Referred to as the Church of the Holy Wisdom for many centuries, the Hagia Sophia is the most important Byzantine structure and one of the world’s great monuments. This incredible structure has been a church for 916 years, a mosque for 482 years, and now a museum for over 82 years!
The original cathedral is said to have been built by Constantine the Great in 325, on the foundations of a pagan temple. After a fire in 404, it was restored under the rule of Theodosius II. Once again it was destroyed, this time in the fires of the Nika Rebellion of 532.
The current structure was built between 532 and 537. It was ordered and personally supervised by Emperor Justinian. The architects, tasked with bringing to life the grandiose vision of the Emperor Justinian, were Anthemius of Tralles and Isidoros of Miletus – who were professors of geometry at the University of Constantinople.
The great dome was rebuilt after an earthquake caused its collapse in 557; then rebuilt by Isidoros the Younger; there were other partial collapses in 989 and 1346.
Header photo © Brian Jeffery Beggerly
The main architectural feature is the awe-inspiring 32-meter center dome pierced at the bottom by closely spaced windows and supported on pendentives (a triangular segment of a spherical surface) and two semi-domes. The jambs were lined in gold mosaic, thus reflecting golden light and creating the magical illusion of a suspended dome floating above the visual splendor of the cathedral.
Such a vast building at the center of court life required a significant body of people for both ceremonial functions and upkeep. At the time of Justinian, the Hagia Sophia was staffed by 60 priests, 100 deacons, 40 deaconesses, 90 subdeacons, 110 lectors, 25 psalmists, and 100 doorkeepers. (from Justinian’s Flee by Julian Rosen)
The Basilica was looted in 1204 by the Venetians and the Crusaders on the Fourth Crusade. These invaders also replaced the patriarch of Constantinople with a Latin bishop. The outcome was the division of the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. The crusaders took much with them and most of Hagia Sophia’s riches can be seen today, not in Istanbul, but in the treasury of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.
Above detail of the mosaic in the Vestibule of the Warriors (Circa X century) Virgin and Child between Justinian I presenting the church of the Hagia Sophia (left), which he rebuilt. and Constantine tine the Great holding a model of the city of Constantinople (Istanbul) as an offering (right)
After the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Mehmed II had the Hagia Sophia morphed into the principal mosque of Istanbul. With the addition of minarets, a mihrab (a niche indicating the direction of Mecca), a minbar (pulpit), and disks bearing Islamic calligraphy – the immense building also became a model for many of the Ottoman mosques.
The Ottoman conquerors continued a symbolic interpretation, fabricating an Ottoman past and a Muslim legend for the building. Eventually, all the human faces depicted in the church’s mosaics were covered in plaster due to the Islamic prohibition of figurative imagery.
In 1934 Atatürk secularized the building, and in 1935 it was made into a museum
The re-discovery of the figural mosaics after the secularization of Hagia Sophia was guided by the descriptions of the Fossati brothers, who had uncovered them a century earlier for cleaning and recording. The Fossatis also added the calligraphic roundels that remain today. They were commissioned to calligrapher Kazasker Izzet Efendi and replaced older panels hanging on the piers. (Holly Hayes)
The Hagia Sophia is so vast and full of information, it is one of the places that a guide can be invaluable. However, We were not very lucky, not only our guide but the other ones we eavesdropped on, seamed to be on a script of bad jokes and Turkish religious propaganda; continuously omitting legend and facts. Hiring a local guide in sites like this one can expand one’s experience greatly. We recommend contacting the history and architectural faculties at local universities in order to get advice on how and where to hire a truly knowledgeable guide.
Above: “The name is given, Seraphim is Hebrew and means “burning ones” (plural; the singular form is seraph). They are the closest to the throne of God, and as such are flame-like, “For our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb 12:29);
The six wings are arranged in a particular way: two pointing down (covering the feet), two up (covering the face), and two outstretched (in order to fly). The face was covered by a star when it was converted into a Mosque; during our visit, the restoration department was starting to uncover the faces.
Mahmud, I ordered a restoration of the mosque in 1739 and added an ablution fountain
(90) 212 522 1750
Ayasofya Meydanı, Sultanahmet Fatih Istanbul, Turkey
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