Saturday, August 16, 2008


Shortly after moving to New York, I was walking in my new neighborhood and saw, on that big bank on the corner of Court and Atlantic, a plaque letting us know that this had been the camp of General George Washington during the Battle of Brooklyn in the War of Independence. Hailing from the west coast, where anything older than fifty years is regarded as historic, I was floored. 1776! This place is old.

There's nothing like spending a little time in Istanbul-not-Constantinople to make you realize that even 1776 was not that long ago. Yesterday I checked to see when what everyone calls the "New Mosque" had been built: 1663. That seems crazy until you consider that the structure that served as the inspiration for every magnificent domed building to follow, the Hagia Sophia, was finished in 537.

There she is, behind me. For almost a thousand years, this was the crown of the Byzantine empire. Then, in 1453, the Ottomans took Constantinople and turned her into a mosque--adding the minarets you see flanking her sides. Her interior was full of Christian imagery, and Islam has strict rules against iconography. Thankfully, the Ottomans chose to whitewash the mosaics rather than having them destroyed, so when Ataturk turned this into a museum in the 1930s, they were able to restore some of them, including this one:

The photograph doesn't do it justice. The individual pieces of mosaic are so fine, they catch the light and make the images appear three-dimensional. You can almost see how some church leaders became nervous that people might come to worship the images themselves rather than the ideas they represent.

Even if all the mosaics had been lost, the interior would still be breathtaking.

Those round discs with Arabic script is from when it was a mosque. They spell out the names of Allah, Muhammed, and a few other prophets. Keep in mind that Christianity and Islam share many of the same prophets, including Jesus.

To the right of the mosaic of Mary and baby Jesus, you can see Gabriel--the angel who came to Mohammed and told him, among other things, to tell the people to stop worshipping idols.

In the end, what moved me most were the simple things. Touching the unadorned walls, seeing the wear on the marble floors, and knowing that people like me have been coming to this place for over 1500 years. Just as she has impressed us, so have we too left our mark on her.

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