You may wish to see an introductory page to this section first.
I was curious to see such of the
mosques as I could find had formerly been churches, and among them
particularly saint Sophia.
Richard Pococke - A Description of the East and Some Other Countries - 1745
It is forbidden to any but a musulman to enter the church of Santa Sophia without a firhman, or written order from the sultan, of which I twice availed myself.
James Dallaway - Constantinople Ancient and Modern with Excursions to the Shores of the Islands of the Archipelago and to the Troas - 1797
Hagia Sophia, the church dedicated to the Holy Wisdom which was rebuilt by Emperor Justinian in 537 is both the most imposing monument of the Byzantine Empire and a summary of its history. The use by historians of the term Byzantine Empire rather than Eastern Roman Empire indicates the abandonment of the Roman roots in favour of the Greek ones which began in Vth century and eventually led Emperor Eraclius to discontinue the use of Latin as the official language and in 629 to replace the title of Augustus with Basileus (monarch in Greek).
mosque makes a much meaner and heavier appearance on the outside
than the mosques that are built in imitation of it. Pococke
The outside view from so many heterogeneous additions, (..) shows only a pile of unsightly masses, and, beside the dome, has no discriminating feature. The four minarets which are detached, and have each a different form, give somewhat of lightness; in a picturesque consideration they harmonize more perfectly with the other parts. Dallaway
The current building is the third church: because of its size it was usually referred to as Megalo Ecclesia (Great Church). According to some sources the first church was built by Emperor Constantine, but this is highly unlikely; he might have built a basilica, a civilian building, which his son Constantius II turned into a church.
Details of the church built by Emperor Theodosius II which are placed near the entrance to Hagia Sophia
Many almost incredible histories of this edifice may be found in
the Byzantine writers, who in their zeal for their religion did not
confine themselves within the bounds of truth; whilst they dwelt
with prolixity on the account of this magnificent temple. Hence
arose that high degree of veneration, in which it is held by the modern Greeks, who indulge the most extravagant notions of its decided
superiority over any church in the known world, and retain with infinite credulity the traditions of its former excellence. Dallaway
In 404 during riots the church was damaged by a fire. In 415 a new church was inaugurated by Emperor Theodosius II. The remains of that building show a mixture of traditional decorations, such as those of the ceiling, with new Christian motifs. This church was burnt down in 532 when opposite supporters of chariot racers (the Greens and the Blues) united against Emperor Justinian and assaulted the imperial palace. This led to a fire which destroyed a large part of the city including Hagia Sophia.
Eight large porphyry pillars in saint Sophia are mentioned as taken out of a temple of the sun built by Valerian, and sent by Marsia, a Roman widow, to the
emperor Justinian. There are in it eight porphyry pillars, and
as many of verd antique; (..) two of the
porphyry pillars in the portico of Solimanea, might be taken from
this mosque. Pococke
Justinian survived the crisis associated with the 532 riots and profiting from a period of peace on the eastern border of the empire, started a campaign to conquer the province of Africa (today's Tunisia) which was then a kingdom of the Vandals. It was a successful initiative and in 534 Africa, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearic Islands were annexed to the empire.
In 535 the Byzantines attacked the Ostrogoths in Sicily and although their army was rather small they were able to move into the Italian peninsula and conquer Rome in December 536.
Justinian wanted to celebrate his triumphs by erecting a new Hagia Sophia, a building which would surpass in size and splendour those of Ancient Rome.
Procopius in his book "de
Aedificiis" has given a lively account of the re-building
of the cathedral of S. Sophia. The architects whom
Justinian summoned to the task were Anthemius of
Tralles, who surpassed in constructive skill all his contemporaries and predecessors, and Isidorus of Miletus,
both of them - be it observed - from the Asiatic part of
the Empire. (..) Procopius who watched the building as it rose wrote: "And when one goes
there to pray he straightway understands that it is not
by human power or art but by the influence of God that
this work has been fashioned: and his mind lifted Godwards walks the air, not thinking him afar off, but rather
that it pleases him to dwell with his elect. And this not
at the first time of seeing it only, but every man continually feels the same as if he had never seen it before."
Thomas Graham Jackson - Byzantine and Romanesque Architecture - 1913
The dedication of the church to Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom of God - a rather awkward theological concept) was interpreted as a dedication to Mary the Theotokos (Mother of God), who was regarded as a representation of wisdom in the sense of saint humility, rather than knowledge.
At the end of 537 the new church was completed, but the dome collapsed in 559 because of an earthquake. It was rebuilt in 563: its size was reduced and it was strengthened by buttresses. The inner diameter of its circular base is 31 m (102 ft), whereas that of the Pantheon is 43 m (142 ft).
(left) Decoration of the narthex; (right) alabaster jar thought to come from Pergamum
The sides are wainscotted
with porphyry, verd antique, and other rare oriental marbles. Pococke
For the construction of Hagia Sophia Emperor Justinian did not spare resources and we know the church was decorated with precious marbles, in particular porphyry, the symbol of imperial power. The current decoration of Hagia Sophia retains only a small part of the original one; of the many additions which were made in the following centuries some are due to Ottoman sultans, such as two jars from Pergamum which were placed in the main nave by Sultan Murad III at the end of the XVIth century.
