In memory of the thousands of unknown martyrs who were murdered on May 29, 1453 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 tympana 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.
In Justinian's time all of the windows were set with large square panes of light bluish green or light green glass. This was true all over the empire, pieces of windows, even entire panes, have been found everywhere. Mass quantities of window panes were produced in Palestine, Asia Minor, Egypt, and they were used in boyh public buildings and private homes. Pane glass continued to be used in Byzantine buildings right up until 1453. It is even possible the Byzantine window glass survived in Hagia Sophia until the 18th century or later in the great apse windows.
Today the glare of modern lighting makes all the oddities and imperfections of Hagia Sophia stand out. I think the museum authorities should relight Hagia Sophia in a more sensitive way. In 2014 Mehlika Inanici published a highly detailed study of lighting in Hagia Sophia and how it looked in natural and artificial light throughout its history. I never knew there was so much to learn on this subject. Mehlike has shown that electric lighting during the day is ineffective and mainly illuminates the chandeliers and the floor. She recommends only natural light be used during the day and artificial at night, except for cloudy days and early mornings.
In the images I have used in the website I have tried to use as many interior shots as I can with natural lighting. The first one below I have included because it's so different than any other images I have, it's dark and mysterious.
Above the Archangel Michael in Hagia Sophia holding a liturgical fan called a flabellum or ripdia, which would have been used during services. These frequently carried images of Seraphim on them. The Byzantines believed that angels participated in the Divine Mysteries. The Archangel is standing near the site of the altar.Above a view of the dome of Hagia Sophia. In the pendentives are gigantic winged Seraphim. The one on the bottom left has its original face, which was uncovered recently. Three of the Seraphim survive in mosaic, one of them has only the top tips of the wings. The upper right Seraphim is entirely done in paint and is Ottoman.The great shields in Arabic carry the names of Muhammad and the first conquering Caliphs of Islam. They are the largest of their kind anywhere in the world and celebrate the fact that Hagia Sophia was taken by force of arms and is a war trophy.
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. 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, wherefore, I think the mosaics perished sometime between 1750 and 1850. 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.
The huge Islamic disks with inscriptions of the names of the first Caliphs are totally out of scale to the building and ruin the interior. They are additions added during the Fossati restoration, during earlier Ottoman times these plaques were much smaller and fit into the architecture better. I have seen a set of photograph of them removed and it was a vast improvement over what we see now. Unfortunately Turkish nationalists want as many Islamic inscriptions as possible in Hagia Sophia, and as big as they possibly can be, so those ghastly things are going nowhere.
I have always liked the Sultan's Box - it too is a recent addition, built for Sultan Abdülmecid. This is one of the chief targets of the Islamic zealots who want to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque again. They want the Sultan's Box opened as a private Islamic chapel so they can pray in it.
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 semi-domes - fell three times over the centuries. The most 'recent' was the collapse of 1346 that brought down a part of the eastern arch with part of 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 537. 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.
The woman on the left is standing to the right of the Omphalos.
Justinian's church was not the first on the site. The original Hagia Sophia was built by the Emperor Constantius in 360. In the Fourth Century Constantinople had very few churches - only 14 - not many for a city of its size. The church Constantius built only lasted 44 years, it burned in 404 in mysterious circumstances. The extremely popular Bishop of Constantinople at the time, John Chrysostom, had just been deposed and had been forced into exile by the Empress Eudoxia, who hated him for his interference in her affairs and his denunciation of excesses in the Imperial court. Bishop John preached his late sermon from the ambo of the Hagia Sophia; that same day, after he had been removed from the cathedral fire erupted from the spot were he delivered that last sermon in the ambo. The flames shot up from it to the chains where the candelabra where suspended and spread all over the church from there, burning it to the ground. This was not the first time disaster hit Constantinople because of the John - Eudoxia feud. Once before she had him deposed and that very day there was an earthquake in the city! Eudoxia should have learned the first time. John Chrysostom died in exile and was canonized by the church. A life-sized mosaic of him was put in the tympana of Hagia Sophia which survives to this day.
Hagia Sophia was rebuilt by the Emperor Theodosius II in 415. That church was a huge basilica with five aisles. Parts of Its marble propylaeum were discovered in the 20th century and you can see them it in front of Hagia Sophia today. There is a really charming frieze of marble sheep carved into the beams. Th sheep are marching on either side of a central arch inward as if they are proceeding into the church where they will find salvation.
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. Churches with wooden roofs can easily catch fire and burn. Many of Constantinople's most famous basilicas went up in flames.
