Category Archives: Silk Road

Little Hagia Sophia

Istanbul-025425Little Hagia Sophia. This church was formerly the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus.

The church of Saints Sergius and Baccchus marks the first of the city’s harbors on the Marmara Sea.

Istanbul-025750No interior decoration remains. Notice how the orentation of worship changed. When it was a church the priest and people faced the east, that is, ad orientem when they prayed; the altar is the center of the apse. However Muslims pray facing Mecca so the prayer niche faces Mecca and is to the right.


Wonderful byzantine capitals.




The Studion

This monastery was the most important monastery in Constantinople. The monks were referred to as studites. The way of life in this monastery modeled the monastic discipline at Mount Athos.

The most famous monk was Theodore the Student who fostered academic study and spiritual reflection. The monastery was also a center for religious poetry and hymns written for the Orthodox. Unfortunately very little remains of this very important monastic complex.





Hagia Sophia: the Deesis Mosaics

“In Byzantine art, and later Eastern Orthodox art generally, the Deësis or Deisis (Greek: δέησις, “prayer” or “supplication”), is a traditional iconic representation of Christ in Majesty or Christ Pantocrator: enthroned, carrying a book, and flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist, and sometimes other saints and angels. Mary and John, and any other figures, are shown facing towards Christ with their hands raised in supplication on behalf of humanity.”
Read the rest, from Wikipedia on “Deesis.”

The mosaics of Emperor Joannes I Comnenos and Empress Irene and Alexius II. The Emperor is holding a purse in his hand as a symbol of an imperial donation to the church. The Empress is holding a scroll in her hand with the inscription Pious Augusta Irene.

Mosaic of Empress Zoe and Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos.

The Zero-Mile Marker

The Milion stone. This stone is the remnant of a road marker, originally constructed to have a door facing four sides and a dome embedded on four sides.

This used to be the starting point of all roads reaching Constantinople.
The signs say:
1377 KM (to) Rome
2040 KM (to) Tehran
2502 KM (to) London
DCCXXIII Miles (to) Babylon. This is 723 “miles” (Roman miles) or 665 statute miles, or 1070 KM.

Golden Mosaics of Hagia Sophia

On reading the last two posts on the fall of Hagia Sophia, a reader writes:

“So interesting to see the things for real, that is, photographed here and now by someone I know. History books can get awfully abstract, but when you see something photographed it becomes very easy to picture the events. In fact, seeing a photograph you almost can’t not picture the events. With the photographs of the walls, you can imagine mounted riders coming up to them, or scaffolding being built, or picking out good places for defenses, etc. In the photograph of the whole interior of Hagia Sophia, you can hear how the sound must echo in the large space, you can feel that the shafts of sunlight must be warm, etc. – the photograph engages the senses and very quickly the imagination. (Thus why you need art in church!)”

The Virgin Mary with the Child on her lap looks down from on high.

Mary is set in a background of golden mosaic in the interior of the Half Dome of the apse. The mosaic belongs to the 9th century

The interior space of Hagia Sophia is filled with a golden light, from the sun shining on the mosaics. Four portraits of angels in the dome would have shimmered when the natural light reflected on the dome.

In each of the four pendentives of the main dome are portraits of angels.

A mosaic angel.

The Great Church Weeps: The Fall of Hagia Sophia

In the spring I spent several days in Constantinople which is known today as Istanbul. On May 28 I walked all the way around the walls to reconstruct the siege of the city in my mind. Then on the following morning I was up at 6 a.m. which is the time when the Muslims poured into the city and panic spread throughout the population. Then at 8 a.m. on May 29, 562 years to the day of the event, I went to Hagia Sophia to remember that morning when the Muslims battered down the Imperial doors to the great church.

I spent the entire morning and early afternoon at Hagia Sophia so acutely aware I was in Constantinople on the anniversary of some eventful days. On May 27 Mehmet ordered the heaviest bombardment of the city. On May 28 the Muslims were given over to prayer, fasting during daylight and ritual ablutions. With candle illumination at night, the city was ringed with fire for the next two nights  while the muslims chanted the names of God to beating drums and clashing of cymbals. The people in the city prayed and did penance.

In contrast to the silence, the city was filled with bells, and prayers reached a crescendo the morning of the 28th. Every icon and relic came to Hagia Sophia and there was a procession the full length of the land wall. There were only 4000 soldiers left. In the afternoon at Hagia Sophia. Catholic and Orthodox alike prayed in union and they set aside the 400 year old schism and shared Communion. And the women and children stayed all night in vigil. At nightfall the Muslims broke the fast and massive bombardment began in the night. At midnight the Muslim camp was silent waiting for the order.

Mosaic of Christ, over the Imperial door. Hagia Sophia.

Returning from a raid one of the Italians forgot to lock the postern and some of the Ottomans spotted the open door and at 1:30 a.m. on May 29 they burst in, killed the soldiers, took down the flag of Saint Mark and raised the flag of Islam. Within five hours at dawn the Muslim soldiers were beheading the dead and the dying and by 6 a.m. there was indiscriminate killing everywhere.

