by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Despite thousands of tourists and dozens of reconstructions, the former church and mosque is one of the few monuments that look more resplendent in real life than in the guidebooks

hagia sophia 2.jpg

To enter the naos of the church, referred to as the Great Church by citizens of Constantinople when it was first built, visitors have to pass through the narthex and one of its nine arched doors. Most people choose to enter through the middle door, the largest, above which is a mosaic depicting Emperor Constantine the Great and Emperor Justinian offering the Virgin Mary and young Jesus small-scale models of Constantinople and the church. The stone floor on either side still carries the dents that mark the places where sentinels stood for some 1,000 years, guarding the gate through which only the sovereign could enter.

Justinian first passed through this entrance on 27 December 537 on the occasion of the consecration of the church, the construction of which had depleted the state treasury so much that new taxes had been levied. He was so stunned by the magnificence of what he saw that he exclaimed, "Oh Solomon, I have surpassed thee!" The Byzantine emperor did manage to surpass the king of the Jews. Despite earthquakes, invasions and a change in the gods it was devoted to, Hagia Sophia still stands by the Golden Horn, near the ruins of the Byzantine Hippodrome, the Blue Mosque and the Topkap? Palace of the Turkish sultans. It has been a museum since 1935 and is a must-see for all tourists coming to Istanbul.

The minbar, whence the muezzin calls to prayers, was installed as part of the reconstruction works by Swiss architects Fossati

Even 15 centuries on, anyone entering the building for the first time can still feel some of Justinian's excitement. Hagia Sophia is one of the few cases in which the superlatives of guidebooks pale in comparison with the true glory of the monument. Even Procopius of Caesarea, Justinian's court historian, who officially praised his master's constructions and military pursuits, but severely criticised them in his The Secret History, could not contain his admiration for the building, which was the largest church in the world in those times.

The light coming from the 40 windows of the 56 metre, or 184 ft high dome, with a diameter of 31 m, or 101 ft, gives the illusion that it is not standing on solid brick walls, but, to use Procopius's words, "covers the place beneath as though it were suspended from heaven by the fabled golden chain." The impression is so strong that even the restoration workers' scaffolding rising in the middle of the church can't spoil it.

How much longer this scaffolding will remain in Hagia Sophia is a question that no one can answer. At least, not before an important argument is settled: are they to restore the quotation from the The Light Verse (24:35) in the apex, inscribed by the famous calligrapher Mustafa Izzet Efendi in 1837-1839, or to remove (and destroy) it to reveal the Byzantine mosaic of Christ Pantocrator which lies under it.

The mosaics of Hagia Sophia were covered with plaster in 1453 when Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror took Constantinople and converted the church into a mosque. The Swiss architect brothers Gaspar and Guiseppe Fossati are among the few people who have seen them since then. Sultan Abdul Mecit I hired the brothers to restore the building in 1847-1849, which allowed them to document the mosaics. A hundred years later, restoration is still largely based on the records they made when deciding which part of the Muslim compositions to remove in order to uncover the mosaics.

The Virgin with Child on the east apse, where the church altar used to stand, is one of these mosaics. Underneath it is the richly decorated mihrab, the niche pointing towards Mecca and the minbar, from where the muezzin preached. Turned into a museum by the reformer of the Turkish state, Kemal Ataturk, Hagia Sophia features the cultural heritage of two world empires. What remains from the Ottoman age is the sultan's pavilion; the oval medallions bearing the calligraphically inscribed names of Allah, the Prophet Mohammed and several caliphs; two marble ablution urns brought from Pergamum on orders of Murad III; several sultans' tombs; a washing fountain in the yard; and four minarets.

Apart from the architecture, the remnants of the former Byzantine splendour comprise only a few mosaics, most of which are in the south wing of the gallery encircling the central hall from the north, west and south.

The reason for this is not the Turks, but other Christians, and if you take a careful look, you will still find traces of the man who was responsible for the looting of what was the most lavishly decorated Christian building in the world.

