Twain shall meet in Turkey


Kipling was wrong; the East and West can and do meet. They do here in Turkey!

Turkey is a nation forever living in two worlds. And nowhere is it more pronounced than here in the old quarter of Istanbul. Hagia Sophia, the world renowned Orthodox patriarchal basilica, and the magnificent Blue Mosque look like mirror images of each other. They stand in front of each other, only yards apart and forever whispering timeless secrets. Both boast the identical giant, onion-shaped domes and minarets that are said to have changed the history of architecture.

Hagia Sophia: Picture from balcony above the entrance.

Successive Turkish sultans renovated and expanded Hagia Sophia, the largest cathedral in the world for a thousand years, when it came into Muslim hands after the fall of Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1453 A.D. and was turned into a mosque. They fortified the old structure and almost rebuilt it, adding the distinct Islamic minarets, minbar and mehrabs.

The basilica was first built on the orders of Constantius II in 360 A.D. and rebuilt twice by his successors centuries later when it was burned down and ravaged in successive wars. When Constantinople fell to the Muslims after two months of siege, Sultan Mehmed II is said to have gone straight to Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya in Turkish). He was reportedly shocked to find one of his soldiers hacking the “infidel structure.” The Sultan then ordered the conversion of the cathedral into a mosque.

The basilica itself was built on the ruins of a Greek temple. Sophia wasn’t a Christian saint. It’s the name of Greek deity of wisdom. Hence the name Ἁγία Σοφία in Greek. But then this happens all the time. New empires are built on the ruins of old ones. Old ideas give way to new ones.

For 500 years under the Ottomans, Hagia Sophia wasn’t just one of the most magnificent mosques in Muslim lands, it served as a model for other mosques and architectural marvels across the empire. If you are intrigued by the striking resemblance that the Blue Mosque, built by Sultan Ahmet in 1616 A.D., bears of Hagia Sophia, more such surprises await you all across Istanbul.

Inside view of Suleimanya Mosque

From Suleimanya mosque, where Suleiman the magnificent is resting after building a great empire spread across three continents, to Shezade, Rustem Pasha and Kilic Pasha mosques, the Hagia Sophia motif and European-Islamic fusion seems to run through all of Ottoman architecture. Indeed, these mosques, disconcertingly identical in design and color, dot Istanbul’s entire skyline, confusing all new arrivals.

Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum in 1934 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk after five centuries of Islamic worship, much to the outrage of Muslims around the world. The founder of modern Turkey, however, was determined to make a clean break with the Muslim past and reinvent the country as a secular Western nation.

Today, Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque stand together as they celebrate the meeting of the East and West and two great civilizations and faiths. The endless march of international visitors that passes through Istanbul and Turkey pays respects at both the shrines. Pope Benedict XVI and President Obama were the last prominent visitors.

Situated at the confluence of three continents and home to three great civilizations — Roman, Byzantine and Islamic — no city or country boasts a richer history than Istanbul and Turkey.

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Mosaic of Mother Mary and Jesus in the most prominent part of the building.


The biggest dome of Hagia Sophia has caligraphy of Quranic verses



1 reply

  1. Istanbul has been the meeting place of cultures for millennia. Even today it is not only meeting of the two continents, but two civilizations, the East and the West and two religions, Islam and Christianity.

    In this city of 15 million one is reminded about Islam five times a day with the call to prayer, Azan. God is great! God is Great! There is, however, also meeting of the profane and sacred. There are three thousand mosques but equally numbered night clubs and pubs, as if people have a choice to choose their morality and spirituality. There has been separation of Mosque-Church and State, which had a more militant structure during Ata Turk’s regime and now is taking a softer more practical approach. Hijab or veil is no longer prohibited in the public sphere. Hijab, with its head covering is to be seen every where but the veil with face covering is seen very infrequently and those are tourists and not local Turks.

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