One of the most attractive tourist sites in Istanbul is the ancient Hagia Sophia Cathedral, which today is called the Hagia Sophia and is used as a Muslim mosque. This temple monumental structure was erected in the first half of the 6th century under Emperor Justinian in Constantinople, the capital of the medieval Byzantine Empire.
- Prehistory of the construction of St. Sophia Cathedral
- Lesser Sophia
- History of the Church of St. Sophia in Constantinople
- History of the Great Hagia Sophia in Istanbul
- Architectural features of St. Sophia Cathedral
The history of this temple covers a huge period of time, during which not only the rulers, but also the social and political realities, and even the religious components of the state have changed. Tourists consider a visit to this cathedral a top priority, because it is both a touch of the material world of extinct Constantinople, and an introduction to the world of present-day Istanbul.
The famous Aya Sophia Cathedral is in the historic heart of Istanbul
Prehistory of the construction of St. Sophia Cathedral
That Hagia Sophia Cathedral, now listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and seen by many tourists in Istanbul, was built in 532. And it was not the first construction of the church of the same name here. The history of the first Christian constructions here began in the 20s-30s. of the 4th century under the famous Emperor Constantine the First. It was this emperor who moved the Roman capital to the city of Byzantium, renaming it the city of his name - Constantinople. It was he who made Christianity the main religion of the empire, although he himself adopted this faith only on the threshold of death.
Emperor Constantine built the first St. Sophia church in the Byzantine capital he founded
And it was Constantine the First who transformed the market square of Byzantium into a ceremonial - Augusteon, where the first Temple of Hagia Sophia was located and where the road to the Great Imperial Palace began through the Chalki Gate. The Temple of Hagia Sophia was built somewhat later than the Temple of the Holy Peace (St. Irene), which tourists visit in the First Courtyard of Topkapi Palace. But immediately after its erection, it was the Sophia Cathedral that became the main temple of Constantinople, although the Church of St. Irene continued to form a single Christian complex with it.
The first temple of Sophia was haunted by misfortunes for a long time. In 404 the first temple of Constantine was lost during one of the popular uprisings. It was rebuilt, but it burned in a city fire. The temple was then built as a basilica during the reign of Emperor Theodosius the Second, who ruled from the beginning of the 5th century. Theodosius' basilica survived until 532, when it was destroyed during the famous Nika Rising. This happened during the reign of Justinian the First, who subsequently once again recreated the Sophia Cathedral in the form in which it has come down to us.
Today's St. Sophia Cathedral owes its appearance to Emperor Justinian
From the first two buildings (Constantine and Theodosius) remained only archaeological fragments in the form of parts of the temple walls, decorations, fragments of columns, etc. Partially these artifacts are in the courtyard of St. Sophia Cathedral, and tourists can examine them in detail.
Yustynian the First took the construction of the new Sophia cathedral very seriously deciding that this edifice would not only decorate the capital but also exalt the might of the whole empire. To enlarge the place for the future temple Justinian bought and cleared from the buildings the adjoining lands.
St. Sophia Cathedral was built on the site of previous ones, as evidenced by preserved artifacts
The construction of the temple was entrusted to the most famous architects of the time, Isidore of Miletus and Anthymius of Tralla, who had just before built the Temple of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, better known as the Little Sofia.
The Church of Lesser Sophia or Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus was built in the late 20s of the 6th century. It is one of the oldest temples in Istanbul and is located north of Aryhkapı Park behind Kennedy Street. You can also reach it from the Obelisk of Constantine at the Hippodrome. The temple is located north of the Aryhkapı Park, on the Kennedy Street and the Obelisk of Constantine at the Hippodrome, and can be reached by walking down Nakilbent Street which turns into Aksakap and then into Küçük Ayasofya Street, where the towering minaret makes it easy to see the temple.
