Here's an article I published in Travel & Leisure magazine:
THE PERFECT SPACE
Drafty, sombre, aged, dank, lofty,
glorious. In summer cool as marble,
in winter cold as snow.
On a hot Istanbul afternoon, Hagia
Sophia is an oasis of cool silence
broken only by the spiel and patter
of the multilingual guides. Their
flocks of curious Europeans, Americans,
Japanese and Greeks feel what the
guides by this time ignore: awe.
It is the awe not of religion, for
Hagia Sophia is neither church nor
mosque any longer. The awe is of
age, of history, and of miraculous
Hagia Sophia is an experience in space
and time, and the architects' magic
still works after more than fourteen
Here, for the first time, the basilica's
classic rectangle was widened
to a square and topped with an immense
flattened dome. So ambitious were
the architects, Anthemius of
Tralles and Isidorus
of Miletus, that the dome
had to be made from special hollowed
bricks shaped from a particularly light
clay found only on the island of Rhodes.
The huge pillars which support
the dome are effectively hidden in
the north and south walls of the nave.
After the conquest of Constantinople in
1453, this design influenced the basic
plan of the greatest, most splendid Ottoman
Stroll into Hagia Sophia's shady garden
and you feel only that you are approaching
an improbable, famous, old, ungainly
pile of Byzantine masonry,
huge and squat, guarded by four dissimilar
and incongruous minarets. Its harmonious
original form is now dissonant with
extra buttresses at north and south.
At the end of the path you turn to
the right and approach the entrance,
and everything changes. Through the
severe but stately rectangle of the
first door you see a second door, and
a third, and then a great space beyond.
Enter at the measured pace of a religious
procession, and Hagia Sophia reveals
her secrets, one by one.
In the dim light deep within is a glimmer
of gold. Your eyes adjust to
the darkness and you recognize the
apse blazing with a glorious gold
mosaic of Madonna and Child.
A few more steps, and the vision
is clear and beautiful.
Look up now: above the great innermost
door once reserved for the emperor
another mosaic appears, a figure in
rich array with hand raised in benediction.
Approach, and the face becomes visible:
it is Christ Pantocrator, Ruler
of All, the lifelike face full of power
Another step, and the distant apse
has been dwarfed by the huge dome above
it. No! It is only a semi-dome, with
a circle of windows swimming into view
high above. A few steps more and you
stand at the Imperial Door,
and finally the last secret is revealed
as the enormous gilded dome soars
above the vast inner space of the
nave, the small windows at its base
lifting it with colored light.
On the 26th of December, A.D. 537, Emperor
Justinian the Great stood in
the Imperial Door, gazed at the cathedral
which he had built, and exclaimed,
"Glory to God that I have been
judged worthy of such a work. Oh Solomon!
I have outdone thee!"
At this same spot on May 29, 1453,
almost a thousand years later, Sultan
Mehmet the Conqueror, fresh from
the final battle for Constantinople,
stood in this doorway and ordered the
great church to be cleansed, repaired,
beautified, and converted to a mosque.
Another five centuries, and it was
proclaimed a museum by Kemal
Atatürk (1934) and opened
Repairs are under way yet again, but
scaffolding is temporary, the great
I try to imagine how it must have
looked with its hundreds of tiny
oil lamps aflame, the drone of
Orthodox chant and the scrape of measured
steps rising to heaven on clouds of
incense. I picture legions of the Muslim faithful
in ritual prayer, their genuflexions
in perfect unison, their voices rising
and echoing in the perfect acoustics.
Outside is modern Istanbul,
hot and busy with buses and postcard
hawkers, with children playing in a
fountain and businessmen talking on
Sophia, ghosts of the great empires
seek refuge in the cool, sombre air,
and I am there with them.
(Copyright © 1989 by Tom
Brosnahan. All rights reserved.)