Hagia Sophia is known as a magnificent piece of architecture with a worldwide reputation. Why is this building a church for 916 years and a mosque for 482 years, so famous? What are the characteristics of this structure, which is visited by millions of tourists every year?
Istanbul History and Hagia Sophia
To look at the history of Hagia Sophia, we first need to look at the history of Istanbul, thus the Roman Empire, and the Roman Empire's Christianization process.
As is known, the capital of the Roman Empire is in Rome. After Jesus Christ was crucified and killed, and resurrected by the Romans (33 AD), the disciples of Jesus Christ began to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, especially in the Roman Empire's cities.
Christianity is accepted as a forbidden religion due to its non-compliance with the Roman Empire's political and cultural structure. Christians were persecuted at the hands of different emperors for 300 years because of this prohibition. The culmination of this persecution occurs during Diocletian's reign, who was the Emperor between AD 284 and 305. After Diocletian, who ruled the Roman Empire from his summer palace, died in the city called Nicomedia in today's Izmit region, the throne's struggle begins. The four commanders engage in war among themselves. Constantine prevails in this throne fight and takes the throne of the Roman Empire. Constantine sees the sign "XP" in the heavens in a dream, before his final victory to make him emperor. This sign comes from the word "Χριστός" (Christ) in Ancient Greek. This enabled him to converge to Christianity, and together with Constantine, the Christians survived nearly 300 years of persecution.
Constantine later declared the capital of the empire Byzantium instead of Rome. Byzantium is the area called Sultanahmet or the Historical Peninsula today. Choosing this region is strategically important. As a peninsula, it can be defended more strongly and has a central location between East and West.
Constantine moved the Roman Empire's capital to this region in 330 AD and named it Nova Roma, that is, New Rome. After the death of Constantine, people name the city Constantinople, which means the city of Constantine.
History of Hagia Sophia
There are two different churches built in the same place before Hagia Sophia was built. The first of these is the church built in 360 by Constantius, the son of Constantine. This church is named Megale Ekklesia, that is, the Great Church. It was burned during the rebellions in 404 AD during the reign of Emperor Arkadius. Theodosius II, who ascended the throne after Arkadios, had a new church built in this destroyed church. This second church survives until 532 AD.
During the reign of Emperor Justinian in AD 532, the city people started a great revolt due to unrest. This revolt, known as the Nika Revolt in history, causes great damage to almost the entire city. Justinian suppressed this rebellion but realized that the city must rebuild. This is an opportunity for Justinian, and he begins preparations to rebuild the city. Just as Constantine wanted to found New Rome, Justinian had a similar purpose. This time, however, he aims to establish New Jerusalem instead of New Rome.
As is known, Jerusalem was a significant and holy city for all divine religions. The most important reason for this is the Jerusalem Temple, which Solomon built there and was rebuilt after it was destroyed in the 6th century BC. This temple was the place where God met with his people. Therefore, it was considered the most sacred place. While Justinian was building New Jerusalem, he also wanted to build the New Temple. Therefore, when we look at the architecture of Hagia Sophia, we will look in the light of the architecture of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.
Justinian summons the two most important architects of the period and mentions his plan. These architects are Anthemius from Tralles and Isidoros from Milet. Anthemius and Isidorus, looking at the plan, say that this building was impossible to build; but Justinian is determined. This church needs to be built. Construction begins on February 23, 532, and the church opens for worship on December 27, 537.
When Hagia Sophia was built, it was the largest building in the world apart from the pyramids and remained for nearly 1000 years. Its dome was considered the largest and highest dome for 1000 years.
Architectural Features of Hagia Sophia
The main feature that made Hagia Sophia's architecture so difficult and even impossible to construct was the plan to build a dome on a rectangular building. This was very important to Justinian. How would they do that?
First, four main arches had to be made to support the main dome. These four main arches would carry the dome; however, the arches would form a square shape with gaps at the edges, and the dome would be round. This would prevent the dome from being fully supported. Therefore, pendentives were constructed in the shape of an inverted triangle on the empty arches. Thus, the dome could be supported in a balanced way.
