Friday, July 19, 2013

Divine Wisdom


This trip has been filled with beauty.  My eager little soul has soaked up every curve, every arch, every fluted pillar of it.  I knew, though, that I was really waiting for one thing, the ancient jewel every emperor wanted for his imperial crown, the ancient, the enduring.

Everyone has heard of Hagia Sofia.  It is one of those rare places that has managed to endure no matter what has come against it, be it earthquake or regime change.  For Mehmet II, the one who became known as the Conqueror in 1453, this massive house of worship with its golden mosaics and soaring dome symbolized empire, centralized authority, glory and grandness that could be passed down.

To be in Ayasofya is another experience altogether.  There are no pictures that do it justice.  If one comes to it as I did, after a long journey through the mosques of Sinan and the ornate splendor of Topkapi Palace, I suppose that some might find it a let down.  To be sure, she (because great buildings have a sense of gender to them, and Ayasofya can be nothing but a queen) isn't as ornate as her near neighbors.  A quick trip across the fountain-filled courtyard can take you to the Sultanahmet mosque if your taste runs to knock-you-down glory in decoration.

The Ayasofya has been around long enough to understand that there is an art and a beauty in something a bit more understated.  The long logia have colors, it's true, but they are muted by time.  Even the restored sections are soft, part of a building made to glow by the light of candles instead of compete with the sun.

We toured it from the top down, so the mosaics were some of the first things I saw.  For years, I have seen pictures of the mosaic of Christ the Pantocreator in textbooks, online, and everywhere the Byzatine empire or Constantinope was mentioned.  It is almost a go-to image for those topics.  Today, I saw the real thing, and I realized just how feeble all our efforts at capturing some things on film really are.  (This, of course, did NOT stop me from taking photo after photo.)

Barb, one of the leaders of the trip, grabbed my hand and pulled me over to an unassuming arch overlooking the apse and told me to look up.  When I did, it literally made me catch my breath.  Hanging there like some sort of mystical vision was the massive mosaic of Mary and baby Jesus that once served as a focal point over the now-vanished altar.  I twisted and turned, working to catch the golden glow that seemed to radiate from inside the image.

As we paused to consider some of the archetectural details around us, Dana, one of the professors on the trip, began to talk about the importance of Ayasofya for the various people who possessed it and what their purposes might have been in the changes they made.  As a part of that, she read "Sailing to Byzantium" by Yeats.  I had completely forgotten that poem in relationship to this trip even though it is a part of my curriculum almost every year in the form of a line taken from it that we analyze for practice.  Since we were wearing the "whisper" headsets that are so deservedly popular on group tours now, I had the freedom to wander while she talked.  When she named the poem she was going to read, I found a quiet corner, stared up into the gloaming gold above me, and let literature and history and art collide.

The poem is as follows:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
---Those dying generations---at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me 
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come. 

Finally, we picked our way through the tides of tourists to the main floor.  I stopped to stick my thumb in the famous wishing hole, and I had that strange juxtaposition that sometimes happens between my Japanese past and my present elsewhere when two young women stood in line behind me and we had one of those quick tourist conversations about what they were supposed to do.  When it was my turn, I managed to twist my arm so that my hand made a complete revolution without my thumb leaving the indention.  This means, according to legend, that I get a wish.  We shall see if it comes true...

I hurried to catch up with my group, and as I did, the high-ceilinged heart of Ayasofya enfolded me.  I came to a sudden stop, unable to do more than stare upward in that open-mouthed way of tourists everywhere in the world.  Even with one side covered in restoration scaffolding, it was a powerful sight.  I wondered around with my camera raised seeking the perfect angle, the perfect setting to try to hold the gentle majesty around me, but I was constantly dissatisfied feeling that I was failing in my efforts, feeling that once again my skill with the Nikon was insufficient to capture what my eye was seeing.  Above me, the placid eyes of the newly-restored angel with six wings were largely unconcerned by such trivialities.

When it came time for us to go, I did so with great reluctance.  Part of me wanted only to sit at the base of one of the columns and let the hushed tide of the past wash over me.  As I stood in the obligatory cafe outside waiting for the last members of the group to appear, I took out one of the little notebooks I keep with me at all times and started scribbling a few thoughts about the experience while they were fresh in my mind.  I think I'll close with one of them.

"And now when I dream, I will always dream of Hagia Sophia....All the rest of the world dims beside it."

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