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A Short History of the Hagia Sophia

A palimpsest, akin to Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, refers to a manuscript with erased text that’s been reused. With a rich history spanning over sixteen centuries, the Hagia Sophia embodies the successive ideologies imposed by various rulers and states, visible to all who behold it. While some of these layers remain discernible, others have faded or been obscured, either through destruction or concealment.

The imposing dome of the Hagia Sophia still commands attention, dominating Istanbul’s skyline. Amidst the throngs of tourists, one steps into a structure that encapsulates the cultural and historical essence of the city like no other. It represents the Byzantine Empire’s culture and Constantinople’s evolution, from its origins as Byzantion, a Greek colony in the 7th century BCE, to its transformation into Istanbul, the Ottoman Empire’s capital for five centuries until the early 20th century. This remarkable monument serves as a tangible guide to understanding the entirety of this historical epoch.

Even before stepping inside, one can observe the remnants of the previous Hagia Sophia, erected by Emperor Theodosius II in 415, dedicated to the Wisdom of God rather than a saint named Sophia. Friezes depicting lambs, symbolizing the Apostles, and other architectural elements lie scattered outside the main entrance. This Theodosian Hagia Sophia was the second on the site, with the initial one built by Constantius, son of Emperor Constantine the Great, the founder of Constantinople. Unfortunately, no visible traces remain from the original structure.

The current Hagia Sophia, constructed by Emperor Justinian I in a remarkably brief period of five years starting from 537, replaced the Theodosian cathedral, which was destroyed during a popular riot against the emperor’s reign. The dome we admire today is not the original; it collapsed in 558 and was subsequently redesigned by the church’s original architects, now taller to alleviate pressure on the walls. The vast central space beneath it is awe-inspiring, challenging to capture accurately without a fish-eye lens, hence why historical engravings are often used to convey its enormity.

Justinian I’s influence is evident throughout the building, notably in the capitals of the columns adorned with his monogram and remnants of the intricate mosaics that once adorned the walls. Over time, the Hagia Sophia has captivated observers, leading to various beliefs regarding its origin and endurance. Some believed the piercing of light through the dome implied divine support, while others attributed its resilience to an angel tasked with guarding the structure. According to legend, an apprentice tricked the angel into remaining indefinitely by asking him to watch over his position while he tended to a task, never returning, thereby perpetually safeguarding the Hagia Sophia

Justinian’s Hagia Sophia initially lacked depictions of sacred figures, a feature gradually introduced over the centuries, commencing in the 860s. This addition followed the resolution of the iconoclastic controversy, a tumultuous period lasting a century, marked by fierce debates over the legitimacy of representing sacred figures in art. The conclusion of this debate in 843 heralded the ascent of images, with the mosaic of Mary cradling Jesus in her arms adorning the church’s apse as the inaugural piece.

Preserved through fortuitous circumstance, we possess the homily delivered by the erudite Patriarch of Constantinople, Photios, to commemorate the inauguration of this mosaic in 867. Subsequently, various emperors contributed additional mosaics to the Hagia Sophia, often featuring their own portraits. Notable examples include depictions above entrances, such as a penitent emperor kneeling above the main gate and representations of Constantine and Justinian presenting Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia to the Mother of God and Jesus, respectively, dating from the late ninth or early tenth century.

However, some of the most revered mosaics adorn the gallery, historically reserved for the imperial family. Of particular interest are two panels in the southern section, depicting imperial couples flanking Christ and the Mother of God, offering symbolic gifts of purses filled with gold coins and written documents. These mosaics underscore the profound intertwining of Christian faith and the symbiotic relationship between church and state throughout the Byzantine era.

Less conspicuous yet equally intriguing are runic graffiti engraved on marble parapets overlooking the main nave. These inscriptions serve as a testament to the presence of Norsemen who, beginning in 992, served as imperial bodyguards in Constantinople, spending considerable time in the Hagia Sophia’s gallery while safeguarding the imperial family.

                                            View of the interior of Hagia Sophia from the Gallery.

Located nearby, another significant monument commemorates a crucial chapter in Byzantine history: the tombstone of the Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo. Dandolo played a prominent role in the Fourth Crusade, which led to the conquest of Constantinople in 1204 and the establishment of the short-lived Latin Empire until 1261. Following Dandolo’s death in 1205, he was interred in the Hagia Sophia, with the current tombstone added in the nineteenth century. Adjacent to Dandolo’s grave stands a monument celebrating the Byzantine reconquest of Constantinople in 1261. This monument features an exquisite mosaic known as the Deesis, portraying Jesus alongside his mother and John the Baptist, with all three figures depicted in human form bowing and raising their hands in supplication towards Him on behalf of humanity. This mosaic was a gift from Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos, marking his return to Constantinople after two generations and symbolizing the beginning of the Palaiologos dynasty’s rule over the empire for its final two centuries.

Following the conquest of Constantinople by Mehmed II in 1453, the Hagia Sophia was designated as the city’s first Friday mosque. Over time, the religious transformation saw the gradual covering of images, the addition of minarets, and, in the mid-nineteenth century, the incorporation of distinctive medallions featuring Arabic calligraphy of the names of Allah, Muhammad, and the first four caliphs. Known as the Aya Sofya, it served as a mosque from 1453 until 1935, when it was repurposed as a museum. Recent discussions in Turkey regarding the potential reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque have stirred international attention, prompting concern among scholars globally, both within Turkey and abroad.

This complex and historically rich monument beckons visitors to explore and contemplate the Byzantine Empire’s extensive and significant history—a realm pivotal to comprehending the Middle Ages and the Renaissance across Eastern and Western spheres.

Also Read: An Accessible America In The Balkans

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