The Charms of Byzantium

Sonia Halliday Photographs
The interior of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul; from J.B. Bullen’s Byzantium Rediscovered

On May 29, 1453, the armies assembled by the young Ottoman sultan Mehmet II breached the land walls of Constantinople, which had resisted assault for a millennium. By the next morning the invaders had arrived at the doors of the imperial church of Hagia Sophia. The sources speak of plunder and rapine, but also of an act of preservation. As the conquering sultan gazed in awe at the vast resplendent interior, he came across a soldier breaking up the marbles of the floor with an axe. “Wherefore does thou that,” he asked, and the soldier replied, “For the faith.” Mehmet struck him in anger, saying, “Ye have got enough by pillaging and enslaving the city, the buildings are mine.”

Hagia Sophia had been built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 532–537 and had served as the cathedral of Constantinople and the central church of the Byzantine Empire for over nine hundred years, but after its forced conversion it entered a new life as an imperial mosque, Aya Sofya Camii. And a mosque it would remain for the next five hundred years. Aya Sofya provided the model for the imperial mosques of Constantinople. It was intensely studied and imitated by the great Ottoman architect Sinan. But as far as Western architecture was concerned, Hagia Sophia effectively dropped out of the canon.

It was extremely difficult for non-Muslims to visit the mosque of Aya Sofya. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European travelers tell tales of bribery and disguise to gain entrance at risk of life and limb. To make a drawing inside was next to impossible. In 1611–1612, when the French ambassador wanted a portrait of Sultan Ahmet, he took with him to Constantinople a budding artist with a photographic memory, Simon Vouet. He hoped to have Vouet memorize, and then draw in private, not only Sultan Ahmet but also Aya Sofya and the other notable places of the city. Sixty years later the French writer Guillaume Joseph Grelot bribed the guards and hid his artists at gallery level in order to produce a new plan and section, which he published in 1680, the first glimpse Europe had of the church since the conquest. Until late in the nineteenth century men were prepared to pay dearly, and women to cross-dress, for permission to enter the church-turned-mosque.

Not only did the great church disappear from Western consciousness, but Byzantium was reviled in the Enlightenment as a civilization ridden with superstition. The French historian Hippolyte Taine wrote in 1865 of the mosaics of Ravenna—the seat of Byzantine government in Italy—that the saints and angels figured in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo looked like “vacant flattened sickly idiots…great simpletons with staring eyes and hollow cheeks.” Gibbon, writing The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776–1788, condemned the Oriental despotism…

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