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Hagia Sophia: More than a Temple

Hagia Sophia: More than a Temple
  • 17.07.2020

The Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) or the “Church of the Holy Wisdom of God” as it is called alternatively in Turkish, is the masterpiece of the prominent genius architect and mathematician of the period, Anthemios of Tralles and Isidoros of Miletus. It was built between the years 532-537, in /a very short time such as 5 years. This work is one of the rare and unique works that I. Justinianus, the great emperor who took the western lands back with the philosophy of ‘Renovatio Imperii Romanorum’, that is, ‘Recovering the Roman Empire to its former glory’, and achieved numerous innovations in many fields, has brought to the world for many years. And it still preserves this feature as a common world cultural heritage in the eyes of people of various ethnic and religious backgrounds. In order to talk about the long history of Hagia Sophia today, it is necessary to briefly mention the other two churches that were built with the same names and destroyed as a result of the riots.

The first Hagia Sophia Period

Byzantion, which was a small fishing town in which Septimus Severus, one of the previous emperors, was somewhat interested after eliminating his political rivals and potential enemies, became the ‘Nova Roma’, or ‘New Rome’ by the great emperor Gaius Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus, a.k.a. Constantin I who brought the capital of the empire from Rome to here. At the command of Constantine I, the construction of the first church began in the last years of his rule (306-337), and was completed during the reign of his son Constantinus II (337-361).

At the time this church was built, it was known as ‘Megali Ekklesia’ or ‘The Great Church’ because it was bigger than all the other churches in the city. The church, which was largely made of wooden materials, was located next to the Hagia Eirene Church, which was built earlier, during the reign of Constantine I. The Hagia Irene church in question maintained its status as a central church until the first Hagia Sophia Church was opened when its construction was completed (337). Saint John Chrysostom served here when he was elected as the Archibishop of Constantinople in 397. Due to the conflict with Aelia Eudoxia, the wife of the Emperor of the period Arcadius, he was exiled twice, temporarily in 403 and permanently in 404. As he was very popular among the people, after his exile, riots broke out and the first Hagia Sophia was destroyed at this time.

The second Hagia Sophia Period and the Nika Revolt

The second Hagia Sophia was again built with wooden and marble floors during the time of Theodosius II (415), the son of Emperor Arcadius. Today, the ruins of this church can be seen in the garden of Hagia Sophia. During the reign of Justinianus I (527-565), the famous horse-drawn carriage races that had been going on since the reign of the great emperor Constantine I, existed in the ‘Hippodrome’ or ‘Horse Square’, what is now known as the Sultanahmet Square. In those days, a hippodrome hosted these horse races and included lodges where emperors personally watched the races from. The racers were mainly divided into four teams. Blue, green, red and white. Unlike the less popular red and white teams, the blue and green team really had a considerable fan base. These fans were headed and funded by important political figures and aristocratic nobles. In the year 532, January, the supporters of the blue and green teams who complained about taxes, loss of authority and reforms, gathered at the Hippodrome, eyes seeing red, and yelled “Nika! Nika!” (victory) at the end of a race, just before they stormed the Emperor’s “Grand Palace”. During these attacks, the church called “the Second Hagia Sophia” was also destroyed. Due to the rebellion, which quickly spread to other parts of the city, the emperor, Justinian, who was desperate, thought to escape, but he was talked out of this escape by his wife empress Theodora. Justinian, who made a plan, invited both insurgent teams to the hippodrome on the pretext of listening to their problems and destroyed everyone inside with the help of his commanders Belisarius, Narses and Mundus.

The third (current) Hagia Sophia Period 

About a month after this incident, Emperor Justinianus ordered the construction of the famous building, known today as the “Third Hagia Sophia”. 

The construction of the new Church of Hagia Irene, which was destroyed in the same rebellion, started also during this period and was completed in the year 548. It continued its function as a Patriarchate Church until the Hagia Sophia was completed. The emperor thought to build a church of unprecedented size and difference. He also intended to prove that he had absolute voice over the Christian world and that Constantinople was now one of the most important centers of Christianity. Thus, he intended to secure his unstable power. For such a serious architectural project, he commissioned Isidoros of Milet, a geometry and engineering expert, and Anthemius a mathematician from Tralles. Since the churches that were built or used before were generally used or built on the basis of converting old Roman Empire basilicas, serious problems did not arise during their construction. However, since Hagia Sophia was a revolution in the world in terms of general architecture and history of church architecture, the planned dome would have been the second largest dome ever built after the Pantheon in Rome. This structure, which emerged with the addition of elephant legs, half domes and arches as a dome and carrier system on the standard basilica plan, would be the biggest and most magnificent example of its kind as a church. Its construction was especially based on the mathematical methods of Heron, the 1st century mathematician of Alexandria. The fact that it was built in a very short time of about 5 years and that the marble covering and columns it contains were removed from the important temples in different corners of the empire (Syria, Greece, Egypt) is a factor that amazes and fascinates people, given the era’s technology and logistic possibilities. Approximately 10,000 people worked in its construction. The church was blessed by the Minas, the Archbishop of Constantinople in 537 and opened with a magnificent ceremony. Emperor Justinianus uttered the following famous words at the opening ceremony: “O Solomon! I bettered you!”. Indeed, the Hagia Sophia was even bigger and more magnificent than the Holy Temple in Jerusalem when it was built and it preserved this feature until the Cathedral of Saint Mary was built in 1520, in Seville. Since 537, it served as the central Cathedral of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Imperial ceremonies and especially the coronation ceremonies have been held in this cathedral from this date on. The interior mosaics however were completed during the reign of  Justin II (565-574).

