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Hagia Sophia: Outliving Civilizations

Friday, September 16, 2011

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One of the greatest monuments that man has built is the Hagia Sophia. It has stood and actively been used for over 1500 years and witnessed two great civilizations. If its walls could talk, Hagia Sophia would tell a great tale of how these civilizations rose to greatness and collapsed to dust. This is the story of the Hagia Sophia and the people who helped shape its history.

Many people do not know that the Hagia Sophia Church built in 307AD, which in Greek literally means Holy Wisdom, is not the same Hagia Sophia that stands today. After two failed attempts at constructing a Church (both were destroyed by riots), the current Hagia Sophia was constructed in 537AD by Emperor Justinian.

The birth of the first Hagia Sophia was on 307AD and was built during the reign of Emperor Constantius II. Its original name was the “Great Church.” It membership swelled and was considered to be the city`s main church for nearly a century. In 349AD, a man who became known as John Chrysostom was born. He was trained in the religious texts and was an eloquent speaker. His ability to explain the holy scripture in simple yet practical terms that the common person can apply to his own life gained him popularity. In 387AD, when the people of Antioch rioted against the rule of Emperor Theodosius burning all his statues, John Chrysostom intervened by preaching to people about the error of their violent approach. His actions won him praise from the emperor and eventually won him position as Archbishop of Constantinople in 398AD.

This appointment, however, proved to cause more ripples and disturbances than Antioch had witnessed. During his position as Archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom adamantly opposed the extravagance and corruption of both the nobility and the clergy. He often negatively commented on the extravagant social gatherings that were held as well as the affluent clothing that displayed little modesty. He eventually made powerful enemies from the clergy such as the Patriarch of Alexandria and from the nobility,such as Aelia Eudoxia (the eastern emperor`s wife). Regarded as too powerful to either kill or arrest, he was sent into exile in 404AD. This event ignited a series of riots, which ended in the destruction of the “Great Church,” pronouncing the end of the Hagia Sophia`s first life span.

Emperor Theodosius II decided to built another church in its place in 405AD, exactly 1 year after the burning of the first church. The church featured several marble sculptures, an atrium and a basilica with galleries. Church attendance was growing and mass was held regularly, even though corruption in the clergy and nobility remained rampant.

These conditions persisted and continued to grow for over a century. A century later, a popular sport known as chariot racing became popular throughout the Byzantine Empire. Teams competing in these games not only enjoyed immense popularity, but also wielded significant social and political power. Political statements and rallies would often be held at the “intermission” between the races in front of a large audience. Occasionally riots would break out and fatalities would occur during the games, and the murderers would be hanged. In 532AD, however, one such riot did break out and the murderers escaped. Escaping a large mob, these murderers sought refuge in the Hagia Sophia church. The mob broke out of control, burning the church to the ground and the surrounding area. In the confusion, Emperor Justinian`s throne was threatened by a rival family member. Fighting for his throne, the emperor killed his opposition, the rioters, and all the Senators that aided the opposition. In the end, a total of 30,000 people were killed in the name of a race chariot game.

As tragic as these events were, it left Emperor Justinian with absolute power and free to build a third church, which became the Hagia Sophia we know today. In order to build something truly majestic and unique, the emperor sought the employment of a physicist, Isidore of Miletus, and a mathematician, Anthemius of Tralles, as architects of his new church. Building material from all over the empire were used. The large central dome, which is a main feature of the church, is uncharacteristically shallow, giving it large shear forces on the pillars upholding the dome. In 537AD, 5 years after the destruction of the previous church, the Hagia Sophia was finally completed and inaugurated. A series of earthquakes later that century, caused the main dome to collapse and was rebuilt to its current form that we have today.

For several centuries, the relative calm prevailed in the Hagia Sophia. Emperors were crowned in the Church, mass was held regularly, a few repairs were in order after some minor earthquakes. It was the large earthquake of a different nature in 1204 that shook the church and sent it into a downward spiral. The crusaders, under the command of Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice, occupied Constantinople and thus the entire Byzantine Empire, and established the Latin Empire in its place. Their occupation lasted until 1261. The aging Byzantine empire was already in a weakened state before the invasion as it lost large territories to the invading Ottoman Turks in the east, and its trade routes were losing to the competitive and thriving economies of Italy to the west. During the reign of the Latin Empire, the Hagia Sophia was not well maintained and was allowed to crumble. In 1346, despite the Byzantine emperors feeble attempt to save their greatest monument, parts of the building began to collapse and the church was closed until 1354 when repairs were finally completed.

In 1453, the Hagia Sophia would undergo a transformation. One that would spell an end to the Byzantine rule, but give new life to Hagia Sophia. In 1453, Sultan Mehmet Al-Fatih was able to breach the walls of the city and conquer Constantinople. Upon taking control of the city, he immediately declared the Hagia Sophia to be the first imperial mosque and order the Muslim call for prayer to be declared in the Hagia Sophia. All cracks and faults in the structure were repaired, and the mosque was inaugurated in June 1, 1453. A mimbar and a mihrab were added pointing towards Mecca and floors were covered with rugs. Eastern Orthodox wall depictions were simply plastered over and Islamic calligraphy was mounted.

There were several small additions done to the structure over the next several decades, such as the gradual addition of minarets, especially during the reign on Beyazid II. In the late 1560s, the structure began to show signs of fatigue and was in need of repair. Sultan Selim II ordered the well-known Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan to begin repairs. He was well known not only for constructing hundreds of magnificent and large mosques throughout the empire, but he was the first to employ building techniques that were earthquake proof. He strengthened the structure and built two large minarets on the western end of the building. The last major Ottoman restoration was done during the reign of Sultan Abdulmecid in 1849. In his efforts to revitalize the country, he spent the entire treasury on reconstruction projects, which included the Hagia Sophia. Besides bankrupting the empire, his efforts nearly cost him his throne. In any case, he was responsible for the mounting of the large circular-framed paintings with inscription of God, the Prophet Muhammad, the four Caliphs and the sons of Ali, Hassan and Hussein.

In 1935, Hagia Sophia`s life as a mosque ended abruptly with the birth of the secular Republic of Turkey. The structure was converted into a museum. All rugs were removed and some of the plaster covering the old Byzantine depictions was revealed. The last major renovation was in 2006 when cracks to the main dome were repaired.


References

  • [1] Kinross, Lord. The Ottoman Centuries, The Estate of Lord Kinross: New York, 1977
  • [2] Norwich, J. A Short History of Byzantium, Vintage Books: New York, 1997
  • [3] Brauer, J. "John Chrysostom" in The Oxford Dictionary of Church History, Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1971.

  • Keywords: Turkey, Istanbul, Hagia Sophia, Ottoman, Byzantium

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