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The Hagia Sophia

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Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia

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The Hagia Sophia -- in English, "Holy Wisdom" or "Divine Wisdom" -- is a magnificent cathedral that was constructed in the sixth century. Built in the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey), the Hagia Sophia is a remarkable piece of architectural engineering combined with marvelous aesthetics, and is generally considered the height of Byzantine architecture.

The First Church in Constantinople

An earlier church was purportedly constructed by order of Constantine the Great on the site of a pagan temple when the city of Constantinople was first built in the fourth century. It was completed during the reign of Constantius II (337-361), but this wooden-roofed basilica burned down during a minor revolt in 404. It wasn't long before a new structure was built on the same site; this restored church was rededicated by Emperor Theodosius II in 415.

Unfortunately, this building also burned during a revolt, this time in the Nika Revolt of 532. Reconstruction of all damaged buildings went forward as part of both a physical and an emotional recovery from these upsetting events; this afforded the perfect opportunity for Emperor Justinian I to have a much bigger and far more impressive cathedral built in its place.

Justinian's Splendid Vision

The new Hagia Sophia was designed by the architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, and it was built in an astonishingly brief six years. At the time of its construction it was the largest cathedral in Christendom, and it would remain so until the Cathedral of Seville was completed nearly one thousand years later.

The most notable feature of the Hagia Sophia is its fabulous dome, the construction of which, at the time, was quite an extraordinary feat. The main dome is supported by two smaller domes as well as pendentives (curved, triangular vaults). In the walls at the base of the dome are numerous windows that let in the light; in the bright glare of day, the light obscures the supports and makes it seem as if the top of the dome is floating on air.

Unfortunately, in 558, an earthquake triggered a partial collapse of the dome, which was restored in 562. There were two more incidents where the dome partly collapsed, and so the dome was rebuilt on a smaller scale, and the entire church was reinforced, as well. Even considering these adjustments, the dome of the Hagia Sophia would not truly come close to being equaled in western architecture until the 15th century, when Filippo Brunelleschi designed the Duomo of the Florence Cathedral.

The Hagia Sophia's Supreme Status

For more than one thousand years, the Hagia Sophia served as the Cathedral of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. As such, it was considered -- especially by Orthodox Christians -- to be just as important as the Vatican in Rome, if not moreso, since the Patriarch of Constantinople was considered to be equal to the Pope.

The Hagia Sophia Faces Adversity

In 1204, armed forces of Crusaders headed for the Holy Land were diverted when the Venetians who funded their expedition decided that they should take over Constantinople. As part of the invasion of the city, the Hagia Sophia was ransacked and desecrated. Sacred relics were removed from the church and sent back to Venice and points west, where they found homes in European churches. While the Crusaders occupied Constantinople (from 1204 until 1261), the Hagia Sophia was used as a Catholic cathedral. Baldwin I was crowned emperor there, and Enrico Dandolo, the doge of Venice who had engineered the invasion and personally led forces and naval vessels (even though he was well into his 90s), was entombed inside the church upon his death in 1205.

The Byzantines managed to recapture Constantinople in 1261 (at which time many angry patriots spat on Dandolo's tomb). They would never again have quite the power or prestige they'd had before the Latin conquest, not to mention the lands, but the Hagia Sophia would continue to stand as a symbol of Orthodox Christianity -- until the spring of 1453.

The End of the Byzantine Empire

On May 29, 1453, after seven long weeks of besieging the formidable city of Constantinople with a remarkably large cannon, Mehmed II at last broke through the walls and drove out the remaining Byzantine residents. Though considerable damage was done to the city buildings, the Hagia Sophia remained. But Constantinople was no longer a Christian city; and the Hagia Sophia would no longer be a Christian church.

A New Purpose for the Hagia Sophia

Mehmed could not fail to be impressed by the architectural splendor of the Hagia Sophia. He decided it would make an excellent mosque, so he had four minarets added to the exterior and a mihrab (a niche that indicates the direction of Mecca), a minbar (pulpit), and discs displaying Islamic calligraphy added to the interior. For the next four and a half centuries, the Hagia Sophia would be one of the most important religious centers of all Islam.

The Secularization of the Hagia Sophia

In 1934 the reformer Kemal Ataturk, as part of modernizing Turkey's legal and educational systems, secularized the Hagia Sophia building. The next year it became a museum, which it remains today.

The above image was adapted by your Guide from a photograph by Adam Carr, which was made available through Wikimedia. Mr. Carr has kindly released the photo into the public domain, and it is free for your use.

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