Secrets of the Hagia Sophia - Healing Powers, Mysterious Mosaics and Holy Relics
The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul has a very long history. It has survived earthquakes, religious power struggles, and has been a church (basilica), a mosque and is now a museum. It is known as the Ayasofya in Turkish, and was dedicated to the Wisdom of God , the Logos. There were once two more churches that were regarded as “Churches of Divine Wisdom” but the Hagia Sophia is the last that remains.
The ancient monument is also called the Sancta Sophia, but this name is not associated with Saint Sophia as many mistakenly believe. Rather, its name makes reference to its association with “Divine Wisdom” because “Sophia” means wisdom in Greek.
From the time of its construction between 532 and 537 AD, on the orders of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, through to 1453 AD, the Hagia Sophia served as a cathedral for the Eastern Orthodox Church. However, Constantinople, as Istanbul was once called, was conquered by the Ottoman Turks at this time, and the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque by order of Sultan Mehmed II.
It remained in use as a mosque until as recently as 1931, when it was closed down for four years to be reopened as a museum in 1935 by the first President of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Proclaimed by Marlise Simons , writing in the New York Times , to have “changed the history of architecture,” the Hagia Sophia has a truly magnificent dome, and was the largest cathedral in the world for thousands of years. It held this distinction until St Peter’s Basilica in Rome was completed. The Hagia Sophia has provided the architectural inspiration for the Blue Mosque and the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, amongst other buildings.
Columns of Hagia Sophia - History
Justinian’s Hagia Sophia is the one that stands today. It is an architectural intelligence and the first masterpiece in Byzantine architecture. It has been the largest cathedral for 1000 years until the Seville Cathedral was built.
The church has a rectangular shape, and the square vast square nave measuring 31m (102ft) is covered with a central dome that is carried on four pendentives. The arcade around the dome is unbroken with 40 arched windows to bring the light inside. Excluding the two narthexes and the large atrium, the basilica measures 70 x 75 m (229 x 245 ft) . The atrium measures 48 x 32 m (157 x 106 ft) and the total length of the construction measures 135 m (442 ft).
The narthex outside at the eastern part of atrium is enclosed, and the inner narthex is entered by 5 doors, and from this inner narthex there are 9 doors to the nave.
The accesses to upper galleries are provided by ramps, which are traditional feature of Constantinopolitan church planning.
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Hagia Sophia, a mosque again, has a pagan connection at its core
ISTANBUL – Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan formally changed the status of the Hagia Sophia. Previously a secular museum, the world heritage site has been ordered to be converted back to an Islamic mosque, a status it held between 1453 and 1934.
Built under orders by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, the Hagia Sophia – meaning “of holy wisdom” – was constructed between 532 and 537 CE in as a Christian patriarchal cathedral, the largest in the Byzantine empire until Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1453.
The Hagia Sophia in 2006 [Milos Radevic, Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0]
The fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans saw the church converted to an Islamic mosque by Mehmed the Conqueror. Christian relics and mosaics of Jesus were removed and replaced with Islamic architectural features.
The Hagia Sophia remained a mosque until 1931, when it was closed to the public for four years. It was reopened as a museum in 1935. The conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a secular institution was part of Kemal Ataturk’s legacy as the founder of the non-religious Republic of Turkey.
Erdogan’s reversal of the Hagia Sophia’s status was made possible when the Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative court, revoked the building’s secular status, citing that Mehmed II’s decree of the site as a mosque resulted in a charitable endowment for Muslim religious use that was unlawfully rescinded under both Ottoman and Turkish law. The Turkish high court ruled in early July that “the settlement deed allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not possible legally.”
The reversion of the site to a mosque has been met with concern and condemnations. Statements disapproving of the reversion have come from the Greek Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Roman Catholic Church. “My thoughts go to Istanbul,” said Pope Francis. “I think of Santa Sophia and I am very pained.”
UNESCO, the organization of the United Nations that assigns the world heritage designation, expressed disappointment. “The Director-General of UNESCO deeply regrets the decision of the Turkish authorities, made without prior discussion, to change the status of Hagia Sophia,” UNESCO said in a statement.
“Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries,” Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s director general, added. “Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage, and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue.”
Regardless, per the decision of the current Turkish government, Hagia Sophia is now a mosque for the foreseeable future.
While the Hagia Sophia is famous for its role in Islam and Christianity, there is also a Pagan connection that is particularly relevant today. July 21 marks the destruction of Temple of Artemis at Ephesus – known also as the Temple of Diana at Ephesus – due to arson, committed in 356 BCE by a man named Herostratus.
The site of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in 2017 [FDV, Wikimedia Commons, CC 4.0]
The temple was considered one of seven wonders of the ancient world, and the site dates to the Bronze Age. It was mentioned by the Greek poet and scholar at the Library of Alexandria, Callimachus, in his Hymn to Artemis, where he attributed the temple to the Amazons.
