VISITS TO ST. SOPHIA
Volume 3 Number
In spite of injunctions and severe penalties, travellers from the
West got into mosques and jotted down, to greater or lesser extent,
what they saw there. These visits started as early as Islam with
Bishop Arculf in Jerusalem, c. 700, and several took place in the
post-Crusades, religiously variegated Levant. Here is what Fescobaldi
had to say, c. 1335: "There are the mosques....which have neither
carvings nor paintings, nay, they are inside all white and plastered
and pargeted [decorated plaster]. On their steeples they have no
bells....and on the steeples stand their chaplains and clerics day
and night, who shout when it is the hour, just as we ring....Early
on Mondays they shout on the top of their mosques, that the people
go to wash at their baths that their prayers may be heard in the
sight of God and Mohammd. Having washed, about noon, they go to
their mosques to make their prayers, which take about two hours.
As said, their mosques are all white inside, with a big number of
lighted lamps, and they all have a courtyard in the middle, and
they do not wish any Christian to enter them; and who enters does
so on pain of death, or renegs the faith." (1)
In this vein, three visits to a particular Constantinople mosque,
the former St. Sophia church, are of note:
Sandys, on visits to five mosques, including St. Sophia, c. 1610.
"The floores of the Monuments [shrines] are spread with carpets...[and
they]...on entering [mosques], sit crosse legged upon rews of
Mats, one behind another, the poore and the rich promiscously."
John Bell, on St. Sophia, c. 1720.
"Nevertheless, we were conducted up a pair of back stairs
to the gallery, from whence we had a full view of the whole. The
floor is laid with clean mats and carpets, having no seat, only
one pulpit for the Mullah." (3)
Richard Pococke, on St. Sophia, c. 1737. "...it is
hung with a great number of glass lamps, and the pavement is spread
with the richest carpets, where the sophtis are always studying
and repeating the alcoran..." (4)
One thing traveller reports have in common is opaqueness; the irony
here is that waryness must be the watchword because the observations
are a little too clear: in plain English, at the same place, and
with distinction between mat and carpet. The message suggests a
floor covering progression from mats to carpets. Too pat for a conclusion,
but a good signpost to a likely transition period in the floor decor
of a major metropolitan mosque, in turn, perhaps a clue to the evolution
of prayer rugs.
- Fescobaldi, Niccolo, "Pilgrimage of...", in Visit
to the Holy Places, trans.Theo. Bellorini, Franciscan Press,
Jerusalem, 1948, p. 41.
- Sandys, George, "George Sandys Journey" in Purchas
His Pilgrimes, Vol. 9, Ch. VIII, Glasgow reprint, 1905, p. 114,
- Bell, John, "Travels from St. Petersburg to Various Parts
of Asia", in Pinkerton, Voyages and Travel, 1811, Vol.
7, p. 611.