Hagia Sophia, ‘The Holy Wisdom’, a basilica, mosque or museum?

Florian Wizorek

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.’[1]

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.[2] 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 centre 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.[3] 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 artefacts in Hagia Sophia in the present day.

As regards architecture, Hagia Sophia was firstly designed as a basilica covered by a huge dome; however, this was perceived as a complex system because the use of dome was not convenient for the precedent basilical structures. It is indicated by Guntram Koch, a prominent art historian, that the first example of the domed basilica, The Church of St. Polyeuctus, was built in Constantinople ten years before Hagia Sophia but there is hardly anything left from the excavated building in the present day.[4] If one examines the history of basilical structure, one may observe that after the establishment of Christianity as the official religion, basilicas were used as public places such as market place and stock exchange buildings prior to their use for religious purposes.[5] It should however be highlighted that Christianity allowed common people, alongside the ecclesiastics, to enter holy buildings, which enabled churches, unlike temples, to become a place for prayer meetings of common people as well. As a consequence of this, people enjoyed freedom in terms of their religious practices, which was therefore followed by a need for larger places to worship. Koch depicts the three common points of these basilicas used as places of worship: (1) a longitudinal rectangular plan, (2) consist of at least three navies, (3) the middle nave must be larger and longer than the others with a clerestory.[6] History of the buildings with a central dome can be traced back to Roman architecture, even to the Etruscan civilization.

However, due to the significance of the aforementioned structural features, one can argue that the construction of the original building of Hagia Sophia can be attributed to Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, which was also built by the Emperor Constantine between 319–329 as a basilica. Another surviving example of ancient history, Pantheon in Rome, also provides a significant example of this type of structures. Although the remaining evidence shows that the second reconstruction of Hagia Sophia also followed a basilical plan, the idea of covering the central area with a domed roof was established during the times of Justinian I who wanted the building to represent the greatness of his empire. It can be observed that Justinian I did not beware of any expense during the re-construction of Hagia Sophia, which is indicated by its gigantic size as well as numerous marble pillars and mosaics.[7]

This is important because Justinian I’s aforementioned wish led to the uncommon combination of basilical structure and domes, which makes the architectural structure of Hagia Sophia all the more significant. The central dome is placed on four triangular stonework, which successfully share the dome’s weight with four massive piers and arches. All of the internal walls were made out of marble and covered by mosaics because of the fire that primarily damaged the building. Procopius describes that ‘The entire ceiling has been overlaid with pure gold which combines beauty with ostentation …’[8], indicating that the use of expensive materials such as gold and silver was very common in the construction of Hagia Sophia. When the central part of the doom was damaged as a result of natural disasters, Justinian I ordered its rebuilding with ‘a more secure fashion and a greater height.’[9] Overall, the fact that different Emperors in different times paid similar attention to the reconstruction of the church indicates that Hagia Sophia was the most imposing building of the imperial capital.

Justinian I’s magnificent reconstruction of Hagia Sophia was a testimony, which aimed at showing his gratitude to the rest of the world. For instance, a few columns that were used in the construction of Hagia Sophia are known to have been part of the Great Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. Additionally, a great number of distinct columns were transported to Constantinople from several ancient cities, such as Athens, Alexandria and Rome, in the Empire in order to be used in the construction of Hagia Sophia for the same purpose.[10] The several examples of the use of Spolia, which refers to the intentional integration of artefacts from previous culture into the construction of monuments, can be observed in Hagia Sophia. This is because the use of this technique was perceived as a way of declaring the conqueror’s absolute domination over the previous rulers.[11] Similarly, it is commonly agreed by historians that the grandeur of Hagia Sophia symbolised the grandeur of Christianity over paganism, as Robert F. Taft argues that Hagia Sophia played a seminal role in liturgical tradition that no building had ever played, since its doom was often referred as the heavens.[12] Although one can assert that Hagia Sophia embodied the greatness of Christianity, it is important to note that it also caused the emblematic monument to be a significant target for foreign competitors such as Enrico Dandolo and Sultan Mehmet II. After the separation of two Christian churches, Constantinople was controlled by the Latins for fifty-seven years during the Fourth Crusade. Many of the relics were taken to the St. Marks Basilica in Venice by the Roman Catholic forces before the recapture of the city by the Byzantine forces in 1261.

