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Middle East Brian Dispatch

Fifteen Hundred Years Old and Going Strong
February 19, 2000

Ahh, I am glad to see that you have finally arrived. Pull up a chair and rest for a bit while I introduce myself. This is no ordinary introduction, you see, I am almost fifteen hundred years old and still going strong. Well, still going, with the normal infirmities one comes to expect with advancing age. Fallen arches, balding domes- it takes more to prop me up than it used to.
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Not bad looking for a 1500 year old woman

But I digress. Allow me to introduce myself. I am known to the world as Aya Sofya, or The Church of the Divine Wisdom. I have lived here in the same spot since I was completed in 548 AD. During this time I have seen many changes, and I have undergone quite a few myself. My days as the greatest church of Eastern Christendom are now behind me, as well as the subsequent years as one of the most beautiful mosques in the world. Few have such a storied past, and in my retirement I now serve as a museum for all those who wish to walk through my hallowed halls.


I imagine that if I wish to receive guests then I must first tell you where I live! You can find me in the beautiful city of Istanbul, although at the time of my construction it was known as Constantinople in honor of Emperor Constantine of the Roman Empire. Constantine founded the city in 330 AD and I came along two hundred years later under the auspices of Emperor Justinian. I realize that I am showing my age by admitting it, but I did enjoy the days of the Roman Empire. By the time I was built, the Roman lands to the West were already in decline as barbarians invaded from Europe, but here in the East our wealth and power grew to unprecedented heights. With his newfound resources, Emperor Justinian constructed me in an attempt to restore the entire Empire to its former greatness. I can't say that it worked, but in my creation he realized his finest accomplishment. You see, I lived on for the next one thousand years as the finest church in the Christian world. It is not easy to reign for one thousand years as "the greatest" in anything, but I did. Muhammad Ali claims that he is the greatest, but he has nothing on me.

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Her majesty, Aya Sofia!

I am a marvel of engineering. My main dome seems to float in the air without any support, drawing your eyes toward Heaven. It took hollow bricks made in Rhodes of a special porous clay (not to mention brilliant architects) to achieve this effect. When Emperor Justinian first walked through my doors he exclaimed "Glory to God I have
been judged worthy of such a work!" Even a work as fine as myself experiences some growing pains, and after just eleven years my dome collapsed in an earthquake. Living with such an ambitious dome in an earthquake zone is not easy, and over my fourteen centuries it has been rebuilt many times; buttresses now support me in my later years. No sunrise or sunset is ever exactly the same, and I have seen over half a million of them in my time. This pales in comparison to the millions of people that have passed through my doors in an ever-changing cultural procession.

After Emperor Justinian's death in 565 AD the Byzantine Empire began a slow decline. The rise of Islam in the first half of the seventh century began to fill the vacuum, and Muslim forces threatened the walls of Constantinople in 669 as they established a legacy of powerful Arabic Muslim empires in the region. This siege was unsuccessful, but the power shift in the Byzantine region had begun.

For the next several centuries I sat upon my perch in Constantinople as change swirled in the surrounding lands. The Arabic Muslim dynasties continued to thrive in Syria and Baghdad, and the Seljuk Empire arose in the 11th century as the first Turkish state to rule the Anatolian region. The decline of the Seljuks was swift, and the last remnants were overrun by Mongol hordes in 1243. The Crusades ravaged Europe and it looked like the Byzantine Empire was destined to fall. News of these bloody battles reached my inner sanctum, and I wondered what might become of me if the city fell.

In 1453 my questions were answered when Constantinople was taken by Mehmet the Conqueror, a great ruler of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire had risen in the late thirteenth century as warrior bands of Turks fled westward from the Mongols. Immediately after his conquest of the city, Mehmet entered my halls to claim them in the name of Islam, sprinkling dirt on his head beforehand in a gesture of humility. After one thousand years as the greatest Christian church I became the greatest Muslim mosque.

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Andrew stands before the Blue Mosque

I had become set in my ways after all those years, and it took some time to get used to my new incarnation as a mosque and the changes wrought by Muslim rule. My mosaics and frescoes were covered with plaster due to the admonitions in the Koran regarding idolatry, and the name of the city was changed to Istanbul. Huge medallions bearing Allah's name were hoisted in my halls. It was like a complete makeover! The days of Emperor Justinian were a distant memory. Becoming a mosque was somewhat of an identity crisis, but I still commanded respect and admiration throughout the world;
in the early 17th century, Sultan Ahmet constructed the Blue Mosque in an effort to surpass my legendary beauty and eleganceŠright across the street from me! Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I was still attracting friendly competition ten centuries after my construction!

Over the next five hundred years I settled in nicely to my new role. My dome was rebuilt several times, my foundations were reinforced, and I acquired three beautiful minarets over the years. The Ottoman Empire thrived for several centuries, most notably under the rule of Suleyman the Magnificent, who constructed Istanbul's largest mosque. But the Ottoman Empire began to falter by the 19th century, and I soon watched as it passed from the world stage during World War I.

The years had been kind to me, but it was time to retire. Centuries of international intrigue had begun to take their toll. In 1935, Kemal Ataturk declared that I was to become a museum, and my wish was granted. Finally I could take a day off! The plaster was removed from my frescoes and mosaics and many restoration projects were undertaken. Those projects have continued to this day. I wonder how long this new incarnation will last. Perhaps I will be a museum for a few hundred years and then see how I feel. Being a museum is great fun because I get to entertain visitors from all
corners of the globe. Today I chuckled as a guy named Brian almost tripped on the stairs because he was so busy staring up at my dome. I remember the days when my admirers carried paints and an easel, but he was decked out with a crazy digital camera. I thought I had seen everything, but it seems that things just keep changing faster and faster these days. Hang on, and cheers to another thousand years!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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Kavitha - COREM: Mending the Shaken Lives of Turkish Youth

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