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Inside the Hagia Sophia

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The Hagia Sophia isn’t just the best-known tourist attraction in Istanbul, or one of Europe’s most cherished landmarks… it’s one of the greatest buildings in human history. This church, nearly 1500 years in age, was once the center of Byzantine faith, later reborn as the predominant mosque of the Ottoman Empire, and today has found a new purpose as one of the world’s most popular museums.

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We spent nearly three hours inside the Hagia Sophia. There’s a lot to see, and all of it is fascinating. This is the kind of place where even the floors, doors and walls have stories to tell. I’m serious: this circular pattern in the floor marks the Omphalos, where Byzantine emperors were crowned. That massive wooden door is the Imperial Gate, reserved for the entrances of the emperor and his family, and rumored to have been made from the wood of Noah’s Ark. And there in the wall, you’ll see one of the church’s magnificent Byzantine mosaics.

These mosaics have survived the centuries in superb condition, thanks mainly to Muslim sensitivities. Human representations are disallowed in mosques, so the mosaics were covered up and thus protected during Ottoman rule. The mosaic above the aforementioned Imperial Gate depicts Emperor Leo VI on his knees before Christ. There’s a wonderful Deesis mosaic in the upper gallery, with Mary and John the Baptist imploring Christ to forgive humanity. And the mosaic of Mother Mary with baby Jesus in her lap, in the dome of the apse, is marvelous. But our favorites were those of the four seraphim, God’s guardian angels, in the dome’s supporting pendentives. During restorations in 2009, one was discovered to have a face hiding underneath its protective golden shield.

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Impressive as the mosaics are, they can’t compete with the church’s dome: a true architectural wonder. Measuring in at 55 meters in height and 32 meters in diameter, with 40 windows that allow in abundant light, this dome was by far the largest ever attempted when it was constructed. Especially with the two half-domes which exaggerate its size, the dome creates an illusion of immense space. Standing down at ground level, looking up, it’s hard not to feel insignificant.

Yes, standing in the center of this church, looking up at the massive dome and its seraphim, admiring the giant Arab calligraphy, considering the number of emperors and sultans who have passed through here, and who have probably stood exactly where you’re standing right now… it’s very hard not to feel insignificant. Because, and it takes maybe an hour inside the Hagia Sophia before you start to genuinely grasp this, you really are insignificant. Look up again at that dome. Think about how long ago it was built, and then try to say aloud “My life has worth”. Ridiculous. You’re a tiny drop in the ocean of human history. You, your silly problems, your proudest accomplishments… they mean absolutely nothing.

Wow. Thanks for ruining my day, Hagia Sophia. But despite the small existential crisis, our visit here was one of the highlights of our time in Istanbul. Unforgettable.

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May 21, 2013 at 1:45 pm Comments (4)

The History of the Hagia Sophia

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Were we excited to visit the Hagia Sophia? It’s just one of the most legendary buildings on the planet. The largest church in the world for a thousand years. The scene of some of history’s most decisive moments. A breathtaking architectural achievement on a scale unthinkable for its day. Yes, I suppose it’s fair to say that we were excited.

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Ever since arriving in Istanbul, I’d been eagerly anticipating our visit to the Hagia Sophia. Scratch that: I’d been eagerly anticipating a visit since 1984 when, at the age of seven, I read about it in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Now the long-awaited day had finally arrived, and it was every bit as amazing as I had hoped. The instant I stepped inside the Hagia Sofia, the Church of Divine Wisdom, I felt transported into another world.

The building we see today is actually the third church built on the site. The first, completed in 360, was destroyed during a riot in 404, and no trace remains. And the second church was burnt to the ground in 513 during the infamous Nika Riots. One of worst riots in history, this popular outburst of rage resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the destruction of half of Constantinople’s buildings. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian, though, emerged unscathed and more powerful than ever. With a free rein to rebuild the city as he liked, he started with the Hagia Sophia.

Completed in 537, Justinian’s new church was immediately hailed as an unprecedented architectural achievement. The empire’s greatest mathematicians and physicists had been brought in to supervise and consult on the construction, nothing on the scale of which had ever been attempted. The Hagia Sophia was by far the biggest church in the world, and would remain so for nearly a thousand years. It’s almost unthinkable. Try to imagine how otherworldly and groundbreaking a modern-day skyscraper would have to be, to remain unsurpassed for the next millennium. I don’t actually think it’s possible, anymore.

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Despite its preeminence, the Hagia Sophia hasn’t been immune to the passage of history. It exists, after all, in one of the most tumultuous capitals on earth, and has had as many masters as Istanbul has had names. First and foremost, it was a Byzantine church and the center of the Orthodox world. For a brief interlude, from 1204 to 1261, it was converted into a Roman Catholic church, following the Fourth Crusade which crippled Byzantine. The marauding crusaders even installed a prostitute on the patriarch’s throne, in mockery of the Eastern faith.

Luckily, the next masters of Constantinople would treat the church with more respect. After sacking the city in 1453, the Ottoman forces under Mehmet II the Conqueror enjoyed three days of pillaging, but the Hagia Sophia was mostly spared. The church had been as famous in the Arab world as in the Christian, and it had been Mehmet’s lifelong ambition to see it converted into a mosque. During the long eclipse of the Byzantine Empire, the church had fallen into a deplorable state, but the Turks restored it to its former glory. For the next 500 years, it served as the most important mosque in the Ottoman Empire.

In 1935, the nascent Turkish Republic recognized that the Hagia Sophia was more important as a monument of our shared cultural heritage, than as yet another mosque. On the orders of Atatürk, it was converted into a museum. A good move, in my opinion. Today, it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world, and certainly among the most impressive we’ve ever visited.

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May 19, 2013 at 2:14 pm Comments (3)
Inside the Hagia Sophia The Hagia Sophia isn't just the best-known tourist attraction in Istanbul, or one of Europe's most cherished landmarks... it's one of the greatest buildings in human history. This church, nearly 1500 years in age, was once the center of Byzantine faith, later reborn as the predominant mosque of the Ottoman Empire, and today has found a new purpose as one of the world's most popular museums.
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