Hagia Sophia

Istanbul, 7 to 8 October 2018.

(Click on any image to see it in a larger size, if you are on a PC at least.)

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(This is a longer post than usual with 44 images. I was going to break it into two but here it is, as one post.  This is a very historic building so there’s also a fair amount to read.)

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Here it is, Hagia Sophia.

Istanbul was called Constantinople until 1930.  Constantine founded Constantinople in 330AD to be the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.  Before that, there was the city of Byzantium on the site from the 7th century BC.  It was mainly a minor independent town but at various times occupied by Athens, Sparta and Persia until the Romans took over, I presume at the same time as the rest of Greece in 146BC. (Ancient Greece included all the islands and shores of the Aegean Sea, including the western edge of what is now Turkey).

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The spire and crescent atop the dome, dating from 1577.

The original church on the site, the “Great Church”, was built in 360, or possibly a decade or two earlier.  It mainly burnt down in 404 in riots resulting from the banishment of Archbishop Chrysostom by Empress Aelia Eudoxia and Emperor Arcadius.  The next church on the site was built by the Emperor Theodosius II in 415 and the name Hagia Sophia (meaning “Holy Wisdom”) came into use around 430.  That Hagia Sophia was destroyed by the Nika riots in 532, by the Blue and Green factions in the Hippodrome (chariot racing), protesting high taxation levied by Justinian in a time of war with Persia.  Much of Constantinople was also burnt.  The current Hagia Sophia was consecrated in 537 and was originally clad in white marble.

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Entering the Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia has been affected by many earthquakes requiring subsequent reconstruction.  Earthquakes in 553, 557 and 558 caused the main dome to collapse and reconstruction was completed in 562.  Among similar events was a fire in 859 and earthquakes in 869, 989, 1344, 1346, 1509 and 1895.  There have been many restoration efforts over the years.

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Inside now, this is the Mihrab, the focal point of the interior of a mosque, indicating the qibla, or the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, showing the direction to pray. 

Its final form dates from the nineteenth century.  The stained glass windows appear to have been modified or replaced since the Ottoman takeover.  In Byzantine times, this was the apse and housed the altar, so it was also the focus of the Cathedral.

The Hagia Sophia was an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral from 537 to 1204, when Constantinople was conquered by a renegade army from the Fourth Crusade, then a Roman Catholic Cathedral until 1261 when the Byzantines conquered it back.  It reverted to an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral until 1453 when the Ottomans took over.  It was then a Mosque until 1935 when under Kemal Ataturk’s secular state it was converted to a museum. It was still a museum when I visited but in July 2020, Erdogan controversially converted it back to a Mosque.

Supporting buttresses were added at various times by the Byzantines, Latins and Ottomans and the Ottomans added four minarets around it.

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Islamic calligraphic ceiling art.

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An ancient passageway to the upper level.

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Looking down on the main hall and up to the main dome.

Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world for around 1,000 years and the dome was the largest in the world for around 900 years.  The floor is marble from an island in the Sea of Marmara and it dates to the post-earthquake restoration of 558 under Justinian.  As of 2020, it is now covered in carpet.

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This is the Deesis Mosaic, from the thirteenth century, showing the Virgin Mary, Christ and John the Baptist.  It is thought to have replaced an earlier mosaic.

Hagia Sophia was looted in 1203 and 1204 by the Latin army (which had already been excommunicated by the Pope) and by the Ottomans in 1453.  Some of the mosaics are incomplete due to the temptations of gold leaf.  The mosaic tiles were glass tesserae, with two small squares of glass and gold leaf between them.  Thus looters had to chisel off mosaic tiles to get to the gold leaf.  Surviving mosaics are very high up because gold leaf was valuable and surviving ones were difficult to access.

Also, there were two periods of iconoclasm, 726 to 787 and 814 to 842, when religious pictures and statues were removed from the Hagia Sophia.

In the initial period after the Ottoman takeover in 1453, at least some of the mosaics were covered in whitewash.

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Closeup of Christ Pantocrator (or the all-powerful).

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The Comnenus mosaic, dating from 1122, shows John II Comnenus (Emperor 1118 to 1143), Virgin Mary and Christ Child, and Empress Irene (from Hungary).

Forty-five years before John came to the throne, in the aftermath of the Battle of Manzikert, the Seljuk Turks took over Asian Minor from the Empire.  Then at the end of the eleventh century, John’s predecessor, Alexios I Comnenus, inadvertently summoned the First Crusade who won it most of it back for him.  John II was a competent Emperor who was able to stabilise the Empire with successful campaigns against the Normans in the Balkans and the Seljuk Turks in Asia Minor, coupled with strategic fortifications.

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The Empress Zoe mosaic, from the 11th century, shows Constantine IX Monomarchus (Emperor 1042 to 1055), Christ Pantocrator and Empress Zoe. 

Zoe had a curious history.  Her father, Constantine VIII had no sons and persuaded her to marry Romanos Agyros in 1028, who became Emperor Romanos III a day later after Constantine died.  In 1034, Romanos was found dead in his bath, though to have been murdered by either Zoe or her lover, who married on the same day and he became Emperor Michael IV on the next day. Michael died in 1041 and Zoe became co-regent with his nephew who became Michael V.  A few months later, Michael V exiled Zoe for plotting to poison him.  However, this lead to a popular revolt and Zoe returned in 1042 as co-Emperor with her sister Theodora.  That was not so comfortable so Zoe married a former lover who became Constantine IX (in the mosaic above).  Zoe died in 1050 (at the age of 72) and  Constantine died in 1055.  Although Constantine wanted someone else to succeed him, Theodora then returned as sole Empress for two years. 

