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Agia Sophia

Agia Sophia, IstanbulYou have to wake up early to beat the crowds to Agia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom, as the Greeks call it and the Hagia Sophia Museum as it is now called in Turkey. Even then you will find yourself in a room the size of Grand Central Station, with several hundred other tourists from every country in the world. Most of the religious art that adorned Christianity's most impressive church has been torn, smashed or hacked off by the devout Muslims who turned it into a mosque. There are a few mosaics left. It seems strange that after being set upon with swords, hatchets and sledgehammers there are now signs that say NO FLASH protecting the remaining artwork. It's like having a sign that says DO NOT KILL THE ANIMALS at the Museum of Taxidermy. The damage has been done and nothing you do can make it any worse. Even using a flash. But the church is a feeding frenzy for photographers who snap from every angle. It's not the Parthenon but Agia Sophia is what passes for it, being Istanbul's most famous site and in fact one of the most famous churches in the history of Christianity having been the largest cathedral in the world, from 532 until 1453. That's when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks and the building was converted to a mosque. In 1935 it was turned into a museum.

Agia Sofia, IstanbulYou really have no idea how big it is until you go inside and the first few moments are filled with awe until like anything else you get used to it and follow the crowds, looking at everything they do while trying to take that definitive photo with your Sony Cybershot while around you are real photographers with super-sized zooms, causing something similar to penis envy and at the same time posing the question: what's the point? Who will look at the ten thousand photos taken in Agia Sophia today? Will people scatter to the far ends of the earth and ambush friends with their holiday photos of Istanbul? How many photos of a giant church swept clean of Christian relics can a normal dinner guest take? How can a photo capture the awe you feel when you walk through the stone arch doorways into the biggest room you have ever seen?

Hagia Sophia MuseumOf course most of the people are taking pictures of each other, especially the cute little Japanese tourists girls who look like little dolls, posing seductively in what many Orthodox Christians still believe is the holiest place on earth. It is hard to feel reverence when surrounded by so many nutty people taking pictures of everything, myself included. You have to wonder about the church and the early Christians too. Why build something so large and ostentatious then adorn it with gold and jewelry and art and tell yourself it is in tribute to God. First of all God does not care about gold, jewelry or art, no matter how holy it looks or how big you build your church or how spectacular the dome is or any of that stuff. But more importantly how is it going to look if another religion comes and takes your big beautiful church away from you? It is going to look like God does not care about your church, (which he doesn't). And it is going to make the people who take over your church think that their God is better because they now have your church which proves it. And now that they know that their God is more powerful than your God they can go around and trash all the holy relics and do whatever they like to you and your friends because who is going to stop them? Not God. Not the priests. Nobody will stop them. Until Attaturk took power and stopped all the silliness and made it into a museum.

Agia Sophia MosaicsSo after a thousand years as a Christian Cathedral and five-hundred years as a mosque we now have a museum where the best artwork is on a ceiling so high that you need binoculars to see it. So what is the answer? How about a temple to all faiths? Istanbul has enough museums and it has enough mosques and it even has a lot of churches and a few synagogues. But how about a church that sends the message that though we have different beliefs we are all under one God? I mean lets be logical. Do you really think there is a Muslim God, and a Christian God, and a Jewish God and Protestant and Catholic Gods watching their followers battle it out on earth and whoever wins that God will rule the earth or the universe and the other Gods will just go away? Where will they go? A retirement home for Gods? Mount Olympus? A Greek island? It doesn't make sense on an earthly, spiritual or any kind of plane or plan. And if there was more than one God why would the rest go away because the followers of one of the Gods on some planet happened to be victorious over their followers.  If they were all powerful or even one quarter of all powerful they would just say the hell with this and wipe out everybody with a thunderbolt or a flood and even the playing field and start all over again. Let's face it. The Muslims are right that there is one God, and the Christians and the Jews are right too. And that God is everyone's God whether you believe in him or not. Because even if you don't believe in God, your ability to not believe in God is nowhere near as powerful as his ability to Be God. So let's just turn Agia Sophia into a palace of reverence for all people to meditate and pray to God. And maybe even allow flash at certain hours of the day.

Hagia Sofia, IstanbulOK, back to tourism. Agia Sophia is big and it is amazing and you should go there even if you don't care about God or religion or anything at all. There are guides who will be at the entrance and they also sell an audio program you can listen to as you walk around but you know how these things are. You will forget 95% of what you hear so the best thing to do is google 'Agia Sophia, Istanbul' and read up on your own and then go there and let the building itself speak to you. It will. It will say "I am a really big building and you are very impressed" and you will agree and you won't care about all the history and the religion that went with it. You will just be amazed that 1500 years ago humans were capable of building this.

Agia Sophia Photos

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Agia Sophia Information

Agia Sophia has been listed as one of the seven wonders of the world at various times, as it should be, though whether or not it is depends on who has bothered to vote for it. So those who love Agia Sophia should get their friends to vote. From April until October it opens at 9am and closes at 7pm and from November through March it closes at 4:30pm. It is closed on Mondays. The entrance fee is 27 Turkish Lira but if you have the museum pass it is free. To find the museum just go to Sultanahmet Square and look for the two biggest buildings and Agia Sophia is the pink one. The other is the Blue Mosque. You can e-mail the museum at ayasofya@muze.gov.tr or ayasofyamuzesi@kulturturizm.gov.tr and you can phone them at (212) 522 17 50 - (212) 522 09 89 and no that is not a NYC number.

Check out the Agia Sophia Walking tour

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