Standing in the gardens outside Hagia Sophia, surrounded by tulips and hundreds of heads beading sweat, my father and I eat fresh roasted chestnuts from a bag.
My father is blind and I am in Istanbul with him for electro-acupuncture treatments meant to strengthen his retinas. We haven’t noticed any progress yet, but we are trying to make the most of our time here.
The Blue Mosque is behind us — it and Hagia Sophia are constantly in a stare-down. But we are not here to see the Blue Mosque. We came for Hagia Sophia, because it’s a piece of Greek history.
On each cart selling chestnuts, there is also a stack of roasted corn. There must be twenty carts mixed between the people and the two buildings.
My father eats the last chestnut, then crumples the bag. He is smiling, but I am still distracted from our journey here, all the way from the suburban flat where we’re staying. He can sense my stress, so he asks me which way is the nearest tree. I lead him to it, over a small iron gate, and we crunch five steps over spring grass.
Together, feet planted in the grass, we take a moment to let go of the tourism overload — the yells, laughs, ever-present plumes of smoke from the aforementioned snack carts — to stroke the trunks of the palms, and — by mistake — the pole of a lamppost.
We both laugh, and suddenly I am at ease.
Ever since I was little, my father has taught me to touch leaves, door keys, and window panes. He has taught me to understand the world the way he does — through touch and scent. I can even remember him teaching me that if I face North, my shadow will mirror the big hand on a clock, and I can always know what time it is.
The sun shines from every direction. We are two figures in a wave of cantaloupe- and honey-flavored aromas mixing into cigarettes and the fragrant steam from coffee cups. Birds fly high above the gardens.
“This sun,” my father says, standing next to a palm tree with rough bark, “is why the trees are so strong and the flowers fragrant.”
It’s obvious, of course. But, it’s also remarkable to me that — amongst two hundred other tourists — someone might take the time to stroke tree trunks and appreciate how the sun’s heat feeds the Earth.
My father is far too stubborn to let me steer him, so when we step out of the green, I tell him to mind the one-foot tall iron borders separating the paved path from the grass and tulips.
From here, we go toward the large marble doors marking the elaborate main entrance of Hagia Sophia. He is so excited to see Greece outside of its borders.
Just two steps inside and there’s a rush of cool air created by the marble and circular structure of the dome roof. Some philosophers say that an Orthodox church structure such as Hagia Sophia, originally built under the reign of Alexander the Great, is more mothering and collective than the opposing Evangelical church structure, which has a pointed top that represents a means to an end. I think about this comparison because — after only a few moments inside the building — my father and I are overtaken with an awe so unclouded it could never be defined.
“Hagia Sophia,” my father says as we make our way to the center of the bottom floor, “truly does hold up to its name.”
In Greek, Hagia Sophia, pronounced ‘aye-yee-uh so-fee-uh,’ translates to ‘Holy Wisdom.’
Aside from the grey-beige marble, the majority of the cathedral’s embellishments are black and gold. Two cats roaming the ground floor, sitting when they feel like it, then yawning and staring at mosaics on the wall, bring to life a fantasy that we are in a time long past.
Large black circular plaques with gold writing outline the balcony edges from the top floor. The writing is an Islamic calligraphy — these plaques were put in when Hagia Sophia was taken over by the Ottoman Empire and turned into a mosque.
Beginning our trek to the top floor, we pass through a white stone hallway with lit candles fastened to the wall. They are the only source of light. The first thing I see as we exit the hallway is the remnants of tiled mosaics.
I describe the art to my father: A painting of one man’s face inside brown and blue wings that form the shape of a human body wrapped like a mummy, a half-worn vision of Jesus and Mother Mary draped in red, a small room with framed mandala-portraits embellished, again, in Islamic calligraphy.
But, then, I stop. My father is running his hands along the marble rails that support the large black plaques we saw from below. There is a tranquility in his expression, and I realize that I don’t need to explain everything I see. He is seeing just fine, perhaps better than I am.
So, just like I did when I was a child, I run my fingers along the marble rails, mimicking what my daddy is doing.
The rails are cold and sleek, and powerful. My father doesn’t see the grin stretching across my face. Having a blind father sometimes means that I take the more responsible role, but in this moment, I am a little girl again, learning from this wise man who has a gift of perceiving the world in a way most parents never could.
Side by side, we circle the top floor, brewing ideas of how Hagia Sophia had been built, conquered, reconquered, restored. We know that Istanbul has long past its days as Constantinople, that Hagia Sophia has been stripped of most its gold and ruled by various empires, and that the building itself has ranged from Orthodox church to mosque to museum, but we don’t know the whole history, and probably won’t bother to find it out. Being Greeks, we prefer to imagine Hagia Sophia in its prime: Alexander the Great’s Greek Orthodox Church, dipped in gold.
It’s hot as we step out of the building and the chill from the marble disintegrates. We walk back across the pavement that stretches between palm trees, tulips, chestnut carts, and tourists.
We don’t say a thing. There are more people here than when we first went inside, but I’m not fazed. Everything is brighter and quieter now.
Plus, my father and I have a meatball restaurant in mind. Sultanahmet Koftecisi Selim Usta. A friend recommended it, so we know it will be good.
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