Hagia Sophia houses a number of magnificent Ancient Greek marble vases brought in from Pergamon

Hagia Sophia houses a number of magnificent Ancient Greek marble vases brought in from Pergamon

While contemplating the game of light on the golden background of the mosaic of Christ with the Virgin and St John the Baptist in the south wing of the gallery, you may fail to notice the small plaque on the floor by the opposite wall. Be sure to take a look. As the inscription relates, the Venetian doge Enrico Dandolo was buried here in 1205. Though old and blind, he was a calculating man and managed to convince the knights of the Fourth Crusade, who were indebted to the Republic of San Marco, that it was more commendable to pillage the richest city in the world than to liberate the Holy Land.

Constantinople fell on 14 April 1204, devastated by the knights. According to the accounts of Niketas Choniates, the conquerors entered Hagia Sophia with their horses and mules, desecrated the icons, smashed the remains of dozens of saints, trampled the communion bread and drank the holy wine. They smashed the altar to remove its precious stones, stripped the walls and doors of their gold and silver decoration and placed a prostitute on the Patriarch's throne who, as Choniates wrote, "was singing an obscene song and dancing frequently." When there was nothing more to loot, the church was turned into a Catholic cathedral and remained such until 1261 when the Greeks regained Constantinople.

For nearly four centuries, Dandolo's tomb has been empty. Allegedly, the other conquerors of Constantinople, the Turks, unearthed his remains and fed them to their dogs.

Huge medallions bearing the names of God and His Prophet hang from the church's second level

Huge medallions bearing the names of God and His Prophet hang from the church's second level

Today, the Turks deny desecrating Dandolo's grave, but irrespective of what happened to the bones of the Venetian doge, what he and the other crusaders did was irreversible. After 1204, neither the Byzantine Empire, nor its capital, or its main church would recover their former glory. When Sultan Mehmed II first stood before Hagia Sophia, it was neglected and on the verge of decay, like the empire he had just destroyed.

Its beginning, however, was completely different. When Justinian decided to build a new church, the scale of which had not been seen before, on the site of the Hagia Sophia built by Constantius II, his reputation was badly in need of such a publicity project. The emperor was experiencing problems with Persia and the opposition within his own country, which had taken advantage of the Nika riots in 532 to gain power. Only days after crushing the mutinies, during which half of Constantinople, including the old Hagia Sophia, was brought down, Justinian laid the first stone of the new church.

Two famous architects, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, were commissioned with the ambitious task of designing a domed building similar to the Pantheon in Rome. Justinian spared no expense. The amount he spent on Hagia Sophia would equal $7,500,000 today. This may not seem much, but we should not forget that labour cost next to nothing and transport was cheap in Late Antiquity. The money went to hire thousands of workers and buy construction materials from across the empire: eight red porphyry pillars from Rome (stolen centuries earlier from the temple in Heliopolis in Egypt); ivory icons; gold ornaments from the ancient temples in Ephesus, Kizikos, Delphi and Baalbek; white marble from the Marmara Islands; green marble from Euboea; red marble from Synada; and yellow marble from Africa.

The mihrab, oriented toward Mecca, was installed by Sultan Mehmed II

The mihrab, oriented toward Mecca, was installed by Sultan Mehmed II

The church's greatest treasure, however, was its cupola. Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus designed a perfect sphere, slightly smaller than the dome of the Pantheon. It stood on architectural elements that had not been used until then: pendentives. These triangular structures still hold the dome aloft today above the medallions bearing the names of Allah and the Prophet Mohammed.

Twenty years and three earthquakes later, Hagia Sophia narrowly escaped becoming another lost wonder of ancient architecture. The builders had used more plaster than necessary for the brick walls, which made them unstable. Justinian was in a hurry and the workers did not wait for the mortar to dry before laying the next layer of masonry. The walls sagged under the enormous weight of the dome, and most of it collapsed in 558.

