Constantinople, October 1927

From a letter written to Mildred Barnes Bliss on October 24, 1927

Then Constantinople!

We were there ten days. Fortunately Hayford [1] had been there for a month a few years ago, so we wasted no time.

C'ple is a formidable experience.  Sta Sophia [2] far surpassed all I had expected.

Hagia Sophia, Exterior
Hagia Sophia, Exterior

It is the grandest building man ever made; altogether unimaginable and incredible. The scale is terrific: 65 metres sous-oeuvre [3] in the main cupola, and it looks even more. When one stands there, with the colossal dome and the semi-domes billowing away far over one’s head, it is as if one were inside a monstrous great balloon, straining at its moorings and about to soar off into the sky. This effect is partly due to the fact that there are 40 windows very close one to the next round the base of the great cupola, and the narrow spaces between them are as it were the cords and hausers that tie the balloon down to earth.

Hagia Sophia, Interior
Hagia Sophia, Interior, ca. 1900–1910, Sébah and Joaillier, photographers
The lighting is so marvellously devised that the interior is suffused with a light of its own, equally bright (or dim) in all parts of the Church – or nearly so. One has to pause and calculate to tell which way the light is coming from. And the acoustics! One isn’t allowed in Sta Sophia when the Moslem offices are going on, but on several occasions there was an ulema [4] softly chanting verses from the Koran near the mihrab [5] – and his voice was almost equally audible all over the building: one had trouble in discovering where he was, just as I often was puzzled to know which side the sun was coming from.

Up to the level of the tribunes, the walls are wainscoted with verde-antico, Westphalia-ham and other marble, and the columns are verde-antico or red porphyry.[6] The colour is determined by these stones and is, on the whole, something between olive-leaf and pistacchio. The soffits and vaults and upper wall-spaces are of course covered with mosaic, and, though the Turk covers it all with a dirty yellow wash, he is slack about keeping it up and in many places the mosaic shows through – much more than has been noticed by the writers on Sta Sophia. In places there’s no wash at all. The mosaics date, we think, all from the latter part of the IXth cent., when the images quarrel [7] was drawing to a close. There are hardly any traces of figures visible – and there don’t seem to be many hidden away. The bulk of the decoration is formed by crosses and scrolls and such-like of very beautiful character, with a liberal use of silver-cubes.

Of course the Turk has done much to deface Sta Sophia. Worst of all are the colossal round wooden shields with Koran texts, white on dark green, fixed to the faces of each of the 8 main piers.[8] The pulpits etc are all miserable, and the carpets nothing. If one allows the Turk’s contribution to prey sufficiently on one’s mind, one finds Sta Sophia looking like a huge circus on an off-day. The low hanging lamps are the trapezes, the Turks’ junk is the clown-stands etc and the very carpets are like circus carpets, and the unearthly, ethereal dome turns into a Barnum and Bailey tent. My God, I would like to see the Turk thrown out of Constantinople! – but then Sta Sophia would be exposed to the zeal of restorers and filled with modern Orthodox bondieuserie.[9] Probably any change is for the worse. Only there is the horrible thought that, according to engineers, the dome is in perillous [sic] condition, and the Turk may be trusted to do nothing to save it. There were a couple or men hoisting up bags of cement by a hand-pulley, and I expect that rate of progression represents the Turks’ top speed.

Then, apart from Sta Sophia, there are such things as "little Sta Sophia" (the Ch. of SS Sergius and Bacchus) [10] which is only little in comparison with S. Sophia, than which is a little earlier.

Sergius and Bacchus
Sergius and Bacchus

A very lovely church also, with most beautiful capitals and columns. The capitals indeed are better than those in big S. Sophia, where the scale is so big that the size of the capital becomes rather too much for the VI cent, system of ornament. Again, a very marvellously arranged light. Another church still, St. Irene,[11] of the same period, has suffered much more, but preserves much of the ancient fabric.

Scattered about Stamboul [12] there are many other churches, now mosques, with much or little of the original Byz. building about them. Then there are the superb walls running from the Bosphorus to the Golden Horn.[13]

There are several museums of enormous interest – the most surprising one to me was the Efkaf, or Museum of Pious Foundations,[14] where there is a stunning collection of about 100 Anatolian and a few Persian carpets of the XV and XVI centuries – they fairly leave one gasping, I can assure you. Also lots of exquisite Persian painted MSS.

