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Friday, December 4, 2020

Memories of the Road to Constantinople: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Catherine Tsounis
Catherine Tsounis
Contributing Editor The copyrights for these articles are owned by the Hellenic News of America. They may not be redistributed without the permission of the owner. The opinions expressed by our authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Hellenic News of America and its representatives.

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“Today we view Hagia Sophia as an architectural achievement withstanding earthquakes. Famous for its dome. It is the masterpiece of Byzantine architecture,” said attorney Panagiota Petropoulou. Visiting Hagia Sophia, known as The Church of the Holy Wisdom, in the summer of 2019 with a middle-class Greeks in a Kapogiannis Tripoli tour was an eye-opener. I heard the Greek point of view.  I now appreciate all the Greek I learned at St. Demetrios School in Astoria and my Greek grandmother who only spoke Greek.

The 10th century mosaic of the Virgin Mary in the center with two Byzantine emperors at the exit.

When we crossed the Evros River in Eastern Thrace, our guide, the late Taki Kapogiannis explained “Hagia Sophia is not a Greek Orthodox Church. Do not expect to worship icons, or light candles. We must respect the civilization of the country we are visiting.” Everyone did and were aristocrats. Our guide was Mesout from Xanthi, Western Thrace. I noticed in his guided tour he did not spend any time with icons of Byzantine emperors. Persons can see virtual tours online. I am relating what interested me, as a descendant of the “Lost Greek Communities of Asia Minor, Western Anatolia”.

Interior Hagia Sophia

On my own, I studied the amazing iconography. The Comnenos mosaic, also located on the eastern wall of the southern gallery, dates from 1122. The Virgin Mary is standing in the middle, depicted, as usual in Byzantine art, in a dark blue gown. She holds the Child Christ on her lap. He gives His blessing with His right hand while holding a scroll in His left hand. On her right side stands emperor John II Comnenos, represented in a garb embellished with precious stones. He holds a purse, symbol of an imperial donation to the church. Empress Irene stands on the left side of the Virgin, wearing ceremonial garments and offering a document. Their eldest son Alexius Comnenos is represented on an adjacent pilaster.1
The Diesis mosaic has John the Baptist on the right and the Virgin Mary on the left asking Christ in the Center to intercede for humanity.

Diesis mosaic.

The apse is the semi-dome located behind the altar. The mosaic decorating the apse in Hagia Sophia was completed during the 9th century. It is a representation of the Virgin Mary sitting on a backless throne, with young Jesus Christ on her lap. Set on a golden background, it creates a strong contrast with the dark color of her clothes. This mosaic is very important because it was the very first one created after iconoclasm. It was unveiled on March 29, 867, by Patriarch Photios I and Emperors Michael III and Basil I.
The Hellenistic marble lustration urn from Pergamon is enormous.  Sultan Murad III (1546-1595) took it from Pergamon and placed in Hagia Sophia. “My family is from Pergamon, Asia Minor,” said the late Jimmy Tsoros in the 1980’s. He was my parents’ patrioti (friends from their region). “The entire city lies in a German museum. But you must go to Germany to see Greek heritage.”3

Virgin Mary Mosaic in apse behind altar.

When exiting Hagia Sophia, I saw the mosaic that made an impression. The 10th century mosaic of the Virgin Mary in the center with two Byzantine emperors. To the left is Justinian I presenting a model of Hagia Sophia and the inscription “Famous Emperor Justinian”. To the right is Constantine presenting a model of his city and the inscription “Among the saints is great Emperor Constantine”.2  Mesout did not spend adequate time explaining mosaics. I was inspired to do research in New York City.
I began watching Netflix “The Rise of the Ottoman Empire.” After one episode, I stopped. Why? As scholar Mardo Anastasian says “The West gave Constantinople as a gift to the Ottoman Empire.” The Series, forgets the West’s lack of support, concentrates on astrology, and shows a positive image of the Ottoman conquerors.

lustration urn from Pergamon

Only scholars know the flag of Constantinople was adopted by the Ottomans with the 1453 City Conquest. “When the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453 they adopted the flag of Byzantium because of the dream that Osman I had, which he believed to be a good omen and therefore a good symbol for his new empire.”4. This fact distressed
students reading it in Greek at a university class I taught in New York City. I never had anyone read this Greek passage again.
“Many may ask what enabled Byzantium to last for so long? Long answer: Because it had a healthy foundation on the economy, societal order, religion, army, and administration. The Byzantine Empire got all the vices of the Roman Empire corrected – and the Byzantine Empire was everything that the Roman Empire should have been.”5
With the Covid-19 Pandemic, this Hagia Sophia tour from the Greek viewpoint is a sacred memory. The late Taki Kapogiannis said,  “I am watching over you and making sure you enjoy your trip.” Special appreciation to Kostoula and Maria Kapogiannis who worked behind the scenes in Tripoli and Sofi Goc of Aziz Moderno Travel and assistant George.
References:
2.               nomadicniko.com
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