The sculpture of the capitals is remarkable. There is no pulvino: it was never fashionable at Constantinople, and is, after all, rather a clumsy expedient: but the
capital itself is shaped like a pulvino so as to give solid
support to the impost of the arch; it is enriched with surface carving of the Byzantine acanthus, and there is an
Ionic volute preserving distantly the memory of Roman
Composite. The execution of these capitals (..) is unlike and superior to
that of any similar work in Constantinople, and they form
a type by themselves. Jackson
In S. Giovanni in Laterano in Rome there is a sweating stone and in Hagia Sophia there is a sweating column; while the former is associated with a dark prediction, the latter is thought to cure diseases of the eye and infertility. St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, a IIIrd century bishop, was a worker of wonders.
With some exceptions, e.g. Agrippina, the wives of the Roman emperors did not play a major role in state affairs, while those of the Byzantine emperors often did. Theodora, Justinian's second wife and a former actress, almost shared the throne with her husband; the fine capitals of the columns of Hagia Sophia show the composite monogram of the couple (I and T).
are pillars of verd antique in the galleries. Pococke
At each end of the outer narthex is a porch, and adjoining it a winding inclined plane by which ladies were carried in sedans to the gynaeconitis or gallery above. Whether these are original, or subsequent additions by the Emperor Basil I, is a point still debated: but it is clear some such access must have existed from the first; Theodora, in robe, crown, and jewels, as we see her in the mosaic at Ravenna, could not have mounted by the narrow corkscrew stair of dusty brick in the buttresses. Jackson
Hagia Sophia had separate sections for men and women: it is thought that the upper gallery was reserved to the empress and her court: it retains some well preserved mosaics with a decorative motif (acanthus leaves) which was used also in the mosaics of S. Maria Maggiore in Rome. During the Late Roman Empire the art of mosaic reached its peak and mosaics continued to play a major role in the arts of the Byzantine period. Sculpture was completely abandoned: it was too strictly associated with the ancient gods and with a way of life which was regarded as sinful.
All the mosaics of the time of Emperor Justinian which portrayed sacred images (and in
general human beings) were removed during two iconoclastic periods in the VIIIth and IXth centuries. Iconoclasm (breaking of images)
was probably influenced by contacts with the Muslim world.
The orders issued by the Byzantine emperors to destroy all the images were not carried out in the Italian Byzantine possessions, so that to see the splendour of Justinian's court one has to visit Ravenna; Rome too retains some very old mosaics.
Even in those obscure periods Hagia Sophia continued to be embellished: the bronze door shown above is thought to have been added in 838 by Theophilus, the last iconoclastic emperor.
The whole concave from the windows is incrusted with mosaic
formed with small tesserae, (..) resembling glass. Excepting four figures of colossal size representing seraphins, it is intirely gilt, decayed in many parts from extreme age, but not intentionally defaced. Dallaway
It was another Theodora, the wife of Emperor Teophilus, who restored the veneration of the sacred images in 843 when, after the death of her husband, she was regent for her son Michael III. In 867 the first post-iconoclasm mosaic was completed in the apse of Hagia Sophia; it is thought to be a reconstruction of the original one: it portrays Mary the Theotokos.
Soon after mosaics portraying angels were placed at the base of the dome: the one shown above was repainted (without the face) in the XIXth century. In 1935 Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum and the plaster covering many mosaics was removed.
Each of the nine bays of the narthex has its door
into the church, the royal gate in the middle being the
largest. Above it, though now hidden, is the mosaic
seen by Salzenberg, (Wilhelm Salzenberg, a German architect who visited Hagia Sophia in 1847 when it was being restored) representing an emperor at the feet of Christ. Jackson
The Byzantine image of the emperor was an iconic one that is a symbol of power and not the actual portrait of the man, as in the case of the ancient Roman emperors. For this reason there is uncertainty whether the emperor portrayed in the mosaic above is Leo VI or his son Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus. The latter had this attribute which means "born in the porphyry" to stress he was the legitimate son of Leo VI.
Religious rules vary over time: in the Xth century according to the Patriarch of Constantinople it was not appropriate for an emperor to marry again after having been widowed twice. Leo VI at the age of 33 was already in that situation and childless; he disregarded the advice of the Patriarch and he married a third time, but the bride died a few months later. The Emperor then decided to have a mistress, but when she gave birth to a child, he appointed a new Patriarch and he married his mistress. In order to strengthen his son's right to the throne he had arranged the delivery to take place in a special room of the imperial palace, which was decorated with porphyry and where the empresses gave birth to their children.
In the mosaic the Emperor is portrayed in a very humble position, but on the same scale as Christ and with a halo: the text on the book reads: Peace be with you. I am the light of the world.
The Byzantine court was a dangerous place and emperors were suspicious of everyone and in particular of their relatives.
