The Hagia Sophia.
The centuries-old tug-of-war between eastern and western cultures is obvious everywhere in the city. Nowhere is this struggle more apparent than in the Hagia Sophia--the "Church of Holy Wisdom", later turned into a mosque, which has drawn both Christian and Muslim pilgrims to Istanbul for over 1500 years.
Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia: Early History
Istanbul was only named "Istanbul" in 1930, when the Turkish leader Ataturk decided to give the city a Turkish name. In the 1600 years before that, the city was commonly known as Constantinople.
Constantinople was founded by Emperor Constantine I, who moved the capital of the previously thriving Roman Empire to Constantinople. Constantinople provided a much better location to rule an empire, he said--Rome was too far west to provide any real ability to rule over the eastern frontiers. The empire was eventually divided into the two parts: the Eastern Roman Empire (known as the Byzantine Empire) and the Western Roman Empire. The Western Roman Empire was under constant attack from nomadic tribes and had severe economic problems. But the Byzantine Empire, with its capital in Constantinople, continued to prosper.
Constantine I was the first emperor to officially convert to Christianity. Before that, most emperors and people of the empire had followed pagan religions. Constantine I did not require that all citizens of the Eastern Roman Empire also become Christian, but Christians in the empire were treated favorably. Naturally, there was a need for Christian churches.
The first Hagia Sophia was finished in 360 A.D. under the rule of Constantius II, son of Constantine I. Together with the Hagia Irene, the church which stood right next door, the Hagia Sophia served as a main church of Constantinople.
Problems arose forty years later when John Chrysostom, the patriarch of Constantinople, clashed with the emperors wife, Aelia Eudoxia. Aelia Eudoxia was offended because she thought Chrysostom was accusing her of dressing too extravagantly. She banished Chrysostom from the empire and the people of Constantinople began to riot in the streets, burning down the Hagia Sophia in their anger.
It was ten long years until Constantinoples revered church was restored--a second Hagia Sophia was built and inaugurated by Emperor Theodosius II in 415 A.D. But in 532 A.D., the church was once again destroyed by the people of Constantinople themselves in a fire cause by another huge riot called the Nika Revolt.
Justinian's Hagia Sophia
After the rioters had subsided, Emperor Justinian I ordered a third church to be built on the same spot. This time, the Hagia Sophia would be much grander and much more beautiful. Architects called for fine stones from far-away lands and, within five years, constructed a majestic church with a huge dome in its roof--a major architectural achievement at the time.
The Hagia Sophia quickly regained its place as Constantinoples main church. The patriarch of the Orthodox church resided there and it became the location for all imperial ceremonies. The Hagia Sophia also became a major attraction for visitors to Constantinople, drawing in pilgrims from as far away as Russia and Rome to see what was considered one of the most magnificent churches in the world.
One of the biggest draw for pilgrims to Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia were the relics, or holy objects, which were said to include articles of Jesus clothing, paintings and sculptures of holy figures (known as icons), and the bodies of some saints. Thousands of people came to view these relics in the time of the Byzantine Empire.
The possession of the relics also served as a comfort to the citizens of Constantinople, making them feel that their city was a holy city, chosen by God to serve under Christianity. So long as the relics remained in Constantinople, the Byzantines felt that they were protected by God and the Christian religion.
The Fourth Crusade
At the beginning of the 13th century, Constantinoples great church faced another formidable danger--the Latin Crusaders. While the Crusades had traditionally fought against Muslims in Egypt and Israel, the Fourth Crusade took a different turn. Tensions between the Roman Catholic Christians of Western Europe and the Greek Orthodox Christians in the Byzantine Empire had been high for centuries, particularly after the official split in the church in the 11th century. During the Fourth Crusade, the Crusaders joined forces with the Venetians, who were the economic rulers of the Mediterranean Sea.
Despite orders from the Roman Catholic pope condemning attacks on Christian cities, the men of the Fourth Crusade turned away from Jerusalem and set their sights on Constantinople a much wealthier city to attack and loot. In June of 1203, thousands of Crusaders and Venetians began setting up camp in the outskirts of Constantinople. Despite attempts to build defenses, the Byzantines were overtaken by the Latin army in April 1204, giving way to 57 years of Latin rule.