The destruction of Hagia Sophia allowed Justinian to build a church like none other ever seen before. The first decision was no wooden roof for obvious reasons. Justinian decided be wanted to build bigger and more daring that had been attempted before. The scale of the building tested the abilities of the Emperor's engineers and emptied the state treasury in the process of building it. The building materials were gathered from all over the empire and transported to Constantinople including 48 huge columns in green Verde Antico marble from mines in Thessaly in Greece. These columns were so huge that in later times they were said to have come from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus because it was inconceivable that monoliths like this could still be made in the sixth century. The logistics of moving these from the quarries to the building site - traveling over the seas and then up to the building site from the harbor without damaging them - seem insurmountable to us. The Romans had mastered the transportation of 40ft columns from Egypt and the Byzantines were using the same technology.
The building went up swiftly and had its formal consecration on December 27, 527, just five years after the work began in 532. During construction the builders, the famous team of Anthemios and Isidorus, encountered many challenges due to the scale of the project and the building materials used. The piers and arches moved and stretched apart in odd and uneven directions as the mortar and cement dried. The builders made changes and modifications to the design as it went up, with a great deal of improvisation, arches and buttresses were added, the columns in the upper arcade were increased from 5 to 7, which spoiled the symmetry of the colonnades forever. The superb dome they built - one that seemed to float above the nave - only lasted for 20 years when it came crashing down - destroying $9 million of silver-covered stuff in the sanctuary. The replacement of 563 was taller and less elegant, but was more secure structurally.
Part of the western dome and the semi-dome fell in a powerful earthquake on October 25, 989 and were repaired by the Armenian architect named Trdat, was the chief architect of the Bagratid kings of Armenia. an Armenian historian tells us:
"Even Sophia, the cathedral, was torn to pieces from top to bottom. On account of this, many skillful workers among the Greeks tried repeatedly to reconstruct it. The architect and stonemason Trdat of the Armenians also happened to be there, presented a plan, and with wise understanding prepared a model, and began to undertake the initial construction, so that it was rebuilt more handsomely than before."
This was during the reign of Basil II, popularly known as the Bulgar Slayer. The repair of the western semi-dome was not entirely a success and its curve was distorted. In this restoration the mosaics of the western semi-dome were also redone. It appears they survived until the late 1800's.
The last collapse of the eastern part of the dome and great eastern arch was in 1346 and has been mentioned earlier.
The white with gray streaks Prokonnesos marble floor of Hagia Sophia we see today was replaced after the first dome collapse, the old floor is still underneath the later one. The slabs face east-west and are around 6 x 4 feet in size. There are five bands in green Thessalian marble set into it. They are called rivers and they are guides to mark things to do as as processions moved through the church to the sanctuary. There is a 18.5 foot opus sectile square with inset marble, granite and porphyry disks surrounded by mosaic bands and inset designs. It is called the Omphalos. The huge 11 foot center disk in gray granite marks the spot were the Emperor would sit during services. It was fenced off from the nave by a bronze railing. Further east the floor is set with huge slabs of colored marbles that mark the position of the altar. If you look at the floor here you can still see the damage caused by the collapse of the eastern part of the dome in 1346.
Above is a plan of the nave of Hagia Sophia showing the layout of the sanctuary furnishings, solea and ambo.
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. The church has a very long history and enjoyed periods when money and art was slavishly smeared all over the building. An astronomical amount of silver was fashioned into hundreds of candelabra hanging from the dome cornice, the arches between the columns and set on top of the solea and ambo in the nave. There was a huge ciborium rising over over the altar with four silver columns and an eight-sided pyramidal roof also made of silver. I cannot imagine how they kept all of this silver bright and shiny. The altar was plated with silver and gold set with gems. Above it hung a golden dove, symbolic of the Holy Spirit.
Even in the narthex the huge Royal Doors, made of wood from Noah's Ark, were plated in silver-gilt. At the time these was possibly more silver and gold to be found in Hagia Sophia then anywhere else in Europe and the Middle East. The emperor Romanos III 1028-34 even had the capitals of all of the columns in Hagia Sophia gilded in a thick gold leaf. There were 5 great gold discs that adorned Hagia Sophia. It the last days of the Empire and Empire sold two of them to replenish the state treasury. One can only speculate on how big they were and is they were still in the church to be looted by the Ottomans in 1453.
There with hundreds of gold and silver chalices, patens, dishes other jewel encrusted tools used in the Eucharist that were sacred and could never be touched or melted down to raise emergency state funds or finance the activities of the church. As more were given to the church their number increased even more. In 1204 when the crusaders looted Constantinople and all her churches, they took 40 chalices from the altar of Hagia Sophia alone. In addition there were sacred reliquaries for relics like the True Cross, the Crown of Thorns, the Mandylion - hundreds, indeed thousands - of relics that were encased in silver, gold and enamel cases that were set with jewels and lined with strands of pearls. Until 1204 every corner of Hagia Sophia had its own shrines and relics. They walls were even set with precious icons and crosses that had been set in the marble revetment.
