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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

The Mosque Of Santa Sofia

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

The external aspect has nothing worthy of note. The only objects that attract the eye are the four high white minarets that rise at the four corners of the edifice, upon pedestals as big as houses. The famous cupola looks small. It appears impossible that it can be the same dome that swells into the blue air, like the head of a Titan, and is seen from Pera, from the Bosphorus, from the Sea of Marmora, and from the hills of Asia. It is a flattened dome, flanked by two half domes, covered with lead, and perforated with a wreath of windows, supported upon four walls painted in stripes of pink and white, sustained in their turn by enormous bastions, around which rise confusedly a number of small mean buildings, baths, schools, mausoleums, hospitals, etc., which hide the architectural forms of the basilica. You see nothing but a heavy, irregular mass, of a faded colour, naked as a fortress, and not to all appearance large enough to hold within it the immense nave of Santa Sofia's church. Of the ancient basilica nothing is really visible but the dome, which has lost the silvery splendour that once made it visible, according to the Greeks, from the summit of Olympus. All the rest is Mussulman. One summit was built by Mahomet the Conqueror, one by Selim II, the other two by Amurath III. Of the same Amurath are the buttresses built at the end of the Sixteenth Century to support the walls shaken by an earthquake, and the enormous crescent in bronze planted upon the top of the dome, of which the gilding alone cost fifty thousand ducats.

On every side the mosque overwhelms and masks the church, of which the head only is free, though over that also the four imperial minarets keep watch and ward. On the eastern side there is a door ornamented by six columns of porphyry and marble; at the southern side another door by which you enter a court, surrounded by low, irregular buildings, in the midst of which bubbles a fountain for ablution, covered by an arched roof with eight columns. Looked at from without, Santa Sofia can scarcely be distinguished from the other mosques of Stamboul, unless by its inferior lightness and whiteness; much less would it pass for the "greatest temple in the world after Saint Peter's." . . .

Between the four enormous pilasters which form a square in the middle of the basilica, rise, to the right and left as you enter, eight marvellous columns of green breccia from which spring the most graceful arches, sculptured with foliage, forming an elegant portico on either side of the nave, and sustaining at a great height two vast galleries, which present two more ranges of columns and sculptured arches. A third gallery which communicates with the two first, runs along the entire side where the entrance is, and opens upon the nave with three great arches, sustained by twin columns. Other minor galleries, supported by porphyry columns, cross the four temples posted at the extremity of the nave and sustain other columns bearing tribunes. This is the basilica. The mosque is, as it were, planted in its bosom and attached to its walls. The Mirab, or niche which indicates the direction of Mecca, is cut in one of the pilasters of the apse. To the right of it and high up is hung one of the four carpets which Mahomet used in prayer. Upon the corner of the apse, nearest the Mirab, at the top of a very steep little staircase, flanked by two balustrades of marble sculptured with exquisite delicacy, under an odd conical roof, between two triumphal standards of Mahomet Second, is the pulpit where the Ratib goes up to read the Koran, with a drawn scimetar in his hand, to indicate that Santa Sofia is a mosque acquired by conquest. Opposite the pulpit is the tribune of the Sultan, closed with a gilded lattice. Other pulpits or platforms, furnished with balustrades sculptured in open work, and ornamented with small marble columns and arabesque arches, extend here and there along the walls, or project towards the centre of the nave. To the right and left of the entrance, are two enormous alabaster urns, brought from the ruins of Pergamo, by Amurath III. Upon the pilasters, at a great height are suspended immense green disks, with inscriptions from the Koran in letters of gold. Underneath, attached to the walls, are large cartouches of porphyry inscribed with the names of Allah, Mahomet, and the first four Caliphs. In the angles formed by the four arches that sustain the cupola, may still be seen the gigantic wings of four mosaic cherubim, whose faces are concealed by gilded rosettes. From the vaults of the domes depend innumerable thick silken cords, to which are attached ostrich eggs, bronze lamps, and globes of crystal. Here and there are seen lecterns, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and copper, with manuscript Korans upon them. The pavement is covered with carpets and mats. The walls are bare, whitish, yellowish, or dark grey, still ornamented here and there with faded mosaics. The general aspect is gloomy and sad.

The chief marvel of the mosque is the great dome. Looked at from the nave below, it seems indeed, as Madame de Stael said of the dome of Saint Peter's, like an abyss suspended over one's head. It is immensely high, has an enormous circumference, and its depth is only onesixth of its diameter; which makes it appear still larger. At its base a gallery encircles it, and above the gallery there is a row of forty arched windows. In the top is written the sentence pronounced by Mahomet Second, as he sat on his horse in front of the high altar on the day of the taking of Constantinople: 'c Allah is the light of heaven and of earth;" and some of the letters, which are white upon a black ground, are nine yards long. As every one knows, this aerial prodigy could not be constructed with the usual materials; and it was built of pumice-stone that floats on water, and with bricks from the island of Rhodes, five of which scarcely weigh as much as one ordinary brick...

When you have visited the nave and the dome, you have only begun to see Santa Sofia. For example, whoever has a shade of historic curiosity may dedicate an hour to the columns. Here are the spoils of all the temples in the world. The columns of green breccia which support the two great galleries, were presented to Justinian by the magistrates of Ephesus, and belonged to the Temple of Diana that was burned by Erostratus. The eight porphyry columns that stand two and two between the pilasters belonged to the Temple of the Sun built by Aurelian at Palbek. Other columns are from the Temple of Jove at Cizicum, from the Temple of Helios of Palmyra, from the temples of Thebes, Athens, Rome, the Troad, the Ciclades, and from Alexandria; and they present an infinite variety of sizes and colours. Among the columns, the balustrades, the pedestals, and the slabs which remain of the ancient lining of the walls, may be seen marbles from all the ruins of the Archipelago; from Asia Minor, from Africa and from Gaul. The marble of the Bosphorus, white spotted with black, contrasts with the black Celtic marble veined with white; the green marble of Laconia is reflected in the azure marble of Lybia; the speckled porphyry of Egypt, the starred granite of Thessaly, the red and white striped stone of Jassy, mingle their colours with the purple of the Phrygian marble, the rose of that of Synada, the gold of the marble of Mauritania, and the snow of the marble of Paros...

From above can be embraced at once with the eye and mind all the life of the mosque. There are to be seen Turks on their knees, with their foreheads touching the pavement; others erect like statues with their hands before their faces, as if they were studying the lines in their palms; some seated cross-legged at the base of columns, as if they were reposing under the shadow of trees; a veiled woman on her knees in a solitary corner; old men seated before the lecterns, reading the Koran; an imaum hearing a group of boys reciting sacred verses; and here and there, under the distant arcades and in the galleries, imaum, ratib, muezzin, servants of the mosque in strange costumes, coming and going silently as if they did not touch the pavement. The vague harmony formed by the low, monotonous voices of those reading or praying, those thousand strange lamps, that clear and equal light, that deserted apse, those vast silent galleries, that immensity, those memories, that peace, leave in the soul an impression of mystery and grandeur which words cannot express, nor time efface.

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