The great hall of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is a soaring vaulted space, vast and imposing and seemingly symmetrical. The massive central dome and the smaller domes surrounding it are richly decorated with tiles and frescoes, and at the corners hang enormous round wooden panels imprinted in flowing gold-lettered Arabic script with verses from the Qur’an. Sunlight streams through high windows, spotlighting the extraordinary ornamentation, illuminating dust particles suspended in midair and casting unpredictable angular shadows.
Originally constructed in 537, the Hagia Sophia is a case study in adaptive reuse. Over the course of fifteen centuries this imposing Byzantine building has served as a Greek Orthodox church, a Roman Catholic basilica, an imperial mosque, and finally a secular museum. Each successive occupant, save for the museum, targeted certain aspects of the interior for preservation while removing or covering over others. (The museum has retained everything, selectively peeling away bits of Islamic plaster to unveil glimpses of Christian imagery hidden underneath: ornately detailed mosaics of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, and assorted saints.) In 1453, after the fall of Constantinople, the conquering Ottoman Turks converted the then Eastern Orthodox cathedral into a mosque and set about making it symmetrical, in accordance with the principles of their faith. Even when an arch or buttress wasn’t structurally necessary they carefully painted one in, trompe l’oeil style, to create the impression of symmetry.
Seen from below, the intersecting geometry of domes and arches looks absolutely perfect. The flowing curvilinear lines of decorative mosaics and frescoes are crisp and clean and it’s difficult to tell the difference between the real architectural features and the faux. But if you climb the worn and hollowed stone steps to the balcony level, you discover something quite different. At close range much of the perfect geometry is revealed to be a bit lopsided, the apparently precise linework actually somewhat rough and inexact, the painted edges as wobbly as if they’d been executed by an amateur working with a worn brush. This is baffling at first – how could something so perfect turn out to be so coarse? – until you realize that worshippers wouldn’t have ventured upstairs. They never saw the ceiling at close range. They came to the mosque to pray, prostrated on their prayer mats, facing east toward mecca; to venerate Allah, sheltered by the great dome overhead that was a potent expression of his power. What we have here is not the illusion of perfection; it is the perfection of illusion.