The church was full of the most important artistic treasures of Byzantium, too. The chancel screen and the solea were decorated with beautiful icons that were unmatched in their artistry and holiness. The most talented artists were invited to decorate Hagia Sophia with paintings, mosaic and even sculpture both inside and out. We will never be able to fully appreciate the artistic heights Byzantine artists achieved, since almost everything has been lost to looters and religious zealots who hated art and beauty so much that they had to destroy it. We are fortunate that a very small part of the mosaics of Hagia Sophia have survived and that the Deesis - perhaps the greatest expression of Byzantine art ever created, has come down to us.
We should never forget that it is the Byzantines themselves who were the most important adornments of Hagia Sophia. For a THOUSAND years they worshiped in this church that their ancestors had built and generations of them had embellished and cherished. It was the beating heart of their Orthodox Christian faith and culture in way we can't understand anymore. It is hard to believe but the liturgy that was performed when Hagia Sophia was first built and continued until 1453 never changed. It was a never ending, eternal performance before the Throne of God, that some believe will return one day.
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 ten centuries of believers who made it a home of prayer, history and art I have described.Above here's a picture I altered in Photoshop - Hagia Sophia without minarets! One can see how much they drastically change the appearance of the building. There's no chance those are going anywhere without Divine intervention...
Above is a reconstruction of the atrium of Hagia Sophia showing the Column of Justinian in the distance. It's from the Byzantium 1200 website.
Alas, Hagia Sophia is still 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.
The Turkish religious authorities decided to turn the 13th century Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia in Trabzon - which had been a museum for 60 years - into a mosque. In 2012, the religious authorities (Diyanet) filed a lawsuit against the ministry of culture, claiming the ministry had been 'illegally occupying' the church for some decades. The church had been a treasure box of beautiful frescoes that were one of the greatest works of art anywhere at the time. They had recently been restored to their former glory. Despite the fact that there were dozens of functioning mosques nearby, the Turkish religious authorities decided they had to have this museum turned back into a mosque. They covered up the frescoes, again. Obviously, the Turks could not keep the news of the conversion out of the press and word got out that the Turks were destroying a great monument of Byzantine art. Many tourists came to Trabzon to see Hagia Sophia specifically. Tourism dropped off right away, and local businesses saw what a stupid move like this could do to them. How long this will last or how it will end, I don't know. It was announced in December 2017 that the wooden covers placed over the frescoes would be removed due to the sharp decline in tourism. Let's hope it stays that way and the Diyanet will keep its brutish hands off Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.Above, here are the Royal Doors - the frame is made of brass and dates the reign of Leo the Wise whose mosaic portrait is above it. The wood was supposed to have come from Noah's Ark. At one time these doors were covered in plates of gilt-silver.
Now to return to the Deesis - it was a 12th century addition to the South Gallery. Above, looking west, we can see the mosaic. During Byzantine times this area of the church was reserved for members of the Imperial family and the court who viewed the liturgy from the eastern-most bay of the church. A spiral wooden staircase and passageway connected this part of the church directly to the Great Palace. You can still see where it attached on the outside of the church and find inscriptions scratched onto marble doorways both inside and outside around the doorway. The door was to the far right of the mosaics of Constantine-Zoe and John and Eirene. The door still functions but it opens into open air.
Hagia Sophia is full of graffiti - drawings and inscriptions that can be found throughout the building. There are some amazing things; from drawings of dragon-headed Viking ships to a blessing hand with attached prayers asking for God's help for a man named Michael. There is a Byzantine scholar who is compiling hundreds of these into a database.
The marble walls are punched with phantom holes where crosses used to be inserted and have been pried out. The hooks that icons hung from are still there on the walls - memorials to the vanished art that used to be there. In many cases we actually know what icon is missing from which hook. 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, Seraphim, Christ and the Saints. 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 also have 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 Hagia Sophia. 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?
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. Whittemore became the public face of the recovery and restoration of the mosaics. It has been claimed that he had ll of his reports ghost-written in Paris by another Byzantinist. I know how it feels to be a terrible writer - I wish I had someone to ghost write this website! Some of the restorers suffered from vertigo and still managed to get to the tops of these things. I have read that some of them were terrified working on the scaffold in the apse. I hate heights, too, so I would have been in the same boat with them. One of my greatest terrors was climbing all over the roof of the Pantokrator in cowboy boots. I was offered the opportunity to climb up onto the roof of Hagia Sophia and then onto the dome cornice. I had to pass it up!
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. Perhaps, Christ has saved this mosaic of Himself for us as a symbol of the power of God in art and beauty and how it can survive the horrors we create. I have thought it might be that the myth of the Priest entering the wall with the host in 1453 is really here in the Deesis. Christ has survived and is still with us on the wall of the South Gallery. I have never met anyone of any faith who has not been moved by this image of Christ.
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?