Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Hagia Sophia

On Tuesday morning, I hastened to Hagia Sophia, which is one of the sites I was really interested in seeing.

Here are some comments I overheard while there. A man said to a woman in American English, “They have both Christian and Muslim symbols. This is confusing. Do they have any sense of what they were doing?” The woman went on to explain the significance of the building to him. He was somewhat disinterested.

Another man said to a woman as they were standing in front of a baptistery, “It is just a Jacuzzi or hot tub.”

It was inside the Hagia Sophia that I noticed the group dynamics the most. Some people cannot be separated from their group even if it is just a few feet. You can sense fear of becoming lost. When in a queue, the man sends the woman first into a disorganized mess and then he fights his way to be with her even though he is separated only by a person. You can sense his agitation. In such a large space, you cannot get lost.

Then, there are those people who cannot move to the right. They do not have a sense of themselves in the presence of a moving crowd. They have an idea and stop in the middle of a corridor and they don’t move to the side to let people pass. These are behaviors taught in grade school. It is as if they do not realize other people exist and when someone asks them to move to the side, they get ticked off. How funny we are.

At the end of the Palace tour I sat in a garden terrace called Konyali café and had a simple apple tea. It was so good and invigorating. I just soaked in the environment and breathed very well.

The Church of the Holy Wisdom, known as Hagia Sophia  and Ayasofya in Turkish, is a former Byzantine church and former Ottoman mosque in Istanbul. Now a museum, Hagia Sophia is universally acknowledged as one of the great buildings of the world.

Unfortunately nothing remains of the original Hagia Sophia, which was built on this site in the fourth century by Constantine the Great. Constantine was the first Christian emperor and the founder of the city of Constantinople, which he called "the New Rome." The Hagia Sophia was one of several great churches he built in important cities throughout his empire.
Following the destruction of Constantine's church, a second was built by his son Constantius and the emperor Theodosius the Great. This second church was burned down during the Nika riots of 532, though fragments of it have been excavated and can be seen today.

Hagia Sophia was rebuilt in her present form between 532 and 537 under the personal supervision of Emperor Justinian I. It is one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture, rich with mosaics and marble pillars and coverings. After completion, Justinian is said to have exclaimed, "Solomon, I have outdone thee!"

The architects of the church were Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, who were professors of geometry at the University of Constantinople. Their work was a technical triumph, even though the structure was severely damaged several times by earthquakes. The original dome collapsed after an earthquake in 558 and its replacement fell in 563. Steps were taken to better secure the dome, but there were additional partial collapses in 989 and 1346.

Justinian's basilica was both the culminating architectural achievement of Late Antiquity and the first masterpiece of Byzantine architecture. Its influence, both architecturally and liturgically, was widespread and enduring in the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Muslim worlds alike.

For over 900 years the Hagia Sophia was the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople and a principal setting for church councils and imperial ceremonies.
In 1204 the cathedral was ruthlessly attacked, desecrated and plundered by the Crusaders, who also ousted the Patriarch of Constantinople and replaced him with a Latin bishop. This event cemented the division of the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches that had begun with the Great Schism of 1054. It also means that most of Hagia Sophia's riches can be seen today not in Istanbul, but in the treasury of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice.

Despite this violent setback, Hagia Sophia remained a functioning church until May 29,1453, when Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror entered triumphantly into the city of Constantinople. He was amazed at the beauty of the Hagia Sophia and immediately converted it into his imperial mosque.

Hagia Sophia served as the principal mosque of Istanbul for almost 500 years. It became a model for many of the Ottoman mosques of Istanbul.

No major structural changes were made at first; the addition of a mihrab (prayer niche), minbar (pulpit) and a wooden minaret made a mosque out of the church. At some early point, all the faces depicted in the church's mosaics were covered in plaster due to the Islamic prohibition of figurative imagery. Various additions were made over the centuries by successive sultans.

Sultan Mehmed II built a madrasa (religious school) near the mosque and organized a waqf for its expenses. Extensive restorations were conducted by Mimar Sinan during the rule of Selim II, including the original sultan's loge and another minaret. Mimar Sinan built the mausoleum of Selim II to the southeast of the mosque in 1577 and the mausoleums of Murad III and Mehmed III were built next to it in the 1600s. Mahmud I ordered a restoration of the mosque in 1739 and added an ablution fountain, Koranic school, soup kitchen and library, making the mosque the center of a social complex.

The most famous restoration of the Hagia Sophia was completed between 1847-49 by Abdülmecid II, who invited Swiss architects Gaspare and Guiseppe Fossati to renovate the mosque. The brothers consolidated the dome and vaults, straightened columns, and revised the decoration of the exterior and the interior.


In 1934, under Turkish president Kemal Atatürk, Hagia Sofia was secularized and turned into the Ayasofya Museum. The prayer rugs were removed, revealing the marble beneath, but the mosaics remained largely plastered over and the building was allowed to decay for some time. Some of the calligraphic panels were moved to other mosques, but eight roundels were left and can still be seen today.

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