I‘m not what you would call a religious person. I wasn’t brought up in a religious household, which has a lot to do with it, of course, but by nature I’ve never felt the need to believe in a divine force (or whatever other name you wish to give it). Indeed, organised religion makes me somewhat uncomfortable; if I find myself having to participate in a ritual of some sort, I feel a strong urge to be elsewhere. To me, a church, temple or mosque, especially a really old one, is of significance purely because of its architectural features, not because I expect to be able to go in and communicate with a higher power. I respect the fact that those who feel otherwise experience a heightened sense of being in a place of worship; it’s just that I’ve never been able to relate with that experience. That is, however, until I stepped into the incredible Hagia Sofia in Istanbul – first a church, then a mosque, now a secularised museum and without a doubt one of the greatest structures ever put on the face of the earth.
It was the sort of morning that makes you thankful cotton clothing was invented. A Turkish bath would probably have been less humid, and as I walked in an advanced state of perspiration from my hotel towards the Hagia Sofia, I must confess that architectural splendour was rather far removed from my mind; cold beverages and extreme air conditioning were uppermost. I approached the entrance in a slightly frazzled state, therefore, and was further dismayed when I saw the length of the queue – it appeared that every tourist in Istanbul had chosen that very morning to visit. Still, such are the occasional annoyances of travel; I stood in line and occupied myself by gazing at the building’s exterior. I had passed by a couple of times, but only after dark, so I hadn’t really given it a proper once over. Now, in the morning light, the pink stone shone brightly, and the structure loomed over me in an almost unnerving manner. This was a building quite astonishingly ahead of its time; it looked like an extra-terrestrial craft about to launch itself into another galaxy, rather than a church or mosque. I was gobsmacked, and I can only but approximate the impact it must have had on ordinary folk when it was first built (in the 4th century AD, by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, founder of the city of Constantinople, and in its present form by Justinian I, between 532 and 537 AD).
Still awed by its futuristic design, I followed the rest of the mob into the heart of the Hagia Sofia – and was immediately struck dumb. Nothing could have prepared me for the jaw-slackening magnificence of the interior; it was like being slugged over the head with a cosh. The enormous central dome, flanked by a series of smaller domes, formed the visual centerpiece. Innumerable windows let in graceful beams of light, making the stunning stained glass windows look like kaleidoscopes. Golden mosaics glowed softly, giving the whole exquisite place an ethereal touch that was impossible to not be moved by. I suddenly realised why people feel like they’re in the presence of God in a place such as this. Its sheer visual impact practically leaves you with no choice in the matter; even I was compelled to consider the possibility that forces beyond my ken could be present here. I spent hours inside, a bit dazed, soaking up the monument’s radiant atmosphere, and only left when my rumbling belly reminded me that the need for sustenance was at hand.