Posted by: John Looker | 6 March, 2011


Here is the fourth of five poems, and several ‘prose-poem’ links, in a series about Istanbul and its history.


Standing beneath the monumental dome
of Aya Sofya, we stare as though in a dream.
The splendour, plus the illusion of weightlessness,
lead us to think of paradise.
Pillars, arches, galleries, vault: they soar
like a mountain seen from inside.
We stand on the ocean bed
looking up and up to the glittering film above.

Soon however the eye will turn detective.
All around are clues to the scars inflicted
by earthquake, fire and war – or by self-harm
in the sad years of iconoclasm.
Worst of all was the treachery shown by Crusaders,
tearing apart the altar,
desecrating the pulpit,
and shipping away treasures and sacred relics.

How could the people bear such depredation?
We know that the human spirit has a compulsion
to keep on going. There’s proof in this museum:
the figures, the faces, in late mosaics
exceed in beauty those in earlier art.
There’s a fire that can’t be dimmed,
a river that won’t be dammed,
and seed in the soil that must, that will, germinate.

© John Stevens 2011

I’ve taken the metre from WB Yeats’s poem Byzantium.

For more information about Aya Sofia, or Hagia Sophia, or the Church of Holy Wisdom, see the website of Istanbul Portal at


  1. It was worth the wait, John. I especially like the image of the ‘mountain seen from inside’, and the hope and defiance in the closing line. I’m also fascinated by your description of the marks left by history on this building; the great cathedrals I’ve visited in England and France are almost too perfect, which makes them rather remote and cold. It seems to me you’ve found a real humanity in this place. I’m also really impressed by your use of the Yeats metrical scheme; it provides a foundation and a structure – an architecture, if you like – that’s entirely appropriate for a piece about an ancient building, but without seeming in any way ‘forced’. Very nicely done.

    I notice you describe this place as a ‘museum’, which makes me wonder if there’s another potential poem hiding in here. I guess for most people, Aya Sofia is simply an attraction on the ‘must-see’ list for Istanbul, like St Paul’s or Westminster Abbey for visitors to London. Has our relationship with these buildings changed irrevocably in a secular age? Does it matter? And are we now preserving these places simply because of their architectural, artistic and cultural value?

    None of which takes anything away from this piece, which I really enjoyed reading!


  2. Thanks a lot, Nick. The building is indeed one of the world’s greatest: a church (Roman) for a thousand years, a mosque for 500 and a museum for the best part of a century. It’s taken a bashing at the hands of history but the Turkish state has been good to it, preserving Christian mosaics as well as Islamic scriptures, and even uncovering the faces of seraphim which had been obliterated at some point in Ottoman rule (and which are truly poignant in their expression).


  3. John,

    I am intrigued by the idea of taking the metre from another poem in order to provide a sense of continuity. I shall tuck the idea away for future reference. 🙂

    As regards –
    “Pillars, arches, galleries, vault: they soar
    like a mountain seen from inside.
    We stand on the ocean bed..”

    I thought you might be interested in a blog by a photographer friend of mine. This link should take you there


  4. I’ve clicked through to your friend’s blog as you suggested. What extraordinary and beautiful photographs – and an interesting historical inquiry too! I need to visit County Antrim sometime.


    • It is a beautiful part of the world John.

      Although granted I may be just a tad biased 🙂


  5. Wonderful, the way you look at this masterpiece of culture that gives you inspiring memories! 🙂


    • Thank you Ina. It’s hard not to be inspired by this building.


  6. It seemed weighty in the first few lines, which was a perfect beginning because the lift into ‘awe’ at what you were seeing from then on (and feeling) was transportative. Fantastic.


    • Thank you for this generous response Kiersty, and for your continuing readership. I’m sorry to be slow in responding but I’ve been out of internet contact for the past 2 days.


  7. Hi John—
    And Bravo! This is a nice poem, fully formed and—how shall I say?—stately. You move us from inside a mountain to the bottom of the sea without our quite noticing. The point of view—the ‘us’—that is visiting is interesting. It lets you preserve the twin perspectives of the tourist traveling—I have an image in my mind of the tour group being herded through, the guide being both informative and boring—and somebody, somebody, sharply observing, wondering at the significance of it all, if indeed it has any significance. The effect is of a group commenting (the tourists) on a larger group (humanity).A fire, a river, a seed…
    The innerworld of the outerworld of the innerworld…
    …you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
    I do miss someone who is not part of the tour, though.
    But, you know, that’s just me. We write different types of poems, do we not?
    Great job.


    • I’m just catching up after 2 days without logging on, so a belated thanks for these remarks – I always value your comments, so it’s especially encouraging to feel that something appears to have worked well.
      You’re right about the group voice in this series of poems – I’m adopting the same collective perspective in the 5th and last one, now under draft.
      Yep, different types of poems, Jim – that’s all part of the fun.


  8. This is a great poem, John. I like poems that rummage through history and come out not only telling a serious story seriously, but manages to find the kernel of the seed in soil that can bloom profusely into knowledge, wisdom, and art. This poem does all of that for me. In the end buildings and art are extensions of the human spirit expressed through our consciousness. Good work.


    • You are very kind. I enjoyed writing this one. I thought of it as an ode, in the sense of being a celebration of the building and its significance.


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