The temple is even mentioned in the Christian bible:
“So that not only this our craft is in danger to be set at nought but also that the temple of the great goddess Diana should be despised, and her magnificence should be destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worshippeth. Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” [Acts 19: 27-28, King James version]
The temple was rebuilt after the arson and survived another seven centuries before it was closed during the persecution of Pagans in the late Roman Empire and ultimately reduced to rubble in 401 CE.
Today, only the foundation of the temple exists, along with fragments throughout the site. There is nothing much left of it – except for eight magnificent green columns, which are now in the Hagia Sophia.
One of the green marble columns of the Hagia Sophia, originally from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus [José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0]
When Justinian built the Hagia Sophia, he brought columns from all the temples across the Levant and North Africa, sparing no effort or expense to bring the most beautiful stones to Constantinople. Justinian wanted the Hagia Sophia to fill the visitor with awe upon seeing the size, color, and architecture of the building. Among those pillars were the green columns that had once been part of the temple of Artemis.
In the time since the Hagia Sophia was originally constructed, it has served as a church, a mosque, a museum, and now again a mosque, and yet at its core, there still remain eight pillars that were sacred to a pagan goddess. Perhaps more than any other part of its construction, Diana’s pillars demonstrate the complicated religious history of the Hagia Sophia – a history that remains no matter the building’s current designation.
About Manny Moreno
Manny Tejeda-Moreno (pronouns he, him, his) is a professor, social scientist, and statistician. His doctorate is in business and his scholarship has been focused on research methods, spirituality, and diversity. He also has a masters degree in psychotherapy. Manny was born in Cuba and raised in the American South. He lives in South Florida and Nemi, Italy. He has been in the Pagan community for almost four decades. He is a witch and was raised as a child of Oyá. He is encouraged by the Balance within the natural world, enjoys storms and the night. Manny is married and splits his free time between the Florida Swamps, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Alban Hills. He is also a beekeeper, orchid-grower, and builder of bat houses.
Architecture of Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia is now an imposing structure with a diameter of 31-33 meters and goes up to a height of 54 meters. Its looks have constantly been changed through the ages. The Hagia Sophia began its journey as a blink-and-you-miss wooden roofed structure. Under Emperor Justinian's rule, the Hagia Sophia was rebuilt to all its glory and splendor, as architects Anthemius and Isidorus wove their magic on the massive structure.
The church was converted from a traditional rectangular format to a square one. The chief architects then crowned the building with a massive dome, crafted entirely out of hollowed bricks, made from lightweight clay imported from Rhodes. There are innumerable windows at the base of the dome through which light streams in and floods the interiors. .
The interiors of the Church glistened and glittered with fragile golden mosaic tiles illustrating Christian figurines and scenes. The church's architectural style showed a confluence of the Roman and the Byzantine building modes.
When under the orders of Sultan Mehmet, the church was converted into a mosque, the original church makeup underwent radical and some permanent transformations.
On the exterior, minarets and buttresses forever changed the look of the church, while on the inside, in accordance with the Islam religion, all figurines were either ripped off or covered up. Huge plates, called lehvas emblazoned with calligraphy were also installed.
As this spirit of fanatic iconoclasm waned, new mosaic tiles were installed in the Hagia Sophia. Now there are about 30 million of such ornate mosaic tiles inside the building.
Religious and regal matters were depicted in these mosaics. For instance, one mosaic shows Virgin Mary in the royal company of emperors Justinian and Constantine. In still another one, Jesus Christ is sited on a throne and a king is kneeling before him. There is an exquisite gold mosaic tile showing Madonna and Child.
Portraits too have been painted on the mosaics, the subjects being the members of the royal family. Efforts are now underway to restore the mosaic tiles to their former radiance. The Hagia Sophia grounds are dotted with tombs, a fountain and manicured gardens. Breathtaking as its interiors are, you will be greeted with still more beauty and grandeur if you look outside.
The changing looks of the Hagia Sophia bear testimony to the changes in the Turkish political arena.
Hagia Sophia and the Byzantine Empire
The Byzantine Empire survived for a thousand years. It gave birth to stunning architecture, produced a legal code that still shapes western law, and produced churches of such grandeur that entire nations were drawn to Jesus because their emissaries visited them. The most famous example of these churches is the incredible Hagia Sophia.
Exterior of the Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia – meaning, “Holy Wisdom” in Greek – was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian starting in 537 AD. The church was dedicated to Jesus Christ — the Logos – the Wisdom of God. The Hagia Sophia was considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and the focal point of the Eastern Orthodox Church for nearly 1,000 years. It was famous for its massive dome — an engineering marvel of its time. It was also the world’s largest church for the same 1,000 years, until surpassed by the Seville Cathedral in the 16 th century.
