Ottoman Women During the Advent of Western Feminism
“As to women, as many, if not more than men, are to be seen in the streets [i.e. going about their daily activities, etc] […] I think I never saw a country where women may enjoy so much liberty, and free from all reproach, as in Turkey […] The Turks in their conduct towards our sex are an example to all other nations; […] and I repeat it, sir, I think no women have so much liberty, safe from apprehension, as the Turkish – and I think them in their manner of living, capable of being the happiest creatures breathing.”
- Lady Elizabeth Craven, A Journey Through the Crimea to Constantinople, 1789
The Hagia Sophia, in addition to being an absolutely gorgeous building, has a really interesting history. Commissioned by Constantine the Great, and completed in 537 CE, it served as the seat of the Archbishop of the Eastern Orthodox Church for the Byzantine empire, and still is one of the greatest standing examples of this style of architecture. Although it took a few tries to get it standing, the engineering of the massive windowed dome at the center of the building was an innovative feat that still fascinates architects, engineers and historians. Originally the interior was covered in mosaics depicting Emperors, Saints, and, most importantly, Christ, or Logos, to whom the structure was dedicated.
Most of these are gone now, either shipped off to Italy during the Roman sack of Constantinople in the 1200s or plastered over and lost when the Ottoman Turks came through, decided they rather liked it there, conquered the city and Constantinople became Istanbul. The Ottomans decided instead of destroying the structure, they would simply re-purpose it into a Mosque. Under Sultan Mehmet II, various structures were added, such as the four minarets*, as well as a Minbar, the raised platform for the Imam to deliver his sermon, and a Mihrab, a small, usually intricately decorated alcove which shows the qibla, or the direction of Mecca, and thus the direction the congregation should pray. Usually mosques are built with the intent of being mosques, and are squared off directly facing the qibla, even if it is inconvenient to city planning. It is always fun to play spot the mosque when flying into a city with a large Muslim population, as they are occasionally stuck in at wonky angles, creating strangely shaped city blocks. But I digress.
The Hagia Sofia, being built originally as a church and with the intent of remaining as such, did no such thing. If you look carefully in this picture, you can see both the Minbar and the Mihrab don’t quite line up with the direction of the building, both angling slightly to the right. Although it drives my slight OCD tendencies crazy, it is probably my favorite thing about this whole building. Just a reminder that although things may seem so permanent and immovable, there is a constant flow of change.
The Hagia Sofia ended its long life as a religious structure in 1931, when the country of Turkey underwent a secularization movement headed by the Kemalist principles of Attaturk (the fiercely nationalistic first president of Turkey, also a pretty interesting guy). In a very symbolic movement, Attaturk made the cathedral turned mosque into a museum, all while calling for a partial restoration of the original christian tile-work. This was seventy-five years ago. Today, the scaffolding remains in place, the work slowed almost to a stop, and the building falling into disrepair. A lack of funding, an opposition to the religious significance in this still secularly governed nation, a fear of clashes between Christians and Muslims as parts of the Quranic verses that currently decorate the walls are removed are all reasons given for the problems with the restoration, yet archaeologists and historians are still unsatisfied with the answer, and growing increasingly worried as not only the art, but the building falls victim to the wear of time [x]. No easy answers, only problems. aaaaand I’m going to go do my Arabic homework now. If you made it this far, congrats! You are just as nerdy as me.
*The number of minarets a mosque was allowed to have under Ottoman tradition is actually another really interesting subject. Traditionally mosques built for Sultans had four, those for high ranking members of the royal family had two, and all others were limited to one, with the exception of the mosque in Mecca, the holiest in all of Islam, which had six. Some say, including my tour guide when I was back in Turkey in 2005, that when Sultan Ahmet began construction on the Blue Mosqe, he wanted six minarets, something to do with the Turkish words for “gold” and “six” sounding similar. People called blasphemy, and instead of backing down, he paid to have a seventh minaret added to the mosque in Mecca. The Sultan Ahmet Mosqe, or Blue Mosque, is another incredibly beautiful building, and you should go look at pictures and then dream of Turkey. source [x]