Extra Large and Small (no Large or Mediums here) in one day or: a Tale of Two Hagia Sophias.

Last week we kicked off our semester in Istanbul with orientations, studio assignments, a few lectures, walking tours and site visits.  Students visited – in no particular order, the Dolmabahce Palace, the Grand Bazaar, The Blue Mosque and Hippodrome, Dürümzade (the local eatery of choice), Taksim Square, Istiklal Caddesi, myriad streets around our center and neighborhood, The Süleymaniye Mosque and the immigrant neighborhoods around it… the list goes on.  We’ve had a primer lecture on Byzantion, on the mythical founding of the Roman Empire and its transition to Byzantium, on the Maritime landscape of the Golden Horn and our our two studio sites (Eminönü and Karaköy).  Countless döner have been eaten, wetburgers too (Sam is up to about 12 in his quest to consume 200 by the trip’s end), turkish delight, coffee and tea.  We’ve taken innumerable boats (for several food expeditions to Asia), for a site context trip to Eyüp on the Golden Horn…

We visited with one of Istanbul’s premier design offices last week too (more on that coming later): Emre Arolat Architects and had a lecture on three of their office projects (all of which we’ll be visiting soon).  Funny aside – in that office visit, a slide popped up during the course of the presentation… SOUTHDALE MALL.  Victor Gruen reference aside, I’m pretty sure I could see my house to the north in the slide image; no snow though, it was an old summer photograph. We popped into Kanyon (designed by Murat Tabanlioğlu and the Jerde Partnership – Jerde did the Mall of America!) – a funky, bizarre project to the north of the city.  You’ll hear much, I’m sure, about the recent protests in the city, about upcoming elections.  We’re taking that all in stride (and with grace, I hope).  All this forms the background, foreground and middle-ground of what is proving to be, I think (students, would you agree?) an unforgettable trip.

We’ve got lots of guests in town and coming into town too.  Brad Agee, from the Department of Landscape Architecture has been in town for the last week co-teaching in the program. Dan Avchen, from HGA Architects is here (we’re going sketching on Sunday), Vicki Abrahamson is in town too.  Sharon Roe (from the School of Architecture) arrives today. Some students from last year’s trip are threatening to make an appearance too.  To that dare from James W. et al, I say:  Bring it on!

We’ve got lots planned for next week too – more site visits, more lectures, some early Foreign Office Architecture work, some Joshua Prince Ramus work, some 15th century mosques + some twenty-first century mosques, large and small – and some all in one day.

Istanbul is a phenomenally interesting city – with all sorts of scales of experience, of taste (büyük or kücük tea?), of urban morphologies, of encounter, of textures, of noise.  One of my favorite experiences last week was the perfect embodiment of all of this.  Some background:  last year, I cruelly (so they say) made students wait until later in the term (they use words like “interminably;” I prefer the psychological imperative of “delayed gratification,” or, in the case of my children – teaching them patience) to see the Hagia Sophia.  This year, I opted for a different tack.  We began with a visit to the Hippodrome, a walk up to the Mese (the ancient road that linked the Golden Gate – and Belgrade Gate –  in the city Walls to San Sofia and the Palace) and to Constantine’s Column.  And then: Hagia Sophia.

It was quiet.  There weren’t many tourists (always nice), we spent some time walking through – talking about its history, its architecture, its significance, its multiple lives as church (first by Constantine, then Theodosius, then Justininan), as a Mosque.  We saw it as an analogue of Istanbul/Constantinople, a frozen mix of visible multiple pasts and cultures – Islamic calligraphic medallions, Byzantine Seraphim, spectacular 10th century mosaics and 16th century mosque components, of 18th century restoration, 20 century museum didactics and 21st century life – tourists, historians, students, the reverent, the every-day, the workers and the scaffolding (drat!), the museum shops selling trinkets and Hagia Sophia keychains.  The Hagia Sophia is an amazing example of a frozen yet inexorably moving thing, fixed with multi-valent histories, experienced by global audiences, creaking slightly, luminous in the early morning light.  We spent the morning there, drawing, taking it in.

