Istanbul: Peeling Back the Layers

In my mind’s eye, the tiled dome of the Hagia Sophia shimmers in the midday heat. Her minarets piercing the Technicolor blue sky.

I imagine the coolness as you step from sunlight into vast open space. As your eyes adjust to the dimly-lit interior, the incredible details of this church-cum-mosque-cum-museum begin to take shape.

Impressive, tiered chandeliers hover overhead like magic carpets.  While beneath your feet, prayer carpets stretch as far as your eye can see. 

Arches, marble architraves, mosaics, frescoes, calligraphy, and columns of many colors, domes, and vaults – the details are breathtaking. 

Shafts of sunlight streaming through arcaded windows illuminate giant discs painted with Arabic script and they glimmer as if candlelit.

The real prize, though, hovers far above. The seraphim, once plastered over, now visible again. 

When I created this blog two years ago, my mission was to write about places I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in and to write about the places I still plan to visit. Since our current situation prevents us all from traveling, I believe this is as good as time as any to finally make good on that promise to myself and to those of you who happen upon my page. 

What follows is as concise a timeline as I could construct given the Hagia Sophia’s unbelievably long history. Come along as I highlight some of her treasures and describe an element revealed in 2009 that captured my poet’s soul. 

Hagia Sophia Interior
Hagia Sophia Interior

I have dreamt of visiting the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), since my youthful days learning about the architectural wonders of the ancient world. Though the structure appears ethereal silhouetted against the Istanbul skyline, it is anything but. The building is massive and one of the finest remaining examples of Byzantine architecture in the world. 

Commissioned by Byzantine Emperor Constantius, the first Hagia Sophia was built in 360 A.D. overlooking the Sea of Marmara in what was then Constantinople. The city and center of the Byzantine world was named for Constantius’ father, Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to legitimize Christianity.

The tumultuous shift from Paganism to Christianity over the next few hundred years and the zero separation between church and state underscored the truism that top down rulers and religion make poor bedfellows. Over taxation on the part of the emperors in relation to empire recovery and expansion was an additional complication. All of these issues fueled the fires of revolt. The first and second Hagia Sophia, each capped by a wooden roof were burned to the ground. 

Justinian I, Emperor of the Byzantine Empire
Justinian I, Emperor of the Byzantine Empire

The present day structure-—sans wooden roof—was built by Emperor Justinian I and has been standing since 537 A.D. In an effort to reassert his power following the second or Nika revolt, he tasked mathematics professors and architects, Isidore the Elder and Anthemius of Tralles, with his vision and the Hagia Sophia took shape for a third time.

Constructed of the finest of materials, Justinian’s achievement is said to have cost over 360 hundredweight or roughly 36,000 pounds of gold and the labor of 10,000 men. His final product proved to be as ambitious as his intent. In rebuilding the Hagia Sophia, he not only succeeded in creating a lasting monument to himself and his very successful reign, but also in creating a structure meant to surpass all of the buildings of antiquity.

In just five short years, the two-story marvel came to dominate the old city, anchoring what is now Sultanahmet Park. Measuring 270-feet long by 240-feet wide, the completed basilica featured a large, domed roof and semi-domed altar with two narthex or “porches.” These features later became the hallmarks of Byzantine architecture.

The architectural wonder of a dome, which soars 180-feet or nearly 17 stories above the nave, measures over 108-feet in diameter and rests on an arcade of 40 arched windows located just above the gallery. The light filtering though the windows is responsible for creating the otherworldly architectural illusion that allows the dome to seemingly hover over the space below.  

Through the structure’s nearly 1,500-year history, the Hagia Sophia has served as the center of Byzantine Christianity (537-1204), a Roman Catholic cathedral (1204-1261), a Greek Orthodox cathedral and Patriarchate of the Eastern Orthodox Church (1261-1453), a mosque (1453-1931), and a museum (1935-present). During each of these conversions, she was subtracted from and added to. 

Columns gathered from across the Byzantine Empire
Columns gathered from across the Byzantine Empire

Though her architectural treasures, like the 104 columns recycled from places like Ephesus and Egypt remain, her precious religious relics were stripped during the Fourth Crusade (1204 AD) and spirited away to Venice by order of Enrico Dandolo – the Venetian Doge. Her other artistic treasures suffered a worse fate.

