A few weeks ago The Man and I, together with Sheridan and Annabelle, (re-)visited Byzantium / Constantinople / Istanbul for what they call a long weekend city break, and we enjoyed every second of it. Three things stand out for me – as the title of this blog might give away – except that you should really substitute baklava and Turkish Delight for cupcakes: the alliteration opportunity was just too tempting to ignore.
First carpets. Forget “Do you want to build a snowman?”, “Do you want to buy a carpet?” became a constant question on every street corner. After a while they sort of had us brainwashed, and bedad didn’t we take ourselves off to a carpet shop to see what they had to offer. Well, the floor show was magnificent. The OTTness of it all! Once it became clear that we might be serious punters, out came the wine and the baklava – and very tasty it all was too. The head honcho was a born actor who never missed a clue in private conversation between us two couples, all the time whirling his carpets around like Ali Baba and giving instructions to his guys in rapid Turkish.
After some few hours had passed, we settled on one traditional carpet for ourselves, and Sheridan and Annabelle selected three more modern pieces for a new build. Well, the guy thought he had died and gone to heaven. More wine was called for. The prices were haggled a bit, and I know we did pay more than they were worth, but it was an experience never to be forgotten. He even threw in the cost of the DHL and handling – although at the price we paid, he had a nice hefty profit from which to extract his costs. Ours has just arrived at home having spent the Easter vacation in a Kampala warehouse awaiting the revenue authority decision on taxation. All in all, it was one of the nicest shopping experiences of my life, and when visitors say: “what a lovely carpet! Where did you get it?”, they will hear the whole unedited story.
And now to Churches. On the shores of the Sea of Marmara stands a small building called the Little Hagia Sophia (Küçük Ayasofya), formerly Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (fourth-century Syrian martyrs). This church, a mosque since the time of the Ottoman conquest in 1453, was built by Justinian and his wife Theodora between 527 and 536, and despite damage from earthquakes over the centuries and the advancement of the city, still retains its dignity as a house of God.
Its plan consists of a small basilica with the dome resting on an octagon. Sadly, its original beauty and decoration can only be guessed at because the interior was plastered when it became a mosque.
This little picture shows the dome of the San Vitale church at Ravenna; the Little Hagia Sophia would have had similar interior design.
But the octagonal shape is what captured my attention as I immediately thought of two other octagonal churches: Ravenna and Aachen. It could well be that the Ravenna Church of San Vitale (capital of the western Roman Empire at the time) was inspired by the Little Hagia Sophia given that it was commissioned by Bishop Ecclesius (what a wonderful name for a bishop!) after a visit to Byzantium. San Vitale was consecrated in 548 and its mosaics are considered masterpieces of Byzantine art, no doubt inspired by those of the Little Ayasofya.
The final member of this trinity of churches is the Cathedral at Aachen, begun around 793, commissioned by Emperor Charlemagne and built by Odo of Metz, and it is, as with the other two octagonal churches, a world heritage site. Charlemagne had moved the capital of the Frankish Kingdom from Ravenna to Aachen so there is a likely link between the Little Hagia Sophia of Justinian via Ravenna and the Church of Charlemagne at Aachen. Although Charlemagne’s cathedral is mostly Romanesque, the octagonal design forms its centre. The Palace Chapel at its core was built from columns and marble from the ancient buildings of Rome and Ravenna (given by Pope Hadrain not looted as was to happen in centuries to come), creating a link between Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, and Charlemagne, the new Constantine who kick-started the Carolingian Renaissance where one of my academic interests lies.
But trends change quickly: just seventy or so years later Charlemagne’s grandson built his own church: Notre Dame de Compiègne. This time not an octagonal design but a full-on Gothic Church. It has been suggested that a poem penned by my friend Eriugena (the ninth-century Irish scholar who worked at the palace school of Charles) Aulae sidereae (starry halls) was written to commemorate the consecration of this church in 877. But how I wish the builder had used the octagonal design: that would have made a neat quad of churches built on eights with roots at the very heart of Christendom!
As for the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern, the Grand Bazzar, the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace, and all the other magnificent places we visited, that will be for another day and another blog as I have to serve desert now. The people of Turkey are serious about their sweet stuff, baklava and Turkish delight being the tip of the iceberg. We found a cafe that serves only tea, coffee, and deserts / sweets. The Man thought he had died and gone to heaven. His only problem was choice! It was indeed very good but you wouldn’t want to be going there every day for a cholesterol special.
A short time later, just like with the carpet shop, we stopped a fraction of a second too long outside a sweet shop. In a blink of an eye we were whisked inside and given explanations of all the goodies on display. Really interesting and complex, but it was the samples that did me in. The Man smiled through it all and ate all his without complaint. They even found him a seat so that he could be more comfortable. I had the job of choosing which items to put in a box to carry carefully and lovingly back to Kampala. And while I was doing this, the two men were diverted to a section of the shop that sold sweets laced with what I suspect was viagra. “It will make her very happy tonight”, they were told with a Frankie Howard wink; “it will make her smile tomorrow”, they added. And with another saucy wink, your man slipped a sachet of the stuff into each husband’s coat pocket. “You will get two free if you buy ten”, they persisted. But that was just too much for their manliness to deal with and all cajoling to buy the stuff fell on deaf ears. And in any case, the credit cards were maxed out after the visit to the carpet shop.