Frank and his mother and uncle are visiting Istanbul, and I went with them to the Aya Sofiya over the weekend. It is a truly impressive building. I put a picture of the exterior from Pete’s visit here below. It is a massive structure of brick and stone, and you can really see the passing of the centuries when you look at it. It was once a Greek Orthodox cathedral, became a mosque, and is now a museum. The dome dates from the Byzantine period, and the minarets from the Ottoman period. The Byzantines and the Ottomans both had a job of keeping it standing, as it was built before a proper understanding of mathematics. The huge dome is propped up by massive supports.
The Aya Sofiya became a major influence on the work of Mimar Sinan, the Turkish architect who began domed mosques. Indeed, all modern mosques in Turkey take the domed structure of the Aya Sofiya and incorporate Arab architectural principles for a studier design, and Persian features for decoration.
Inside, you can really see the mixing of cultures. Christian mosaics stand alongside Muslim calligraphy. Crosses and crescents are both side by side. The Aya Sofiya is not just a monument to the architectural prowess of the Byzantines and the Ottomans, but a monument to religious toleration between Christianity and Islam.
It is amazing to see artistic and architectural features of so many cultures coming together to make something beautiful. Bernard Lewis, of whom I am not a big fan, once said that a devout Christian could see the minarets on the Aya Sofiya as a defilement, but not as a defacement. I think that is a very keen observation. We might not agree on religious dogma, but the Aya Sofiya is a physical symbol of the fact that the mixing and incorporation of cultures, especially under the Ottoman Empire, is a strength not a weakness. It is a pity that Turkey has lost so much of its ethnic diversity and tolerance.