Since it was built, it has been constantly exposed to earthquake threats due to its enormous size and architecture that can be considered the first of its kind. The earthquakes of 553 and 557 caused cracks in the dome of the building, and in 558 the main dome completely collapsed and damaged the interior items. The dome, which was reconstructed immediately by the order of restoration, was raised by 6 to 7 meters and was built to be about 33 meters in diameter. It was reinterpreted by Young Isidoros (nephew of Miletus Isidoros) in the form of carrier pendants and a ribbed dome. As per the law that began to be implemented during the reign of the Emperor Leon III (717-741), during First Iconoclasm Period (726-787), all the icons and mosaics were removed from Hagia Sophia and destroyed, as any religious object containing human depiction was prohibited from being used for worship. Even though there was a moderate period in between, once again the iconoclasts were strengthened, and depictions were prohibited between 814-842 during the so-called ‘Second Iconoclasm Period’. The movement last supported during the rule of Emperor Theophilos, was eliminated by his wife and empress, Saint Theodora, with great efforts after the death of her husband. And during the time of Archbishop Methodius I, the use of depictions in churches and other places of worship became legal again.

The cathedral, which was subject to a great fire in 859, had half of its dome collapsed after the earthquake in 869. The half-dome that collapsed was rebuilt during the reign of the Emperor Basil I (867-886). In the 989 earthquake that occurred about a century later, one of the arches carrying the large dome collapsed on the west side. After this earthquake coinciding with the rule of Emperor Basil II (976-1025), the architect Trdat, who built the cathedral the capital of the Armenian Bagratid Kingdom, Ani, which ruled Kars and its vicinity, was called to Constantinople. Master Trdat, who rebuilt the arch, also repaired the western part of the dome. The cathedral was reopened for worship in 994. In this restoration period, the famous Serafim mosaics seen in pendentives supporting the dome in the interior were added, along with a new mosaic of Jesus Christ to the dome and a new Virgin Mary holding infant Jesus in her arms to the apse part, with the Apostles Peter and Paul at her sides. The shroud of Jesus Christ began to be displayed on Fridays as well. The northern and southern large arch walls were also decorated with the mosaics of the church fathers, prophets and saints. While a very small amount of the mosaics in the building have survived from the Justinian I period, the vast majority are dated to this century, the 900s, at the earliest.

The Schisma of 1054 and the 1204 Fourth Crusade 

After half a century of time, the gap between the Roman Church and the Church of Constantinople became tense and so by 1054, the two churches mutually excommunicated each other as theological and political disputes became inexorable. This event, which was carried out by Pope Leo IX and THE Ecumenical Archbishop Michael Kerularius I., would be mutually eliminated after 1000 years (in 1965) and the dialogue between the two churches would start again. However, since the east and west were divided into two as the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, inevitably, mutual hostility and hatred increased over time. The Latin Crusaders who waited impatiently in front of the walls of Constantinople until the previous year, attacked the city in 1204, with troops formed by the Italians and the Francs. And the Byzantine Empire, which had already begun to weaken, temporarily lost the city. The Byzantine Empire, where the majority of its nobility fled to Trabzon, Iznik, Epir and Mora, was deprived of its ancient capital which was looted until it was brutally deprived of all its beauty. All its places of worship and people were disrespected, the Holy Apostles Church, which had been the cemetery church of the emperors for centuries, had been looted, the sarcophagi of the founder of the city, Emperor Constantine, and the founder of Hagia Sophia, emperor Justinianus I, and many others were torn apart and their valuable belongings stolen. Undoubtedly the magnificent Hagia Sophia Cathedral also got its share of the destruction. As with other churches, all of its valuable items had been either destroyed or stolen. The people inside were killed and all kinds of disrespect was carried out in this sacred place. The Holy Relics of Jesus Christ and the remains of many apostles and saints were among those stolen items to be sold or gifted in Europe. Hagia Sophia, which was used as the Roman Catholic Cathedral between the years 1204-1261 during the short-lived Roman Kingdom, was converted back to the Constantinople Greek Patriarchate when the Byzantine Emperor Mikael Palaiologos VIII re-took the city.

