Istanbul: Standing at the Crossroads Part 1

I have been a bad blogger and have abandoned this place for too long.  I have several posts in queue, but recent events have pushed this one to the forefront.

I think most people have at least heard the song, first recorded in 1953 (the 500th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire), it pokes fun at the renaming of the ancient city.

Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it’s Istanbul not Constantinople
Been a long time gone
Old Constantinople’s still has Turkish delight
On a moonlight night

Every gal in Constantinople
Is a Miss-stanbul, not Constantinople
So if you’ve date in Constantinople
She’ll be waiting in Istanbul

Even old New York was once New Amsterdam
Why they changed it, I can’t say
(People just liked it better that way)

Take me back to Constantinople
No, you can’t go back to Constantinople
Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That’s nobody’s business but the Turks’


Istanbul’s footprints are ancient.  There has been a settlement there since the 13th century B.C.  Around 667 B.C., the settlement became known as Byzantium.  Due to its location, it has historically been a city of trade and commerce.  It sits at the mouth of the Black Sea, and its position on the Silk Road cemented it as the major trade thoroughfare between Europe and Asia.  In 324 A.D., it was renamed Constantinople, in honor of Emperor Constantine, who had moved the seat of his empire there in order to better defend it from enemies to the east.  In 1453, it fell to the Ottomans, and became the seat of the Ottoman Empire, transforming from a seat of Christianity to a seat of Islam.

The city itself, from what I have seen, is an amalgamation of all of the cultures in its history, nowhere more so than the Hagia Sophia, built over the bones of a church built by Emperor Theodosius II in 425 A.D., which was itself built on top of the ruins of the original church in that spot, built completed in 360 A.D. by Emperor Constantine II.  The church that stands there now was started in 532, and completed in 5 years, which is in and of itself a marvel.

The view of the Hagia Sophia from the roof terrace of my hotel.
The view of the Hagia Sophia from the roof terrace of my hotel.

I hate that I had such a short time to study the building.  I had less than 24 hours in Istanbul, and this got pushed back to the morning I left.  Having forgotten my watch and phone, I was guessing at my timing and hurried through the building like a track star.

The building is still in the midst of a renovation that is restoring many of the Islamic art pieces, as well as uncovering the Christian pieces hidden beneath.  I can’t really describe the feeling inside the building, except that you very much get the sense that this is and has been a holy place for many centuries–the spiritual beliefs of generations have soaked into the stones themselves, and are as much a part of the structure as the walls and minarets.

The decorative elements inside range from the natural to the very much man-made.  Notice the use of repeating pattern created by slicing a rock slab into veneers.  Each one is slightly different, but in a small area, it gives the impression of repeating pattern.

Note the use of the pattern in the rock as a decorative element.
Note the use of the pattern in the rock as a decorative element.
More use of the pattern intrinsic in the rock as a decorative element.
More use of the pattern intrinsic in the rock as a decorative element.

As I said, it’s still in the midst of restoration.  There is damage on nearly every surface, but given the age of the structure, it is amazing how much has survived.

The ceiling, showing the damage of the centuries.
The ceiling, showing the damage of the centuries.
A closer look at the interior of the dome.
A closer look at the interior of the dome.
I thought the glow was especially beautiful.
I thought the glow was especially beautiful.

The evidence of the Christian roots of the building have been uncovered all over, but they are especially evident on the second floor.  Note, there are no stairs to climb up there, just a massive series of switchback ramps in a very claustrophobic enclosure.  I have to say, I was reminded of taking the ramps up to the third deck of Kyle Field.  It was too dark to get a great picture, but imagine an ever-climbing ramp, twisting and turning on itself, worn smooth by the feet of the faithful over the centuries.  It was reminiscent of a labyrinth.

The second floor is where you find the bulk of the uncovered Christian mosaics, examples below.

Uncovered mosaic
Uncovered mosaic
Christian era mosaic uncovered in the restoration.
Christian era mosaic uncovered in the restoration.

There are also examples where they have uncovered other Christian symbols that were covered by later decoration.

Juxtaposition of the Islamic decoration and ancient Christian elements uncovered in the restoration.
Juxtaposition of the Islamic decoration and ancient Christian elements uncovered in the restoration.


Visiting the Hagia Sophia was my primary reason for my detour in Istanbul, and why I’m sad I couldn’t book a second day there.  However, there were many more small adventures to be had in the city, but those will be in the next posts.

In the meantime, pray for the people of Istanbul.  Pray for their safety and pray for their strength.

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