Hagia Sophia
streaming light in hagia sophia

Most of the people who visit my site are either planning  trip to Istanbul and want to learn something about Hagia Sophia - or they have been and want to learn more about what they've seen.  First time visitors to Hagia Sophia notice a few things  The church is not so impressive from the outside, especially when compared to the other nearby Ottoman mosques.  Once you are inside the nave it feels dark.  This isn't the way it always was.  The darkness is caused by the closing up of so many windows by the Turkish architect Sinan in the 16th century.  There used to be much bigger windows in the typana with huge tripartite windows near the top of the arches.  Windows have been closed up in the dome and elsewhere. Buildings that were erected outside the building - a score of muslim tombs - along with massive buttresses also obscure the light coming in.  Today modern lighting - a absolute necessity for all the visitors in the church - makes all the oddities and imperfections of Hagia Sophia there to be seen.  I think the museum authorities should bring in a professional team to relight Hagia Sophia in a more sensitive way.

The vaults used to be covered with gold mosaic.  Now they have been replaced with the most ghastly paint colors - horrible dirty ochres.  They keep trying new colors but nothing works.  They spend so much on painting it that it might be better just to replace the paint with mosaic.  The psuedo-Justinianic stenciled ornaments look dreadful, too.  Why not get rid of them?  These designs are recent - they were a part of a redecoration scheme from 1848 to make Hagia Sophia look more gothic. Yes, gothic.  The guys who did it were the Fossati brothers,  Gaspari and Guiseppe, Swiss Italian architects and decorators.   In 1847, Sultan Abdülmecid appointed them to renovate Hagia Sophia and it took two years. It is claimed they saved the building from imminent destruction.  Today you can see the results of their structural improvements all over the building.  During their work many of the mosaics were revealed to the astonished eyes of the Fossatis as well as Sultan Abdülmecid .  The Sultan ordered drawings and watercolors done of the mosaics before they were covered up again. These drawings are in the are kept in the Cantonal Archive of Ticino.  They are an invaluable record.  Since then Hagia Sophia lost 50% of the mosaics that had survived.  It's funny but we don't know how this happened.  There was a great earthquake in 1894 -did that bring them down.  You would think that an earth-shaking - in more ways than one - event like an earthquake destroying 1000 year old mosaics would have reported in the press, but it wasn't.  You would think there would be records of the massive clean-up in Ottoman records.  So far nothing has turned up.  What happened to them?  Finding out won't bring these lost mosaics back, but it would help us to better understand the history of Hagia Sophia in recent times.

Another thing that disturbs visitors to the building are the imperfections in the vaults and the dome.  The curve is not perfect.  The dome - and parts of the dome - fell many times over the centuries.  The most 'recent' was the collapse of 1346 that brought down a part of the eastern arch and the dome.  The repairs are obvious and distracting because they could not duplicate the curve of the dome cornice when they rebuilt this area.  The Emperor John and his wife Anna had to beg to raise the funds to do the repairs - what was left of the empire could not finance them.  The Russians and other Orthodox princes gave money and the repairs got done.

The church we know today as Hagia Sophia - or Divine Wisdom, its true name - was dedicated by the Emperor Justinian in 537AD. Through many vicissitudes Justinian's cathedral church of Constantinople still stands, its soaring vaults and amazing dome are a testaments to the human spirit, the engineering talents of its builders and divine inspiration.

Justinian's church was not the first on the site. The original was built by the Emperor Constantius in 360. This church burned in 404 and was rebuilt by the Emperor Theodosius II in 415. Just over 100 years later this second church was suffered the same fate as the first, being burned in the famous Nike riot of January 532.

The destruction of Hagia Sophia allowed Justinian to build a church like none other ever seen before. The scale of the building exceeded any domed building attempted before and tested the abilities of the Emperor's architects and emptied the state treasury. Hagia Sophia was - and is - justly celebrated for the luxuriousness and opulence of it's decoration which included rare and costly marbles, acres of gold mosaic and rich liturgical furnishings.

View of the Nave Hagia SophiaNave Columns in Hagia Sophia

Throughout the centuries Justinian's masterpiece has undergone many changes including earthquakes, sacking by foreign armies, conversion to Islamic usage and finally its conversion to a museum. The amazing survival of Hagia Sophia is due to the love and care of centuries of believers who have made it a home of prayer, history and art.  Hagia Sophia is full of ghosts from the past.  Thousands of people have been killed within its walls - innocents who took refuge there in 1204 and then in 1453.  Try to imagine what it was like to have been hiding inside with your family as the Turkish army was battering down the doors.  The priests are saying the liturgy over and over again in perpetual prayers for the deliverance of the people inside.  There are 14,000 people - or more - in Hagia Sophia.  Suddenly the looters and the pillagers are inside and the mass slaughter begins.  Those who are not killed or raped (women and boys, right there on the spot) are tied in chains and sold into slavery.  Everyone is stripped in search of valuables.  Their clothes are taken from them.  The elderly, who have no value as slaves, are killed off one by one.  The blood of the victims is everywhere.  Imagine the horror and the cries for mercy, yet there was none to be had.  The church was full of bodies and there were huge piles of victims in the atrium.

