The trip to the 7 churches of Revelation was a wonderful experience and has given me much to ponder on. I haven’t had time to blog the last part of our trip to Istanbul as I’ve been on retreat in the beautiful Alpsfollowed by a week’s holiday(thanks to a some very kind friends lending us their chalet).
Istanbul ‘s history reaches back to at least 657 BC when it was founded as a Greek city. After the Roman’s conquest of the city it was chosen in 330AD to be the new capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and was renamed Constantinople after the Roman Emperor Constantine. What is often forgotten in our Euro-centric history is that when historians declare the fall of the Roman as 410AD (when Rome was conquered by the Goths) or 476AD when the final ‘Roman’ Emperor was deposed this was only part of it. The Roman Empire continued in the East, reaching its height in the 6th century under the Emperor Justinian when it ruled not only the traditional Eastern part of the Empire but also North Africa, much of the Balkans as well as all of Italy and Southern Spain.
Justinian also built (and rebuilt) many major buildings including the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (the greatest Cathedral in Christendom for 1,000 years) and the Basilica of St John at Selcuk amongst many other buildings. So, we can say that the Roman Empire didn’t actually finally fall until 1453 when the Ottomans finally captured the city (though I shall continue to call the Empire the Byzantium Empire!).
Of course, many of the Cathedrals and churches were turned into Mosques by the Ottomans but in the 20th Century some of these were made into museums (especially the Hagia Sophia and the Chora Church) and where the Byzantine mosaics were covered up some have been uncovered – and some of them are spectacular and very imperial in their design. It is also so easy to bump into ancient monuments as you walk through this once imperial city (like this 2nd century acqueduct a short walk from our hotel).
And this is where the problem for me sets in. When we were visiting the 7 churches and their ruins it was very obvious that the church John was writing to had no buildings, no great central halls to meet and worship in. They met in peoples houses and the people were mainly poor and at the margins of society. It was these people who “turned the world upside down”. Instead of being “embedded” into one people group they transcended all divides and ethnic groupings. The monuments of Byzantium (and indeed of places like St Paul’s Cathedral) are incredibly impressive – but they are monuments of Empire. The Roman and Byzantine Empire enlisted Christianity to support their Imperial aims and Christianity submitted.
I quoted a letter from Pliny in an earlier post about how he tortured two female slaves who were leaders of the early church. He wrote his letter to the Emperor Trajan in 112AD. In part of his letter he wrote this:
For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farm
He goes onto say how the Temples had almost been deserted! And this is within 20-30 years after John has written his letters to the 7 churches as part of the Book of Revelation. The impact of the church was radical and extensive and reached out to all parts of society and allowed anyone to become leaders and was a threat to the Empire in which it grew.
Even though Istanbul is a monument to empire (Byzantine and Ottoman) it is a vibrant lively city and I must say I loved it! I’m sure that if you’ve been you will know that it is a fascinating city – with things to discover all over the place. Of course, one of the reasons that the capital of Turkey was moved to Ankara after World War I was to move Turkey away from the idea of an Imperial Empire and towards a secular and nation state which didn’t hark back to its Imperial past.
We were staying in a small hotel not far from the centre and as usual I did tend to do my own thing – though I did do the Hagia Sophia, Chora Church and the Blue Mosque with the group. But whilst they looked at the Bosphurus by boat I went to the Archaeological museum (a real treasure trove if you ever go to Istanbul). Unfortunately, my memory card was so full that I could take only one photo but it was an amazing collection of ancient artefacts from the oldest peace treaty in the world (between Egypt and the Hittites), the oldest love poem in the world and some great artefacts from some of the places that we had visited. Also met a great American couple, Michael and Judy, who were in Istanbul for a peace conference (that was to have that well known peacenik David Petraeus at it(Author of the surge policy in Iraq)! Then instead of the Grand Bazaar I went to the Sultan’s Palace (massively packed and huge queues – though the best bit was the Harem – amazing tiles and decorations – and not very busy!).
All in all a great stay and a really useful contrast between the Empire of Istanbul and the lives of the early church in the 7 churches with their simplicity and lack of power and grandeur.
So, some of my photos of the different places in Istanbul I visited (usual tip: click on a photo to see a larger view and quite a few of them have further descriptions of what you are viewing)
Firstly, there is the amazing Hagia Sophia. This was an Imperial Cathedral built in the 6th century and the largest Cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years. When Constantinople fell in 1453 to the Ottoman’s it was changed into a Mosque (an imperial one of course!) and the mosaics removed or plastered over. Since it became a museum in the 1930’s some of the mosaics have been uncovered. Mosaics were a Byzantine speciality and where they were superior to the earlier Roman period (whereas much of their other art seems less advanced). Notice the Imperial nature of the mosaics and how Christ is co-opted to bless its rulers!
The second place was also a church that was converted into a mosque and had all its mosaics covered up, Chora Church. Like the Hagai Sophia it too has been made into a museum and even more of its mosaics have been restored. It shows how mosaics were used to tell biblical stories (a bit like stained glass was in the UK in the middle ages)
Then, there was the Blue Mosque built in the early 1600’s and borrowed some of the elements of the neighbouring Hagia Sophia. Since Muslims do not allow images they created a wonderful pattern based style to decorate their mosques – and especially these large classical mosques
Of course, it wouldn’t be an Imperial city without an Imperial palace. So, my next set is of the Topkapi palace. The palace of the sultans of the Ottoman empire. There are three courts and some amazing jewels in the treasury(for which you have to queue ages for and can’t take pictures). There is a sacred relics room (separate post in a day or so!) and the Harem (which you have to pay extra for but is one of the best parts of the palace and far less crowded).
One final place was the Church of St Sergius and St Bacchus (or now known as the Little Hagai Sophia mosque). A beautiful building and surrounded by an arts and craft area (that used to be a madrasah). Far fewer tourists and a very peaceful setting.