Thursday, July 17, 2008

Goodbye, Istanbul

The architecture of Istanbul has a feel to it like no other in the world. There are buildings that are two thousand years old and modern skyscrapers all within a relatively small area. I say “relatively small” because the city is so enormous. It would take a lifetime to see and experience all that Istanbul has to offer. Historic buildings and cultures still thrive vibrantly in this city, while at the same time modern discotheques and the fast-paced city life that so much of the world is accustomed to are here as well. For me, the sheer immensity of the historical buildings are of major interest.

I intend to work with historical property in the future, and I loved seeing the beauty and grandeur that Istanbul’s architecture has. The Hagia Sophia is absolutely stunning, as was intended by its creators. No matter how many pictures you see of the Hagia Sophia, they cannot do justice to the actual experience of walking through the emperor’s Imperial Gate. In class we discussed how the creators wanted to give the feeling of the “Heavenly City” here on earth; they truly accomplished their goals with room to spare. The idea is that your eyes are supposed to immediately be drawn upward and your mind humbled by the size. It is true, as soon as you walk into the Hagia Sophia that your eyes go up, and they stay up.

In class we discussed some finer details of Byzantine architecture such as the use of penedentives, squinch vaults, barrel vaults, groin vaults, and the cross-in-square style of building. I was lucky enough to see each of these architectural styles firsthand. The columns that are in these Byzantine buildings are amazing. The columns give the illusion of airiness and lightness where there really is none. The ornate quality of the tops of the columns looks as though they could not support much weight giving the domes and other structures above a look of weightlessness.

Growing up in the Catholic Church, I was not exposed to many of the artistic and architectural details that the Byzantine churches have. For instance, the cathedral that I went to had mosaics lining the exonarthex of the church, but they were small and inconspicuous. These mosaics depicted the Stations of the Cross and were done by the famous artist Frank Duveneck. The mosaics in the Byzantine churches I have seen are very large and depict an enormous variety of scenes. Also the styles are completely different; the Roman Catholic Church uses the Italian Renaissance style as opposed to the Byzantine style where the characters do not seem to be realistic. We discussed in class this week about how the non-realistic form of Byzantine art is intentional. It may be that the Byzantines were trying to distinguish themselves from the Italians, but it is more likely that they wanted their art to show that earthly depictions are fictional and not meant to be perfect.

One preconceived notion about the Byzantines I had before coming turned out to be true: the idea that they were the continuance of the Romans for an additional thousand years after the fall of Rome. What I had never considered, though, is that the Byzantines themselves probably would have argued otherwise. After the events of 1204, when the Crusaders sacked the city, the Byzantine people were understandably not content to be called the same as their conquerors. 

It is also hard to really grasp what the Byzantine capital was like by touring the modern city. The Hagia Sophia is covered with Islamic art alongside Christian art, and it is difficult to mentally cut one away from another. Some of the defensive walls and aqueducts are still in excellent condition, so they really portray the power and ability of the Byzantine Empire to construct. Istanbul is a great city with more history than the average American, like me, can fathom. If anyone ever asks “is it worth going?"--the answer is “yes, anytime.”

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Mosaic Museum of the Great Palace

The Mosaic Museum was stunning in its beauty, and the condition that the mosaics were in was very impressive. However it did take an immense amount of restoration to get the original beauty of the mosaics back--approximately ten years. The mosaics were discovered in 1935 by archeologists that were excavating the courtyard of the Sultanahmet Square. The mosaics are believed to be from the reign of Justinian and were placed on the site that was known as the Great Palace. They were outdoor mosaics, and each one was a floor mosaic that was meant to be walked on. It is hard to imagine that people once walked on these beautiful and intricate pieces of art. Although this was how the pieces were meant to be enjoyed, in its present museum presentation visitors have to walk along a platform above the mosaics.

One interesting aspect of the museum is its odd location. Instead of moving all of the mosaics to an already established museum, the museum was actually built around the mosaics. So they now remain in their original location, and aside from a few mosaics that have been placed on the walls, they are in almost the exact place they were found. The route to get to the museum is strange because one way to get there is through an inconspicuous alleyway and the other is through an outdoor restaurant.

The mosaics depict life in the country and have scenes of serene farm life. Mosaics of men playing games, animals grazing, sheep being sheared, and much more are all clearly visible. What I find to be most interesting are the scenes that depict animals attacking one another, such as the elephant and the lion battling each other. The mosaic seems like it could only be fiction because the lion seems too big or the elephant seems too small, but it is probably a depiction of a Syrian elephant which would have been much smaller than a modern African or Asian elephant. There are also griffins and other seemingly fictional creatures, so these mosaics are probably fictional scenes meant to elicit a fantastic picture of country life. These mosaics were probably meant to give the emperor and his guests the feeling they were outside the city. It was meant to bring a touch of the country into the hectic and grimy aspects of the city, but it is more than likely not representative of the true country life during his time period.

