Preserved in the very heart of Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia Cathedral (which means “Divine Wisdom”) was originally built as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, and later was transformed into a masid (mosque) when the city was conquered by Sultan Mehmed II in 1453 AD He remained a masid until 1931, when he turned into a museum.
The Hagia Sophia is a great architectural marvel in Istanbul, Turkey, which was originally built as a Christian basilica almost 1500 years ago. Like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Parthenon in Athens, Hagia Sophia is a long-lived symbol of a cosmopolitan city. Nonetheless, just as noticeable as the structure itself, its role in the history of Istanbul – and, in this respect, peace – is also important and touches upon issues related to international politics, religion, art and architecture.
Hagia Sophia is anchored in Istanbul’s Old City and has served as a guide for both Orthodox Christians and Muslims for centuries, as its value shifted from that of the dominant culture in the Turkish city.
Istanbul is located between the Bosphorus Strait, a waterway that serves as the geographical border between Europe and Asia. Thus, a Turkish city with a population of about 15 million is located on both continents.
What is Hagia Sophia?
Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish) was originally built as a basilica for the Greek Orthodox Christian church. However, since then its function has changed several times.
The Byzantine emperor Constantius commissioned the construction of the first Hagia Sophia in 360 AD. During the construction of the first church, Istanbul was known as Constantinople, which received its name from the father of Constance, Constantine I, the first ruler of the Byzantine Empire.
The first Hagia Sophia was distinguished by a wooden roof. The building was burned to the ground in 404 AD during the riots that occurred in Constantinople as a result of political conflicts in the family of the then Emperor Arcadius, who had a stormy government from 395 to 408 AD.
The successor of Arcadius, Emperor Theodosius II, restored the Cathedral of St. Sophia, and the new building was completed in 415. The second Cathedral of St. Sophia contained five naves and a monumental entrance, and was also covered with a wooden roof.
However, a little more than a century later, this will again prove a fatal flaw for this important basilica of the Greek Orthodox faith, because during the so-called “Niki uprisings” against Emperor Justinian, the structure was burned a second time. I, who reigned from 527 to 565.
History of Hagia Sophia
Unable to repair the damage caused by the fire, Justinian ordered the demolition of Hagia Sophia in 532. He commissioned famous architects Isidoros (Miletus) and Anphemia (Tralles) to build a new basilica.
The third Hagia Sophia Cathedral was completed in 537, and it remains in force today.
The first religious services in the “new” Hagia Sophia took place on December 27, 537. At that time, Emperor Justinian was said to have said: “My lord, thank you for giving me the opportunity to create such a place of worship.”
Hagia Sophia Design
Since its opening, the third and last Hagia Sophia was a truly remarkable structure. It combines the traditional design elements of an Orthodox basilica with a large domed roof and a semi-domed altar with two narthexes (or “entrances”).
The supporting arches of the dome were covered with a mosaic of six winged angels, called hexapterigons.
In an attempt to create a grand basilica that represented the entire Byzantine Empire, Emperor Justinian decided that all the provinces under his rule sent architectural samples for use in its construction.
Marble used for floor and ceiling was produced in Anatolia (modern eastern Turkey) and Syria, while other bricks (used in walls and parts of the floor) were supplied from North Africa. The interior of Hagia Sophia is lined with huge marble slabs that are said to have been created to imitate moving water.
And 104 columns of Hagia Sophia were imported from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (in modern Greece), as well as from Egypt.
The building is about 269 feet long, 240 feet wide, and at the highest point the domed roof rises 180 feet into the air. When the first dome underwent a partial collapse in 557, its replacement was developed by Isidor the Younger (the nephew of Isidoros, one of the original architects) with structural edges and a more pronounced arc, and this version of the structure remains in place today,
This central dome rests on a ring of windows and is supported by two half-domes and two arched openings to create a large nave, whose walls were originally lined with intricate Byzantine mosaics of gold, silver, glass, terracotta and colorful stones and images of famous scenes and figures from Christian gospels.
The Senseless Story of Hagia Sophia
Since the Greek Orthodox was the official religion of the Byzantines, Hagia Sophia was considered the central church of the faith and thus became the place where new emperors were crowned.
These ceremonies were held in the nave, where the Omphalion (navel of the earth), a large round marble section of multi-colored stones in an interlacing round pattern, is located on the floor.
Hagia Sophia served this key role in Byzantine culture and politics for most of the first 900 years of its existence.
However, during the crusades, the city of Constantinople and, as a result, Hagia Sophia, was controlled by the Romans for a short period in the 13th century. Hagia Sophia was severely damaged during this period, but was rebuilt when the Byzantines regained control of the surrounding city.
The next significant period of change for Hagia Sophia began in less than 200 years, when the Ottomans, led by Emperor Fatih Sultan Mehmed, known as Mehmed the Conqueror, captured Constantinople in 1453. The Ottomans renamed the city of Istanbul.
Reconstruction of Hagia Sophia
Since Islam was the central Ottoman religion, Hagia Sophia was transformed into a mosque. As part of the appeal, the Ottomans covered many of the original mosaics on the Orthodox theme with Islamic calligraphy, developed by Kazasker Mustafa Izzet.
On the panels or medallions that were hung on the columns in the nave are the names of Allah, the Prophet Mohammed, the first four caliphs and two grandsons of the Prophet.
The mosaic on the main dome — considered the image of Christ — was also covered with golden calligraphy.
In the wall was installed mihrab or nave, as is customary in mosques, to indicate the direction of Mecca, one of the holy cities of Islam. Ottoman emperor Kanuni Sultan Suleiman (1520–1566) installed two bronze lamps on each side of the mihrab, and Sultan Murad III (1574–1595) added two marble cubes from the Turkish city of Bergamo, which date back to 4 BC.
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Four minarets were also added to the original building during this period, partly for religious purposes (to call for the muezzin prayers) and partly to strengthen the structure after earthquakes that hit the city at that time.
During the reign of Sultan Abdulmecid, from 1847 to 1849, Hagia Sophia underwent extensive reconstruction under the guidance of Swiss architects Fossati brothers. At that time, Hyunkar Mahfili (a separate branch for emperors to use for prayer) was removed and replaced with another one next to the mihrab.
Hagia Sophia today
The role of Hagia Sophia in politics and religion remains controversial, even today, about 100 years after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Since 1935, nine years after Ataturk’s creation of the Republic of Turkey, the legendary building was operated by the national museum as a museum, and, as reported, annually attracts more than three million visitors.
However, since 2013, some Islamic religious leaders in the country sought to reopen the Saint Sophia Cathedral as a mosque. And the debate is not only religious: for most of the 21st century, Turkish society has seen an increase in nationalist zeal with a growing recognition of the Ottoman era as a fundamental part of the country’s history.
Since the seizure of Istanbul and Hagia Sophia from the Orthodox Greeks by Muslim Ottomans is considered the high point of that period, there are some who advocate using the building as a mosque as a symbol of this story.
At the moment, however, the building remains open to tourists.