I walked through the Hagia Sophia with my head down. The idea occurred to me in Rome, where we were on a church-a-day diet and being exposed to gorgeous cavernous spaces regularly. When we first visited the Pantheon, Ozayr suggested that we don’t look up until getting as close to the center of the rotunda as possible. This would ideally amplify the experience of seeing the dome for the first time, but our group was so big that this advice didn’t make it through the grapevine until I was already inside and had spoiled the surprise long ago.
That ‘delay of gratification’-like advice came back to me while visiting the Hagia Sophia. I decided to restrict my vision to only the lower ten or fifteen feet of the church—no looking up aloud, to get a new and arguably wasteful sort of experience of Justinian’s famous achievement. Entering into the first narthex—a long hall stretching across the front façade, perpendicular to and containing the entrance into the main church space; the Hagia Sophia has two—it began as more of a personal challenge than an experiential experiment. The dual narthexes, with their heavily mosaic-laden walls and ceilings, became a sort of practice round before the real challenge of not looking up into the lights and domes of the nave. So I was prepared for the challenge. Upon passing the threshold I realized I was not prepared for the challenge, but for different reasons. The immediate barrage of sensory input wasn’t overwhelming in its volume or brightness, nor did bright colors jump out or decorative detailing catch my eye. Instead, what I encountered was a muted cacophony of whispers, chatters, and breezy drafts bouncing around in what must have been an incomprehensibly vast expanse of space overhead. And nothing was as bright as I had expected; the trademark ring of windows running around the base of the main dome, as well as the many others presumably scattered throughout the church, cast light onto innumerable marble surfaces, bringing out their green, red, or grey hues rather than illuminating them. Massive chandeliers hovering just overhead caught this delicate lighting in their lamps, which became a figurative ceiling for me. I wouldn’t look any higher, but resolved to do so soon.
Accompanying us was our Turkish Byzantine/Ottoman history instructor, who didn’t help matters by maintaining a continuous narrative of this mosaic and that arcade, pointing out curiosities and details for us to examine. My luck turned when a stray cat wandered over and started rolling in a dusty sunbeam, which I watched while listening to the echoes and imagining the dimly lit gold mosaics and marble panels adorning the upper levels, pierced intermittently with shockingly bright pins-of-light windows.
In the end, I never did look up. I had already visited the Hagia Sophia earlier in the trip, which I maybe should have mentioned earlier. I knew what was up there, but hadn’t paid attention to the noises or lighting during my last visit. Much as I would like to claim that this was my intention from the start, that I wanted to feel the more auxiliary stimuli without being distracted by vision, it was a happy accident. Our memories are always skewed into romantic or bitter renditions of the places we’ve been, and the addition of real audio had the effect of applying a unique realism to an idealized mental image.