However, this time, they would face a new challenge. With the effect of the dome's own weight and gravity, the dome would push the arches that carried it outward, and they would be in danger of collapse with this effect. Therefore, the arches carrying the dome would have to be supported. For this purpose, the focus was on the idea of supporting the Northern and Southern arches with the main semi-domes and each semi-dome with three semi-domes. However, it was impossible to support the Eastern and Western arches with semi-domes, as the main worship area (Naos) was aimed to be rectangular. Instead, in the corridors on the east and west sides of the building, 90-degree arches were built into the main arches, allowing the corridor to function as a support.
At this point, we may ask: Why did Justinian insisted on a rectangular structure and a dome? As we said before, Hagia Sophia contains powerful symbolism in its architecture. We can divide this symbolism into two: political symbolism and spiritual symbolism.
Meaning of the Symbols
Worldly symbolism is significant in the construction of Hagia Sophia. There is a significant political reason why the building is rectangular and has a dome on top. The reason for being a rectangular building is that the shape of the Temple of Solomon is rectangular. Also, the architecture of the first Christian churches was rectangular basilicas. The dome is a Roman invention. The Pantheon in Rome was the most important temple of the Pagan Roman Empire. From here, we can see the Jewish foundations of Christianity in the building's shape and the Roman foundations in the dome. Hagia Sophia has become a kind of New Pantheon.
When we look at the dome, we see a round shape, and the round shape symbolizes eternity and immortality. Symbolizes square or rectangular borders. Hagia Sophia takes this spiritual symbolism from Solomon's Temple. The Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem was the place where the Holy Spirit of God was located, where God lived with his people, where the earth and the sky came together. With the first sin, there was a separation between God and Man, Earth, and Sky. In fact, there is a constant promise in the Bible: Heavenly sovereignty would be united with the sovereignty of the earth. Therefore, Hagia Sophia contains an important symbolism in being the place where the sky and the earth meet.
When Hagia Sophia was built, it was significant for men and women to sit separately. Therefore, while men are in the main prayer area during worship, the women would go to the upper gallery. At the exit to the upper gallery is not the stair; there is a ramp. This ramp had 2 main purposes. The first is to transport the materials upstairs with wheelbarrows during construction quickly. The second is to ensure that the Empress and women from important families can easily access the upper gallery by being transported.
One of the most important areas in the upper gallery is the Synod hall. Synod is a hall where church top management convenes and makes decisions on religious matters.
In the mosaic at the Emperor Gate entrance of Hagia Sophia, which you see above, Emperor Leon the 6th is depicted asking for forgiveness from the Prophet Jesus. On the right of the Prophet, Jesus is the Virgin Mary and on the left is Gabriel. In the text in the Prophet Jesus' hand, "I am the light of the world, peace be with you" is written. Leon the 6th broke the Orthodox sect's maximum 3 marriage rules and became his 4th marriage because he had no boys. He had this mosaic built because the people and religious leaders forgave him.
This mosaic is the Presentation mosaic found in the south entrance hall of Hagia Sophia, while the Hagia Sophia and Istanbul are presented to the Virgin Mary. In the mosaic in the inner narthex, the Virgin Mary sits on a throne decorated with precious stones. On her lap is the child Jesus. On both sides of his head, he writes abbreviations that mean "Mother of God." On the right is the founder of Istanbul, Emperor Constantine, Constantinople; on the left, Emperor Justinian, the founder of Hagia Sophia, presenting the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia to the Virgin Mary. The meaning is “your faith in the city, the people and you; everything is for your sake.” Mary is wearing a 10th-century Roman dress.
Inside the synod hall, there is a magnificent mosaic panel on the wall. This piece is one of the most important works of mosaic art. The name of the mosaic is Deesis, and it consists of three people. Of these three people, the middle one is Jesus Christ. To the right of Jesus, Christ is his mother, Virgin Mary. To the left of Jesus, Christ is John the Baptist. Deesis means prayer and supplication. The theme of this mosaic is the last judgment day. In this scene, the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist pray to Jesus Christ for people to forgive their sins.
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