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HAGIA SOPHIA IN DEPTH

Updated: Mar 14


CATHEDRAL, MOSQUE, MUSEUM. THE HAGIA SOPHIA (AYA SOFYA) HAS WITHSTOOD THE RAVAGES OF WAR AND EARTHQUAKES, A TESTAMENT TO ISTANBUL’S TUMULTUOUS PAST.





Religion can be considered as the most important element of humans’ life in the Middle Ages because the workings of society were surrounded by rituals and religious practices. Therefore, especially in the Eastern culture, religious buildings were closely tied to the State. Hagia Sophia can be viewed as the epitome of this tradition due to the fact that it was the central place of worship in which official ceremonies also took place. The cathedral itself is a visual statement, which unites different cultures and religions and which therefore ties its past to its present.

It is no surprise that we are able to develop a relatively substantial knowledge of the cathedral, contrary to many other examples of Byzantine architecture, because its third edifice has managed to survive until the present day. This allowed contemporary scholars to extend their studies, which provide different insights into the ‘Holy Wisdom’. Many scholars from a wide range of branches have underlined the significance of Hagia Sophia, such as archaeology, art history and architecture. Lawrence Kehoe asserts, for instance, that ‘there has not been an incident in Byzantine history with which the church of St. Sophia is not associated.’




It is the greatest example of the Byzantine architectural wonders, despite the fact that the basilica was devastated several times by both natural and artificial causes throughout centuries. It epitomises a political history alongside its architectural attributions and it has been an emblematic building both in the development of Constantinople as an imperial capital as well as in its transformation to ‘Istanbul’. In this article I will talk about the historical background of Hagia Sophia, the specialness of its architectural features and its changing roles throughout centuries. In addition to this, the terms by which Hagia Sophia gained its significance as a symbol of the city will be illustrated. The most important question concerning the future of the Hagia Sophia is whether it should be reconverted to a functioning basilica or it should maintain its role as a museum. I argue for the latter.

The details as shown hereunder will provide an adequate introduction to the prominent aspects of the history of Hagia Sophia. The basilica was firstly built by Constantin the Great, and was later reconstructed in 360 by Emperor Constantius, the son of Emperor Constantine who build the city as an imperial capital.The second church remained until it was ablaze during the Nika riots in 532; however, Emperor Justinian I who successfully suppressed the Nika riots supervised its third reconstruction in five years in order to turn Hagia Sophia into its present form. It was turned into a mosque after the conquest of the Ottomans in 1453 who added four minarets and a mihrab to the monument. If one scrupulously explores the background of the cathedral of Saint Sophia, one can find lasting impressions of both the Roman and the Byzantine Empires, which later amalgamated with the influence of the Ottomans until it was secularised by the foundation of the Turkish Republic. It is noticeable that although the city embraced different cultures one after another, Hagia Sophia always maintained its significance as a core monument in the city of Constantinople. I believe one of the reasons was that the basilica was very well placed, as it was literally in the center of the city, which caused it to be perceived as an intangible heart of Constantinople. The basilica was designed by two mathematicians, Anthemios of Tralles and Isidoros of Miletos, as the biggest cathedral in the world during the Middle Ages. Hagia Sophia was the presenter of Orthodox Patriarchy for more than nine hundred years until the Fourth Crusade. It was later plundered by the Catholics but was still used as the main church during the Latin period prior to the conquest of the Ottomans.

Although it is clear that Hagia Sofia has always been closely tied with religion, it was never a monument which served only religious purposes. The most-holy Great Church was an architectural masterpiece which inaugurated the characteristics of different cultures and religions such as Christianity and Islam throughout centuries. Additionally, it can be viewed as one of the most beautiful examples of rotunda due to its elegant architecture, which contains a gigantic dome and semi-domes as well as several vaults and columns. Although Iconoclastic Period and the transition to Islam led to the removal of many important icons and statues in Hagia Sophia due to the fact that the worship of images was forbidden, numerous holy relics; mosaics, marble pillars and calligraphies were preserved. For example, at ground floor one can see the famous mosaic ‘The Great Virgin and Child seated in her lap’, which still occupies one of the semi-domes. It is still possible to see many of these art efacts in Hagia Sophia in the present day.


Waving off hagglers and swatting the wandering hands of pickpockets, you wend your way through gardens towards the robust orange edifice ahead, with its minarets like rockets awaiting lift-off on launch pads. Passing the ticket office, you leave the bright glow of the afternoon, entering the gloomy interior. As your eyes adjust, you marvel at the enormous, marble-floored nave, stretching away to dark nooks and crannies beckoning from behind columns. Tiers of arches draw your eyes to the magnificent dome above.


Jewel-like stained-glass windows cast an ethereal beauty. Shafts of dust-flecked light pick out golden mosaics. Vast black shields embossed with golden Islamic writing are mounted high above. as if to fend off any attempts at a Christian invasion.In the side aisle to the northeast of the Imperial Door is the ‘weeping column’, with a worn copper facing pierced by a hole. Legend has it that the pillar is that of St Gregory the Miracle Worker, and that putting your finger in the hole can lead to ailments being healed if the finger emerges moist. You duly stick your finger in. It comes out dry.


The Hagia Sophia lorded it up as the largest cathedral in the world for almost 1000 years. But when the Ottoman Turks snatched Constantinople, it was converted into a mosque in 1453. Its current incarnation is as a museum – it was converted by Atatürk in 1935, following politics and religion being split by Turkish secularism. The present building is the third incarnation of the Hagia Sophia. The first was a timber-roofed basilica built by Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, who saw it as a key piece in his plan for Constantinople to challenge the magnificence of Rome. The church was destroyed, and then rioters burnt its replacement down in AD 532. Recognizing this as a potential opportunity to impress the populace and put a stranglehold on potential opponents, Justinian the Great set about rebuilding the church – but this time into an epic cathedral that would dominate his far-reaching realm.It was the largest building in the world when completed in 537 – the treasure of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. But its magnificence belies the challenges that faced architects Isidore and Anthemius.

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