In 1453, Mehmed the Conqueror vanquished Constantinople and renamed it Istanbul. Under his direction, the basilica’s altar and 49-foot silver iconostasis were destroyed and the building converted to a mosque. Since Islam prohibits the use of figurative imagery, what remained of the Hagia Sophia’s glittering and intricate mosaics and frescoes fell to the plasterer and calligraphers’ brushes, disappearing beneath curtains of plaster and gold Islamic script. 

Repaired many times throughout its long history, the structure has suffered damage due to earthquakes, including a dome collapse, as well as general deterioration. The structural elements of the interior have surprisingly remained more or less constant save for the minbar, mihrab and minarets installed during Ottoman rule. Following the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the Republic of Turkey and abolished religion, closing all places of worship in the process.

Deisis Mosaic: Christ the Pantocrator
Diesis Mosaic Fragment: Christ the Pantocrator

Ataturk had the good sense, however, to recognize the significance of the Hagia Sophia to the world at large and, in 1932, embarked on a restoration campaign. The prayer carpets were pulled up, revealing the incredible marble floor decorations, and the plaster and paint obscuring the mosaics and frescoes painstakingly removed. When the building reopened as a museum in 1935, what remained of the Byzantine imagery had been revealed.

Though the promise of this incredible structure fills with me with awe, I am particularly drawn to the simple beauty of a quartet of hexapterygon or seraphim marking the pendentives or arches supporting the dome. In my mind, these six-winged angels—their wings thrumming ever so slightly—have for centuries been silently waiting for their curtain of plaster to be peeled away.

Hagia Sophia Seraphim
The quartet of Seraphim supporting the Great Dome

While little is known of their purpose, it seems probable the angels were placed on the pendentives to literally and figuratively support and glorify both the dome and Christ, whose visage once dominated the glittering dome. Their beneficent and powerful presence served as a constant reminder to onlookers and the faithful of his, as well as Constantinople’s, promise and power. 

Six-winged Seraphim
Six-winged Seraphim

The seraphim were a revelation when first brought to light during an Ottoman-led restoration in the early 1800s. Their appearance wasn’t to last and they disappeared from view sometime late in the 19th-century. Fortunately, they were revealed again during 21st-century restoration efforts in 2009. Sadly, only one of their faces remains. The other three lost to one too many attempts by man and nature to render them invisible. 

The only city to straddle two continents, Istanbul, with one foot in Asia and one in Europe, also straddles the tenuous line between past and future, East and West. Like elsewhere in the world, nationalistic and religious fervor are on the rise and there has been a push to return the Hagia Sophia to a place of Muslim worship. If that were to occur, the majesty of this UNESCO World Heritage site would be lost to new generations of “non-believers.” This action would more than likely resign those glorious mosaics and frescoes with their Christian iconography once again to the plasterer’s brush. 

Visit her before it’s too late—I hope to. 

Did you know:

  • The Hagia Sophia is the last resting place of Enrico Dandolo, the Venetian Doge that ordered the Sack of Constantinople in 1204. Already over 80-years-old and blind when he set out on his campaign to bring the city under Venetian control, he died of old age following the siege. A cenotaph set in the marble floor in the upper gallery marks his burial in the basilica. Scholars believe his original tomb may have been located on the first floor of the Hagia Sophia, but was destroyed when the Ottomans took the city in 1453. The whereabouts of his actual remains are unknown.
  • The Hagia Sophia was the largest structure in the world until 1626, when the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome surpassed it.
  • The precious treasures and relics that were spirited to Venice by order of the Venetian Doge can be seen in the treasury of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy.
  • Enrico Dandolo wasn’t the only person laid to rest in the Hagia Sophia. In a gallery tucked off the back of the structure that incorporates a former courtyard, five individual mausoleum lavishly decorated with calligraphy and Iznik tiles contain a succession of sultans, dating from 1574-1648, and their extended families. Each sultan and their family members rest entombed in marble sarcophagi blanketed with emerald green shrouds.
  • The cats of the Hagia Sophia have their own Instagram page: hagiasophiacats

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