For centuries the most important church in Eastern Orthodoxy, Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”) in Constantinople (today's Istanbul) was a symbol of the greatness of the Byzantine Empire. The first church was built by the Emperor Constantine two years after his conversion in 322 ce. Two centuries later the Emperor Justinian commissioned the present basilica to celebrate his victory over the Nika revolt, which he put down brutally by slaughtering 30,000 rebels. Tradition has it that when Justinian rode into sight of Hagia Sophia on the day of its dedication in 537, he exclaimed, “Solomon, I have surpassed you!”
Magnificent in scope and an engineering feat of mammoth proportions, Hagia Sophia is the only true domed basilica in Christian architecture. The architects added to the Byzantine style, which is characterized by a vast central space for worshippers, by building a Western-style processional aisle. The dome itself is more than 100 feet in diameter, and at its base the walls are pierced by forty windows. The effect is one of lightness and buoyancy, not massiveness or heaviness. One hundred four slim marble columns bear the weight of the dome and walls. To make it possible for such slender pillars to support the tremendous mass, the columns are bound with metal rings. The tops of the columns are decorated in acanthus leaves, a Greek motif. Because the Byzantines had already invented the drill, the decorations are open and lacy, creating an impression of delicacy and lightness. Galleries circle the second level, providing segregated areas for men and women worshippers.
Hagia Sophia is intended to inspire awe. Its vast central space is open. The altar (long ago removed) was gold encrusted with jewels, and the sanctuary around it was inlaid with twenty tons of silver, with the most majestic of the mosaics covering the apex of the dome. This triumphal assertion of imperial wealth and power is underlined everywhere in the basilica. Emperors and their consorts are presented in mosaics as saints or shown by the side of Christ, and even the religious themes reflect imperial power. The Christ shown is never the suffering Savior but the creator and universal ruler. Justinian and his successors presided here over religious ceremonies of great splendor. Robed and bejeweled, surrounded on feast days by courtiers costumed as the Twelve Apostles, the emperor sat on a throne across from that of the patriarch and presided over church synods.
One of the most impressive mosaics is the apse mosaic of the Theotokos, Mary with the child Jesus. It was the first created (867) after the iconoclasts stripped Hagia Sophia of all its images. It is set against the original sixth-century gold background and is probably a reproduction. The huge Christ Pantocrator (“creator of all”), a universal theme in Byzantine mosaic art, towers over the Imperial Gate.
Because of its riches, Hagia Sophia was a target whenever the city was attacked. The worst damage was suffered in the sack of 1204, when Crusaders stripped it of its treasures. Catholic troops defiled the basilica, stabling their horses under the dome and installing a prostitute on the throne of the head of the Byzantine Church—all the while carrying on a drunken orgy and burning precious manuscripts and relics. This blasphemy was one of the causes of the break between Eastern and Western Christianity.
In 1453 the Turks captured the city, and the sultan promptly went in procession to Hagia Sophia to give thanks to Allah for his victory. Shortly after, the church was turned into a mosque and the mosaics were whitewashed, since Islam does not permit images. When Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, secularized the state after World War I, he turned Hagia Sophia into a museum and had the mosaics restored. The whitewash had actually protected them from erosion. The restored mosaics now share space with the Islamic Arab calligraphy that had replaced them. Outside, four minarets (prayer towers) were added during the Islamic period, as well as fountains for the cleansing rituals required of Muslims before entering a mosque.
Today the only prayer services held in the Hagia Sophia are Islamic; they take place in a small corner of the building. There is also a small prayer room both for Muslims and Christians in the museum complex. More radical Islamists want the Hagia Sophia restored as a mosque, which has caused suspicion of any foreign support, including financial, in the restoration of the mosaics.
The building is extremely complex and under constant restoration. Unfortunately, it sits in an earthquake zone on a fault line. An earthquake would be devastating, and no one knows how well the structure would survive.
See also: Istanbul Mosques
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