‘Hagia Sophia’ is one of the most magnificent pieces of architecture in the world which is situated in the city of Istanbul, Turkey, which was famous by the name ‘Constantinople’ during the Byzantine period. This domed monument was initially built as a ‘Greek Patriarchal Basilica’, which in turn became an imperial mosque after serving for 900 years as the seat of the ‘Patriarchate of Constantinople’. This massive structure has now turned into the ‘Ayasofya Museum’.
The glorious architectural beauty of ‘Hagia Sophia’ is considered as the greatest example of the Byzantine architecture which retained its importance in the reign of the Ottoman Empires after the fall of the Byzantine era. This monument has given inspiration to several Ottoman mosques of Istanbul such as the ‘Rustem Pasha Mosque’, the ‘Suleiman mosque’, the ‘Blue mosque’ & the ‘Shezade mosque’, which are modeled after ‘Hagia Sophia’.
This massive monument is renowned for its imposing dome & opulent gilded mosaic interior. The intricate carvings on the pillars, walls as well as arches have supposedly changed the ‘face of the architecture’. It remained as the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years & has made an indelible mark in the history of the architecture!
HISTORY IN BRIEF:
The current building of ‘Hagia Sophia’ is the third attempt to erect the ‘Church of Holy Wisdom’. The previous two attempts were destroyed during the riots. The third building was constructed in the reign of ‘Emperor Justinian I’ who decided to build truly humongous & regal architecture than its previous manifestations. The building was constructed between 532 AD & 537 AD based on the plan laid by a physicist ‘Isidore of Miletus’ & a mathematician ‘Anthemius of Tralles’.
This striking monument got severely damaged several times due to frequent earthquakes. In 558, the original dome collapsed in an earthquake, but soon, the history was repeated post dome’s restoration in 563 as the new dome also fell down. More promising steps were enforced towards strengthening the dome using pendentives which worked quite brilliantly, although, some part of it did collapse in 989 & 1346.
The wealthy basilica of ‘Hagia Sophia’ was targeted by the obnoxious legions of the Crusaders who looted it & also exiled the ‘Patriarch of Constantinople’ & replaced him with a ‘Latin Bishop’. The loot was taken to adorn the Churches in the Italy as well as the other parts of the Europe, part of which, can be seen in the treasury of ‘St. Mark’s Basilica’ in the city of ‘Venice’.
In 1453, the city of Constantinople was invaded by the brutal forces of the Ottoman Turkish king ‘Sultan Mehmet’. He, however, got so mesmerized by the beauty of this sheer marvel of architecture, he immediately decided to convert this basilica into his imperial mosque. In the process of conversion, the bells, altar, sacrificial vessels, collection of relics & iconostasis were exiled & the gilded mosaics featuring Jesus, mother Mary, angels & several Christian saints & the former emperors were either removed or concealed by plastering over. Various Islamic features such as the Mihrab, Minbar & four pencil-shaped minarets were added to make it look like a mosque. It served as an imperial mosque for next 500 years till 1931 when it was closed for the public display. It was reopened in 1935 & was given the status of museum by the ‘Republic of Turkey’.
‘Hagia Sophia’ stands as the greatest surviving monument of the Byzantine architecture. The monument is renowned for its magnificent gild mosaic, elaborately carved pillars & marble flooring & was first of its kind to that period. ‘Hagia Sophia’ had a commanding impact on innumerable monuments built over the years across the Europe as well as Middle East Asia.
The monument is 82 m (269 ft) in length & 73 m (240 ft) in width. The massive interior of the building has a complex design & its central nave is covered by an elliptical dome, which reaches up to 55.6 meters from the ground. The gigantic dome rests on an arcade of 40 arched windows those allow the sunshine to shimmer the spectacular gilded mosaic clad interior. The Eastern liturgical as well as the Western entrance sides are adorned using arched openings covered by half domes. The exterior of the building features stuccos which were painted yellow & red during 19th century restoration.
Four pencil-shaped minarets standing tall outside ‘Hagia Sophia’ are the additions in the Turkish reign. Three out of four minarets were built from sandstone & white limestone, whereas; the remaining one was constructed using bricks.
The interior is the most significant part of this stupendous monument. All the internal surfaces are covered using white, green & purple porphyry, polychrome marble & gilded mosaics. Abstract carvings on marble slabs on the walls & floors of the vaults adorn its interiors.
- The Islamic Embellishments:
Huge Islamic calligraphic monograms are installed on the pillars flanking the entrance of the nave as well as the apse. These eight monograms features the holy names in Islam, such as- Allah, Muhammad, the first four caliphs- Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman & Ali, grandsons of Mohammad- Hasan & Husayn.
The objects placed on the ground level dates back to the Islamic period. The ‘Mihrab’ which is basically a niche present in every mosque that signifies the direction of Mecca, is situated in the apse, whereas, a freestanding stairway called ‘Minbar’ resides to the right of the ‘mihrab’. The ‘Lodge of the Empress’ is positioned in the center of the upper gallery. It was structured for the empress & the court-ladies to watch the proceedings.
Golden mosaics are the most important features of this extraordinary structure. Most of the mosaics are located in the upper gallery of the monument. A magnificent 13-feet tall gilded mosaic depicting ‘Virgin Mary holding a child’ is located on the half dome covering the apse & is considered as the most revered mosaic inside ‘Hagia Sophia’.
The south gallery features the most of the great mosaics in the building. All the galleries provide visitors a panoramic view of the grand nave & a close-view of the phenomenal mosaics. The ‘Deesis mosaic’ is also a well-known mosaic of this place. Apart from this, various other mosaics such as ‘Emperor Alexander mosaic’, ‘Empress Zoe mosaic’, ‘Commenus mosaics’ etc. can also be found which depicts the prowess of the Byzantine as well as medieval period artistry.
The Imperial gate & the southwestern entrance also feature some of the finest of the mosaics inside the ‘Hagia Sophia’. Although most of the mosaics were hampered badly either during the Crusader’s invasion or due to the multiple layers of plasters put over them during the Islamic reign, whatever work left or restored, depicts the greatness of the artists of late antiquity.
It’s technically impossible to describe this grandeur architecture merely using words or phrases. ‘Hagia Sophia’ is a kind of monument which can be understood the best only after watching it in-person. ‘Hagia Sophia’ is not any ordinary monument, but it is an experience; it has to be seen to be believed. This great monument was declared by UNESCO as ‘World Heritage Site’ & it draws the maximum number of visitors visiting Istanbul.