A step backward for Sophia

Hagia Sophia is one of my favorite structures in the world. A chunky, imposing cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-public-museum, flanked with four rocket-like minarets, a bulky beacon doused in faded hues of pink and salmon, the famous building shares the same lush Istanbul peninsula as the nearly-as-glorious Blue Mosque. Almost amazingly, the edifices sit directly across a palm-lined park from each other, a spiritual and architectural bonanza. 

So it’s with slack-jawed dismay that I read this about the treasure in today’s newspaper:

“President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a decree ordering Hagia Sophia to be opened for Muslim prayers, an action likely to provoke international furor around a World Heritage Site cherished by Christians and Muslims alike for its religious significance, stunning structure and as a symbol of conquest.

“The presidential decree came minutes after a Turkish court announced that it had revoked Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum, which for the last 80 years had made it a monument of relative harmony and a symbol of the secularism that was part of the foundation of the modern Turkish state.”

Erdogan, on an Islamist tear, is, like another aspiring authoritarian, a crackpot. And today’s move on Hagia Sophia is culturally criminal. 

More from the article:

“Built in the sixth century as a cathedral, Hagia Sophia stands as the greatest example of Byzantine Christian architecture in the world. But it has been a source of Christian-Muslim rivalry, having stood at the center of Christendom for nearly a millennium and then, after being conquered, of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, when it was last used as a mosque.”

Below are some of my photographic memories of the holy site, aka Ayasofya, where you can see the exotic marriage of Islam and Christianity, including walls of crumbled majesty, their layers peeled back to reveal vibrant Christian frescoes and mosaics from 537 AD, as well as gigantic round panels emblazoned with Arabic script perched from atop the basilica. For years, it was the world’s largest interior space. It is spellbinding. 

A sacred place. Even for heathens.

I last visited Notre-Dame just over three years ago, in fall 2015. When in Paris, I invariably duck into the grand Gothic cathedral several times, because it’s there, because it’s beautiful, because its draw is irresistible. It is Paris splendor epitomized.

I’ve been to Paris on five occasions, which means I’ve been to Notre-Dame at least 15 times. It never gets old. Rather, each visit rewards with something new and startling. Sometimes I just hang out on the plaza in front of Our Lady — the sprawling Place Jean-Paul II Square — sipping coffee, people-watching, marveling at the twin bell-tower facade and those maniacal, sniggering gargoyles perched way up high. 

A Catholic apostate and mid-level opponent of organized religion, I don’t worship in Notre-Dame, which went up in flames yesterday, mostly surviving the catastrophic blaze that had the world aghast. (Maybe there is a God.)

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Notre-Dame Cathedral in flames Monday in Paris

I don’t go for the holy experience, but the wholly experience — a soothing spiritual state of serenity and rumination, reflection and introspection, inspired by the vaulting, dimly lit sanctuary’s artwork, architecture, luminescent stained-glass and twinkling constellations of prayer candles. And that’s just the interior. 

Agnostic natives are with me, according to a piece in today’s NY Times: “France is one of the least religious countries in Europe. Urbane, intellectual Parisians often dismiss religion as archaic and unenlightened.”

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Notre-Dame facade, fall 2015

But like other transporting religious structures around the world — from the Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi to the Wat Arun Buddhist temple in Bangkok — Notre-Dame is staggering to even this peevish secular humanist, with its gilded grandeur and gravity-defying architecture that toils so magnificently to transcend crude corporeality and reach for the heavens. In all her glory, Our Lady, I think, tickles the firmament.

(This goes for scores of religious sanctums I’ve traveled long and far to be dazzled by: the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, St. Peter’s in Rome, Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and on and on. All instill dizzy awe, even if I’m not always buying what they’re peddling.) 

Even without the slightest religious propensity, I bewail the damage to Notre-Dame. Like most, I was sickened watching flames devour the cathedral, my old friend, on the news. More is there than a quaint, history-encrusted, 850-year-old church. It is the ineffable, the mystical, the irrefutably sacred.

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Standing tall, fall 2015.

The cathedral, with a wingspan from Joan of Arc to Victor Hugo to Disney, “is universal, Western, religious, literary and cultural, and that’s what makes it different from any other object,” says a French analyst in the Times. “It’s the whole spectrum from the trivial to the transcendent, the sacred to the profane.”

