Hagia Sophia – Istanbul, Turkey

Byzantium’s Greatest Legacy

The massive dome and four elegant minarets of the Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom) rise above the chaos and hubbub of downtown Istanbul, for more than a millennium forming the most impressive silhouette on Asia’s skyline.

But step out of the relentless sun and find its essence in the haunting beauty of its dimly lit interior, one of the largest enclosed spaces in the world. The Byzantine capital of Constantinople was fast approaching its zenith as religious, commercial, and artistic center of the Roman Empire when, in the 6th century A.D., Justinian began work on this site on the Bosporus, which over time rose to become the greatest church in all of ancient Byzantium, symbolizing the power and wealth of its emperors.

Sadly, much of the church’s original gold and marble, and its 4 acres of intricate mosaics, were plundered during the Crusades in 1204 and carried off as booty. In 1453 Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, and the church was converted to a mosque. In 1934 it was stripped of all religious signifi­cance and function, but it will always be a spiritual oasis, remaining as the single finest structure to have survived late antiquity.

Nearby, the rooms and restaurants of the Four Seasons Hotel offer views of the site as well as of the elegant Blue Mosque and its six minarets, built by Sultan Ahmet I beginning in 1609. Ironically, the Four Seasons building served for years as a prison where, beginning in 1917, dissident Turkish writers and politicians were incarcerated in far less sumptuous quarters than you’ll find today. They might appreciate the irony, though they’d never recognize the spa­cious rooms, elegant appointments, and cer­tainly not the seductively sybaritic baths.

The courtyard, now filled with plants and birdsong, is a cool greenhouse-like oasis where a restau­rant offers meals that bear no resemblance what­soever to prison fare. A Turkish coffee or a sunset cocktail on the rooftop terrace overlook­ing the spires of Istanbul creates a captivating moment … and then the lights come on, illumi­nating Istanbul’s treasures against the inky night sky, and you find yourself a prisoner of pleasure, this time detained by the lure of romance and a staff the sultans would have envied.

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