The faithful fled to Hagia Sophia inspired by the prophecy the avenging angel would drive out the invaders. The bronze doors shut at 8 a.m. They prayed for a miracle. The Janissaries battered down the imperial doors. As I stood at the door today I looked up and saw the mosaic of Jesus which witnessed this. Within an hour the congregation was bound up and led out and then the Muslims hacked the valuables up. The church was left desolate.

Later in the day, Mehmet arrived at the church. He dismounted and poured dust on his head as a sign of humility. Then he called an imam to go up into the pulpit and recite the call to prayer. So early afternoon when I was leaving the church I heard the call to prayer from the outside penetrating the inside and all these thoughts rushed into my mind.

On leaving I went to the ruins of the great palace that was destroyed during the Latin invasion and remembered that Mehmet went to the gallery and surveyed the decay of a once great city that had been wrecked in 1204, and recited this poem:

The spider is curtain bearer in the palace of Chosroes,
The owl sounds the relief in the castle of Afrasiyah…

He achieved his dream, yet already stared over the edge of his own decline. I continued to look up, and imagined the evening of 29 May when the evening sun illuminated the smashed icons and mosaics strewn in pools of dry blood.

Hagia Sophia today.

Hagia Sophia today.

“To surrender the city to you is beyond my authority or anyone else’s who lives in it, for all of us, after taking mutual decision, shall die out of free will without sparing our lives.” — Constantine XI Palaiologos

The Last Speech of Emperor Constantine Palaiologos, as it was recorded by Leonardo of Chios

Laments for Constantinople

Byzantine Chant, Lament for the fall of Constantinople
Title: “Ο Θεός ήλθοσαν έθνη” (O God, the heathen are come)
Composer: Manuel Chrysaphes, 1440–1463

Walking the Walls: Reliving the Last Great Siege

In the spring I spent several days in Constantinople which is known today as Istanbul. On May 29th 1453 the great city which stood as a center of Christianity for over a thousand years fell when it was besieged by the Muslims who conquered the city on May 29th 1453. While in Istanbul I read the book Constantinople, The Last Great Siege by Roger Crowley. This reading inspired me to walk the walls on the evening of the 28th and reconstruct the siege in my mind. Then on the following morning I was up at 6 a.m. which is the time when the Muslims poured into the city and panic spread throughout the population. Then at 8 a.m. I went to Hagia Sophia to remember that morning when the Muslims battered down the Imperial doors to the great church. My walking the walls was truly a vigil of remembrance of those final days.

I began the 24-mile walk around the perimeter of ancient Constantinople which fell to the Turkish Muslims on the morning of May 29, 1453. Since my grade school Constantinople has always offered me a fascination especially the walls which were the most important defense system in late antiquity.

The walk began along the the Sea of Marmara where the wall was low because the strong currents made an attack impossible.

This explains a little about the Sea of Marmara walls

The church of Saints Sergius and Baccchus marks the first of the city’s harbors on the sea.

The walk was long however my eyes were attentive to ruins along the way.

This is the only place where the ruins of the walls are on the sea.

Very little remains however in this vicinity right before the junction of the Theodosian land walls and the sea walls was the Gate of the Pomegranate that was close to the important monastery of Stoudious.

Although heavily restored this is the Marble Tower which is the junction of the wall on the Sea of Marmara and the Theodosian wall that extends 5.7 miles to the area of the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus in the Blachernae quarter on the Golden Horn.

The walls at this point are heavily restored. They will rise sharply northeast to the Golden Gate.

To gain access to the Golden Gate is not possible however I took this picture from afar. This was the ceremonial gate that was only opened for the triumphal entry of the emperor although Pope Constantine entered in 710.

There was an inscription that read: Theodosius adorned these places after the downfall of the tyrant. He brought a golden age who built the gate from gold.

There is another legend associated with the gate. When the Muslim Turks entered the city an angel rescued the Emperor who was turned into marble and interred in a cave nearby where he waits to be resuscitated in order to conquer the city back.

The Belgrade gate has been heavily reconstructed however the large stones at the base of the wall are original.

This section of the walls is heavily reconstructed. These land walls were constructed by Emperor Theodosius from 413 to 439. They were 4.8 meters in width and 11 to 14 meters in height.

Silivri gate.

On the early morning of May 29 1453 was the decisive breakthrough. The gate had been inadvertently left unlocked. The Muslims entered, raised their flag, opened fire, spread panic and thus led to the fall.

The Gate of Charisus or Edirnekapi was the gate Mehmet triumphantly entered the city on 29 May 1453. This is also the gate where sultans left with ceremony on their campaigns to conquer Europe.

The Cannon gate or Topkapi was where the Basilic canon was placed during the seige

This is looking towards the Golden Horn where the walls of the Blachernae Palace connect with the Theodosian walls which terminate at the palace of Porphyrogenitus. From the the low walls were set back from the Golden Horn. The Blachernae since the 11th century was the residence of the Emperor.

