Thursday, July 17, 2008

Reflections and new Byzantium Perceptions

Growing up with non-religious parents and a secular education it has been difficult for me to understand the power and meaning behind many of the works of the Byzantines since it revolves around the rise of Christianity. However, when walking in to the Chora Church a background in the New Testament was not necessary because the images and colors were so amazing that if you are not religious you can at least appreciate this art form for its pure beauty.

One of my favorite topics that we covered in our course was the shape and style of the basilicas. It is intriguing that even their places of worship were shaped in relation to Christ. The long nave with the dual transepts creates the form of the Eastern Orthodox cross. Inside of the basilicas was a uniform placement in which the biblical images were displayed that make it easier to identify a structure as belonging to the Byzantine era. Christ Pantokrator had its traditional placement at the center of the dome, the Virgin Mary in the Apse, and typically a narrative mosaic of the life of Christ along the narthex.

The iconoclasm controversy was actually a very interesting topic because I was aware prior to this class that the followers of Islam were iconoclasts and at the fall of the Eastern Empire many religious images were either destroyed or covered with plaster. It just seems amazing that during the middle of the Byzantine era, where icons were aplenty in every structure, they became an issue of debate.

Visiting such structures like the Chora Church and the Hagia Sophia did not have a religious impact on me but it gave me a feeling of contentment that I have the opportunity to experience it. Getting to see the mosaics at the Mosaic Museum, where the emperor himself actually walked across this beautiful flooring, made me feel like I was earning a much greater appreciation for the history of this region and the eventual development of the modern world.

In response to the first class blog, I must say that my perception of the Byzantines has drastically been effected. Before coming to Istanbul I had stated that I had no prior knowledge as to their beginnings, relations to the Roman Empire, the boundaries, or when and how they met their demise. I am confident that my assessment when I said that through art and architecture a researcher can understand a society’s religious and social views. They Byzantines based so much of their daily lives, morals, and pride in being the Eastern Roman Empire in their designs around the city of Constantinople.

The city of Istanbul came as an extremely pleasant surprise. I was not thrown into a third world country where they hate westerners and are too conservative for our tolerance. Istanbul is truly the crossroads between Europe and the rest of the western world with the Middle East and the mysterious orient. The citizens that I have had the chance to meet are very tolerant and not even remotely as close-minded and hateful as many news channels in the U.S. like to depict. Furthermore, the amount of historical relevance to the rest of the modern world is monumental that even though I visited so many museums, churches, etc, I still feel that there is so much more for me to experience. What I will miss the most is the call to prayer coming from the mosques throughout the day. Even though I have no idea what is being said the echoing of the songs over the city while we go about our day gives me a moment of sincere tranquility that I find hard to achieve anywhere else. This city and culture is so beautiful that it will be hard going home and having a crazy driver honk his horn at me in anger instead of letting me know he is just passing by.

Aqueduct of Valens

During the expansion of Constantinople the need for a greater water supply became inevitable. In such a dry climate the reliance on rainfall alone would have destroyed the entire Eastern Roman Empire. Constantine the Great had this realization early enough in the expansion of his city that he began the construction of the famous aqueducts of Constantinople. These aqueducts are still standing today and are only missing approximately 50 meters from its original 1,000 meters. As impressive as they are they were not built to awe the city visitor, they were constructed for the survival of the great city and they would remain functioning for over 1,000 years. Below is a picture of the aqueducts as they disappear into the city, this is a testament to its true size because this photo only captures about 65 to 70 meters where there is a total of 950 meters still standing.

I feel that the aqueducts were incorrectly named after the Emperor Valens and should have been named after Constantine I since it was his ambition for a greater city and the water supply itself that demanded its construction. Valens happened to be the Emperor during the completion of the aqueducts in 368 C.E. and took credit for its grandeur. Nonetheless, it is an amazing structure that directed water from the hills of the Belgrade Forest to the center of the city into cisterns. The famous cistern that we visited our first week in Istanbul, the Basilica Cisterns, was one of its main destinations filling it up with over 80,000 cubic meters of water.

The preservation of the aqueducts is crucial, not just for the preservation of the Istanbul heritage, but for the security of the traffic that drives underneath of it everyday. I have always found it amusing that in every picture of an ancient aqueduct the city has built a highway passing through its arches, as if that was its intended purpose. In the picture below you can see the large amounts of traffic that pass through its arches everyday. The modern Turks are possibly so used to its existence as highway scenery that it has lost its aesthetic value.

Byzantium Influence in the Hamam

The Turkish bath, or more properly called the hamam, has been an essence of Turkish culture and a focal point for tourists on vacation. Though most of the still-existing hamams were built well after the end of the Byzantine Empire they derived much of their architectural design from the Byzantines with a mixture from the Ottomans.

