Having a religious museum experience

Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) was a Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal basilica, later an imperial...
Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) was a Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal basilica, later an imperial mosque, and now a museum in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Getty Images
I've been back home for a week now with nothing to show for three weeks away but a blistered scalp, a denuded bank account and a fractionally extended Turkish vocabulary.

Turkish is an alien tongue and only one of the words I tried to commit to memory has stuck. That word is ishal. Ishal means diarrhoea. And no, I do not intend to go into detail except to suggest that, when you are in central Turkey and a very long way from the sea in any direction, the wisest choice on the restaurant menu is probably not the sea bass.

But, as I say, enough of that. High cultural tourism is today’s more edifying subject, specifically a visit to Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, with "Hagia" being pronounced more or less "higher", and Istanbul being pronounced Constantinople.

For it was as Constantinople that I first heard of this place, and it seemed the essence of a romantic spot, being the point of division between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, Europe and Asia, east and west, my world and another. Here was urban exotic and I wanted to go.

And now, 60 years later, I have been and of course it proved to be no more exotic than any other city of 15 million people who work and eat and drink and sleep and beget children and do all in their power to avoid the horrors of ishal.

But still we did the dutiful tourist stuff and top of the list was Hagia Sophia, the domed enormousness that overlooks the southern end of the Bosphorus. It is a 1500-year-old token of power, dressed up, inevitably, in religion.

By AD500 the eastern Roman Empire was officially Christian and it needed a cathedral to match its sense of its own importance. So Emperor Whoever had the Hagia Sophia built with a view to wowing infidels, peasants and enemies. It proved to be a work of engineering genius, and included by far the largest dome of any building in the world at that time.

And though the Roman Empire eventually collapsed in on itself, the dome didn’t and Hagia Sophia remained the largest cathedral in the world for 1000 years.

Then in the 15th century the Ottomans overran Constantinople and converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque, which is as clear a demonstration of the relationship between religion and power as you could hope to find (although frankly you don’t have to look far to find others, starting with the dozens of plump archbishops mincing around the coronation of dear King Charles.)

And a mosque it remained until after World War 1, when Turkey evolved into a new, democratic and explicitly secular state, and the Hagia Sophia was declared — oh wonder of wonders — a museum. It seemed a chunk of the human race had finally seen the light of reason.

Hold that thought. Just 85 years later Hagia Sophia became a mosque again, a political move led by the current Turkish president whom I trust about as much as I should have trusted the sea bass. (It is worth noting that Turkey in general and Istanbul in particular is festooned with national flags the size of rooms, of sports fields. Large numbers of national flags are never a good thing. Think Trump or Hitler.)

Neither church nor state, however, has ever minded making money, so for a chunky fee of €25, tourists are still allowed into Hagia Sophia. The day we went the queue was substantial, the temperature 30°C and the place heaving with self-appointed guides.

There was a dress code which deemed both a man’s calf and a woman’s hair to be unseemly in the sight of the Lord. I had been warned and brought a pair of loose trousers to slip over my shorts, but many hadn’t and the authorities were only too pleased to issue them with body-length plastic macs. The heathen tourists looked like hot rubber monks. It felt like Allah’s revenge.

The ground floor was reserved for Muslims. We duly toured the upper gallery, along with several thousand others.

We didn’t consult a guide book, and didn’t eavesdrop guides as they informed their followers of facts that they would instantly forget.

Rather we peered at some old mosaics, gawped at the famous dome, giggled at the shrouded tourists and left, quite soon, quite happy, no wiser, with a sense of cultural duty done, and keen for a beer.

 - Joe Bennett is a Lyttelton writer.