In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. Mehmet the Conqueror ordered the Hagia Sophia – the main church of Orthodox Christianity – converted to a Muslim mosque. The bells, altars, and relics were destroyed and the artwork depicting Jesus, Mary, and the saints were destroyed or plastered over.
In 1935, the entire complex was converted to a museum, revealing Christian mosaics and frescoes for the first time in hundreds of years. This now famous mosaic of Jesus probably dates to the 13 th century. It is widely considered the finest in the Hagia Sophia because of its well-preserved colors, tones, and expressions. In this panel we see the Virgin Mary and John the Baptizer seeking Christ’s intercession for humanity on Judgment Day.
Hagia Sophia and the Byzantine Empire
Randall acts as the lead writer for ColdWater’s Drive Thru History® TV series and Drive Thru History® “Adventures” curriculum.
3 thoughts on &ldquo Hagia Sophia: Where East Meets West &rdquo
I am obsessed with this post because last year my art history class spent a week just discussing the awesomeness of this building. It is insane how complex it is on so many levels. The architecture is beautiful, but the history of the various religions it has been a part of is what makes it so special.
I can’t believe that I have never heard of this building, considering how incredible it is. This post was an interesting deviation from the paintings discussed before. The architecture of this building is so elaborate and beautiful, so much thought must have been put into its creation. It is stunning on the inside and out.
This is really interesting that you shifted to talking about buildings. Art history can truly be interesting, I certainly have become more interested recently as well. In regards to this post I am quite familiar with these buildings with the language written on them by living in Iran. So this was bit reminiscing too.
When the Turks took possession of Constantinople, they covered the spines of the seven hills with domes and minarets, changing the character of the city. Like the Greeks, the Romans, and the Byzantines, the new rulers loved the city and spent much of their treasure and energy on its embellishment. The Ottoman dynasty, which lasted from 1300 to 1922, continued to build new important structures almost until the end of their line. The most imposing of their mosques were constructed from the mid-15th to the mid-16th century, and the greatest of the architects all bore the name of Sinan. They were Atik Sinan (the Elder), Sinan of Balıkesir, and Mimar Koca Sinan (Great Architect Sinan). Although the building was deeply influenced by the Persianate traditions of the Seljuq Turks, the style was blended with prevailing Hellenic and Byzantine traditions of the city. Mimar Koca Sinan’s masterpiece—and his burial place—is the Mosque of Süleyman (1550–57), inspired by, but not copied from, Hagia Sophia. It ranks as another of the world’s great buildings. Probably the most popularly known of all the mosques in Istanbul is the Blue Mosque, the mosque of Ahmed I (Ottoman sultan from 1603 to 1617), which has six minarets instead of the customary four.
The mosques of the 18th century and later show the effects of importing European architects and craftsmen, who produced Baroque Islamic architecture (such as the Mosque of the Fatih, rebuilt between 1767 and 1771) and even Neoclassical styles, as in the Dolmabahçe Mosque of 1853, now the Naval Museum. Large mosques were usually built with ancillary structures. Among these were Qurʾānic schools (medrese), baths (hamam) for purification, hostels and kitchens for the poor (imaret), and tombs for royalty and distinguished persons.
There are more than 400 fountains in Istanbul. Some simply flow from wall niches, but others, erected as public philanthropies, are pavilions. The most magnificent of these was built by the sultan Ahmed III in 1728, behind the apse of Hagia Sophia. It is square, with marble walls and bronze gratings, a mixture of the Turkish with the Western Rococo style.
To the north of it, toward the Golden Horn and occupying the whole tip of the promontory, is the sultan’s Seraglio ( Topkapı Palace), enclosed in a fortified wall. It was begun in 1462 by Mehmed II and served as the residence of the sultans until the beginning of the 19th century. It was to this palace that foreign ambassadors were accredited, and they were admitted through the Imperial Gate, or Bab-ı Hümayun, mistranslated by Westerners as “Sublime Porte.” The Seraglio consists mostly of small buildings grouped around three courts. The most significant buildings are the Çinili Köşk (Tiled Pavilion), built in 1472 the Audience Chamber (Arz Odası) the Hırka-i Şerif, a sanctuary containing relics of the Prophet Muhammad and the elegant Baghdad Kiosk, commemorating the capture of Baghdad in 1638. The Seraglio houses the sultan’s treasure and has important collections of manuscripts, china, armour, and textiles. After the abandonment of the Old Seraglio, the sultans built for themselves palaces along the Bosporus, such as the Beylerbeyi Palace (1865), the lavish Dolmabahçe Palace (1853), the Çırağan Palace (built in 1874 and burned in 1910), and the Yıldız Palace, which was the residence of Abdülhamid II, Ottoman sultan from 1876 to 1909.
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