The heads of Constantine IX and Zoe in the mosaic are believed to have replaced different heads from a somewhat earlier period in family history.  Apart from Theodora, this was not one of the more competent periods in Byzantine administration.

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Looking up at a Byzantine decoration remnant.

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Mysterious inscription just below a marble hand rail.

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Various decorations from periods I am unable to determine.  However, the marble facings must date to the sixth century.

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This is a seraphim or one of the “six-winged fiery angels that surround God”.  There would originally have been a face under the golden metal centre or perhaps it is still there.

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One of the round calligraphic panels on each side of the apse wall (also seen in other views of the main chamber).

They date to between 1847 and 1849 and the descriptive panel says “Allah (the God), Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), The four Caliphs:  Abu Bakr, Omar, Osman, Ali.  The descendants of the Prophet Muhhammad Hassan and Hussein.”  I presume that is the summation of the inscriptions on all the panels (which differ).

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Remarkable marble panelling.

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Graffiti on a marble hand rail.

There are various examples of graffiti.  This one is perhaps Greek, but they include examples of Viking runes from the Varangian Guards, who were originally Vikings from Kievan Rus.

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Looking up, probably above the viewing area.

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Heading down to the ground level again.

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Evidence of differing building projects in different eras.

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Back by the main chamber. 

On the right is a large marble jar from Pergamon dating to the Hellenistic Period (post Alexander the Great) and carved from a single block of marble.  Pergamon was a major Greek city on what is now the western coast of Turkey.  The jar was brought to Hagia Sophia during the reign of Murad III (1574-1585).

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Looking up at the main dome.

Although architecture of previous ancient cultures, including Persia, had included domes, none had been of the scale of Hagia Sophia.  It was a prime influence of architecture in succeeding cultures, including the Islamic World and the domes I photographed in Uzbekistan.  The Hagia Sophia of course predates the Islamic World.

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Islamic wall tiles.

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Back to near where we started, the Mihrab is in the centre distance at floor level and the Minbar, where the Imam speaks from, is on the right.  More generally, this is also the Apse, with a mosaic of the Madonna and child above the windows.  We can also see a clearer view of the now-covered marble floor (dating from the sixth century).

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Here is a closer view of the mosaic. 

It probably dates to the late fourteenth century, though this is not certain.  It was covered towards the end of the eighteenth century and rediscovered during the renovations of 1847-48.

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This is the Angel Gabriel Mosaic (or what remains of it), from about 867.

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Islamic stained glass window.

While the Ottomans conquered Byzantium in 1453, it was really the renegade Latin crusaders of the Fourth Crusade who were more responsible for the fall after they took Constantinople in 1204.  At the death of Manuel I Comnenus in 1180, the Byzantine Empire had included the Balkans, Greece, the Aegean Islands, Cyprus and much of Asia Minor.  While the Byzantine Empire was restored in 1261 to include Northern Greece and Western Turkey, it did not remain this way for long.  For most of the next couple of centuries Constantinople was isolated with hardly any local territory and a few small outposts in Greece.  It lacked resources and by the time the Ottomans took over, the Hagia Sophia was in a state of disrepair.

Even then, in 1453 there was a Venetian relief fleet on the way that did not arrive in time.  Since it was the sea wall rather than the land walls that were breached, Constantinople would have been able to hold out for at least another few more years. 

Constantinople had massive city walls and formidable defences.  There were eighteen unsuccessful sieges by external powers prior to 1453.  One of the most significant was that of the Sassanian (Persian) Empire in 626.  But Emperor Heracles broke free and destroyed the Sassanians in their heartland in 627.  After that, both empires were exhausted and the Sassanian Empire fell to the Arabs within the next twenty-seven years.  In a different period, the rapid advance of the Arabs may not have been so easy.

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Cross faintly visible on the floor under later Islamic patterns.

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The Omphalion.  The place of East Roman coronations.  Unlike the rest of the floor, not now covered in carpet.

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Looking up and old Christian and later Islamic decorations.

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Polychrome marble revetments, or bracing structures, dating back to the original cathedral opened in 532.

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Ancient mosaic under an arch.

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Here there appears to be later plastering and painting to the same pattern as the mosaic underneath, perhaps to cover up earthquake damage.

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Looking up in the main chamber.

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The Vestibule Mosaic, from the 9th century.

The Virgin Mary and Christ Child are in the middle between Justinian I (left), holding a model of the Hagia Sophia, and Constantine (right), holding a model of the city of Constantinople. Justinian is described as “Emperor of Illustrious Memory” whereas Constantine is described as “the great Emperor amongst the saints”.

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Madonna and child closeup.

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Central part of bronze door from Hellenistic Temple of Tarsus of the second century BC, placed in Hagia Sophia by Emperor Theophilos (829-842).

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Next day, students posing outside for Istanbul Autumn Agora 2018, a kind of student conference concerned with sustainability.

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An Islamic group in front of the Hagia Sophia.

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Hagia Sophia at night.

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