Published On: Sat, Jan 3rd, 2015

Visiting Turkey’s Famed Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia seen from the Bosphorus Strait

Several years ago I read a book about the Ottoman Empire, one of many that talked about Hagia Sophia. The more I read about it, its history which predates the Ottoman Empire by several centuries, the higher it climb my bucket list.

With just a one day layover in Istanbul starting around 1:00 pm, in which the line to visit Hagia Sophia wasn’t realistic, I made it a point to rise early the next morning to make sure I got to get inside before heading to the airport to come home.

Though the Blue Mosque looks so much more compelling physically, there’s no denying the extraordinary history of Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia is a former Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica (church), later an imperial mosque, and now a museum (Ayasofya Müzesi) in Istanbul, Turkey. From the date of its construction in 537 until 1453, it served as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral and seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, except between 1204 and 1261, when it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral under the Latin Empire. The building was a mosque from 29 May 1453 until 1931. It was then secularized and opened as a museum in February 1935.

Famous in particular for its massive dome, it is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and is said to have “changed the history of architecture.” It remained the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years, until Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520. The current building was originally constructed as a church between 532 and 537 on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and was the third Church of the Holy Wisdom to occupy the site, the previous two having both been destroyed by rioters.

For such a prized possession to be owned by two opposing religions, it’s amazing that new owners continued to keep the previous owners’ artwork and decorations, even as they opposed the others’ religion. There’s a mosaic of the Virgin Mary holding Baby Jesus in the apse high above the mihrab.

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Hagia Sophia Apse.

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Hagia Sophia’s The Virgin and Child mosaic.
The Virgin and Child mosaic was the first of the post-iconoclastic mosaics. This mosaic is situated in a high location on the half dome of the apse. Mary is sitting on a throne without a back, holding the Child Jesus on her lap. Her feet rest on a pedestal. Both the pedestal and the throne are adorned with precious stones.

Click here for an extremely thorough description at The Virgin and Child mosaic. Seriously, who has that kind of time on their hands to be that detailed!?

Hagia Sophia Mihrab

Hagia Sophia Mihrab.
Mihrab is a semicircular niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the qibla; that is, the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca and hence the direction that Muslims should face when praying. The wall in which a mihrab appears is thus the “qibla wall.”

Next to the mihrab is the minbar, a pulpit in the mosque where the imam (prayer leader) stands to deliver sermons or in the Hussainia where the speaker sits and lectures the congregation.

Hagia Sophia Minbar

Hagia Sophia Minbar

As you gaze up at The Virgin and Child mosaic and around the Hagia Sophia, you can’t miss the huge calligraphic roundels. The ones on the left and right of the mihrab say Muhammad and Allah. Other roundels include the first four caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali, and the two grandchildren of Mohammed: Hassan and Hussain.

Hagia Sophia Calligraphy Roundels

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Hagia Sophia Calligraphic Roundels in the Apse.

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Paned windows in the Hagia Sophia apse.

There’s calligraphy all around the Hagia Sophia. Beautiful works of art, though I can’t read any of it.

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One of the most famous features of the Hagia Sophia is its dome. An architectural masterpiece, especially considering when it was built.

Appearing to support the dome are four seraphims. Amazingly they were covered in layers of plaster for 160 years before anyone knew they were there.

Tradition places seraphs in the highest rank in the Christian angelic hierarchy and in the fifth rank of ten in the Jewish angelic hierarchy. A seminal passage in the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-8) used the term to describe six-winged beings that fly around the Throne of God crying “holy, holy, holy.” This throne scene, with its triple invocation of holiness (a formula that came to be known as the Trisagion), profoundly influenced subsequent theology, literature and art. Its influence is frequently seen in works depicting angels, heaven and apotheosis. Seraphs are mentioned as celestial beings in an influential Hellenistic work, the Book of Enoch, and the Book of Revelation.

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There are four seraphim mosaics (God’s protector angels with 6 wings) on the 4 pendentives that carry the dome. The four seraphims’ faces were covered with 6-7 layers of plaster for almost 160 years during the sovereignty of Ottomans. The last person who saw the faces of the seraphims was the Swiss architect Gaspare Fossati while he was holding the restoration at Hagia Sophia in 1840s. With a 10 day hard work, experts managed to take off the 7 layers of plasters and reveal the face of one of the seraphims.

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Sultan’s Lodge
The earlier lodge was located on the apse, but Gaspere Fossati designed the new lodge in 1847 and replaced it against the pier to the north of the apse. The lodge was used by Sultan to join the rituals without being seen by public and it was also to protect the Sultan from possible assassins. The grills of the lodge are carved marble in Turkish rococo style, and the columns carrying the lodge are Byzantine.

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The huge chandeliers of Hagia Sophia.

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Hagia Sophia Narthex

Out in the narthexes [narthex: an antechamber, porch, or distinct area at the western entrance of some early Christian churches, separated off by a railing and used by catechumens, penitents, etc.] there were these interesting pieces:

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Marble inscription

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Sarcophagus of the Empress Irene

It is believed that the Empress Irene, wife of Emperor John II, is in this sarcophagus.