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1261-1453 the Palaiologos Dynasty Period

When the city was taken back, Hagia Sophia was in ruins. In 1317, during the time of Emperor Andronikos Palaiologos II, buttresses were added to the eastern and northern facades of the building. The building which obtained cracks due to the 1344 earthquake, remained closed until the year 1354, as some of its parts collapsed completely in 1346. he restoration was carried out by two masters named Astras and Peralta. The building remained the center to the Constantinople Patriarchate until 1453.

1453 and the Ottoman Period

The army of Fatih Sultan Mehmet, who entered the city on May  29, 1453, Tuesday, had the right to plunder the city for three days according to the Islamic war law. Unfortunately, Constantinople and its people, who have spent the last few centuries witnessing such destructive events, had once again been devastated and this time, they had to endure the wrath of a foreign enemy. As a result of these three days of looting, the city, which was full of ruins left by the Crusaders, and whose population was almost extinct, was almost empty. While the Ottoman army took over the city, the Byzantine people who were praying with the clergymen, nuns and other clerics at Hagia Sophia accompanied by tears and fear, were terrified when they saw the Turks and most of them were slaughtered. Women and children were taken prisoner to be sold as slaves, and Hagia Sophia was left to accept its destiny, devoid of all its old glory, defeated and abandoned. This building, which was converted into a mosque with the absolute order and foundation of Fatih, became the central mosque of the Ottoman State after this date. Starting from Fatih, four minarets were added in total during the period of various sultans, and additional buttresses were provided and the building was reinforced especially during the period of Sinan the Architect. Some of the Byzantine mosaics were covered with fine plasters, while some were worshiped openly up until the 17th and 18th centuries. This version of the building was also depicted by many European travelers.

By the 19th century, the restoration process (1847-1849) was realized by the Swiss Italian-origined Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati brothers who were invited to Istanbul by Sultan Abdülmecit, to restore Hagia Sophia to its current state. During the restoration, the plasters of the Ottoman period were removed and the sketches of a various number of Byzantine period mosaics were outlined. Later, the mosaics recorded in the restoration process were renewed, their surfaces plastered and an oil painting pen work was applied on that layer. The top of the central dome was closed off by the Arabic Surah which can be seen today with the work done by a calligrapher. In addition, the large round line plates seen inside were added during this period. Unfortunately, after the great earthquake in 1894, Hagia Sophia has lost most of the mosaics it has preserved for centuries. One reason for this was the process applied onto the mosaics after the restoration by the Fossati brothers which was technically incorrect and caused moisture between the plaster layer and the mosaics. This caused these layers to fall off easily during the earthquake.

The Republic Period and Museum 

The building, which served as the Ottoman central mosque until 1922, remained a mosque in the first years of the republic. Under the leadership of Thomas Whittemore, founder of the American Byzantine Institute of America (1930), a group came over to Turkey, as a response to the invitation extended by Atatürk İn 1931 and started their work. It was decided that the Hagia Sophia become a museum by the decree of the ministerial committee issued, numbered 24.11.1934. And therefore, for the first time in February 1935, it was transformed into a cultural heritage treasure where mosque and church elements were exhibited together. This structure, which has been closed to politics since this date and has been presented to humanity and was seen for the true value it deserves, was considered to be a problematic issue for many years, by the conservative Sunni Muslims and was asked to be converted back into a mosque. This building which served as the Patriarchate Church of the Greeks of İstanbul for nearly 1000 years, has a very important place for Christians, especially the Orthodox Christians in the world, in addition to its function in the past. The first reason for this is that it has been the biggest and most magnificent church in the world, unrivaled for many years. The second reason is that it has hosted invaluable spiritual relics and, of course, it was the resting place of the spiritual life and the heart of Orthodox Christians since ancient times.

When considered in this context, it becomes extremely important for this structure, which has a separate value for Christians and Muslims, serves the common good of humanity and allows the coexistence and protection of both cultures by being a museum. Decisions made as a result of the compulsion of certain political and religious ideologies dating back centuries should not determine the fate of a cultural heritage. In addition, the ‘Mezquita’ or the ‘Cordoba Cathedral’ are constantly being compared to the Hagia Sophia and although it is another important beauty architecturally, its spirituality is incomparable with a structure that has an ancient history and has been unrivaled for many years since its construction like the one of the Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia is too great to be under the imposition of a political material or an ideology and most importantly, it is unifying as the common heritage of humanity.

(Berke Yapar)

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