Externally, Little Sofia looks like a scaled-down copy of St. Sophia Cathedral
Today this orthodox church is once a mosque, which is called the Little Hagia Sophia. It is believed that this temple, built near Justinian's former home, where he lived in his youth, was much venerated by Justinian the emperor and his wife Theodora. This is evidenced by their initials inscribed on the capitals. This temple was once richly decorated with marble, gold and mosaics, but all this splendor was destroyed during the period of iconoclasm.
In the interior of the temple there are poems of the ancient poet singing Justinian and Theodora
The quadrangular (34x30 meters) Church of Sergius and Bacchus was built near the elongated basilica-shaped Church of Peter and Paul and formed a single ensemble with it, under which there was a monastery. The temple of Peter and Paul unfortunately has not survived to our time.
The Small Sofia Church is crowned with a dome, resting on an octagonal drum, supported by four supports, between which many marble columns are placed. The columns, located both on the upper (18 pieces), and on the lower tier (16 pieces) alternate in color - green-marble and red-marble. Above the lower tier of columns is an inscription praising Justinian and Theodora.
The interior space of the Lesser Sophia is also very reminiscent of the Church of St. Sophia
After the conversion of Constantinople to Istanbul, the temple still functioned as a Christian temple for some time, but at the beginning of the 16th century it was converted, like St. Sophia Cathedral, into a mosque. The remains of the mosaics were whitewashed, and the temple was enlarged by a narthex and madrasah. A mihrab and a minbar appeared.
This wall was probably once adjoined by the Church of Peter and Paul
In the mid-18th century, a fountain and minaret appeared in front of the temple. The minaret was subsequently rebuilt in 1952, and the temple itself, suffering from earthquakes, was renewed. Today, UNESCO is concerned about the preservation of this temple, because the railroad passes near it, which negatively affects the state of the ancient building and threatens its destruction.
History of the Church of St. Sophia in Constantinople
It is symbolic that Justinian the First issued a decree on the construction of a large Sophia temple on the fortieth day after the suppression of one of the largest medieval riots - the "Nika" uprising, which led to the murder of 30,000 citizens of Constantinople. Some historians believe that the construction of this temple was thus an atonement for the many victims. As has already been mentioned, the design was based on the example of the almost square domed Church of Lesser Sophia, mentioned above, and the execution of this project was entrusted to the same masters, Isidore of Miletus and Anthymius of Tralla.
The construction of St. Sophia Cathedral was given a lot of attention, effort and funds
For the construction of the temple, designed to be an ornament of the empire, the most expensive materials in the form of the best marble, Roman porphyry columns of the Temple of the Sun, and from Ephesus columns of green marble were brought from various parts of the world. Gold and silver, ivory and glass, semi-precious stones, etc., were brought for the interior decoration of the temple. Justinian himself at the end of construction believed that with this construction he had surpassed Jerusalem temple of Solomon. And it was really so. Before the construction of St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome (17 century), the Constantinople temple of St. Sophia was the largest and most beautiful Christian temple construction.
Justinian's Temple of St. Sophia towered over the city, the Sea of Marmara, and the entire empire
All contemporaries noted the hitherto unseen grandeur, wealth, and monumentality of the Sophia church, which seemed to rise above Constantinople, being an amazing creation. However local earthquakes periodically damaged this beautiful structure, causing the collapsed domes to be repeatedly rebuilt, and eventually the cathedral was reinforced with buttresses, which had a negative impact on its appearance.
It was in this cathedral that the famous anathema of the Byzantine patriarch Michael Kerullarius was pronounced in the summer of 1054, in response to receiving an excommunication letter from the pope. This event definitively fixed the division of Christians into Orthodox and Catholics. A further consequence of this event was the attack on Constantinople by the Crusaders in the early 13th century (the 4th Crusade). The city has fallen under crushing blows of crusading army and the sacked and profaned Sofia cathedral had to become the Catholic temple for six decades.
