The Amazing Hagia Sophia
One of Istanbul’s most significant symbols, Hagia Sophia, one of the most important masterpieces of world architecture.
Above all else, visitors to Istanbul long to see Hagia Sophia. Hagia Sophia is both one of Istanbul’s most prominent symbols and one of the most important structures in all of world architecture. Its unique character as a symbol of taste and ostentation makes it, above all, an imperial masterpiece. At the time it was built, it had no equal; no other building resembling it. With this in mind, it is clear that the magnificence of the structure was meant to inspire awe above all else. Hagia Sophia was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian the First. Although it is a Byzantine structure, Hagia Sophia is nonetheless a typical example of the Roman architectural tradition. When it was built, Hagia Sophia was unlike any structure that had come before it, and its architectural dimensions were not surpassed by another building for a thousand years.
While Hagia Sophia left its visitors awestruck with its magnificence during the era in which it was built, its construction originated from the belief that it could only come about with the aid of divine power. Therefore, Hagia Sophia is also a symbol of Medieval mysticism. Although its original name was indeed Hagia Sophia, it is often mistakenly thought that it was named after Saint Sophia. In fact, the name Sophia, as applied to the Ayasofya, is not the name of a saint at all, but the name of the second member of the Christian Holy Trinity, the “Holy Wisdom”. It is for this reason that the church was known as the Hagia Sophia. During the first period of its existence, it was known by the Byzantine people as the “Giant Church” (Megale Ekklesia). It began to be known as Ayasofya after the conquering of Istanbul in the year 1453.
In fact, the first structure known as Hagia Sophia—a closed basilica covered by a wooden roof—was built in the year 360. Throughout its history, this first structure was frequently damaged by many rebellions and fires. Finally, Emperor Justinian the First (527 – 565) decided to construct a magnificent house of worship rather than repair the old structure. In order to do so, he contracted two architects Isidoros and Anetmios.
The emperor spared no expense in his goal to create a place of worship unlike any other that had been seen up until that time. Materials for the construction, which lasted five years, were gathered immediately from every direction. Pillars were even taken from the Pagan temples of Ephesus and Artemis for use in the building.
Hagia Sophia has suffered significant damage on many occasions since it was built. The most serious of these occurred during the time of the Fourth Crusade. In the year 1204, the knights who had taken the city plundered many of Hagia Sophia’s holy and valuable relics in the name of Christianity. Fortunately, the city was saved from the invasion of the Crusaders in 1261.
On the 29th of May, 1453, the day that Istanbul was conquered, Fatih Sultan Mehmed went directly to Hagia Sophia upon entering the city. He rechristened it as a mosque, and ordered that the necessary renovations to the structure immediately be made.
The Architecture of Ayasofya is a Magnificent Imperial Artifact
Hagia Sophia’s tall “Imperial Door” is at the centre of the museum entrance inside the courtyard. A mosaic panel that was completed in the Ninth Century is located directly above this door. Portraits of the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel are found on the medallions to either side of this mosaic.
Hagia Sophia’s most magnificent feature is certainly is great dome, which rests as though hung from the air itself, and encloses the entire building. Its walls and ceiling surfaces are covered with multi-colored marble and mosaics. The 107 columns that are found on both the bottom floor and on the mezzanine are characteristic examples of decorative art from the Byzantine Empire in the Sixth Century. The deeply-hollowed out marble columns, so characteristic of that era, play lovely games with the shadows and interior light. In the middle of these columns, the imperial monogram is found. At the apex of the half-dome, a mosaic of the Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus resting in her lap can be seen, while to the right is a mosaic of the Archangel Gabriel.
The large circular disks made from leather, which hang on the walls at the mezzanine level and the inscriptions on the dome testify to the building’s use as a mosque. The calligraphic works on the dome and disk are each masterpieces written by famous master calligraphers who lived in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. The names Allah, Hz. Mohammed, 4 Caliphs and Hasan – Huseyin are written on the circular panels.
At the north corner of the building, one finds the “crying pillar”. At the bottom portion of this pillar, there is a hole surrounded by a bronze band. According to an ancient tradition, if you place your finger into this hole and make a wish, your wish will surely be granted…
In the north wing of the building a single mosaic panel is found, while in the south wing one encounters three mosaics each depicting three figures. In the south gallery, a masterpiece of Byzantine mosaic technique is found, delicately placed in the sunshine that enters from an adjacent window. Here, you will find a mosaic known as “Diesis”, which depicts three figures on Judgment Day. Jesus is in the middle of this panel, with Mary one his right and John the Baptist on his left. As you leave the museum through the exit corridor, you can see a giant mosaic panel that dates from the Tenth Century. The figures in this mosaic, which are out of proportion, include the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus. On either side of the mosaic, there are depictions of Constantine the Great holding a model of the city and the Emperor Justinian holding a model of Hagia Sophia. Finally, at the exit, one finds a pair of bronze doors, partially sunken in the ground, which dates from the Second Century B.C.E. and are thought to have been brought to the site from a Pagan temple.
Ayasofya, which continued to exist as a mosque throughout the Ottoman Period, was the object of the special interest of all of the sultans. Over time, the building was filled with objects unique to the culture of the Ottoman period. In this way, the building remains today as a masterpiece that displays the influence of each of the two religions and cultures. The tombs found in Hagia Sophia, with interior decoration, tiles, and construction, are wonderful classic examples of traditional Ottoman tomb design.