The great trouble at C’ple is that one has to live in Pera,[15] which is miles away from Stamboul [16] where everything one wants to see is, along a horrible street full of trams and traffic and the most raucous and strident motor horns I’ve ever heard anywhere. One’s nerves are all jangled by the time one has passed this ordeal. We used to spend the entire day in Stamboul, eating in unpromising Greek restaurants where the food is really delicious, and so reduced the number of times we did the trip to two daily. But that’s two too much, and one of my chief bones to pick with the Turk is that he hasn’t allowed a hotel to be built in Stamboul, where there are quantities of superb sites going begging, with splendid views over the Bosphorus, and quite close to Sta Sophia and lots of the things one wants to be near. Altogether, the Turk ....especially now that he’s dressed himself in modern clothes and pretends to be just like any other European, one has less patience with his incredible ways than one had when he was openly an Oriental. He has turned the main streets of Stamboul into something like the E. Side or Fall River.[17] It really is the limit that in Constantinople, the city with the finest sea-board in the world, one should nowhere be able to get to the water’s edge, which is devoted to dead-dog factories and sewage and every imaginable and unimaginable filth.

1 Hayford Peirce (1883–1946) was born in 1883 in Bangor, Maine. After graduating from Harvard College in 1906, he spent considerable time in Europe, especially in Paris. He met Royall Tyler in 1918 in Paris, where, as a captain in the United States Army, he joined Tyler’s intelligence unit. Like Tyler, Peirce was part of the American delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference after the First World War. Royall Tyler influenced Peirce’s interest in Byzantine art, and Peirce became not only an amateur scholar but also a collector, especially of Byzantine coins. He collaborated with Royall Tyler on various books and articles about Byzantine art for the remainder of his life; these included Byzantine Art and L’art byzantin.

2 The church of Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”) was built in Constantinople (Istanbul) between 532 and 537 CE on the orders of the Byzantine emperor Justinian. It was the largest church in the world for nearly a thousand years.

3 “At the base.”

4 An ulema, an eduacated Muslim legal scholar or clergyman.

5 Mihrab, the niche in a mosque that indicates the direction of Mecca, toward which Muslims pray. The present Hagia Sophia marble mihrab dates to the mid-nineteenth century.

6 Verde antico (“antique green”), a serpentine marble quarried in Thessaly, Greece. Porphyry is a purple igneous rock quarried in eastern Egypt. Both verde antico (sometimes called green porphyry) and porphyry had been associated with imperial use since Roman times. The marble columns at Hagia Sophia mostly were reused from pagan temples in western Anatolia.

7 The two periods of Byzantine iconoclasm—imperial bans on religious images—were 730–787 and 814–842.

8 The eight leather and wood disks or medallions were added in the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

9 “Religious knick-knacks.”

10 The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, also known as the Little Hagia Sophia, was built between 527 and 536 and was something of a model for the larger Hagia Sophia. It also was converted into a mosque ca. 1506–13 during the Ottoman Empire.

11 The fourth-century church of Hagia Eirene (or Irene) was restored by the emperor Justinian in 548, after it was burned down during the Nike revolt of 532. It was again restored in the eight century after an earthquake. When Royall Tyler saw it, the former church had been used as a military museum since 1908.

12 Stamboul designated the old town city center of Constantinople. In 1928, the name was first officially used to designate the entire city.

13 The defensive stone walls of Constantinople were initially built by the emperor Constantine after the founding of the city in the fourth century. A double line of walls was built in the fifth century, due to the city’s expansion. The area of Galata was fortified with walls under the emperor Justinian in the sixth century. The defenses thus enclosed Constantinople from the Bosphorus (the navigable strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara that separates the European part of modern Turkey—Thrace—from the Asian part—Anatolia) to the Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosphorus forming a harbor.

14 The Evkaf Museum (the Museum of the Administration of Pious Foundations or Evkaf-I Islamiye Müzesi) was opened in 1914 to protect objects of artistic value, especially carpets, that were used in mosques. It was located in the soup kitchen building of the Süleymaniye Mosque complex. It was reorganized as the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts (Türk ve Islam Müzesi) in 1927. See Kurt Erdmann, Seven Hundred Years of Oriental Carpets (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970), 105–11.

15 The district of Pera (Beyoğlu) is located in what is known as the European side of Istanbul and on the opposite side of the Golden Horn from the old town city center. The Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus gave Pera to the Republic of Genoa in 1273 in return for Genoa’s support after the Fourth Crusade and the sacking of Constantinople in 1204. It became a thriving center for European merchants.

16 Stamboul designated the old town city center of Constantinople. In 1928, the name was first officially used to designate the entire city.

17 East side of Manhattan in New York, and Fall River, Massachusetts.


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Constantinople, October 1927