Istanbul’s multi-layered monument invites us to visit and reflect on the long and important, but little-known history of the Byzantine Empire.
A palimpsest is a manuscript whose text has been scraped off and then re-used. I can think of no better way to understand Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia. Wih a history of more than sixteen centuries, it is a space on which generations of rulers and states have projected their central ideologies to be read by all who saw it. Some of this content is still visible, although not always immediately so, while other parts have vanished, either permanently destroyed, or covered up.
The majestic dome of the Hagia Sophia is unmissable as it still dominates the skyline of Istanbul. Getting by tourists that arrive in scores for their obligatory tour, one enters a building that embodies like no other the history of a culture and a city. The culture is that of the Byzantine Empire, the city Constantinople, that used to be Byzantion, a Greek colony founded in the 7th century BCE, and is now Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman empire for half a millennium until the early decades of the 20th century. One single, albeit extraordinary, monument can serve as the guide for the history of this entire period.
Even before entering it, one can look at the remains of the Hagia Sophia that stood there before this one: a cathedral dedicated to the Wisdom (Sophia, in Greek) of God (and not a female saint with that name) by the emperor Theodosius II in 415. There are friezes showing lambs, representing the Apostles as well as other architectural members that are scattered before the main entrance of the church. The Theodosian Hagia Sophia had been the second one on the site; the first was erected by Constantius, the son of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor and the founder of the city that bore his name, Constantinople. Nothing visible remains from that first Hagia Sophia. The actual building is therefore the third Hagia Sophia, erected in record time of just five years by the emperor Justinian I in 537 after the Theodosian cathedral had been burnt down as a result of popular riot against his majesty.
The dome we see today also is not the first one; this collapsed in 558 and was re-designed by the original architects of the church, made taller to relieve some of the pressure on the walls. The grandiose central space that is formed underneath it is quite breathtaking. It is impossible to capture it on camera unless using a fish-eye lens, which is why one so frequently sees old engravings used to give a sense of this immense space. Justinian I is still quite present in this building: the most obvious sign are the capitals of the columns that are carved with his monogram while some fragments of the floral and geometric mosaics that adorned its walls still survive. People have always marveled at the Hagia Sophia as it seemed a monument that could not have been produced by mere human toil. Contemporaries thought that the way the dome is pierced by light suggests it hangs from a chain from heaven. Later it was believed that an angel was the reason why the building could withstand the test of time. An apprentice saw an angel watching over the construction of the church and tricked him into staying forever to guard it by asking the angel to watch over his spot until he could return from a chore. He never did, and so the angel must still be there keeping watch over the Hagia Sophia.
There were hardly any images of sacred persons in Justinian’s Hagia Sophia. These were added gradually over the centuries, starting from the 860s, after Byzantium had gone through the troubled period of iconoclasm, a century of debates – often violent – over the orthodoxy of depicting sacred persons in art. Iconoclasm ended in 843 with the triumph of images and the mosaic of Mary holding Jesus in her lap that decorates the apse of the church was the first image that was added. Out of a happy accident we still possess the homily that the learned patriarch of Constantinople Photios addressed to the congregation in 867 when the image was inaugurated. From then on numerous emperors added mosaics to Hagia Sophia often with their portraits. Some of them adorn various entrances to the building, such as that of a kneeling emperor in penance above the main gate, or another in which Constantine and Justinian offer the city of Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia to the Mother of God and Jesus respectively. Both date from the late ninth or early tenth century. But some of the most celebrated mosaics are to be found in the gallery, a space that was largely exclusive to the imperial family. In the south part of the gallery there are two panels that attract most attention. They show imperial couples flanking Christ and the Mother of God offering gifts (both in the form of purses full of gold coins as well as documents that record these in writing). They are clear examples of the importance of Christian faith and the tight embrace between church and state in the Byzantine millennium. Less easy to spot are pieces of graffiti in runes engraved on the marble parapets overlooking the main nave. They are a testimony to the Norsemen who after 992 served as imperial bodyguards in Constantinople and therefore spent considerable time in the gallery of the Hagia Sophia keeping an eye on the imperial family.
At a small distance another monument records a pivotal set of events in Byzantine History. It is the tombstone of the Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo, one of the main actors responsible for the Fourth Crusade, which in 1204 caused the conquest of Constantinople and initiated a short-lived Latin Empire until 1261. Dandolo died in 1205 and was buried in the Hagia Sophia; the current tombstone was added in the nineteenth-century. It is only fitting that more or less opposite Dandolo’s grave stands a monument to the Byzantine reconquest of Constantinople in 1261. An exquisite mosaic of the Deesis, Jesus flanked by His mother and John the Baptist, who as humans bow and raise their hands in supplication towards Him on behalf of all humanity. This was a gift of emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos, the first one to return to Constantinople after two generations and the patriarch of the dynasty that ruled the empire for its last two centuries.
When Constantinople was conquered by Mehmed II in 1453 he declared the Hagia Sophia the first Friday mosque of the city. Gradually, the images were covered, minarets were erected one by one and finally in the middle of the nineteenth century the distinctive medallions with the names of Allah, Muhammad and the first four caliphs in Arabic calligraphy were added. The Aya Sofya, as it became known, remained a mosque from 1453 until 1935 when it was turned into a museum. Recently Hagia Sophia attracted international attention as news from Turkey suggested that it could be turned back into a mosque, which alarmed a global community of scholars both within Turkey and abroad.
This fascinating and multi-layered monument invites us to visit and reflect on the long and important, but little-known history of the Byzantine Empire, a state that is crucial to the understanding of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, both East and West. ■