One of the greatest thrills I get out of traveling is the chance to finally see all of the cities, monuments, and attractions that I only heard about on TV or saw in textbook pictures. From Big Ben in London, to the Louvre in Paris, or the Parthenon in Athens, I’ve experienced the feeling dozens of times before, but there is one building in particular that stands out in my mind as the quintessential monument that would forever remain just a picture - the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It may sound a bit strange that out of all the monuments in the world this Byzantine church, turned mosque, turned museum holds the number one spot in my mind, but it's all the result of an unexpected class I took years ago back in high school.
Anybody from Katy, Texas who attended Morton Ranch High School during its inaugural years will remember the art history class taught by Mr. Erik Mandaville. Many students (myself included) initially signed up for the class because we thought it was easy way to inflate our GPAs, but looking back that course left a lasting impression on me and helped foster my interest art, architecture, and history from around the world. I could tell from the start of the class that Mr. Mandaville was genuinely interested in art history and greatly enjoyed sharing his knowledge on the topic. More importantly, however, he understood that art history by itself wasn’t particularly exciting, or relevant, to young teenagers.
Mr. Mandaville took what could have easily been the dullest, most mind-numbingly boring class in existence and made it both entertaining and engaging. Leveraging his dry sense of humor, he sprinkled comical anecdotes and random jokes throughout his lectures to keep his students involved. Whenever the class began dosing off, he’d pause the lecture, crack a joke, or slip in a hysterically inaccurate historical “fact” (with a completely straight face) to see who was still listening. I paid close attention during his class not to learn the material for the next test, but to make sure I didn't miss his next joke.
...and surprisingly, a lot of the art history he talked about in between jokes actually stuck with me.
Unlike the year and a half of college calculus that I quickly dumped the moment my course was over, I’m surprised by how much I still remember from Mr. Mandaville's art history class. Until I began traveling, none of the information I learned was of any relevance to my life aside from "fun" facts I used to bore my friends and family with, but thanks to his rhymes, jokes, and stories, I retained far more information than I ever imagined. To this day, even if I can’t remember exact dates, names, or styles, just seeing a work of art or reading about a particular artistic style is enough to jog my memory.
I took Mr. Mandaville's class over eight years ago, but the knowledge I gained allows me to appreciate various works of art and architectural styles that many people overlook. Out of all the churches, sculptures, paintings, pottery, and figurines we studied, there was one building in particular that left an impression on me - the Hagia Sophia. After learning about the building’s historic, artistic, and architectural significance, I genuinely wanted to see it in person, but at the time I couldn’t conceive of a series of events that would ever put me in Istanbul. I figured at some point in my life I’d visit Paris to see the Eiffel Tower or Madrid to see the Familia Sagrada, but what were the odds I’d ever be in Istanbul? I was on the other side of the world in Katy, Texas!
Little did I know that one day I’d find myself standing in the very building that for so many years was simply ink on paper.
Thanks to the ominous weather outside and scaffolding inside, the interior of the Hagia Sophia was dark and partially obscured, but it didn’t deter one bit from the intricate carvings, gilded mosaics, and vibrant frescos that adorn the walls and ceilings. Simple chandeliers illuminate the spacious halls and hang low to the ground creating a sea of lights that appears to float just a few inches above visitors’ heads. There is a chill that permeates the interior of the cavernous edifice and there is a rush of excitement as I run my hands along the old marble banisters and columns. The stones are worn, chipped, and otherwise dented thanks to years of use, but for a brief, fleeting moment I feel like I am a part of the building's history. The instant I put one foot inside the building, a torrent of facts from Mr. Mandaville’s class come flooding back to me and a childish grin slowly spreads across my face.
I’m actually in the Hagia Sophia!
The first thing that struck me was the building’s sheer size. I knew the Byzantine structure was the largest of its time and remained that way for almost 1,000 years before another church in Spain took over the title. Even still, the amount of unobstructed floor space is mesmerizing and pictures alone do cannot do it justice. Unlike in typical Gothic style churches where the main nave is simply a tall, narrow arcade propped up by columns, the Hagia Sophia is one of the oldest and best examples of a pendentive dome. Rising high in the air, the central dome is supported by smaller semi-domes creating a vast empty space inside with minimal columns.
This is the first time I’ve been able to use the phrase “pendentive dome” since high school… and I'm ridiculously excited about it.
Encircling the central dome’s apex is a quote from the Quran in beautifully gilded Arabic calligraphy. While I understand absolutely none of it, it is my favorite aspect of Arabic art. I never tire of how the language can be used both as a means of communication as well as an elaborate art form. Unlike in Christianity, the Islamic religion forbids images of God or the Prophet Muhammad, so instead Muslims portray their ideas through beautifully calligraphed words. Case and point, the two large black circular medallions that flank the mihrab (the alter) have the names of Allah and the Prophet Muhammad instead of pictures.
Fun fact: the other six medallions hung on the walls have the names of the first four caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali) and two of Muhammad's grandchildren (Hassan and Hussain).
As I slowly meander through the Hagia Sophia, the fourth adhan (call to prayer) of the day begins and a high pitched chanting starts emanating from the surrounding minarets outside the building. The recital of the first Kalima resonates through the enormous chamber and fills the halls. Even though the Hagia Sophia is now a secular museum and most visitors are not Muslim, the crowd silences momentarily to listen. While I can’t understand a word of the chant, it is a constant reminder of how far away from home I truly am.
Among the sea of tourists, I experienced a moment of deep reflection. It wasn't in any religious sense, but more of a realization of where I am in the world, and in my life. As I listened to the chant outside and savored the atmosphere inside, a strong emotional feeling swelled within me and I began to tear up unexpectedly. To onlookers, it appeared like I was mourning something or someone, but in reality it was a moment of tremendous joy. In the years following Mr. Mandaville's art history class, the Hagia Sophia developed an enormous significance in my mind as the ultimate symbol of the places I’d never get see in my lifetime. To physically stand in its hallowed halls was almost too much for me to handle. I’ve only encountered this feeling a handful of times in my life - the last one being right before I left NYC - but I never thought I would be overcome with such emotion for a building that I never visited before.
You would think after five and a half months of traveling the novelty of it all would wear away on me, but to the contrary, I still find myself thinking, “I can’t believe I’m actually here.” I now have the opportunity to finally see all of the monuments that, for so many years, were only pictures in a textbook, but I will never forget the man who first exposed me to many these images. There are still a myriad of cities, structures, and museums that I want to see, but simply having the curiosity and appreciation for such works of art is invaluable, even if I didn’t realize it back in high school.
Unfortunately, over the years I've lost contact with my old teacher, but wherever you are in the world Mr. Mandaville, I want to thank you for everything. Your class left a lasting impression on me and I am forever grateful for the impact you had in my life. Because of you, I'm able to more fully appreciate what I see on my travels and I want you to know that I still remember (and use) what you taught me all those years ago.