The hamam that I visited was the Cağaloğlu Hamam, the number one ranked hamam in the world, and justifiably so after my visit. Unfortunately, I was unable to take pictures inside the hamam because all of its inhabitants were nude and I am sure that would have caused quite a problem. Though the structure was built in the 1700s there was evidence all around me that suggested Byzantine influence carried on into the Ottoman Empire for centuries.

Inside the main domed room for the bathing and massage sessions was like looking into a renovated church from centuries before. This main room was where I derived the most Byzantine-esque designs. The inside resembled a cross-in-square church with the four main columns supporting the dome with pendentives stretched from the dome down to meet the columns, which even resemble the Corinthian style columns. The construction of the dome was made to allow light inside the bathing room and the positioning of the windows is exactly like a miniature of the windowed dome of the Hagia Sophia. Outside of the main dome support structure the circular shape of the room is encompassed in barrel vaults where the customers sit underneath and be washed and scrubbed. I found it unusual that considering the time period that it was built the arches in the hamam were not the typical pointed arches found in Islamic architecture, but the more circular arches more consistent with the Byzantines.

The hamam most famously influenced by the Byzantines is the Çemberlitaş Hamam, built in 1584, only a century after the end of the Empire. This hamam is supposed to be heavily influenced and has been said to resemble a miniature church-turned mosque- turned bath.

Mosaics of the Chrysoticlinium

The epitome of the Byzantine art form is the mosaic, whether it is in a religious context or depicting the life of a rural farmer, when I think of the Byzantine Empire I immediately envision the gleam of stained glass cubes delicately placed to create the silhouette of Christ staring into me. Having the opportunity to view the famous mosaics of the Great Palace courtyard was a special moment. As an elementary student my favorite art projects was when we took cubes of colorful construction paper to make an image for our mom on Mother’s Day. Having viewed only the images online and in a textbook I did not get to fully appreciate the intricacy of the designs that the emperor must have walked across on a daily basis one thousand years ago.

It is hard to determine my favorite mosaic because the use of colors and shadowing made nearly every image stand out and seem epic. My first picture is of a much deteriorated image of a lion attacking its prey. So much of this mosaic is lost that we only see the shadows in the muscles of the lion and the blood flowing from the victim so that a lot of this image is left to our imagination.

This mosaic immediately made me smile because it was only ten steps from the previous image where the lion was the predator. Now this image is depicting an elephant showing a lion its true strength. Once again, the coloring of the elephant’s muscles clamped around the lion’s neck is so diverse that the artist(s) of these mosaics must have spent just as much time in dying the tiles as they did in their placement.

On the far south side of the building there were many plaques and photos of the excavation and restoration of the mosaics in the Mosaic Museum. Here is an example of how the images looked prior to the color restoration process. Due to soil corrosion, pollution of the bustling city, and the salt-bearing aerosols from being so close to the sea had made the mosaics lose a lot of their true colors. However, through a recent development the excavators were able to enhance the colors with a dolomitic rock flour.

Searching for the Hippodrome

Prior to our arrival to Istanbul I had read about the Hippodrome and its uses as a social center for commerce, politics, and entertainment. Therefore, when planning to visit the Hippodrome I went with expectations of seeing the ruins of stands to seat the estimated 40,000 people who could attend along with gated off remains of the track itself. Instead I was unpleasantly surprised to see in place of the horse track there was a busy street packed with cars honking their horns with frustration, no evidence of stadium seating, and local shops and restaurants surrounding what used to be one of the most important centers of Constantine’s Constantinople.

As a lover of classical history I should get used to this scenery surrounding once important monuments otherwise I will spend the rest of my life being disappointed. In such a busy city as Istanbul, there have been very few opportunities to excavate such a large area as the Hippodrome due to the rising population and need for homes and highways. The few pieces of evidence of the much desired seating remains were found in 1993 during the building of a basement-style public restroom, but due to the need of the restroom in the tourist center, the remains were removed and put on display at a museum.

The three monuments that still stand in the spina of the Hippodrome are so different in every aspect imaginable: time of construction, materials, subject matter, and location. This was the most exciting part of our visit because we had the chance to experience three different types of monumental art without having to travel thousands of miles. The Serpent Column, built to commemorate the Greek victory in the Persian Wars, was brought from Delphi. The Column of Constantine was built in its now existing location and was once covered in bronze with a statue depicting the emperor as the god Apollo. Because of destruction from the Crusades this column has suffered a lot of deterioration. Therefore, and not surprisingly, my favorite monument at the Hippodrome today is the Egyptian Obelisk from Luxor. It is the most well preserved being made of granite, the oldest monument being about 3,500 years old, and the most impressive considering what is on display is only the top third of the original obelisk being carried to Constantinople.