Golden horn.

View of golden horn
Plaque about the Golden Horn

Another plaque commemorating the conquest. The Turkish narrative is that the Byzantines were corrupt and thus God delivered the city into their hands to demonstrate the superiority of Islam over Christianity.

Sultan Mehmet.

Tomorrow: the fall of Hagia Sophia.

Update: This article links to a very good video explaining how and why the walls were built. It includes reconstructions of what the walls would have looked like and how they were a defense of the city. The video is below.

Magical Lake Bled and Bohinj

Thursday. We were staying near Bled today so we had a more leisurely morning. After breakfast we walked to Saint Martin Church. It is a simple building with beautiful ornamentation built around 1905, one of a series of churches that have stood on the site since the year 1000. We spent some time looking at the beautiful artwork and took some time to pray.

Saint Martin church.

Saint Martin church.


We joined the group afterwards to go up to Bled castle, the castle perched on cliff above the lake. This is the oldest Slovenian castle, originally built for a bishop in 1011, and eventually seized by Napoleon. Today there is a museum there but the real draw is for the views.

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From there we embarked on boats to go to Bled Island. There are no motorboats allowed on the lake so we were rowed there.

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The island has only a small picturesque 17th century church there dedicated to the Assumption of Mary, built on the foundations of a temple to Venus.


It is a popular chapel for weddings and the custom is that the groom carry the bride up the 99 steps up to the chapel.


There is a rope to the bells in the church tower that hangs in the center of the church. It is said that if a person pulls the rope (once) and the bells ring three times the puller will get his wish. The island with the castle is the centerpiece of Bled.

Inside the clock tower of Bled church.

Slovenia-1-6 Slovenia-1-8

We then went to Bohinj, a nation park situated around a large glacial lake near the Julian Alps. It is a hub for all sorts of recreation. The views of the lakes and the mountains were worth the trip.

We also visited a chapel dedicated to Saint John the Baptist with frescos from the 14th century, the oldest frescos in Slovenia.

There was also a monument dedicated to the team of climbers who fist climbed Mt. Triglav, Slovenia’s highest peak. The monument has one of the figures pointing to peak, visible from the monument. After walking about we tried the famous local dessert, a cream cake. It was good.

We took a scenic ride back to the hotel, the bus driver stringing the bus through narrow streets of some villages. We are impressed by the orderliness of the villages, the good repair of the houses, and the attention to the gardens of the houses, all which seem to have flower boxes overflowing with all sorts of flowers. The other thing, which has become a joke to us, is that we see so few Slovenian visible as we drive through the towns. When we arrived in Slovenia we only counted eight Slovenians in the first three towns.

After returning to the hotel the two of us took the 3.5 mike walk around lake Bled. We encountered people of all ages, bikers, hikers, backpackers, swimmers, and some of our travel companions stretching our legs after so many hours on the bus.

Tomorrow we leave to go to Venice. This ends this leg of the tour but begins our time in Italy.

Swan boats.

Swan boats.

Mysterious Lake Bled of Slovenia

Wednesday, September 2. We put the lakes behind us as we headed once more to drive along the Croatia seacoast.

We paused at a restaurant on the Adriatic for a coffee break. The restaurant had a terrace looking out over the ocean with a stairway leading to the sea. The water was clear and an azure blue, looking inviting and already drawing bathers from the nearby B&B. We continued on.

Our stop in Opatija on the Istrian Peninsula would be our last stop in Croatia. It is a lovely coastal town with a distinct Austrian flavor. In the late 19th century a southern railroad connected it with Vienna, making it a vacation spot for Austrian nobility and the Imperial family. The town lost its prestige after World War II and was only revived in the 1960’s. We walked along the shore in our first drizzly day of the trip trying to get a sense of the city. We were able to stop in an abbey church dedicated to St. James (the abbey after which the town is named – Opatija means abbey) and walked through a seaside park with a statue of a maiden with a seagull. Originally a Madonna was where the maiden now stands, taken down during the communist regime.

Replica of the Madonna that occupied the place where the statue of the maiden with a seagull now stands.

Replica of the Madonna that occupied the place where the statue of the maiden with a seagull (above) now stands.

Flag of Slovenia

Flag of Slovenia

Shortly after leaving Opatija we crossed into not only Slovenia but the European Union. We proceeded to our last stop of the day, the Postojna Caves. It is a 24,000 meter long cave system, luckily we only toured a 4 kilometer stretch, including two train rides. The temperature is constantly at 50 degrees, meaning coats were recommended. The caves were dramatically lit and interesting to look at, but the tour went on a bit long (1.5 hours). Several photos are in this post but it was difficult to do them justice. Here is a video of the cave railway.

After the caves we came to Bled and to our hotel on Lake Bled. Lake Bled is a glacial lake. We were excited that our rooms overlooks the lake, the castle and the Julian Alps.