Emperor Constantine VIII was wary of his potential sons-in-law and for this reason he did not allow his three daughters to marry. Only on his deathbed he married his daughter Zoe to his chosen heir Romanos III. Three days later he passed away and Romanos and Zoe succeeded to the throne. She was 50 and her husband paid little attention to her. They were portrayed in a beautiful mosaic in the upper gallery of Hagia Sophia: Zoe looks very humble and very small, but she had an iron will and she resented the behaviour of her husband.
A few years later Romanos was found dead in his bath and soon after Zoe married her chamberlain who was 24 and who became Emperor Michael IV; his portrait replaced that of Romanos in the mosaic.
Zoe outlived her second husband and she became the co-ruler of his adoptive nephew Michael V. The new emperor tried to banish Zoe, but the people of Constantinople revolted and Michael was arrested, blinded and sent to a monastery where he died soon after.
Zoe became the sole ruler of the empire and she remarried a third time: the portrait of Constantine IX Monomachos (the one who fights alone) replaced that of Michael IV.
A very similar mosaic portrays a happy couple; the marriage between young John Comnenus and the Hungarian Princess Piroska, daughter of King Ladislaus of Hungary,
was arranged in order to improve relations between the two countries. It proved a happy marriage: the couple had eight children.
In this mosaic the portraits seem more true to life than in the preceding one; the empress has a fair complexion and long blond hair in plaits; the Emperor, who was nicknamed the Moor, has a dark complexion.
In the centre of the mosaic the portrait of Mary is a rather conventional work.
John Comnenus presided over the restoration of the Byzantine Empire: he recovered part of the territories conquered by Turkish tribes, including Kastamonu, his family's hometown. Byzantine mosaicists played a major role in the decoration of Norman cathedrals in Sicily, e.g. at Cefalý and Monreale. The Norman kings adopted also the Byzantine crowns shown in the mosaics at Hagia Sophia.
There is a chapel
likewise adjoining to the great corridor, with a vault of mosaic almost
destroyed, which is sold in small fragments to the superstitious
Greeks, or curious visitors, by the inferior officers of the mosque. Dallaway
During the long reign (1143-80) of Manuel I Comnenos the Byzantine Empire regained some of its old possessions and the emperor even made an attempt to re-conquer Egypt, but the expansionist policies he followed led to several setbacks. He tried (in vain) to conquer Konya, his attempts to restore Byzantine rule on parts of southern Italy failed and he broke relations with Venice by confiscating its properties in Constantinople.
In 1204 the Most Serene Republic took its revenge by masterminding the intervention of the Crusaders in a dynastic quarrel: subsequently the Venetians supported the conquest of Constantinople and the fall of the Byzantine Empire. A marker in Hagia Sophia indicates the tomb of Enrico Dandolo, the Venetian Doge who led the expedition.
The Byzantine Empire was restored in 1261, but it never regained its former importance: a mosaic in Hagia Sophia is thought to have been commissioned to celebrate the event; it shows the influence of Italian art.
strikes the eye at the first entrance, the dome being very large; but a
great beauty is lost, as the mosaic is all destroyed, except a very little at the
east end; so that all the top is whited over; (..) it is hung
with a great number of glass lamps, and the pavement is spread with the
richest carpets, where the sophtis are always studying and repeating the
alcoran; and the doctors preaching and explaining it, in particular parts
of the mosque, to their separate auditories. Pococke
The first impression made by the interior view is that of a vast extent of floor area, and an enormous void above. To some extent the same feeling is aroused on first entering S. Peter's at Rome. But the effect here is still more surprising; for the simplicity of the plan allows the eye to take in the whole interior at once including the dome, which at S. Peter's is not fully revealed till you advance towards it. Jackson
After the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque; it is known that for a long time the mosaics were not erased or covered. In the interior additions were minor and also tile decoration was limited to small sections of the upper gallery. More attention was paid to the exterior with the addition of four minarets and to the structure of the building which was strengthened by additional buttresses.
Upper gallery: Ottoman tiles, for a more impressive sample of this type of decoration you may wish to visit Rustem Pacha Camii
While the Byzantine emperors had moved their ordinary residence to the remote Blachernae Palace, the Sultans built their palace (Topkapi Sarayi) next to Hagia Sophia on the site of the ancient acropolis of Byzantium.
W. H. Bartlett engraving showing the sadirvan (fountain for ablutions) of Hagia Sophia
Plan of this section:
Hagia Irene and Little Hagia Sophia
Roman/Byzantine exhibits at the Archaeological Museum
Great Palace Mosaic Museum
Byzantine Heritage - Other Churches (before 1204)
St. Saviour in Chora
Byzantine Heritage (between 1204 and 1453)
First Ottoman Buildings
The Golden Century: I - from Sultan Selim to Sinan's Early Works
The Golden Century: II - The Age of Suleyman
The Golden Century: III - Suleymaniye Kulliye
The Golden Century: IV - Sinan's Last Works
The Heirs of Sinan
Towards the Tulip Era
The End of the Ottoman Empire
Museums near Topkapi Sarayi
The Princes' Islands
Map of Istanbul and key dates of its history