The Hippodrome

The Hippodrome today is much less impressive than it once was. What remains are the monuments that studded the center of the old Hippodrome, known as the spina. It is interesting to see that the monuments now sit well below the surface of the modern day street--ten feet at least--an allusion to the fact that the race track itself must have been on the same level or even lower. It is likely that when the Blue Mosque and some other buildings nearby went up the builders just pushed the dirt towards the empty Hippodrome, using it as a landfill.

There are several monuments still in their original places such as the Obelisk of Thutmose III, often called the Obelisk of Theodosius. The obelisk was created in roughly 1450 BCE and placed at the Temple of Karnak, which is located in Luxor, Egypt. Theodosius had the obelisk brought to Constantinople in AD 390 where it was placed on a marble pedestal in its current location. The pedestal is as impressive as the obelisk with its detailed carvings, and it is made of one solid piece of marble. The carving shows Theodosius the Great seated in his box seat on the eastern end of the Hippodrome, presumably watching a race. On every other side of the pedestal are depictions of soldiers and citizens enjoying the Hippodrome, a venue which could seat up to 100,000 spectators.

The Serpent Column, the Walled Obelisk, and the Sphendone still exist today and are just as impressive as the Obelisk of Theodosius. The Walled Obelisk has lost a lot of its allure since in 1204, when the Crusaders sacked the city, they stole the bronze plates that covered the obelisk. The obelisk is now aged and crumbling, but it was never intended to be seen without its bronze plating. The Serpent Column is my favorite; it is an absolute shame that it is not intact. It once depicted two snakes coiled around one another, going upward with both of the heads facing outward with mouths open. It is claimed to be 2500 years old and was dedicated to Apollo at Delphi. 

The Hippodrome does not technically exist today, but when you are there you can imagine being surrounded by the thousands of screaming citizens of Constantinople.

The City of Istanbul

The modern city of Istanbul has an enormous population. How many people live in Istanbul is up for debate, and it is debated fervently. According to the 2005 census there are 11.8 million people living inside what is commonly agreed upon to be the city. The 1995 census claimed there were only 8 million people living in the city. The 8 million person estimate does not sit well with many residents of Istanbul, many of whom believe it to be much higher and closer to 15 million, a number which would make Istanbul the second most populous city in the world. The 11.8 million person estimate makes Istanbul the third largest city in the world, according to Turkey’s official websites. In reality there is no way to really tell. Some sources claim it is in the top five, while others claim it is not even in the top twenty. The population of cities is a point of contention between many people vying for the prestige of the “biggest city” label. Either way, Istanbul is very large in both population and area.

Istanbul is the only city in the world to straddle two continents: Asia and Europe. The main modes of transportation that are used to cross the Bosphorus are ferry or auto by bridge. There are only two bridges that accommodate the millions of travelers who cross the Bosphorus every day so the ferries are used frequently. The bus system is quite extensive, but like all other driving experiences in Istanbul, it is not for the faint-hearted. 

Istanbul has some of the best views of any city I have ever been to. The hills that surround the downtown area offer great panoramic sights. It is always possible to gaze upon the city with the sea in the background, and on clear days, which are fairly often, one can see the islands that dot the water in between the continents.

I could not believe when I first arrived how sprawling the city really is. It is hard to define a central downtown area, a feature that is so commonplace in U.S. cities. There are probably ten “downtown” areas. It seems as though the city just keeps going on forever, and some estimates claim that Istanbul proper encompasses 2400 square miles. Istanbul is hard to grasp in its historical significance and its sheer size, but it is great to look at.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Restoration of the Hagia Sophia

The art that has been recovered and restored at the Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom) is absolutely amazing. The amount of man hours it took to recover the mosaics is incredible; they had been covered in plaster by the Ottoman conquerors. It is argued that many of the mosaics were covered in plaster to make room for Islamic art that would better suit the structure after its conversion into a mosque. Still there are others that argue that the sultans and imams of the mosque saw the value of the art and wanted it to be protected from more fundamentalist members that did not agree. To me, it seems hard to believe that they were too worried about preservation or protection of these mosaics because plaster is not easily removed and poses an enormous challenge to those who are carrying out the arduous task. It was probably an expedient solution to the problem of removing the images and creating a new surface on which to put their own art.

