Hagia Sophia is a magnificent stone basilica that has become an integral part of Constantinople (now Istanbul) for 1500 years. The majestic structure has a fascinating history and is a favorite tourist attraction. The unique architectural object has experienced the rise and fall of empires, crusades, world wars, political upheavals and even a radical change of religion.
1. The predecessors of the Hagia Sophia Cathedral
Like many other temples, Hagia Sophia was built on the site where religious objects had stood for centuries. Researchers are sure that on the site of the cathedral that still exists today, a pagan temple was erected during the Roman Empire, which was rebuilt several times due to fires.
During the reign of Emperor Constantine I in 324-337. instead of a pagan cult object, the first Christian church was created, which was constantly rebuilt and expanded by his son, Emperor Constantius II (according to the manuscripts of Socrates Scholasticus).
Historical background:During the Byzantine era, Constantinople became an important political, economic and Christian center. Since then, the Bishop of Constantinople was second only to the Pope in power and prestige, who to this day is considered the Supreme Pontiff.
This redistribution left its mark on the history of the Hagia Sophia, as it required the construction of a more spacious and pompous building. An unforeseen impetus for the construction of the "Great Church" was a fire that completely destroyed the first Hagia Sophia. Soon after the tragic events in 532, on the orders of Emperor Justinian I, the construction of a new shrine began, which "was to become an adornment of the capital and serve as an expression of the greatness of the empire."
2. Stages of construction
To create a magnificent temple, the emperor ordered to redeem the adjacent territories and invited the best architects of that time - Isidore of Miletsky and Anthimius of Trallsky, who were more mathematicians and engineers than architects. This played an important role in the forms and structural features of the building, which revolutionized the temple construction of Christians, because then no one has designed domed, almost square churches.
Fulfilling the wishes of the emperor, only the best materials and elements of ancient temples (columns for the portico) were used for the construction, which were delivered from the Temple of the Sun, Ephesus and other places of worship. In addition, during the construction of the cathedral, marble, gold, silver, ivory, copper, glass, gems and even diamonds were used. The abundance of unprecedented luxury led to the appearance of legends and terrible prophecies, which made the emperor settle down. The construction and arrangement of the temple devastated the treasury of the Byzantine Empire in the amount of three annual income.
Interesting fact: Despite the fact that the designers were famous mathematicians, even during the construction, their catastrophic miscalculations became noticeable. The walls of the building could not support the weight of the dome and began to move apart. To avoid execution, the architects developed a new project that included the creation of side halls with half-domes, reinforced from the outside with stiffeners, which stopped the destruction. Although during the earthquakes that occurred shortly after construction, the dome still could not resist and collapsed. It was rebuilt by the Armenian architect Trdat, the creator of the Ani Cathedral. He made it much higher, using a special ribbed masonry. This very dome, which has impressive dimensions (diameter 31 m, height 55.6 m), stood for almost 900 years.
3. Christian shrine during the Byzantine Empire
For almost 900 years, Hagia Sophia remained one of the most magnificent religious sites in Byzantium. The emperors who succeeded each other gave the temple new features, adding and changing its internal and external appearance. Most of all, the mosaics were transformed, which depicted the Byzantine emperors, the Saints, the Virgin Mary and Christ. The biggest impetus for change, and for the worse, was the split into the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.
After the schism, the East was engulfed in crusades organized by the Roman Catholic Church, which in 1204 led to the complete plundering and desecration of Constantinople, including the Cathedral of St. Sophia. During this period, a change of government took place, the Latin Empire was created and a Catholic patriarch was appointed. Since that time, Hagia Sophia has been turned into a Catholic cathedral, with all the ensuing consequences. However, especially valuable items were already taken away by the crusaders to the West. Despite the fact that Byzantium was able to return its lands, the temple did not return its former greatness, the empire was already fading away, and could not spend colossal funds on its restoration. Although the Orthodox Church still returned to the walls of St. Sophia Cathedral.
4. Ottoman rule and the further fate of the Hagia Sophia
In May 1453, the last Christian service in its history was held in the Hagia Sophia. Soon the city and the last pearl of the old Byzantine empire were captured by the army of Sultan Mehmed II. During the invasion, the already old building was subjected to even more destruction and looting. However, his beauty so impressed the Sultan that he decided to turn the church into a mosque. If from a religious point of view this meant only a change in the content and canons of divine services, then in architectural terms, the change of religions required several new additions at once.
The Christian altar was replaced by a mihrab facing Mecca, and a minbar (pulpit for sermons) was added. In a short time, a minaret was built, from which the call to prayer sounded. Over the course of several centuries, the Ottoman rulers continued to transform the building, maintaining its condition with constant repairs (age affected) and the introduction of new facilities. Over time, the rest of the minarets were completed (15th and 16th centuries), by order of Suleiman the Magnificent, Byzantine mosaics were plastered (figural images in mosques are prohibited), which has kept them in excellent condition to this day. Also added were a golden crescent on the dome, a fountain for ablutions, a kitchen for organizing charity dinners, several ancient marble urns from the Hellenistic era, cult calligraphic medallions were created glorifying Allah and the Prophet Muhammad.
5. Formation of a modern museum
In 1923, the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist, becoming the Turkish Republic. This entailed not only the renaming of the capital from Constantinople to Istanbul, but also the transition of religious objects to secular ones. During the leadership of President Kemal Ataturk (1934), Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum. Since then, the restoration and restoration of the ancient shrine began, which made it possible to clean the mosaics of the Byzantine period of the Emperor Justinian and later images from plaster, elements of pagan temples and many symbols were also found, proving that the temple had changed more than one religion. Removing the carpets revealed the marble floors beneath which the ancient foundations were preserved.
Surveys of the surrounding areas also helped to find fragments of the colonnade belonging to the era of Emperor Theodosius (before the construction of the stone Sophia Cathedral). For many years, Hagia Sophia has been part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, better known as the "Historic Areas of Istanbul", which has a beneficial effect on its preservation and restoration. Until 2020, the ancient cathedral received tourists who visited the world-famous shrine in an endless stream to trace the fascinating history preserved in various architectural styles and religious symbols.
6. Return to the place of worship
The return of the magnificent Hagia Sophia to its status as a place of worship is another chapter in the challenging yet exciting history of the sacred site. Permanent stay in the epicenter of national, religious and geopolitical events is nothing new for this magnificent structure. In the summer of 2020, without prior consultation with UNESCO, by order of the incumbent President Recep Erdogan, St. Sophia Cathedral was officially transformed from a museum into a mosque.
In Muslim countries, Christian shrines are especially revered places, to which not only pilgrims but also tourists flock. The history of their creation always arouses genuine interest, especially if there are non-standard features of their appearance in one place or another. So, for example, in the capital of Egypt there is a unique Christian temple in all respects, appeared thanks to debris.