Stefanos Yerasimos explains in his book Constantinople — Istanbul’s Historical Heritage that the treasures including the golden mosaics pillaged from Hagia Sophia were too heavy to transport that one of the Venetian ships was submerged during the journey.[13] However, Constantinople mainly remained as a part of the Eastern Orthodox Church in spite of the Crusaders’ endevour to plunder it. This was followed by the conquest of the Ottoman Empire under the rule of Sultan Mehmet II. Similar to the Iconoclastic Period, the representation of graven images was forbidden in Islam; however, it is argued by some that Sultan Mehmet II appreciated art and history so far as the mosaics were not destroyed, they were only plastered and he authorised the famous Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan, to make the necessary reparations in order to complete its restoration. Although there were some ascetic alterations made in the church in order to turn it into a mosque, not only the artefacts in Hagia Sophia but also the entire city remained its ties with the Byzantium Empire after the conquest of the Ottomans. I believe that this inadvertently caused the preservation of Byzantine art until the present day and thus allowed scholars to make valuable contributions to the contemporary Byzantium studies.

Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum in 1935 after the establishment of the Turkish Republic. This was due to the aim of creating a balance between Christian and Islamic Art standing together. The preservation of the massive caliphs on the Dome is viewed to be controversial because some scholars argue that their imperious style excessively represents Islamic Art. However, it was also evident that it was impossible to remove the caliphs without damaging the building. Although it is indicated through contemporary disputes that the restoration process is often perceived as highly slow from the eyes of the Orthodox Church. Some argue that this was done by purpose in order to establish and maintain Islamic domination over Constantinople (currently Istanbul), I believe, however, that it is difficult to make such a statement without the existence of reliable evidence. Yet, the importance of the restoration process lies in that it was necessary to preserve a balance between the existence of the two religion, which allows Hagia Sophia to demonstrate its entire history.

The question concerning the future of Hagia Sophia remains unresolved, since it is not known whether it will cease to be used as a museum as well as whether its religious purposes, either that of Christianity or Islam, will be reintroduced. I believe that during the secularisation process of the whole country, secularising Hagia Sophia was a relatively fair decision. Although a lot of current Turkish officials argue that it should be turned into a mosque as opposed to the Orthodox authorities who call for its return as a church, I believe that the best way to secure the magnificence of Hagia Sophia is to preserve it as two halves of a whole.

[1] Kehoe, Lawrence. 1865. “The Church and Mosque of St. Sophia from the Edinburgh Review,” The Catholic World: Monthly Eclectic Magazine of General Literature and Science 1, 641–657.

[2] Wegner, Emma. 2000. “Hagia Sophia, 532–37.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/haso/hd_haso.htm (October 2004)

[3] Gregory, Timothy E. 2005. A History of Byzantium. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub. p. 138.

[4] Koch, Guntram. 1996. Early Christian Art and Architecture. London: SCM Press. p. 45.

[5] Müller, Werner, and Gunter Vogel. 1992. Atlante Di Architettura. Milano: Hoepli. p. 231.

[6] Koch, Guntram. 1996. Early Christian Art and Architecture. London: SCM Press. p. 29.

[7] Procopius, and Henry B. Dewing. Buildings. General Index. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard U, 2002. Print.

[8] Procopius, and H. B Dewing. 1914. Procopius, With an English Translation by H. B. Dewing. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press.

[9] Procopius, and Henry B. Dewing. Buildings. General Index. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard U, 2002. Print.

[10] De Amicis, Edmondo. 1883. Constantinople. Paris: Hachette et cie. p. 173.

[11] Ma, John. 2000. “The Epigraphy of Hellenistic Asia Minor: A Survey of Recent Research (1992–1999),” American Journal of Archaeology 104, no. 1, p. 101.

[12] Taft, Robert F. 1992. The Byzantine Rite. Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press. p. 36.

[13] Yerasimos, Stefanos. 2010. Constantinople — Istanbul’s Historical Heritage. H.F. Ullmann. p. 90.

Currently studying Social Policy. Researcher. Avid reader. Passionate writer. Interested in society and nature.

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