Everything inside the church - all of the icons that can be easily grabbed are smashed to bits.  It goes on for hours and hours.  Finally, Mehmet II enters the building and amidst the carnage converts it into a mosque by crawling on top of the altar and reciting the Muslim Shahada.  The only thing I can compare this to is the taking of Jerusalem by the First Crusade in 1089.  They bathed the city in blood and converted both the Dome of the Rock into a church and Al-Aqsa into a palace where they stabled their horses. The crusaders were proud of these actions and were convinced that had brought the true faith with them.  Both mosques were used as churches for almost 100 years, until 1187.  Can you imagine what it would be like if Christians still had control of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa - a thousand years later?  Hagia Sophia - the holiest church of Orthodox Christianity and the center and heart of the faith was taken by force in another scene of barbarity perpetrated by religious fanatics.  It is a wound that never heals.

I was reading an article in the Turkish press a few days ago and it claimed that in 1453 the people inside Hagia Sophia were happy and welcomed them as liberators.  The Nationalist Turks really believe that.  What can one say about human nature and our willingness to justify our actions by cloaking them in religion.  Today Hagia Sophia must be protected from religious extremists, I think it is hopeless to try and save her as a museum.  We can't win this fight.  I think the only thing that protects Hagia Sophia are the thousands of tourists who visit her every day.  Hagia Sophia is big bucks for everyone in the Turkish tourist industry and the can't afford to loose the profits tourists generate.  A tourism boycott could have an effect.  Maybe if the Turkish religious zealots seize Hagia Sophia - storm her doors again - the outrage of the world could force them back.

Location of the Mosaic in Hagia Sophia

Now to return to the Deesis - it was a later addition of the 12-13th centuries to the upper South Gallery of the Church. Above, looking west, we can see the mosaic on the left in the corner. During Byzantine times this area of the church was reserved for members of the Imperial family and the court who viewed the liturgy from this easternmost bay of the church. A wooden staircase and passageway connected this part of the church directly to the Great Palace of the Byzantine Emperors.  You can still see where it attached to the south gallery and find inscriptions scratched onto marble doorways.  The door was in the middle - right between the mosaics of Constantine-Zoe and John and Eirene.  The door still opens but it opens into open air.

Hagia Sophia is full of graffiti, drawings and inscriptions.  They are everywhere.  There is a Byzantine scholar who has been compiling them all.  The walls are marked every where crosses used to be inserted and all the hooks that icons hung from are still there,  The ceiling still has hundreds of hooks for the hanging of curtains and lamps. Just look up and they're there.  Look at the floor and you can see the markings where the Byzantine Imperial throne stood.  More marks show where candle stands were.  Look at the doors of Hagia Sophia and see how the crosses were broken off them.  You can hear people shout or sing in the nave to test the acoustics; listen and I try to imagine an Imperial choir in the echo. Is it true that the last priest who celebrated mass in the church took his holy chalice and was swallowed up into a wall, someday to reappear? Well, that's the story the Greek or Russian guides  tell.  For me Hagia Sophia is full of ghosts.

Originally the vaults of the south gallery were covered with mosaics of Pentecost and Seraphim. As I mentioned earlier this all appears to have came down in an 1894 earthquake.  We are lucky we have very detailed drawings from the 1700's that document them - and we have some texts describing them.  The south gallery was originally for women, but later it became a part of the Patriarchal palace on this side of Hagia Sophia.  The imperial family would process along the wooden walkway from the palace and enter the church here, where the clergy would great them.  The clergy of the Great Church was among the best educated and most sophisticated culturally of Byzantium's citizens.  The South Gallery was magnificent and had some of the finest art to be found in the city.  The Deesis was, perhaps, the apogee of Byzantine art and spirituality.  We are glad it has survived when so much in Hagia Sophia has been lost forever.

Hagia Sophia still has many secrets to reveal.  There might still be more mosaics to be discovered.  There are photographs of chambers in the buttresses with mosaic figures from 80 years ago.  Are they still there? What happened the the beautiful acanthus mosaic vaults in the hidden chambers on the south side?  Is the Pantokrator still in the central dome?  Where did the columns of the great chancel screen and all of the other marble liturgical furniture go?  Are they in Topkapi?