In the words of Monty Python – and now for something completely different (which is why I love Istanbul so much).  The students had to head back to the Center for their afternoon history class and I had to meander north along the Golden Horn to celebrate my youngest daughter’s birthday.  She’s had her past two here in Istanbul now and was insistent on something different this year.  We took a boat along the Haliç (from the site where students will be working for their studio project) and found our way just past the Rahmi Koc Tranport museum where we caught a taxi to… wait for it… Miniatürk.  Yes.  I finally did it. I’ve avoided it for so long. I’ve always rationalized it  – I understand now, completely snobbishly, uninformedly, haughtily – as being a little lowbrow to experience Istanbul and Turkey (and also parts of the Ancient and Modern worlds) and their phenomenal architectural heritage in miniature.  I loved it.  I’m pleased to say that I was wrong.  We might, in fact, make this part of our future study abroad program here in city.  It was fantastic.

Inaugurated in 2003 (by the current Prime Minister), Miniatürk is an enormous, open air version (not geographically correct) of some of Istanbul and Turkey’s most important historic sites and buildings – as well as some of the buildings from within the larger Ottoman Empire’s extents as well. It’s huge.  Over 60,000 square meters, over 120 models (at 1/25th scale…but some a little bit larger than that, I think…), about 59 of those from Istanbul, 55 from Anatolia and 12 or so from the Ottoman Empire holdings (The Dome of the Rock, the Mausoleum of Helicarnassus, the Temple of Artemis…). There’s a Bosphorous Bridge that you can walk on, a stadium where you can select the fight song of your respective Istanbul soccer club (we played the Beşiktaş – yes, Beşiktaş, and I’ll take on any of you Fenerbahce and Galatasary fans – fight song…twice); there are the sublime and the curious (the Blue Mosque, the Chora Church, Saint Anthony’s Church… Istanbul Airport, Atatürk Dam…).

It was a wonderfully serene, odd and curious thing, really.  The models are scattered in this enormous park (there’s a mock Bosporous, with ferries plying the water); there are audio-stations where, when you swipe your entry ticket, a voice (in the language indicated on your ticket), erupts into a loud description of the model’s history – a voice that’s a cross between Edward R. Murrow, James Earl Jones, a german aristocrat and Turkish historian). It was strangely sweet, actually – walking through this park, with these models (and many are very well made), with periodic audio didactics – in French, in German, in English, in Turkish, in Arabic, Spanish) bursting into short, loud exposition, partly overlapped with soccer club fight songs and hordes of Turkish schoolchildren rampaging around the park.  My family was delighted.  My daughters loved it, swiping their tickets, taking photographs, pointing, listening, seeing a landscape of bizarre adjacent histories unfold in a park – odd as it may be.

I walked, completely bemused (eating my ketchup chips), watching giant (tiny) salamanders crawl in and out of the windows of the Selimiye Mosque, on the hills of Cappadocia, on Republic buildings, on urban infrastructure; enormous little green godzillas and kaiju living in and on (delicately) these architectural models and landscapes. There was even (of course, I mean, why wouldn’t there be?) a miniature Hagia Sophia – no tourists (except scaled models – and one had fallen over, sadly, next to the mausoleum of Murat III – perhaps struck dumb and rendered immobile by the spectacular church of the Divine Wisdom that he had just seen).  It was wonderful to see – to re-see – actually, what I had observed and walked through that morning in a completely new way, flying above and over the work of Anthemius and Isodorus, and the personalities that influenced its larger twin, Justinian, Mehmet, Sinan; a bird over soaring domes, not a single piece of scaffolding in sight.


  1. go wee ones ! Happy Birthday, Hafsa. So glad you wanted this fantastic little little wonderland adventure for your birthday! What fun to see familiar places in a sort-of shrinking lens, like a trip down a Turkish rabbit-hole!

  2. Pingback: Spring 2015: Program Update! (September 14, 2014) | University of Minnesota Rome -Istanbul Study Abroad Spring 2015

  3. Pingback: Spring 2015: Program Update! (September 21, 2014) | University of Minnesota Rome -Istanbul Study Abroad Spring 2015

  4. Pingback: Spring 2015: Program Update! (October 9, 2014) | University of Minnesota Rome -Istanbul Study Abroad Spring 2015

  5. Pingback: Spring 2015: Program Update! (November 14, 2014) | University of Minnesota Rome -Istanbul Study Abroad Spring 2015

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