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The Mosque Of St. Sophia

( Originally Published 1920 )


Charles Dudley Warner was born in 1829; an author and journalist, editor of the Evening Post and Harper's Magazine. His principal works include: In the Levant, Life of Washington Irving, A Little Journey in the World, The Golden House.

WHEN the Church of Santa Sophia, the House of Divine Wisdom, was finished, and Justinian entered it, accompanied only by the patriarch, and ran from the porticos to the pulpit with outstretched arms, crying, "Solomon, I have surpassed thee!" it was doubtless the most magnificently decorated temple that had ever stood upon the earth. The exterior was as far removed in simple grandeur as it was in time from the still matchless Doric temples of Athens and of Paestum, or from the ornate and lordly piles of Baalbek; but the interior surpassed in splendor almost the conception of man. The pagan temples of antiquity had been de-spoiled, the quarries of the known world had been ransacked for marbles of various hues and textures to enrich it; and the gold, the silver, the precious stones, employed in its decoration, surpassed in measure the barbaric ostentation of the Temple of Jerusalem. Among its forest of columns, one recognized the starred Syenite from the First Cataract of the Nile; the white marble of Phrygia, striped with rose; the green of Laconia, and the blue of Libya; the black Celtic, white-veined, and the white Bosphorus, black veined; polished shafts which had sup-ported the roof of the temple of the Delian Apollo, others which had beheld the worship of Diana at Ephesus and of Pallas Athene on the Acropolis, and yet more ancient, those that had served in the mysterious edifices of Osiris and Isis; while, more conspicuous and beautiful than all, were the eight columns of porphyry, which, transported by Aurelian from the Temple of the Sun at Heliopolis to Rome,, the pious Marina had received as her dowry and dedicated to the most magnificent building ever reared to the worship of the True God, and fitly dominating the shores of Europe and Asia.

One reads of doors of cedar, amber, and ivory; of hundreds of sacred vessels of pure gold, of exquisitely wrought golden candelabra, and crosses of an hundred pounds weight each; of a score of books of the Evangelists, the gold covers of which weighed twenty pounds; of golden lilies and golden trumpets; of forty-two thousand chalice-cloths embroidered with pearls and jewels; and of the great altar, for which gold was too cheap a material, a mass of the most precious and costly stones imbedded in gold and silver. We may recall also the arches and the clear spaces of the walls inlaid with marbles and covered with brilliant mosaics. 1t was Justinian's wish to pave the floor with plates of gold, but, restrained by the fear of the avarice of his successors, he laid it in variegated marbles, which run in waving lines, imitating the flowing of rivers from the four corners to the vestibules. But the wonder of the edifice was the dome, one hundred and seven feet in span, hanging in the air one hundred and eighty feet above the pavement. The aerial lightness of its position is increased by the two half-domes of equal span and the nine cupolas which surround it. More than one volume has been exclusively devoted to a description of the Mosque of St. Sophia, and less than a volume would not suffice. But the traveller will not see the ancient glories. If he expects anything approaching the exterior richness and grandeur of the cathedrals of Europe, or the colossal proportions of St. Peter's at Rome, or the inexhaustible wealth of the interior of St. Mark's at Venice, he will be disappointed. The area of St. Peter's exceeds that of the Grand Piazza of St. Mark, while St. Sophia is only two hundred and thirty-five feet broad by three hundred and fifty feet long; and while the Church of St. Mark has been accumulating spoils of plunder and of piety for centuries, the Church of the Divine Wisdom has been ransacked by repeated pillages, and reduced to the puritan plainness of the Moslem worship.