Whittemore and conservators at work

We really have to be thankful and eternally grateful to what was the Byzantine Institute of America and the team of restorers who saved the Deesis; and all the other mosaics that are still with us.  What a job it was.  The image above shows the scale of the upper gallery. How many restorers were there six, ten, less than 15 for sure.  Here we see Thomas Whittemore and other conservators working on the vaults of the gallery in the 1930's. Thomas Whittemore can be seen at lower left wearing a dark hat looking up. What a hero he was.  I hope he can look down from heaven and see how appreciative some of us are for their accomplishments.

Plan of Hagia Sophia

The plan above shows the location of the mosaic, which is open to the public today. It is a must-see for anyone visiting Istanbul.  Hordes of tourists take selfies in front of it everyday.  However, no photograph does the mosaic justice.  The Deeis mosaic is the most perfect example of the Byzantine craft of mosaic and possesses every "trick of the trade" in the subtle play of light and color they built into it.  The skilled and varied placement of the mosaic cubes - and the raking exterior light creates a shimmer of light that cannot be captured by a camera. As the light changes during the day the Deesis changes, too - in beautiful ways,  The best way to appreciate it would be alone, without the crowds so one could contemplate the mosaic and its magical environment.  If you are on a private tour and with a scholarly organization this such things are still possible.

Many consider the Deesis among the greatest treasures of world art.  Some Christians call it the finest representation of Christ in the Eastern Orthodox world. Some consider its survival a sign to us today.  I am not sure what the sign is.  Most of the mosaic has been lost.  It is miraculous that the faces and so much of Christ and John the Baptist are still there to look at us look at them

In 2009 the museum authorities at Hagia Sophia removed an Ottoman star that had been placed over the face of the great mosaic of a Seraphim in the left pendentive in the eastern arch of the church.  In 1348 a part of the eastern arch and a large section of the dome collapsed.  In the restoration both the left and right Seraphims or Cherubs were recreated along with new images of the Byzantine Emperor and Empress as well as the Mother of God in the eastern arch.  These images, along with all of the other mosaics in the vaults were left exposed during most of the Ottoman period.  At some point the Seraphims were damaged and large parts fell or were scraped off.  The right one is almost entirely gone and it is not clear if the face of that one remains under the star placed over it during the 19th century Fossati redecoration and restoration of the church.  I am hearing that the Pantokrator IS still in the dome?  Can this be true?

Bob AtchisonSpiritual Light in Hagia Sophia

The Lost World of Byzantium

Ivory of St. John and SaintsIvory of John the Baptist and Saints


10th century - Constantinople.  On top are Phillip and Stephen, below are Andrew and Thomas.  John the Baptist is show in the manner of Christ Pantocrator, blessing with his right hand.  This ivory is considered one of the finest technically, finely carved with delicate piercing.  It's delicate modelling and a general air of classicism places it in the 10th century.

Enamel and Sardonyx Chalice from Hagia Sophia


Possibly from Hagia Sophia and looted in 1204.  It is now in the Treasury of Saint Mark's in Venice.  The communion chalice is made of silver-gilt, gold cloisonne enamel, stones, pearls and glass. The cup is carved in the semi-precious stone sardonyx.  It had been assumed that all of the cups used in these Byzantine chalices were from Roman or Hellenistic times and were reused.  Now it is thought that some of them were carved during the Macedonian Dynasty which reigned from 867-1056 AD.  The cup has been broken and is restored.

Gospels - Illumination of the Annunciation


This gospel dates from the 12th century and is notable for its large monumental illustrations.  It is called the Trebizond Gospel because it in that city in the 14th century.  The Archangel Gabriel is very well painted.  The throne that Mary sits on and the marble flooring are very nice, too. One could assume that the high quality and sophistication of the miniatures indicates this Gospel belonged to a member of the Comnenian Dynasty - who reigned at this time.  However, the 12th century experienced an economic renaissance that resulted in an expansion of consumer products, like inexpensive icons.

Gospel Illumination of the Baptism of Christ


Here is another illumination from the Trebizond Gospel in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.  The faces of the angels are finely painted. The pigments used in this manuscript are the finest that could be found at the time.  Pigments in Byzantium were sold in shops, painters of icons and illuminators of manuscripts could find all of the things they needed for their artistic production in stores.

Evangelist Mark from a Byzantine GospelsThe Evangelist Mark

From an unrelated Gospel manuscript,  also in the Walters Art Museum