Hagia Sophia – Evliya Çelebi and Depictions of the four angels

……. Evliya Çelebi’s description of Hagia Sophia in the first volume of the Seyahatname, which is corcerned with Istanbul, is exemptfrom this criticism. Detailed information about the architectural style, decorations and measurements of the building is provided.

Evliya Çelebi, who describes the masterly decorations of a European master called Erjek, with their strange forms, the peculiar magical angels and human depictions that were present in Hagia Sophia, speaks of the depiction of angels, one in each of the four corners; they were painted so that their feet were placed on the upper level of the large dome. These angels Gabriel, Mikhael, Israfel end Azrael. With open wings they measure more than fifty arshin (Ottoman measure of length; 1 ar = 68 cm). When Prophet Muhammad came into the world these angels spoke from mouths that were located in the middle of their stomachs. Gabriel announced what would happen in the east, Michael gave news of “enemies appearing, famine and poverty” while Israfel gave news about what would happen in the North and Azrael gave news of the death of a variety of rulers throughout the world. After the birth of Propet Muhammad the magical qualities of these pictures no longer existed.

Of the four angels, the names of Gabriel, Israfel and Mikhael are found in the Qur’an. Even though an angel of  death is mentioned, the name Azrael does not occur in the Qur’an. The Muslims learned this name from the Christians and Jews

When Evliya Çelebi describes the angels, he mentions their physical appearance as well as their functions. Meşkure eren writes that Evliya Çelebi bases his information about Hagia Sophia directly or indirectly on Tacü’t-tevarih, Sahaifü’l ahbar, Künhü’l ahbar and Tevarih-i Ayasofya. In addition these, we know that the Islamic sources started to provide information about Hagia Sophia at an early date. The leading sources were written by Arabs who fell prisoner to the Byzantines. In fact, Oleg Grabar writes that in the seventh and eight centuries the symbolsof Eastern Christianity were used to trick and win over those who were not of their religion. Hagia Sophia formed the high point for Muslim who came to Constantinople. The Islamic sources state that the prisoners who fell captive did not turn away from their religion though they sighted the glory of the church, while the Christian  sources state the complete opposite, saying that these people abondoned their former religion.

Stefanos Yerasimos states that in the early Arab sources the texts that were  concerned with Constantinople were far from being  “history”, but were rather “fantastic”. The interesting aspect of these books is that they mention the charmed objects are the most remarkable subject in the first volume of Seyahatname. Evliya çelebi must have read these sources, as he gives a great deal of information about the deciption of angels that cannot be found in the Qur’an. This information was recorded from traditional sources.  These sources were memoirs of Harun İbn Yahya, an Arab prisoner who was allowed to wonder freely around İstanbul, and Kisa’s Acaib al mahlukat and Taberi’s Tarih. Meşkure Eren writes that Taberi’s Tarih must have been one of Evliya Çelebi’s sources.

Oleg Grabar writes that the 90th verse of Surah Maida and 74th verse of Surah An’am in the Qur’an are not opposed to deciptive art, but to the wortshipping idols; the banning of illustrations/deciptive art, for example, Yezid’s edict, were introduced under the influence of Judaism. The fact that the Ottoman Turks worshiped in Hagia Sophia without removing the deciptions of the four angels described by Evliya çelebi may be explained with interpretation. This was the case until the Fossati brothers arrived in İstanbul.

At the end of the restoration work that was completed in 2010 it was discovered that the Fossati brothers, who had been given the task of carrying out a large number of restorations in İstanbul by Abdülmecid, had actually inflicted great demage to structures. Instead of restoring the valuable decorations, the Fossatis preferred to cover them up. The angels in Hagia Sophia are among embellishments that they covered up.

Before inflicting damage, the Fossati brothers made water color paintings of Hagia Sophia. In one of these pictures we can see the deciptions of the angels, even if not in detail. Moreover, a very valuable photograph of these images of the angels from the Ottoman period can be found in Vatican Archives. The photograph is taken from the same angle that Fossatis’ water color was executed and includes two of the angels. The angels’ faces are covered in this photograph, that is it must have taken immediately after the Fossatis’ restoration.

As a result of restoration work was completed in 2010 one of the angels revealed and art historians produced a great deal of misinformation to feed to the press. For example, the figure of an angel was thought to be a bat in the Ottoman period, the angels’ faces were all that was left uncovered, all four were Seraphim, and other such information was to be found in the newspapers, quoted from academics. However, as can be seen in photograph, the deciptions of angels were not covered during the Ottoman era. As can clearly be understood from Evl,ya Çelebi, the Ottomans did not think these were bats; quite the opposite, they knew what they were; better than contemporary researchers. As evliya Çelebi states that they spoke from their stomachs, it is the clear that both their faces and their wings were certainly not covered up.

Finally, the name Seraphim is nothing more than the Hebrew version of the name Israfel….

Alper Çeker –1453 Journal of Istanbul’s Culture and Art  2011/Issue 12

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