In this time, many of Constantinoples prided relics, which supposedly included the crown of thorns worn by Jesus on the cross, were taken from the city and brought to churches in Rome or other cities in Western Europe. Additionally, many great artworks and treasures the city held were whisked away to the West, greatly depleting Constantinoples supply of wealth and causing irreparable damage to its economy and prestige.
The Hagia Sophia itself was heavily damaged during the raid of the city, gutted of relics and wealth. Though it was used as a Roman Catholic cathedral during the period of Latin rule, and continued to be used as a church until the 15th century, it took centuries until the great building would be restored--only this time as a mosque.
The Ottoman's Ayasofya
Though the Byzantines overthrew Latin rule in 1261, the empire continued to crumble over the following two centuries. Neither Constantinople nor the Hagia Sophia had much chance of recovery under the battle-weary, significantly less wealthy Byzantines. It was only after the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople under Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror that discussions began for the restoration of the Hagia Sophia.
Almost immediately after Mehmed the Conqueror swept Constantinople in 1453, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque, called the Ayasofya Camii. Many renovations were completed by the Ottomans in the 200 years following the invasion. The first new additions to the Hagia Sophia were: a mihrab, which resembles a doorway and points Muslims in the direction they should face while praying; and a minaret, a tall spire from which the Muslim call to prayer is traditionally issued.
Under Sultan Mahmud I in the 18th century, a major restoration of the Hagia Sophia was ordered. Aside from giving the building much-needed repairs, Mahmud had social improvements in mind--he added a school, a soup kitchen for the poor and a library to the complex surrounding the Hagia Sophia.
In the mid-19th century, the most intensive restorations inside the building were completed. These included the installation of the giant, gold-inscribed discs, which hang from the columns in the Hagia Sophia. On these discs in Arabic are written the names Allah (Arabic for "God"), Mohammed the Muslim prophet, Mohammeds two grandchildren Hassan and Hussain and the first four caliphs (leaders of the Muslim world) following Mohammed: Abu Bakr, Oman, Osman and Ali.
While the Ottomans kept the Hagia Sophia intact and completed many expensive restorations, they made every attempt to cover the Christian art which had so lavishly covered the building. Plaster and paint were used to hide the mosaics, paintings and crosses, some of which had been part of the Hagia Sophia for a millennium. Only in the 20th century, after the Hagia Sophia had been turned into a museum, could researchers and historians first properly examine the Byzantine art and help unravel the historical mysteries of the Hagia Sophia.
The dome of the Hagia Sophia is often considered the buildings greatest feature. Before the Hagia Sophia was built in the 6th century, architects had never known how to support such a huge dome on top of a square building. Though the original dome was destroyed by an earthquake only two decades after it was completed, an even larger second dome was built within five years.
The second dome endured many partial collapses over the course of the next 1500 years, but today, there are great efforts being made to keep the dome in good condition. Especially important to historians and researchers are the mosaics on the domed ceiling, which date back to the 6th, 10th and 14th centuries. These mosaics help piece together the history of Byzantine art, culture, and even conflict, over nearly 1,000 years.
Istanbul and the Hagia Sophia Today
The Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum in 1935, ending its time as Istanbul's primary place of worship. Once it became a museum, researchers began to uncover the Byzantine mosaics and paintings that had been covered in Ottoman times--white plaster and Ottoman designs were painstakingly removed to reveal now-famous images of Jesus, Mary and John the Baptist, as well as depictions of important Byzantine emperors.
One of the finest existing examples of Byzantine architecture, the Hagia Sophia bears the evidence of 1500 years of conflict, regime change, and, most noticeably, religious conversion. In many places, the Ottoman cover-up remains only half-removed. Often, the typically Ottoman yellow, red and blue flower paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries suddenly give way to gold and black Byzantine paint from the 6th century; T- shaped designs decorate the walls and balconies, showing the Ottoman attempt to remove evidence of Christianity by simply cutting out the tops of crosses. These are all testaments to the Hagia Sophia's jumbled past.
Today, the Hagia Sophia stands proudly in Istanbul across from the Sultan Ahmed mosque, which is commonly known as the Blue Mosque. The huge building, with its famous dome, rosy stone, and minarets on four corners, is now the top tourist location in Istanbul. The Hagia Sophia today intrigues visitors from all around the world with its beautiful interior, religious significance and long history of conflict.
Elyse Franko is a freelance writer