Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Hagia Sophia, a Beautiful, Historic World Monument

Photo by Bigdaddy (from Wikimedia Commons)
Hagia Sophia or the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Greek, Sancta Sophia in Latin and Aya Sofya in Turkish is a historic monument of two great empires that shaped the course of world history- the Roman and Ottoman Empires. It also served as a house of worship of adherents of two of the world’s largest religions- Christianity and Islam. It was the largest cathedral in the world until 1520. Hagia Sophia is famous for its massive dome.

Hagia Sophia was built on the site where Emperor Constantine built a wooden church. The second church was built by his son Constantius and the Emperor Theodosius the Great. That church was burned. Under the supervision of Justinian I, the church was rebuilt in its present form around 532 and 537 AD.

Constantine was the first Roman Emperor who became Christian. He later promoted Christianity and moved his capital from Rome to Byzantium, an ancient Greek city. After he defeated his rivals, Constantine rebuilt Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople. It later became the capital of the eastern half of the Roman Empire which was also called the Byzantine Empire. Its heartland was Asia Minor and the Balkans.

Constantinople was situated on the southern coastal tip of the Balkan Peninsula along the Strait of Bosporus that separates the continents of Europe and Asia. The city’s strategic location provided the Byzantine Empire easy economic and military access to its territories across Asia and Southern Europe.

Justinian hired architects Isodore Militus and Arthemius of Tralles, both teachers of Geometry to design the church. He imported materials from neighboring places such as Ephesus, Athens, Rome and Delphi. The original dome of the church which Militus and Arthemius designed collapsed in an earthquake in 558. The replacement of 563 had to be repaired after a partial collapse in the 9th and 14th centuries.

In 1204 Hagia Sophia was attacked and sacked by the crusaders and looted of its properties. They arrested the Patriarch of Constantinople and replaced him with a Latin bishop. This event irreconcilably divided the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches which had long standing disputes that started from the great schism of 1054.
Photo by Andreas Wahra (from Wikimedia Commons)
Islamic text inside Hagia Sophia
In May 1453, Constantinople, the seat of the Byzantine Empire and the greatest city of Eastern Christendom at that time fell to the Muslim Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmet II. Amazed by the architectural beauty of the church, he converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Since then it remained a principal mosque for about 500 years. Hagia Sophia’s design then served as model of many mosques built around Constantinople and its neighboring areas.

The prominent feature of the cathedral is its dome which measures 230 ft (70 m) in width and 246 ft (75 m) in height. The dome is supported by pendentives which are rested on a square of 4 columns below. The 48 windows around the base of the dome reflect sunlight everywhere into the interior of the nave.

A mosaic depicting Jesus (center)
Mosaic of Virgin Mary and child Jesus. Photo by Griffendor (from Wikimedia Commons) 
The changes made during the Turkish era had markedly altered the outer appearance of Hagia Sophia so that it was indistinguishable that it was once a church. There are buttresses built to support the outer walls to ensure their endurance over the century. Four minarets were added by the corners of the church. The mihrab, the fountain, and mausoleum give the Hagia Sophia a mosque appearance. However, the inside of the edifice reveals the original purpose of its building. There are 6th century church features such as mosaics painted on the walls depicting various Christian religious scenes. When Hagia Sophia was a mosque some mosaics were covered with plaster because of Muslim prohibition of figurative imagery. Further renovations of the church that was turned into mosque were made by Abdulmecid in 1847 who invited Swiss architects Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati to do the job.

After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and following the establishment of Turkey as a nation, Constantinople was renamed Istanbul in 1930, and President Kemal Attaturk had the Hagia Sophia secularized by turning it into a museum in 1934.

Hagia Sophia is a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture. This priceless historic world monument is a UNESCO world cultural heritage site. Hagia Sophia is a major landmark and a tourist attraction of Turkey. All year round it is visited by tourists from different parts of the world.