Hagia Sophia as Trompe l’Histoire

(I apologise for slipping a little out of sequence for this post – I still have two others in draft, but I’d like to keep some momentum going while I crouch at the dread throne of the Mar King, contemplating the final decisions of the National Poetry Competition.)

On the last morning, before heading for the airport, we made the necessary pilgrimage to Hagia Sophia. A Sunday morning in January, the usual throngs were thinned down to a relaxed horde, and it was possible to visit all the usual corners and perspectives without slow shuffling and weaving.

Each time I go I or my eye seem or seems to want to take the same few photos: the smoothed marble entrance step, the blurry faced seraphim, a tucked away ladder, the odd dolphin-like pattern in the marble, the screen door, the hidden patterns in dark arches.

That morning, as ever, I noticed another something I’d never seen before – at one end of the two surviving mosaics of emperor, Madonna and empress, was a fourth (or seventh) figure. Where there was a little corner, at ninety degrees to the others, and looking very cross at his or her neglect, was an androgynous black-haired figure I didn’t know. The effect was a little like an apparition.

Another Byzantine

A.N. Other Byzantine

The things I photograph ritually are another type of apparition. The Byzantines’ love of trompe l’oeil in Hagia Sophia seems to offer an insight into their modes of thought.

The painted completions of patterns of arches present the idea that the church itself extends infinitely, or rather that it continues to exist in a conceptual dimension we see also in the carving of unliftable handles and unusable keys on the screen door; and the painting of further windows to round out actual apertures in the domes.

Two elements of this intrigue me: the landscapes revealed by those little dull windows don’t appear to be rooftops as we might expect, as though their world tilted or needed no floor; as though Byzantium was multi-dimensional, Escher-like.

And the motive for continuing the spectacle: why such a spectacular, daunting, magnificent space, built with the finest marbles and to the most brilliant design, somehow needs these elements – not as trickery, as the French expression suggests, but as a negation of the distinction between the physical and the imaginary.

Either would seem a wordless  insight worth having across the millennia.


Chatting as we got off the plane, back in Heathrow, I was trying to get at why Istanbul so engages my historical imagination. Something Richard had said earlier put this into focus.

I had been talking about that moment of disillusion when I realised Venice was made magnificent with the plunder from Constantinople, the short-sightedness of that material gain in relation to the weakening of Byzantium as a strategic bulwark against the encroaching Ottomans, so that three hundred years later Suleiman’s armies were besieging Vienna.

He compared this to venture capitalism in its contempt for the social and ecological order, suggesting it was a prototype of this mode of thought.

I thought this went to the heart of the European fixation with Constantinople: it is the place where hegemony was disproved, where ‘our’ dominance was first shown to have limitations, and where the possibility that the Other had powers, rights and values had to be faced.

So it was ignored, and the fall of ‘Rome’ focussed on instead. Because ‘we’ did that.

But as much as Byzantium was repressed, so the Ottomans became a major feature of the Great Game, with all the major powers propping or undermining it right through to Lloyd George’s support for Venizelos’s Megali Idea in the 20s, and the subsequent terrible ethnic cleansings which stripped Greece and Turkey of their ‘non-native’ populations. The ‘wrong’ had to be righted by a catalogue of further wrongs – and still it failed.

Along these lines, Tolkein’s Lord Of The Rings counters the siege in 1453 with denial through fantasy – Gondor, unlike Constantinople, is relieved. The Turk as Orc is made a monster of otherness, the West recast as Rohan, Gondor as Byzantines, and the Elves as their Classical heritage.

In this sense, Yeats’s lovely poems are a return of the repressed in an idealised form, a Byzantine Twilight.


About W N Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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2 Responses to Hagia Sophia as Trompe l’Histoire

  1. Ian says:

    It seems I’m married to an Orc. She isn’t going to like that.

  2. Bill Herbert says:

    Orcs are cool. The hobbit and the goblin should be friends, as they sing in Orklahoma.

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