Ayasofiya2by Maniza Naqvi DSC01672

Just Wow! At every turn, and corner in Istanbul—you are bound to say—Wow.

The obvious example is, of course, at the Basilica of Aya Sofiya—built by Emperor Justinian in 537 AD. Legend has it, that Justinian wanted this magnificent Eastern Orthodox Church, in its beauty and scale to rival Solomon's great Temple. So that even Solomon would have been Wowed. Whether, Solomon would have been Wowed, or not, subsequent emperors, certainly were—And in 1204, the Aya Sofiya, was converted to a Roman Catholic Church, and then in 1453 the Ottoman Emperor was certainly wowed, because he appropriated the Basilica, and converted it into a mosque,—which it remained till 1935, when it was turned into a museum, for a Basilica and a church and a mosque, by the State of Turkey. The histories of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, were now showcased, and encapsulated in one space. Istanbul, is afterall, just that kind of an ‘and-and' place. The word Aya, in Greek means holy, and Sofiya means wisdom. Aya Sofiya: Holy Wisdom.


When I visited, the Museum of Aya Sofiya, again this Spring, I moved away from the hordes of tourists, to a quieter corner, and found there a small display of calligraphy. Here, I saw depicted, in a single stroke of ink, the Arabic letter pronounced as wow. Letters of the Arabic alphabet are used as symbols in Sufism, to signify a greater meaning of perfection.

WowletterThe letter Wow, shaped like a bowed head, like a tadpole—like an embryo like a germinating seed, like the sun's millions of warm smiles on the waves of the water, takes just one stroke to create: one stroke, in a swirl like a strand of honey, dripping or a whirl—like a whirling dervish. It caught my eye, and reminded me of itself, in the thriving, pulsating streets, and cafes and mosques and later even on a friend's posting on facebook. Wow, wow, wow.

This letter Wow, has the numerical value of six, which also symoblizes perfection and resembles the number six as written in English. The Arabic word Wadood which begins with the letter Wow means love and is—one of the attributes of God. Thus, the letter Wow is shorthand for aspects of loving, in Sufi Orders. It symbolizes the sense of being spiritually elevated. And, the letter Wow is the first letter of how the word ‘and' is spelt in Arabic—Wa. Several verses of the Quran extolling love begin with words starting with the letter Wow. And so many of the verses begin with the word Wa meaning and. For example in the Chapter Al Buruj ‘And He is the Forgiving, the Loving, Lord of the Throne of Glory, Doer of what He wills.

Wow, in English, is used to express delightful surprise. The Oxford English Dictionary, online says that its origin as a natural exclamation, was first recorded in the early 16th century, in Scots. And online, I found an article on the etymology of Wow (here), which says, that the first published reference is in the Scottish Bishop, Gavin Douglas's 1513 translation of Virgil's Aeneid: “Out on thir wander and spiritis, wow! thow cryis.” The article says, that the word was in common usage, by the 1800s. According to the article, the earliest citation of the word, as an expression of astonishment , in a publication, was in Nada the Lily, by Rider Haggard in 1892.


Perhaps, the word Wow, made its way from Wadood, through its first evolution, Wah! In Urdu, the expression for praise is Wah! When the Scots came over to India, a few centuries ago, and heard the word used to express praise, and wonderment perhaps, they then, used it in turn, to express their opinion, of the country to its natives? Perhaps? Possible?

I went back, to visit the calligraphy again, later in the summer. The exhibit was gone. But everywhere I walked, and turned and looked, and listened, in this city on the Bosporus, filled with its own music and rhythm, as the full moon rose of the water, and as the sun set over the Minarets, and washed buildings and houses on the slopes in pink and gold, and as a multitude of calls to prayers, the azaan came cascading down the slopes, mixing in with the sounds of guitars, and violins and tambourines in the streets and cafes, there it was, stopping me in my tracks Wa–Whoa!

Wow just wow! Wah! Istanbul.