Restored by Isidore the Younger, a nephew of the deceased Isidore of Miletus, the cupola would never look the same as it did in 537. To increase its stability, the architect changed its shape, raising it by 2.65 m, or 8.7 ft. He also added the first buttresses to reinforce the weak walls. The new dome collapsed in 563.

This marked the beginning of a long battle fought out between Hagia Sophia and gravity, which continued with varying degrees of success over the next centuries. Other famous builders lent a hand too, like Trdat the Architect, an Armenian who designed the Catholical Palace and Mother Cathedral in Ani, and Sinan (1489-1588), the best Ottoman architect in history. The first restored the dome in 994 and the second substituted the old minarets for new ones and reinforced the walls again.

Hagia Sophia has been proposed as one of the new seven wonders of the world

Hagia Sophia has been proposed as one of the new seven wonders of the world

The dozens of reconstructions mean that the exterior of Hagia Sophia will hardly catch the eye of those who have come to Sultanahmet Square for the first time on an obligatory part of the tourist route: the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace, the Hippodrome and the Basilica Cistern. Those who try to make out its silhouette from the opposite shore of the Golden Horn are often disappointed. From a distance, Hagia Sophia appears small, unsightly and indistinguishable amongst the bigger and smaller mosques which endlessly mimic its domes and minarets.

The tight security at the museum entrance and the bare brick walls of the narthex do not do anything to add to one's enthusiasm. But these are instantly forgotten with the very first step through the Emperor's Gate and the first reathtaking sight of the dome, which still seems to be suspended, magically, floating in the air.

The Secret of the Mosaics

Mosaics Hagia Sophia

The mosaics of Hagia Sophia are among the best preserved examples of the art form which was deemed worthy of representing imperial dignity in Byzantium. The easternmost end of the south wing of the gallery, which was restricted for the use of the emperor only, still has the images of John Comnenus and his wife Irene standing on either side of the Virgin with Child. Their son Alexis, who died before his father, is by their side. On the left, you will see a scene depicting Empress Zoe and her third husband Constantine Monumachas, standing by Christ's throne.

It is a particularly difficult task to create a picture out of numerous coloured tiles stuck onto wet plaster. But Byzantine masters knew the tricks of their trade and gave the images life and the illusion of movement, even when the postures were stiff and stilted.

They arranged the golden tesserae in the background at slightly oblique angles so that they reflected the light in different directions, bringing the scene to life.

Fighting Legends

When the Ottoman Turks entered Constantinople, a terrified crowd gathered in Hagia Sophia, where two priests performed one last service. Then they disappeared into the cathedral's walls and, as legend has it, will only appear again on the day the city returns to Christian hands.

The legends of Hagia Sophia's last hours as a church provoke curious reactions in Turkish tour guides, who claim that such stories "are only designed to discredit the Turks". They fume with indignation at the tale about the imprint of a hand on the upper part of one of the columns. The story goes that Mehmed II rode his horse into the church, crushing the bodies lying around and, as a symbol of his victory, pressed his hand against the column. It is difficult to believe that this really happened. But if you meet somebody who takes the story seriously, you can always prove him wrong using
the logical arguments of the Turkish tour guides against "this absurd piece of fiction".

They range from the height of the column where the imprint is, which can't be reached by a man even "from the back of an elephant" to the hypothesis that this is the hand of the Virgin, which was initially imprinted in the church of Theodokos in Blacherna Palace.

The weeping column does not rouse such passions. The moisture which has been oozing from it since the 13th Century when St Gregory the Miracle-Worker appeared nearby, reportedly has healing properties, but is now regarded as just another tourist attraction.

The Church of Wisdom

Most people find it hard to explain why the largest church of the Byzantine Empire was named after the relatively unknown Saint Sophia. In fact, it wasn't. Its Greek name was Hagia Sophia, which means Holy Wisdom. This reflects the old Christian belief that absolute wisdom is one of the attributes of God. The idea is not at odds with Islam and for this reason the name was not changed when the church was converted into a mosque, but only translated as Aya Sofia.


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