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Hagia Sophia - beautiful church, mosque and museum

Byzantine Church
The Byzantine Empire was vast, powerful civilisation traced back to 330 AD when the Roman emperor Constantine I (272–337) dedicated a New Rome. Constantine I had been a pagan before he con­verted to Christian­ity and after he died, his son Constantine II saw Byzantine needed its own temple. Thus Hagia Sophia was consec­rated by Constantine II in 360.

The wooden-roofed basilica was damaged in 404 by a fire that er­up­ted dur­ing a riot. In Eastern Europe, where the Orthodox church flour­ished, the Greek Cross design(+) dominated. In contrast to the long nave crossed at one end by a tran­sept, Eastern churches had 4 wings of equal size, out of a central, square cross­ing.

The restored buil­d­ing was re-dedic­ated in 415 by a great orthodox bel­iever Emperor Theo­d­osius II. His architrave of 12 sheep rep­res­ented the 12 apostles of Christ, in front of the monumental entrance.

By 532, Emperor Justinian I had ruled the empire for 5 years. But people resented Justin­ian's high taxes and wanted him out of off­ice. When a riot spread across the city, the rioters chanted Nika-victory and besieged the Emperor in his palace. After moving loyal troops into the city Justinian brutally put down the rebellion.

A month after the 532AD Nika Insurrection, Justinian began re­building Hagia Sophia. In 537, he entered the completed build­ing saying Solomon, I Have Surpassed you!, a reference to Solomon’s Great Temple in Jerusalem. Rising along the shore of the Bosph­orus Sea, the cathedral was the most important Byzant­ine structure.

To build Hagia Sophia, Just­inian turned to Anth­emius of Tralles & Isidore the Elder. In time the men did get the magnificent domed roof to stand and it looked to be “susp­ended from heaven by that golden chain”. [It col­l­­apsed 2 decades later and an architect had to rebuild a roof].

The sunlight em­­anating from Hagia Sophia’s 40 windows surround­ing its lofty cup­ola, 
suffusing the interior and irradiating its gold mosaics. Magical!

Alas Hagia Sophia, finished in 537 AD, couldn’t survive the earth quakes of 557 and both arches and the main dome collapsed. It would not be the last earthquake.

When Hagia Sophia re-emerged, the longitudinal bas­il­ica had a 32-metre main dome supported on pendentives & semi-domes! The dimensions were imp­ressive for any structure not built of steel: 82 meters long and 73 meters wide.  There were 3 aisles separ­at­ed by columns with gal­l­eries above, and great marb­le piers rising up to support the dome.

32-metre main dome

The original decorations were originally very sim­ple. There were a number of mosaics that have been added over the centuries - images of the imperial family, of Christ and of diff­erent emperors. In the 8th & C9th, there was an Era of Icon­oclasm (726–87 and 815–43 when imperial legislation barred figural imag­es) that resulted in some mosaics being destroyed. Instead the cross was pro­m­ot­ed as the most acceptable decorative form for Byzantine churches.

When the decoration of the interior of Hagia Soph­ia resumed, each emperor added his own image.
Note the mosaic on the apse of the church showing a huge Virgin Mary with Jesus (867 AD).

Now to the C11th when the Byzantines suffered losses in both its West and East lands. At first the Byzantines coop­er­ated with Crusaders against Turks & Arabs. But after the 2nd & 3rd Crusades, Crusaders couldn’t recapture Jerusalem.

In 1204 the 4th Crusaders, led by Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo, invaded Constantinople with his giant navy. The Doge plund­ered the city for 3 days. Relics of the True Cross, gold art, plates, chal­ices and furn­ishings were sent to churches in Venice, Germany and It­aly. Venice’s four bronze Horses of Saint Mark came from Hagia Sophia.

Ottoman mosque
The next chapter in Hagia Sophia’s history began in 1453 when the Byzantine Empire ended and Constantinople fell to the armies of Mehmed II, the young sultan (23) of the Ottoman Empire (1444-46 and 1451-81). Hagia Sophia was looking tragic, yet the Christian cathedral made a strong impression on the new Ottoman rulers. The last Christian emperor, Constantine XI, bid farewell to his peop­le, prayed in Hagia Sophia, rode into battle and died.

Sultan Meh­med entered the city, giving his soldiers 3 days to loot the churches and houses. In Hagia Sophia, he dest­royed the Christ­ian altar and converted the church into a mos­que by adding a minbar, mihrab, mad­rasa, chand­elier and wooden minaret. The Big Cross on the dome and the bell tower were of course remov­ed by The Ottoman Conqueror.

Hagia Sophia underwent many changes in the reigns of each Ottoman Sultan. Mehmed II’s first wooden minaret was rebuilt by Selim II (1566-1574). Sultan Bayezid II (1447–1512) erected a narrow white minaret with brick stone on the southeast side of the mosque min­ar­et. The other two identical minarets on the western side (60 ms) were built by Selim II and Murad III, both of whom commis­s­ioned Mimar Sinan the Grand Architect (1490-1588).

Four slender minarets, 60 ms tall

Suleyman the Magnificent (1520–66) put two candlestick beside the mihrab, taken in his Hungarian campaign. A marble muez­zin plat­form and al­abaster urns were added, in the reign of Mur­ad III (1566–95). Later Mahmud I (1696–1754) added a school for children-madrasa and a mosque lib­rary adorned with Iznik tiles and bronze grilles.

Mosaics were mostly covered with plaster. In 1847, a restoration was started by Swiss archit­ects Giuseppe & Gaspare Fossati (1809-1883), the men who had earlier been official arch­itects at the St Petersburg court. The broth­ers uncov­ered the hidden mosaics, show­ing all the gold to the Sultan. But the Sultan didn’t dare dis­p­lay Orthodox images.

Around the dome, a callig­rapher created 8 wooden green round­els 
bear­ing the names of God, Mohammed & grandsons; and four caliphs.

Present-day museum 
Throughout Byzantine and Ottoman history, the building served as the Imperial Church or Mosque where Emperors were crowned, vict­or­ies celebrated and Sultans prayed. The Turkish Republic was proc­laimed by Mustafa Kemal At­at­ürk in 1923. As a step en route to a secular country, the Turkish govern­ment “dereligionised” Hagia Sophia and turned it into a museum in 1934. Research, repair and restoration work still cont­in­ues, as does tourism. Since 1985 Hagia Sophia became part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. For magnificent photos see here.


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