Irene of Hungary, born Piroska, was a daughter of Ladislaus I of Hungary and Adelaide of Swabia. Her mother died in 1090 when Piroska was about two years old. Her father died July 1095. Ladislaus was succeeded by his nephew Coloman of Hungary who apparently was the new guardian of orphaned Piroska.

In an effort to improve relations with Alexios I Komnenos of the Byzantine Empire, Coloman negotiated the marriage of Piroska to John II Komnenos. John II was the eldest son of Alexios I and Irene Doukaina. He was already co-ruler of his father since September 1092 and was expected to succeed him. The negotiations were successful and Piroska married John in 1104.

Following her conversion to the Eastern Orthodox Church and settlement in Constantinople, Piroska was renamed Irene.

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Library of Mahmud I

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One of the most significant annexes to the structure is the library built by Sultan Mahmud I at 1739 between the two buttresses on the south of the structure. This section consists of the reading hall, the main place, Hazine-i Kütüb (place where the books are preserved) and the corridor and the stony ground combining these sections. It is separated from the main place by a bronze grid carries by 6 columns. The bronze grid is decorated with flowers and branch convolutions. There is scripture of “Ya Fettah” on the two-leafed door of the library and there are two door handles.

“Ya Fettah” is one of the 99 names of Allah and means “the one who opens the doors of goodness and livelihood and makes things easier”. It is frequently used on the handles of the doors in Ottoman Era. There is a porphyry signature of Sultan Mahmud I inlayed to marble on the east wall of the reading room.

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Synodicon (Synode Mecesi Kararlari)

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Synodicon (Synode Mecesi Kararlari) in Hagia Sophia is a record of decisions passed by a general synod (a regular supreme religious assembly) that was held at Hagia Sophia in 1166.

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Mary with Emperors Mosaic

This mosaic resides in the southern portal narthex and they are originated in 990. It is believed that this mosaic was made for the emperor Basil II, who notably admired those two of his great predecessors. Although it is generally acknowledged this mosaic dates from the 10th century, there are some doubts to this theory. The mosaic itself displays Virgin Mary on the throne, with Christ in her lap, holding a pen and a scroll in his hands. They are being approached by the emperor Justinian on their left. Justinian is holding in his hands a model of the church of Hagia Sophia. In the opposite, the emperor Constantine is holding in his hand a miniature model of the city of Constantinople, named after him. They are both offering these sacramential gifts to the Virgin Mary.

Format of the mosaic is semicircular, and it also shows an indication of space. Even though its background’s colour is gold, the low part, containing the characters, is green, therefore marking the ground. The heads of all the characters, including the two emperors, are surrounded by aureolas, thereby classifying the emperors themselves divine, or sacred. The mosaic is realized particularly meticulously, with numerous details on the emperor’s outfits and crowns. Next to them are different inscriptions celebrating their rulership.“This mosaic is not just a mere artistic expression of a certain theme, but it shows a distinct relation of the Church and the Empire with God, who bestows his blessings to the church, the ruler and the state.“.6 Remarking glorious ancestors, and the setup of the Empire’s capital city, and its primary church, signifies the reconstruction of the city and the entire Empire under Basil II.

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The Beautiful (or Splendid) Door (or Gate)

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Courtyard of the Bapistry

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Hagia Sophia Ablutions Fountain
Hagia Sophia Fountain built by Sultan Mahmud I (1730 – 1754) in 1740 is a masterpiece of Ottoman Architecture and one of the largest and most beautiful fountains in Istanbul. It is covered by a dome and an eave mounted on eight columns with muqarnas headings and eight arches. On the dome, there are a bronze tulip scripture of “Allah” written by carving in stack on top and a mirror scripture of “Muhammed” below and an “eulogium” on the upper and inner part of marble arcade. The fountain has 16 slices and each slice have bronze taps in the middle. There are tulip-shape bronze banners containing the scripture of “We have created everything from water” on the upper part of the joining section of sliced bronze water mains over the taps.

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Tomb of Sultan Selim II

This building is one of the 18 tombs built by Architect Sinan. It has the most beautiful examples of stonework, woodwork, tiles and calligraphic arts. Architect Sinan got an order from Sultan Selim II to build a tomb for him. It is known that the tomb could be completed 3 years after death of Sultan Selim II. The facade of the building is coated with marble. Entrance door of the structure has inlaid mother of pearl which is known as Kundekari Style and decorated with geometrical tortoise shells which is an exclusive example of woodwork. Each side of the door has the tiled panels with purple, blue, green and red flower patterns which show 16th century tile workmanship. Left side of the door has replica tiles which has paler colour than right side ones because original ones were sent to France for restoration in 1895 and they are still in the Louvre Museum.

There are a total 42 sarcophagi in the tomb belong to Sultan Selim II, his wife Nurbanu Sultan, their sons Osman, Mustafa, Suleyman, Cihangir, Abdullah, their daughters Fatma, Istemihan, Hacer and Guherhan and Sultan Murat III’s sons and daughters.

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About the Author

David Gaines

- David Gaines is a Washington, DC, resident transplanted from North Carolina whose dream career was a newspaper writer but settled for the recruiting industry and simply blogging about whatever thoughts crosses his mind.

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