Exceedingly impressive, however, is the first view of the interior; we stood silent with wonder and delight in the presence of the noble columns the bold soaring arches, the dome in the sky. The temple is flooded with light, perhaps it is too bright; the old mosaics and paintings must have softened it; and we ,found very offensive the Arabic inscriptions on the four great arches, written in characters ten yards long. They are the names of companions of the Prophet, but they look like sign-boards. Another disagreeable impression is produced by the position of the Mihrab, or prayer-niche; as this must be in the direction of Mecca, it is placed at one side of the apse, and everything in the mosque is forced to conform to it. Thus everything is askew; the pulpits are set at hateful angles, and the stripes of the rugs on the floor all run diagonally across. When one attempts to walk from the en-trance, pulled one way by the architectural plan, and the other by the religious diversion of it, he has a sensation of being intoxicated.

Gone from this temple are the sacred relies which edified the believers of former ages, such as the trumpets which blew down Jericho, and planks from the Ark of Noah, but the Moslems have prodigies to replace them. The most curious of these is the sweating marble column, which emits a dampness that cures diseases. I inserted my hand in a cavity which has been dug in it, and certainly experienced a clammy sensation. 1t is said to sweat most early in the morning. I had the curiosity to ascend the gallery to see the seat of the courtesan and Empress Theodora, daughter of the keeper of the bears of the circus,-a public and venal pantomimist, who, after satisfying the immoral curiosity of her contemporaries in many cities, illustrated the throne of the Caesars by her talents, her intrigues, and her devotion. The fondness of Justinian has preserved her initials in the capitals of the columns, the imperial eagle marks the screen that hid her seat, and the curious traveller may see her name carved on the balustrade where she sat.

To the ancient building the Moslems have added the minarets at the four corners and the enormous crescent on the dome, the gilding of which cost fifty thousand ducats, and the shining of which, a golden moon in the day, is visible at the distance of a hundred miles. The crescent, adopted by the Osmanli upon the conquest of Jerusalem, was the emblem of Byzantium before the Christian era. There is no spot in Constantinople more flooded with historical associations, or more interesting to the student of the history of the Eastern Empire, than the site of St. Sophia. Here arose the church of the same name erected by Constantine; it was twice burned, once by the party of St. John Chrysostom, and once in a tumult of the factions of the Hippodrome. I should like to have seen some of the pageants that took place here. After reposing in their graves for three centuries, the bodies of St. Andrew, St. Luke, and St. Timothy were transported hither. Fifty years after it was honored by a still more illustrious presence; the ashes of the prophet Samuel, deposited in a golden vase covered with a silken veil, left their resting place in Palestine for the banks of the Bosphorus. The highways from the hills of Judea to the gates of Constantinople were filled by an uninterrupted procession, who testified their enthusiasm and joy, and the Emperor Arcadius himself, attended by the most iilustrious of the clergy and the Senate, advanced to receive his illustrious guest, and conducted the holy remains to this magnificent but insecure place of repose. It was here that Gregory Nazianzen was by force installed upon the Episcopal throne by Theodosius. The city was fanatically Arian. Theodosius proclaimed the Nicene creed, and ordered the primate to deliver the cathedral and all the churches to the orthodox, who were few in number, but strong in the presence of Gregory. This extraordinary man had set up an orthodox pulpit in a private house; he had been mobbed by a motley crowd which issued from the Cathedral of St. Sophia, "common beggars who had forfeited their claim to pity, monks who had the appearance of goats or satyrs, and women more horrible than so many Jezebels;" he had his triumph when Theodosius led him by the hand through the streets-filled with a multitude crowding pavement, roofs, and windows, and venting their rage, grief, astonishment, and despair-into the church, which was held by soldiers, though the prelate confessed that the city had the appearance of a town stormed by barbarians. It was here that Eutropius, the eunuch, when his career of rapacity exceeded even the toleration of Arcadius, sought sanctuary, and was protected by John Chrysostom, archbishop, who owed his dignity to the late sexless favorite. And it was up this very nave that Mohammed II, the conqueror, spurred his horse through a crowd of fugitives, dismounted at the foot of the altar, cried, "There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his Prophet!" and let loose his soldiery upon the priests, virgins, and promiscuous multitude who had sought shelter there.

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