In other words, it is stubbornly irreplaceable. Its survival, by a hairbreadth, an act of God, divine intervention, is something I am loath to believe in: a naked miracle.

Whatever saved it, I think it was more the skill, action plans and water hoses of the Parisian fire fighters than, say, the conquest of virtue vs. evil. But it doesn’t matter. Notre-Dame didn’t collapse or burn to cinders. It is, they declare, structurally sound. No lives were lost. And for that, all of us should sigh a collective amen.

But do note, those devilish gargoyles survived the flames, and they are still sneering.

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View of the day, wistfully

IMG_1286.jpgMy laptop, a tall drink and a fairy tale vista — about all I need in my travels.

This was the perch on the rooftop terrace of my Istanbul hotel in November. I went up there a lot for the trusty Wi-Fi; cool fall breezes; Efes Pilsener, the cheap local brew that hits the spot despite its unflagging mediocrity; and, of course, the pristine views of the fabled Blue Mosque and yawning Bosphorus strait. 

At night the mosque lights up like a jeweled crown. The water shimmers. I sip my drink and tip-tap on the keyboard, writing nothing of consequence, most of it rot. Istanbul is paradisiacal, keenly removed from normal life, so transporting you sigh with an operatic flutter. It’s Paris of the East, a storybook nirvana.

I miss the mosques, the street food (döner kebabs, simits, etc.), unduly charming people, sweet stray dogs and cats, and ancient rococo scenery. It is where I want to be, right now.

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Blue Mosque, November 2018

The pictures, and pull, of Istanbul (Turkey Part I)

Like regular human ardor, a love affair with a city is complicated — prickly, passionate, vexing, ineffable. We adore our favorite cities, which are not breathing creatures but quasi-animate entities that are unquestionably alive, pulsing and forever mutable.

When pressed, the two cities I enjoy the most intense romances with are Paris and Istanbul. Paris is my baby, but sometimes I think I love them equally. (Sorry, ma chérie.)

I fell in love with Istanbul in the spring and fall of 2008, two trips comprising some of my very peak travel experiences. There were times when I actually lost myself, and, this is spectacularly unusual, crawled out of my muzzy head, breathed a little and existed, if momentarily, in a vacuum of Edenic placidity, even contentment. I flew.

Ten years on, the country has hurtled into political tumult: multiple terrorist attacks, violent anti-government protests, an attempted coup and the burn marks of President Erdogan’s tightening authoritarian chokehold. The guidelines of a culinary walking tour in Istanbul actually state: “We are not responsible for acts beyond our control, including but not limited to …  acts of war, or other unrest caused by state or non-state actors.” Terrific.

I could boycott Turkey, but that’d be my loss. I miss the generosity of the people, the grandeur of Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, the majesty of the sun-twinkling Bosporus, the exquisite food, the dazzling cultural and religious breadth of East meets West. So I am returning this fall, with a two-day excursion amid the fairytale moonscapes of Cappadocia in Central Anatolia. (See them here. Ignore the festering hot-air balloons.)

These shots of Istanbul, snapped on my long-ago journeys, remind why I’m going back.

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Snapshot: Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia

One of the most tremendous places I’ve been is Istanbul — I’ve said it before — and one of the most divine places I’ve been in Istanbul is the grand Byzantine cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum, the Hagia Sophia, or Church of the Holy Wisdom. Defining it is a bit complicated. Built in the 6th century, in what was then Constantinople, by Byzantine emperor Justinian I, it was turned into a mosque after the Turkish conquest in the 1400s, minarets and all. Its knotty history is tidily shrink-wrapped here.

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The park dividing Hagia Sophia, background, and the Blue Mosque.

All of these photos I took about eight years ago, my last of three trips to the European-Asian metropolis. Expect new photos when I return. (Soon.)

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Islamic panels added to the cathedral when Muslims overtook and designated it a mosque.

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Christian mosaics discovered long after the Muslim conquest. Muslims covered them up, but did not destroy them.

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Each day after visiting Sophia, I’d make the infinitesimal stroll over to the Blue Mosque, or Sultanahmet Camii, pop my shoes off and watch the devoted pray while ogling the at once ravishingly ornate, calligraphically tasteful 17th-century architecture. A preview:

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