We try not to be downers here at HTJL, so when a favorite city of ours comes under attack, we try to find a way to talk about why we love that city so much.
You've probably heard about the attack on the tourist area of Istanbul earlier this week. It wasn't featured in the news as much as some other recent attacks on major cities, but that doesn't mean the impact was felt any less, especially by those who've experienced the city for themselves.
I've already talked extensively about my epic trip to Istanbul that I took a few years back, so I thought it would be better to bring in our very first guest writer: Ryan Hartley Smith. Ryan visited Istanbul this past fall with his boyfriend (who has family there!) and took in the sights and sounds for a few weeks.
Take it away, Ryan!
Thanks so much for asking me to write about Istanbul! It’s a city particularly close to my heart and mind this week. There are so many adventures and sights we could talk about, and it’s overwhelming to think of how to start. Rather than attempt a general overview, I thought I’d try to describe a building that encapsulates everything I find awe-inspiring about Istanbul.
So let’s get right to it: The Ayasofya, or Hagia Sofia, is the most spectacular document of human… existence? culture? I’ve ever encountered. It’s like on the level of Jen’s RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars Promos, but built in the dark ages without motion graphics. That said, I could totally write an extensive travel blog post on where those RuPaul promos took me, #heaven.
Located on the European side of the Bosphorus in the Sultanahmet district, the exterior of the Ayasofya is an unruly, overlapping cluster of pink and grey domes and tacked-on minarets framing a huge central dome. The cathedral-turned-imperial-mosque-turned-secular-museum overlooks Topkapi Palace and sits across a plaza from the Blue Mosque, which was built with the specific purpose of matching the Ayasofya’s grandeur.
But ladies: do you think the Ayasofya gives a flying buttress about who she sits next to? The answer is clearly no, because the Ayasofya is the honey badger of buildings. Let’s look at the facts:
My girl Ayasofya was built in 537 during the Dark Ages as a Greek Orthodox Cathedral. She then got a little curious in 1204 and experimented with Roman Catholicism for like 50 years before going Greek Orthodox again. In 1453, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II conquered the city, and she got some work done to make her the Imperial Mosque. In 1931, the dawn of the democratic Turkish state, she was transformed into a secular museum. During all of this time, she’s stood through earthquakes, religious and political revolutions, and has managed to stay open to the public for all but four years (1931-1935) of her almost 1,500-year history. Four years! This is one of the wonders of the world, and she basically needs as much time to get herself together as it takes to wait for the G train at night (or the L in the near future).
And we haven’t even touched on the interiors of the Ayasofya, which superlatives fail. All I can articulate is that these are the soaring, glittering frescoed and mosaic domes, public halls, and walls where for 1,500 years, overlapping battles for hearts and minds of competing ideologies were held and largely preserved. A cacophony of influences and styles and techniques from every time period cover every surface. It’s as if the building was the history of the world melted down and given form, and then been revised and abridged over time.
There are times when I’ve traveled and visited a legendary sight or artifact (the Parthenon, the Mona Lisa) where my reaction is “how cool is it to see in person this thing that I’ve seen in history books.” And then I check that off my list, am grateful that I had the opportunity, and move on. However, visiting the Ayasofya is more like marveling at a wonder of nature (Niagara Falls, Jen’s promos for Season 5 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the Grand Tetons), and then drifting in and out of the understanding that it was made and remade by people. It simultaneously answers fundamental questions about human history and deepens the mystery of human existence.
The Ayasofya alone is worth a trip to Istanbul. It's also an apt symbol for the rest of the city, which pulses with a vibrant, diverse energy through a spectacular architectural and geographic backdrop, shaped by the mixing of many cultures over many years. If you want to imagine what New York City will feel like in 1,000 years, my best guess is to start with Istanbul, from the vantage point of the spectacular Ayasofya.