From Constantinople to Istanbul – Cistern, Mosaics, Hagia Sophia and Silk

Here is a story of a great emperor, Justinian, and about some of his creations that still exist in Istanbul, and bringing of silk to the West, an example of his entrepreneurial spirit.

The Eastern Roman Empire of Constantinople lived for longer than the original Roman Empire of the eternal city of Rome. Constantinople was, as is its Muslim rename, Istanbul, the meeting place of east and west and a place of great architecture. Most people who now visit Istanbul come for the ‘Blue Mosque’, the grand mosque of Sultanahmet, or the Grand Bazaar.

But for those who look a little deeper, the wonders of Constantinople shine just as strongly. Whether it be the underground water cistern, the grand expanses of mosaics from the Great Palace just below where the Blue Mosque stands in glory, or the larger Hagia Sophia, all built by Justinian’s command, the grand scale of these works and the scope of Justinian’s creations on this famous hill are awesome.

Let us start underground, and experience the grand cistern, a palace in fresh water that was brought by aqueduct from some 20 kilometres away in the forests. The cistern ‘palace’ consists of mostly carved Doric and Corinthian pillars holding up the world over an area of about 9000 square metres.

These Greek influences seem to be reflected in all Justinian’s creations in Constantinople, as we note that the Hagia Sophia was designed by a Greek scientists and mathematician. The cistern has some ‘quirky’ idiosyncrasies. The most famous are the two placed stone Medusas in the far corner. The story of Medusa and Perseus seems to have had a great influence on Greek creativity and the odd placement of these heads is just as unusual as the reason why Perseus should have removed Medusa’s head and possibly disposed of the better part.

While many ponder over the Medusas, we find just as much of a conundrum in the schools of carp of many sizes living forever in the dim light of the cistern lake. One can assume that there are purification methods as carp are renowned for their ability to disturb and create mud and natural pollution. It is finally a little incongruous to sit at the bar in the cistern and seek a freshly squeezed orange juice, dreamily watching the carp sail by, while trying to avoid the teeming throngs of emblem coated representatives of a touring multinational food megalith.

As you exit the cistern through the compulsory refrigerator magnet salesroom, it is just a short walk to the right to find the queue for the Hagia Sophia, and a walk (or run) a little further to find the nearest toilet, a distinct need after the persistent drip of water in the cistern.

Words do not do the Hagia Sophia justice. It was for nearly 1000 years, the largest church in the world (until the Spanish usurped it in 1520), but by then the Hagia Sophia was no longer in Christian hands, having succumbed to the powers of Sultan Mehmed II in 1453, when it was converted to a mosque. Of course, the representation of Christian (Greek Orthodox) tradition was hidden by the Ottoman Muslim powers, who covered the mosaics with plaster and built the four minarets.

While many tomes have been and still could be written as archaeologists uncover further beauty and history of this building and its surrounds, we now dwell on the wisdom of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the great Turkish warrior and President who declared the Hagia Sophia a museum in 1935, and its original mosaics and paintings have progressively been exposed and cleaned.

After strolling around the ground level of the Hagia Sophia and wondering at the architecture, an essential part of your visit to this grand museum is to ‘climb’ the stone ramp on the left of the main entrance to the mezzanine level and view the grandeur of the building from this level.

Justinian’s third marvel of this one day visit is in Arasta Bazaar, a centre of Turkish artisanal culture just behind the Blue Mosque (which must be the subject of a separate eulogy). Uncovered in the 1930’s by Turkish archaeologists from Scotland, the recovery of the Grand Palace mosaics was eventually undertaken with support from Austria. What has been exposed is a palatial mosaic with scenes from Roman mythology, sport, hunting and family life, well documented and, fortunately for the enthusiastic ceramist, not yet well known.

Wandering through this new museum, which lies below and across the Arasta Bazaar, one witnesses a common thread of visits to all the museums, a statistician’s desire for exactness in data.

Apparently each square metre of the mosaics needed about 40,000 tiles each of about 5mm square. When the total area of the mosaics is considered, the arithmetically improbable number of some 75 million mosaic tiles is required. So if each patient and dedicated artisan were to produce one tile per minute etc etc….

And that is not all. For 3,000 years the Chinese had protected the secrets of silk production. In 550, two of Justinian’s monks returned to Constaninople from Central Asia (which had accessed silk technology from China), with silkworm eggs hidden in their canes. A new industry was created. Then nearly 700 years later, as a result of the second crusade, the Italian silk industry  was born in Sicily, and the subsequent importation of about 2000 Turkish weavers brought Italy and then France to their silken majesty.