the 700’s.  The church hierarchy at the time came to believe that images of people and things were against God’s prohibition on graven images.  Churches all over the Byzantine Empire were stripped of their sacred images.  Many of the decorations were destroyed completely, many were just plastered over.

Hagia Eirene was stripped to bare walls and on the curved ceiling of the main narthex, a simple cross in gold and black glass mosaic tiles was installed.  Classic iconoclastic art.  I got in early and secreted myself upstairs to the top of the wooden mezzanine used for lighting the concert.  I had to literally feel my way up the stairs as there was no lighting at all.   Obviously I was NOT supposed to be there, but the lighting grips kindly ignored me until one noticed me eying the (also unlit) stairs up to the original stone second floors above the side aisles.  I was quickly shooed away, but not before getting a really good look at the church!  I felt my way back downstairs and was happily exploring the central and side aisles of this classic Byzantine basilica as it filled with concert goers when I was “made” as “strange” by one of the security guards.  He stuck some college age volunteers on me.  They asked for my ticket, which I was happy to produce, but gotten last minute, as it was… the person who sold it to me had failed to assign me a seat and write it on my ticket.  The kids wanted me to fight the crowd back outside to get a seating assignment.

“No,” was my simple response.

That confused them!  I told them that my only reason to be there that night was to see the church… I could not care less where I sat for a concert I really wasn’t interested in.  Eventually they left me alone.  The church filled up, I found an unused seat and enjoyed a REALLY good concert!  Don’t ask me what they played… I’m not a classical music kind of girl…  but it was REALLY good!  I am so glad I happened on it that day!

My life in Istanbul is settling into a “routine”.  I get up lazily about 8am local or later.  I chose one of three English language news stations to have my wake up tea to.  My choices are CNN International, BBC or Aljazeera in English.  Some of my more Islamaphobic friends would be surprised at how fair Aljazeera’s news coverage seems to be.  Now… I had a friend in Jerusalem tell me that Aljazeera in Arabic is considerably more jingoistic, but he was Jewish, so he might have had “issues”.  I don’t know.

After morning tea and perhaps a hard boiled egg for breakfast, I may decide to head into “town” around noontime-ish (hey!   I’m on VACATION!).  I’ve gotten in the habit of going to the Turkish baths twice a week.  I’ve started skipping the services of the wash girls in favor of a “Thai” massage each time.  The massage is only slightly more expensive than the scrub and I enjoy it much more.  My wash girl (who I must have been tipping too well, because she would never let anyone else touch me!) is disappointed, but the Thai massage girls are happy!  Stepping out of the hustle of the main street of Istanbul and into the warm marble walls of the Hamami is a joyous thing!  I usually spend an hour or so in the cooler of the two hot pools… all the while doing stretching exercises that help keep my troublesome I-T band and hamstrings limber.  After the baths I cool down a little with a cup of tea before heading up to the third floor for the “Thai” massage.  I still get a better massage from the students at Miller-Motte College, but I am not one to complain (too loudly).

If I’m not heading to the baths that day… or saving them for later in the day, I may take in a museum or wander around outside the tourist areas or take a ferry someplace.  The ferries cost almost nothing and I have been known to climb on one just to see where it is going.  I’ll hop off for lunch and take a return ride later.  I tend to get home sometime between 8 and 10 pm, but I have been known to stay out later if I’m having fun with a friend.

For anyone concerned about my safety with the Muslim uprisings against Americans in northern Africa and Asia… that’s not happening here.  I am registered with the State Department as being here.  They know where I live and how to get in touch with me if things should turn bad (I don’t expect that they will).  I keep a Turkish cell phone with me at all times.  I am fine.  I make a point of NOT hanging out near the US Consulate here in Istanbul.  I avoid large crowds and demonstrations (there are regular peaceful public protests against their own government, not against foreigners).  That is something I do no matter WHERE I am!  I don’t feel any less safe here than I do in North Carolina.  Bad things happen everywhere on earth, there is no point in letting that fact get in the way of living the life you want to live!

Life’s good!  And you know what I say….

Life’s a trip!

Photos can be viewed at: