They are a humble people, the Christians. A cheek-turning, brother-loving, genuflecting lot. How appropriate, then, that in order to share their humility with all and sundry they would build gigantic, overwhelming, towering edifices to honor their modest carpenter.
Oh, but they sure knew how to build, those Christians of old. Vaulted archways 15 stories high so that your neck just bends back more and more to see it, and then your eyes descend once more, sliding down the chandeliers that hang down all the way to the level of your head. Marble pillars and gilded archways and the main basilica so huge that you cannot encompass it all, and find yourself rotating, panoramic, 360 degrees again and again just to absorb it all into your eyes.
Mosaics of saints line the walls, reconstructed. Icons of Christ remain as plaques on the wall, explaining their absence. The altar once contained a crucifix, I'm sure, now golden letters signal the power changing hands, Christians - OUT. Muslims - IN.
The muslims came in and made it their own. An illustration near the entrance shows how it was during the reign on Mehmet the Conqueror. The entire hallway, open, huge, carpeted entirely with, well, carpets. Red and green and all the weaves and woofs. Blue and yellow, interlocking flowers, the vaulted domes. Gigantic arabesques like rebuses and riddles. The lights shine in through windows and skylights and the whole place is full of people, getting ready for prayer. The size of the hall, the colorful carpets - it looks more like a bazaar than a church. If you let your imagination push back the walls, you can see plants and flowers growing along the sides. Maybe a small deer jumping through an archway. There is a magical quality to that painting, straight from Arabian Nights. I must find it, somewhere.
The place goes on. Zebra-striped marble walls. Pillars, marble, black or white, capped with doric, ionic, corinthian. Streaked walls, marble, horizontal, vertical, diagonal - the patterns change the higher you look, like geological formations revealed in cross-section.
And the stained glass windows, hallmarks of Christendom, long since shattered and replaced; the vivid blues and yellows shine arabesque sunbeams down on the altar, facing towards Mecca.
Above all, the place is overwhelming. It is not like Europe's dark, stony cathedrals, nor the shiny white marble churches. It is unashamedly, unabashedly huge, something only a Roman emperor at the peak of their decadence could build.
They bring schoolchildren here. You can tell. On the upper gallery, a low-hanging chandelier bears pen-marks of many schooltrips on its ceramic tip. Names and dates and exclamations of eternal friendship. What were they thinking?
Another strange moment. On the upper gallery there is a photo gallery. You walk through it, admiring the aspects of the place, and then it hits you: I'm in the Hagia Sophia, looking at photographs of the Hagia Sophia. Why?
I have no camera. I have no pictures.