This post is a continuation of the Appreciation series of articles I have been publishing after my visit to Istanbul (and small parts of Turkey) in 2017. It may be two years ago, and these post might be a little too late, but better ate than never, right? For this post I feel quite excited because I will be telling you about my visit to the precursor of the Aya Sofya – Little Hagia Sophia.
After waking up quite early the next day after our excursion, the sun was rising bright from the cold late spring weather – a perfect day for a walk around my hotel. Apparently I got to stay at a hotel very near to a site that I wanted to visit. Just a few minutes walk from the hotel lies the Little Hagia Sophia, widely believed to be the ‘experiment’ building before the much larger monument that is Hagia Sophia. However looking into the building it was quite different architecturally when compared to the church-mosque.
This church-turned-mosque monument was build by Emperor Justinian I, the same emperor who built the larger Hagia Sophia, around 527AD to 536AD. The original name of the church was Hagia Sergios and Bachos, after an incident where Justinian I was saaved by the apparition of St. Sergios and St. Bachos before his uncle Justin I when he was accused of plotting against the throne. Justinian I then dedicated this church to the two saints, as a promise in turn for saving his life.
After the conquest of Constantinople, A chief of the Harem of Topkapi Palace, Huseyin Aga, converted the church into a mosque in 1497, in which state it remained until today. Islamic decorations and additions were placed such as the marble Minbar and the Mihrab as well as a minaret. The building itself was unaltered except for some additions (the portico, if I remembered correctly, and an ablution fountain as well as a cemetery near the entrance. A Medrese was also added apparently, but I did not know where it was)
Upon entering the compound, a pair of cats were fighting infront of me as I was trying to read the inscription above the door I was entering (The Southern gate I believe). It was unrelated. But I found it rather amusing, as if those cats were greeting me to the Mosque. As I entered, on my left side was an ablution area (Apparently this is not the main ablution fountain) and a cemetery. In front of the area was a door. Perhaps it was for the women? I did not enter through that door even though I was curious. I took an ablution before entering the mosque…while being stared at by some women. I think it was strange to them because i was washing myself in the freezing early morning cold. It was maybe 10 Degrees back then – the sun was out, but it was cold.
I entered through the front door with the portico – I think it is a later Ottoman addition, because I keep seeing this type of pillared verandah in most converted churches. My theory is that this is where people would gather before prayers or where they take off their footwear (most probably). The portico was decorated with mini domes, each decorated delicately on the inside. Looking at the front, I was reminded of the facade of Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
Inside, it was empty. There was absolutely no one at the time I entered the mosque. The place was flooded with the early morning light – a beautifully serene sight. There was plenty of windows in the main dome as well as the windows around the main prayer hall. The eastern wall had a lot of windows and being east facing it allows a lot of morning sun into the space.
As I entered, I actually shivered. Not from the cold, but I felt that thousand year history. The silence was eerie almost. I could not hear anything at all from the outside of the mosque. It is as if the voices of the prayers – both Islamic and Christian – reverberate in my head. It was as if there was someone inside, but there was absolutely no one. It was silent, yet I hear these hushed prayers. Was it my imagination? Or was there someone with me at the time? I feel a bit scared and intimidated, yet I also feel peace and safety. My heart beat fast and my blood, I feel it rush throughout my body. It was a feeling I couldn’t describe. Leave a comment if you know what I mean – that feeling when you enter a very old place is a very peculiar feeling indeed.
I chose to pray Tahiyyatul Masjid near the front of the mihrab, my legs still shaking from the rather otherworldly experience. I sat for a while in front of the mihrab, simply admiring that beautiful light coming into the main prayer hall. It feels warm as it touches my skin. Then I realized the Saf (prayer lines) was not arranged in a straight way – it was slightly to the the right. The Mihrab and the Minbar also reflect this. Apparently, Churches were built east facing – towards Jerusalem. However Islam commands its followers to face Mecca, which is slightly South Eastern facing, hence the irregular Saf.
I continued on admiring the Ottoman decoration of the Mosque. Apparently the mosque was renovated and restored twice 1836 and 1956 which explains how new the decorations look. However I think they restore it based on the old decorations – based on the style, which looked like late Ottoman paintwork to me. The colours of blue, light grey and white were chosen, which gives the whole place this serene, delicate look, like a fragile yet elegant China teacup .
I went up to the mezzanine floor via a small stair near the main entrance. This is apparently the platform where the Muezzin would pray on, commonly seen in Ottoman mosques. (I forgot the name of this particular element of Ottoman mosques. Can anyone tell me the name and the actual use? Please leave a comment below!) on that level , as it was build next to the walls, you can see the original Church carvings and texts. The columns were carved typical Byzantine style vegetal motifs, and a band of text ran through the wall of the level. I was excited as this is my first time seeing such historical articles so near and so touchable.
As I wondered around the platform, I noticed there was already a few people wondering the Mosque – it is time for me to leave. As I went down the stairs I met an old man with a broom in his hands – the Mosque keeper, I guess. I gave him a Salaam and tried to kiss his hands, as it was tradition here in the Malay Peninsula, as a form of respect towards the elders. He immediately pulled away his hand and I accidentally slapped myself in the face! When I remembered it, I feel it was rather funny.
I quickly proceeded to exit the building towards my next destination. Leaving the place I felt another indescribable feeling as if the whole building was saying – come see us again. It was a heavy feeling like leaving a good friend. I will be sure to go back to this mosque when I return. For the time being, onwards to the next adventure.
The Information obelisk in front of the entrance, giving a comprehensive look into the history and details of the building.
The door where I accessed the grounds. Later during my trip I learned that there was also another gate in front of the mosque, leading to the main ablution area. The inscription on a marble panel above the door was a Hadith -a saying of the prophet. However I could not read it very well. Perhaps my readers can enlighten me?
The Minaret of the mosque, obviously a later Ottoman addition. A Typical Ottoman style minaret with pointed roof
Inside the domes of the portico. The decorations were badly weathered
The ceiling directly in front of the main door. This is where the women would pray. The ceiling was curiously decorated. Perhaps I would do an analysis of the pattern? I never seen such arrangement, at least not in the typical Islamic artistic language.
The view before you enter the main prayer hall. you can see how well lit the place is. Not only the lights were still switched on, but the natural light flooding the space really bring the whole area to a radiant life. You can see here the Mihrab and the Minbar, and its slightly off center placement.
One of the pillar’s capital. you can see the original Byzantine era carving, as well as a band of text running through the entirety of the hall. Excuse the motion blur, as I can hardly contain my excitement seeing such detail!
The view from the platform. The dome was delicately decorated with floral and arabeque motifs, coupled with incredible calligraphy, depicting the name of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad and his companions Abu Bakr, Uthman, Umar and Ali as well as his two grandsons Hassan and Hussein.
A clearer view of the dome and its decoration. Apparently the middle medallion reads the Surah Al-Ira 17:81. At first I thought it was the Surah Al-Ikhlas. It reads Say “The Truth has come and falsehood has departed. Indeed falsehood is bound to depart” Perhaps it is chosenn for the former function of this mosque.
The Marble Mihrab. You can see the slightly off center Saf lines, just a little south from the east facing wall. I think the smaller windows on the ground level was later Ottoman addition.
A closer look at the Marble Mihrab. The calligraphic panel above the Mihrab was the commonly chosen part of the verse from Ali Imran Chapter 3:37