An interesting issue is raised by the restoration process that has real meaning to the devotees of both Christianity and Islam--and also historians. In order to recover some of the oldest art pieces others must be destroyed, mainly the Muslim ones. If the goal is to restore the building to its original look, all of the Islamic art must be removed although for a historian and a restorer of buildings, this would be a tragedy. It is not right to destroy something with historic and intrinsic value because it is believed something “better” is underneath. Maybe if the future brings better ways of uncovering these artifacts without the destruction of others, teams of restoration experts should re-evaluate their objectives.

Thomas Whittemore, the leader of the American Byzantine Institute, personally believed that there should be a common ground between Islamic and Christian art. In the 1930s his team of historians and restoration experts had to make tough decisions about what to leave covered and what to destroy to reach what was underneath. They chose to uncover the largest mosaics and started to remove the Islamic art that was in the most disrepair. Other choices were made to leave simple mosaic crosses that were covered by intricate Islamic art so there was still some Islamic art left and some Christian art left. Either way these types of decisions were tough and weighed heavily on the minds of the people that had to execute the tasks since every historian hates the idea of destroying history--no matter what is underneath.

The Architecture of the Hagia Sophia

The architecture of the Hagia Sophia was unsurpassed in its grandeur and beauty for one thousand years. The current Hagia Sophia is the third church to be built in the same spot; the first two were destroyed by time and earthquakes. Construction began in AD 532 and finished in AD 537; it is absolutely mind boggling to think that it took only five short years to build this monument! It is estimated that between seven to ten thousand men worked non-stop for those five years to hurry its completion. Justinian was the emperor at the time, and instead of hiring architects to build the church he hired a physicist and a mathematician. The church was built from pieces of other monuments and quarries from all over the Byzantine world.

The original dome was smaller in height and not as round as the current one. This proved to be disastrous when an earthquake struck in AD 558, and the dome collapsed. When the second dome was installed, it was more round and reached a new height almost twenty-five feet above the original. This design was stronger as more of the weight of the dome radiated outward as opposed to center. The reconstruction of the dome took almost as long as the construction of the entire church. Four hundred years later in AD 989 another earthquake struck and caused massive damage to the dome but did not destroy it. The dome was not the only part of the Hagia Sophia that received damage. One of the half-domes completely collapsed and severe damage occurred to the western arch. These repairs lasted a little over five years and the church was reopened on May 13th, 994.

Byzantine architecture can best be described as a cross between Roman and Eastern architectural traditions. Roman columns can be seen in tandem with pointed arches of the East. Domes replaced the square rooftops of typical Roman architecture, using pendentives to achieve this goal. Pendentives were originally a Persian invention but were adopted by the Byzantines, and they make it possible to have a square room with a domed ceiling. Triangular in shape, pendentives are placed in the corners to make a rounded base for the dome. Modern Roman Catholic churches now use many of the typical Byzantine architectural styles, such as the pointed arch and the flying buttress. Anyone studying architecture should definitely look at Byzantine architecture because it can be seen all over the world--but it is rarely called Byzantine.

Mosaics That Simply Amaze!

The mosaics at the Hagia Sophia depict a range of persons including saints, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and emperors and empresses. Most of the lunettes (located above the massive doorways into the nave) have mosaics above them. The Imperial Gate, which was the main entrance that only the emperor could come through, has a mosaic depicting an emperor with a nimbus in one hand bowing down to Christ Pantocrator. The archangel Gabriel and the Mother Mary are located on both sides of Christ. Which emperor is being depicted is unknown as sources vary; some claim it is Leo VI while others claim it is Constantine VII. There are others that argue it could have been made by these emperors because it is known that the mosaics were made during their reigns, sometime in the ninth and tenth centuries, but they may have made the mosaics to depict another emperor they wished to emulate.

The apse mosaic has a shimmering background with a deep golden color. Mother Mary is shown with her feet on a jewel-encrusted pedestal colored in royal purple; the Baby Jesus sits upon her lap. She is slim in appearance which differs from earlier Byzantine art where people appear to be shorter and less realistic. What is striking about this mosaic is its placement inside the church on a half-dome further up than the average person can see; this, however, did not stop the artist from adding a lot of detail.

The Fossati brothers were two Swiss artists that were hired in the mid-1800s to reconstruct some of the mosaics on the gallery level. These mosaics are believed to have been lost when the Crusaders of AD 1204 destroyed them. Instead of creating mosaics and reconstructing the marble walls that were looted or destroyed, they chose to paint renditions of them. Now these are surely less impressive than the originals, but the brothers had a task at hand and had to make do. Some marble still existed so they had an idea of what it may have looked like a thousand years earlier. It obvious to the naked eye which walls are painted and which ones are original marble, but either way the place is beautiful. The Hagia Sophia is an artist's playground. Mosaics from the fifth and sixth centuries sit next to those from the ninth and tenth centuries along with pieces from all over the known world and so much more.