The experience of the Hippodrome was not what I expected but it was culturally and historically moving. As much as I appreciate the modern day city of Istanbul I still find it a great loss to our historical knowledge that the city never ceased growing and the remains of many monuments and buildings are meters below the Sultan Café and Yerebetan St.

Bassett, Sarah Guberti. "The Antiquities in the Hippodrome of Constantinople,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 45. (1991), 87-96, .

Monday, July 7, 2008

Iconoclasm Confusion

Evidence of destruction of the iconic symbols and figures at the Hagia Sophia can be found around every corner. The practices of iconoclasm by the Ottomans had a drastic effect on the décor of the church and its identity as a Byzantine basilica. After is was transformed into a mosque by the triumphant Turks, dedicated to the Islamic faith, stormed into Constantinople in 1453, the Hagia Sophia lost many images to destruction based on the belief of iconoclasts. Iconoclasm is the belief that graven images and representations of human figures associated with God are forbidden--and it was a process the Byzantines themselves endured earlier in their own history. It is curious that the Islamic faith practices iconoclasm when it is not even a written rule in the Qur’an to avoid such images, whereas in the Christian Ten Commandments it is a specified sin to worship or idolize graven images. Yet much of Christian art is based on the Christ on the cross, or during the Byzantine period, the Virgin and Child or Christ Pantocrator.

The locations of Christian imagery often appear as only shadows of their former glory among the walls of the Hagia Sophia.  I found a few silhouettes (that were nearly upsetting) up in the gallery where it was evident that the walls were lined with the Eastern Orthodox cross figurines.

Other evidence of the cross figure was a silhouette on the inner-side of the marble wall leading to the area for council members only. This is the popular image of the cross standing on the orb used by Constantine. It is sad that we must leave it to our imaginations alone as to what materials these images were made of and if or how they were adorned.

If the Islamic faith forbids such images, then I am still baffled as to why any Christian images in the Hagia Sophia exist today at all. The images of the Virgin Mary and Gabriel are very vivid and well-preserved so I don’t understand why the sultans ordered them to just be covered with plaster instead of being destroyed. It is believed that the sultan who had these images covered was doing so to prevent any more vandalism and/or to preserve these images as historical artifacts. I have a difficult time understanding this reasoning based on the iconoclastic beliefs and the measures already taken to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

Introducing Myself to the Hagia Sophia

To be completely honest, I had never once heard of the Hagia Sophia before coming to Istanbul. As mentioned earlier, I had never had an extensive education on the Byzantine Empire or the Byzantine monuments that have left such a lasting impression on the Anatolian area. As guilty as I feel about my lack of knowledge, it has given me a deeper appreciation for its historical and architectural elegance.

Despite class discussions prior to our visit to the Hagia Sophia, I still found it difficult to pick out which parts of the church were later additions by the Ottoman sultans and not the original work of Justinian’s architects Isidore and Anthemius. The obvious additions that are consistent with Islamic art are the four minarets flanking the church. Being preferential to the authenticity of a structure, I find it difficult to understand why the Ottomans felt the need to add these pieces because I feel they detract too much attention from the center of the Hagia Sophia and her dome. However, I will admit that the buttresses do add an interesting gothic appeal. The pointed arches of the Islamic style give the illusion that the narthex is much wider than it really is adding to the extravagance of the building.

Of all of the mosaics that have survived the Ottoman Empire and the many centuries since their creation, my favorite is the Deësis where John the Baptist and Mary are shown beside Christ Pantocrator shown in the upper gallery. Their images are evidence of the Byzantines' move to more classical images by the shadowing of their hair, clothes, and skin. This mosaic is believed to have been completed in the thirteenth century and preserved under plaster by a sultan who wanted to save it from deterioration or vandalism from Islamic enthusiasts. The following link contains a very informative site about the history, preservation, and technique used for the Deësis mosaic: The realism of these figures made them, for me, the most memorable image of the Hagia Sophia in comparison to the other mosaics. The mosaic of the royal family of Emperor John II Komnenos, his wife Eirene, and their son and expected successor shows very stiff figures. Though still beautiful, these mosaics, completed during the 12th century, are not as realistic or classical as the Deësis.

I also found it interesting that the elaborate mosaics were hidden in the upper gallery behind the marble wall. Being hidden from the other members of the church and visible only to council members sends a statement that these mosaics were more politically and religiously motivated than they were for artistic appreciation.