Episode 255 – “Holy Wisdom” in Istanbul

April 19, 2022. 46°F/8°C with drizzle.


Istanbul has a brand new cruise ship terminal that rivals any of the nicest airports through which we’ve transited. It does have long stretches of walking, but those lead to elevators, escalators, a big bright baggage claim area, customs/passport/security checks, and an underground bus parking lot/terminal with floors so white and shiny that it’s hard to believe they’re meant for driving on. It also has drug-sniffing dogs who check all vehicles entering the parking garage, which was a first for us. Once our bus was sniffed, the dog got a treat and, as we continued into the garage, we could see his handler playing ball with him. It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.

Not a police dog, but one of the many, many very tame dogs roaming the streets. Most are large breeds, and most have green or yellow tags in their ears to indicate that they are strays that have been both neutered and vaccinated.

The terminal is located right in the heart of the city, so that our first view of Istanbul in the morning was of the bustling city: hotels, offices, shops, and some of the loveliest mosques we’ve seen.

Our tour today was of the Hagia Sophia (“Ayasofya”in Turkish, meaning “holy wisdom”). We had an excellent guide, but unfortunately I was so tired after last night’s late night that I wasn’t very focussed. Thank goodness Ted was alert and taking lots of photos!

Exterior of the Hagia Sophia, facing a fountain and a park filled with tulips.

As is common for major mosques, the Hagia Sophia has its own “ablution” centre, making it convenient for worshippers to wash hands, arms, faces and feet before entering the mosque to pray. Note the ornate decoration and shiny brass taps.

The Hagia Sophia as it now stands is the third or fourth place of worship on this site. It was originally built around 350 AD but burnt down during riots near the beginning of the 5th century. It came to life again in 415 AD when Emperor Theodosius II rebuilt it. That church was destroyed around 531 AD, but by 537 AD Roman Emperor Justinian had it rebuilt as the Byzantine Christian cathedral of Constantinople. It held the distinction of being the world’s largest cathedral for over 1000 years, until the Seville Cathedral was built (Episode 212 – Viva Sevilla). During the Fourth Crusade it was briefly converted into a Roman Catholic cathedral, then back to Byzantine/Eastern Orthodox before becoming a mosque in 1453 when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople. That was when the 4 majestic minarets were added. In 1931 when Türkiye became a secular country, the mosque was turned into a museum, and only reverted to being an active mosque in 2020 under the current Turkish government.

Near the side entrance are archways that are remnants of the second church, including pieces of carved stone with images of 12 lambs representing the 12 apostles.

Entering the mosque, we first came into a “pre-narthex” where we removed our shoes. The ceiling in this area was our first “wow”.

Next came the carpeted “narthex”, where prayers are said. The space is absolutely huge and very imposing, with tall pillars, ornate light fixtures, a highly decorated balcony (formerly the women’s level)…

… and of course the gigantic central dome surrounded by half domes, all patterned in multiple colours. The top of the main dome is 55.6 meters/182 ft high, and has a diameter of 31.24m/102.5ft, although it has become slightly elliptical due to earthquake damage. Surrounding the dome are 40 evenly spaced windows.

Just a few of the more than 200 stained glass windows.

The Sultan’s golden box, raised high above the level of other worshippers.

Two massive amphora in the narthex, each carved from a single block of marble, were brought to Hagia Sophia from Pergamon in the late 16th century.

Compare the size of the amphora to an adult human! The second one is on the opposite side of the narthex.

The marble walls have beautiful patterns which are natural to the stone. In many cases, a slab of marble was sliced in half and opened up like a book to reveal a pattern similar to a Rorschach ink blot.

The basket capitals of the building are carved with monograms of the names Justinian and Thedora and their imperial titles. Apparently the church was built using a mix of new columns and columns taken from other places, including maybe Ephesus, where we just the other day saw piles of columns and decorative stonework.

This large multicoloured marble floor area is where Byzantine Emperors were crowned during a coronation ceremony in the cathedral.

There are two Christian mosaics still visible (i.e. uncovered): one above the entrance to the narthex, and the other over the exit door from the pre-narthex. Interestingly, it was not the Muslims who removed most of the mosaics, statues, and icons; that happened during the Byzantine “iconoclastic” period in the 8th century. The existing mosaics were actually ordered to be cleaned and preserved by Sultan Abdulmejid I in the 1800s.

Under the Sultan’s renovations, 8 medallions bearing Islamic inscriptions were hung, along with various other Arabic calligraphy praising Allah.

The “mihrab” (the arch in which the Imam stands during prayer) is located in the apse where the altar would have been in the Christian church. Note that it is slightly off centre in the apse, since it needs to be accurately indicating Mecca in the east.

Two heavy bronze doors date back to (probably) the 9th century, although they could be even older.

Near the Hagia Sofia is the Suktanahmet Water Tower, built during the Ottoman period to adjust water pressure.

After our tour of the mosque, we had free time to spend in the Grand Bazaar, and enjoying Turkish coffee, tea and pastries before returning to our ship and getting ready for a Turkish dinner buffet and the evening’s live entertainment.

Turkish coffee, Turkish tea in a glass, and all those pastries for under $9 CAD. Turkish coffee is unfiltered, so there are always grounds (sometimes mixed with sugar) left over that can apparently be read like tea leaves.

SURPRISE OF THE DAY: the millions of Dutch tulips are only in the Netherlands because Suleiman the Magnificent presented tulip bulbs to an ambassador of Emperor Ferdinand I sometime in the 16th century. Tulips had been cultivated in the Ottoman Empire for a long time prior to that.

All in all, another amazing day despite the cool rainy weather. After all, we haven’t had a rain day since back on February 7th when we visited with the Magellanic penguins in Chile, so who can complain?

We ended our day sharing a dinner table with friends, enjoying an absolutely terrific show by U.K. singer Helen Wilding…

…and grabbing a nightcap while listening to the Spectrum Viking Band rock the house.


  1.  I’m with Barbie !! Such an easy way to learn, enjoy history, meet people and see the world! Your interesting friends who write, the crew, and people you meet Have all enriched my life

    Also, I’ve been humming constanople all day. Keep the second half of the song for your jaunt to New York


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rose, Rose, Rose…. Yet another amazing day! I, of course, fell for the leading pic of the dog…. So many strays that it’s sad – yet happy – in a sense that they are being looked after (tagging, vaxing, and neutering).

    You left me feeling quite “worldly” with your descriptive pic of the huge amphora. Reminded me of the relative size of the west coast totems that we visited in Victoria…

    Anyway, my friend, I am definitely feeling more worldly (for lack of a better word…) having accompanied your on your trip. Rose, your trip has been positively amazing. And I haven’t even left home…. LOL!

    Liked by 1 person

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