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Hagia Sophia

From the time it was built Haghia Sophia, the Church of Divine Wisdom, has astonished and entranced all who beheld it, with its great dome symbolising unattainable infinity. Haghia Sophia was used as a church for 916 years and as a mosque for 481, so serving as a place of worship for nearly one and a half millennia. When it was first built it was known as the Megale Ekklesia or Great Church. After the Turkish conquest it was converted into a mosque, but continued to be known by the Turkish rendering of its Greek name, Ayasofya. In 1934, at the wish of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, the Council of Ministers turned the building into a museum. Haghia Sophia was constructed by the Byzantine emperor Justinian between 532 and 537. It was the third church of this name on the same site. The first was a basilica erected on the site of a former Roman temple, and according to the historian Socrates was dedicated on 15 February 360. It was destroyed by fire in the year 404 in an uprising against Emperor Arcadius. The second church was built by Emperor Theodosius II and dedicated on 10 October 415, only to be burnt down in the Nika Revolt on 13 January 532, during the fifth year of the reign of Justinian I (527-565).After crushing the revolt Justinian commanded that a new church be built on a far grander scale than the previous two. The chronicler Procopius relates that two architects, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, were appointed for the task. One hundred master craftsmen, one thousand journeymen, and ten thousand labourers were employed.


Justinian wanted the church to be completed in the shortest possible time, and sent orders out to all the provinces of his realm commanding that columns and marbles from ancient cities be sent to Istanbul. Shiploads arrived from Syria, Egypt and Greece as well as from Asia Minor. Construction commenced on 23 February 532 and apart from the decoration was completed in the astonishingly short time of 5 years 10 months and 24 days. The church was dedicated on 27 December 537 at a magnificent opening ceremony. Justinian drove up to the church in his victory chariot, and was welcomed in the atrium by Patriarch Menas. The two men entered the church hand in hand. Justinian was so impressed by its splendour, that he exclaimed, Thanks be to God for blessing me with the good fortune of constructing such a place of worship.


At the inauguration one thousand bulls, six thousand sheep, six hundred stags, one thousand pigs, ten thousand chickens and ten thousand roosters were sacrificed and alms were distributed to the poor. Haghia Sophia is the most outstanding example of a domed basilica. The central space has an area of seven thousand square metres, and is flanked by two aisles, each divided from the nave by four verd antique columns. These eight columns were brought from Ephesus, while the eight porphyry columns beneath the semidomes were brought from Egypt. Altogether the building contains 107 columns, whose capitals are among the finest examples of Byzantine stone carving. These capitals bear the monograms of the Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora. The dome rises to 56.6 metres at its apex, and has a diameter of 32.37 metres. The original dome collapsed in an earthquake just 22 years after the church was completed, and was rebuilt in 562 by Isidorus the Younger, nephew of Isidorus of Miletus. Isidorus the Younger raised the height of the dome by 2.65 metres to lessen its outward thrust. During the Latin occupation of Istanbul by the Fourth Crusaders between 1203 and 1261, the church was used for Roman Catholic rites. Emperor Alexius IV was forced to hand over many of the sacred objects belonging to the church in repayment for debts to the Latins, and these are now in Venice. The mosaics of Haghia Sophia are exquisite works of art. In the semidome of the apse is a large mosaic depicting the Mother of God with the Infant Christ, which makes abundant use of gold and silver. The dress of Mary is worked in dark blue glass mosaic, and she sits on a magnificent bejeweled throne reminiscent of an imperial throne. The faces of mother and infant are entrancingly beautiful. Another mosaic not to be missed is that above the Imperial Gate showing Leo VI (886-912) bowing before Christ and asking his sins to be forgiven.


A mosaic on the side door of the inner narthex depicts two emperors with Mary and the Infant Christ. One of the emperors is Constantine I, shown presenting Mary and Christ with a model of Constantinople, which was named after him, and the other is Justinian I, who is presenting a model of the church that he founded. In the south gallery is the Deisis mosaic and two others depicting Constantine IX Monomachos and the Empress Zoe (11th century) and John Comnenus II with his wife Eirene and son Alexius (12th century) respectively. In the north gallery is the mosaic depicting Emperor Alexander (10th century). Four minarets were added to the outside of the building at various times after its conversion into a mosque. The huge buttresses against the exterior walls were built in the 16th century by the Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan to support the building, and have enabled it to survive to the present day. Additions within the church are the mihrap or prayer niche inside the apse, the bronze lamps to either side of the niche which were brought here from Buda, and the pulpit and imperial and galleries of carved marble. The library beyond the south aisle was built by Mahmud I in 1739.


All the additions were designed with the character of the existing building in mind, the use of marble for the Ottoman additions reflecting the extensive use of this material in the Byzantine building.


Source: Sky life 10/2000

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