Monday, July 13, 2009

Virtual postcard

In case you are not getting a real postcard from me from our trip (hint: most of you), here is a virtual one (photo compliments of the Library of Congress), likely more interesting than anything I would jot out to you in a tired vacation haze anyway (read: if you do get a postcard, please remember it is the thought not the content that counts). 

Interestingly, this early 20th century photo of Ayasofya (Hagia Sofia in English) is labeled the "Mosque of St. Sophia." This strikes me as a clever way for the probably Western person who labeled it to remind everyone that this mosque used to be a basilica, but I could be wrong. St. Sophia is actually an abbreviation of the Latin version, Sancta Sophia, of the original Greek name (meaning Holy Wisdom). So the name still worked when it became a mosque. 

Most of the church/mosque combo buildings that I have seen are in Spain, churches built on Moorish foundations after the Reconquista. These buildings (such as the Mezquita in C√≥rdoba) always left me feeling vaguely sad and, the good condition of Moorish forms notwithstanding, like something important had been lost in a probably violent way. Its antipode in Istanbul, Ayasofya, on the other hand, left me with no such feeling – a testament to my Western/Christian guilt, I suppose. 

Not long after this picture was taken, Ayasofya was converted into a museum. I suppose one of the reasons for this was to uncover many of the Byzantine mosaics from the basilica. The most famous of these is the Deesis (a mosaic of Christ which for some reason I had always thought was Justinian - ??). Uncovering them is apparently tricky work, sometimes requiring them to destroy paintings that were added when it became a mosque. (Some variant of the robbing Peter to pay Paul joke seems appropriate here but I can't think of one that isn't possibly offensive, so insert one of your own (that doesn't offend you).) There may be a huge mosaic remaining under the dome, but uncovering it would involve more destruction. Certainly there were and are many delicate decisions to be made.

Small grace, I suppose, that such terrible conflicts leave in their wake such diverse and fascinating cultural artifacts. To me, there is nothing more interesting than discovering signs of some extinct or dying culture hiding out under or even integrated into the dominant one; some of the most troubled places are the most interesting. But all this really doesn't make it less sad that in the end, one side usually loses almost everything. 

Missing you all more than ever! 


jenicrob said...

I remember having a similar wistful moment in a defunct monastery in France. At least the monks weren't violently overthrown and run out by some conqueror, but instead they just sort of lost interest I guess, weren't able to recruit new contemplatives and drifted away, which seems almost as sad a loss in a different way.

Swiss Ms. said...

You're funny. But that's sad.