According to German historians, the interior of the temple under Justinian looked like this
The very last Orthodox service at St. Sophia Cathedral in the city besieged by Ottoman troops on the night of May 29, 1453 was a symbolic farewell liturgy. The ruler and his entourage bid farewell to the clergy in the most beautiful temple, which would be conquered and looted the next day by Ottoman soldiers. At this service the history of Constantinople's Cathedral of Sophia ended forever. And a new period in the history of this temple, converted into a Muslim mosque, began.
History of the Great Hagia Sophia in Istanbul
It is believed that the Turks who broke into the cathedral killed everyone who was there. It is also said that there was a sea of blood, and that the horses were slipping on the viscous blood that flooded the floor of the temple. Whether it was true or not, no one will ever tell. But it is a fact that all the icons were destroyed, and the precious icon-cases and other valuables were looted.
Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror came into the Orthodox shrine the day after the capture of Constantinople and sang there the victorious (48th) Sura from the Koran. After that he ordered to convert this famous temple into a mosque, as it remained throughout the existence of the Ottoman Empire.
Mehmed the Conqueror turned an Orthodox church into a Muslim mosque
All surviving Christian mosaics and frescoes were plastered over. And the outside of the temple was provided with four minarets, erected at different times. The first red-brick minaret appeared under Mehmed the Conqueror (15th century) on the south-western side of the temple. Under his successor Bayazid the second the northeastern minaret was built. In the 16th century, during the reign of Selim II (Suleiman the Magnificent and Hürrem's heir) and his son Murad III, the third and fourth minarets were built by architect Sinan.
As fate would have it the orthodox Hagia Sophia Cathedral became the main mosque of the Ottoman sultans. Mehmed II even began to build his famous Topkapi Palace in the neighborhood of the Ayia-Sophia, as the temple is now called. And Mehmed himself and his many descendants came here from the palace for services. By the way, all subsequent mosques of Istanbul, as many called Constantinople, were built in the future similarly to the Ayia-Sophia.
Today, the Hagia Sophia Cathedral looks like a traditional mosque in Istanbul
In the second half of the 16th century, the buttresses of the cathedral were enlarged and strengthened, which had a very negative effect on its appearance. And in the mid-19th century Swiss architects, the Fossati brothers carried out the first restoration work on the temple, which consisted of strengthening the vaults, dome, columns, etc. By the same architects, under a layer of plaster, Byzantine mosaics were discovered. The reigning sultan ordered that the mosaic ornaments be preserved, and that the faces of the saints be hidden under the plaster. Some of these mosaics, unfortunately, crumbled in the earthquake of the late 19th century.
Today the vestibule galleries recreate the atmosphere of Justinian times
After restoration work carried out by the Fossati brothers, the columns of the temple were decorated with 8-meter wooden shields covered with leather on which the names of Allah and the Prophet Muhammad were inscribed.
These shields are still in the temple today, along with Orthodox mosaics
During the First World War, after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the Greek soldiers who were in Istanbul in January 1919, penetrated into the temple before namaz and managed to hold there the first Divine Liturgy after the fall of Constantinople. In the late 20-ies of the 20 th century German archaeologist A. Schneider conducted excavations near the temple, which resulted in the discovery of fragments of the previous Hagia Sophia temple era Theodosius.
When Kemal Ataturk came to power and Turkey became a Republic (30s of the 20th century), the cathedral of Sophia was given the status of a museum. The plaster was removed from the walls, revealing preserved mosaics from the period of medieval Byzantium, and the elimination of prayer mats revealed a beautiful marble floor.
Unique items are on display in the temple - a vase and an orb from Pergamum
At the beginning of the 21st century, religious passions flared up around St. Sophia Cathedral. American Democrats called for the ancient Constantinople temple to be returned to the Christians. At the same time, the museum's own grounds were set aside for Muslim rites to be performed by its staff.
In the spring of 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a statement that the authorities wanted to change the status of the cathedral, transferring it from a museum to a mosque. The president argued that this action was aimed at the fact that the status of the mosque would allow people to visit the cathedral for free. This decision was enforced in the summer of 2020. Various organizations (UNESCO, the World Council of Churches, Orthodox organizations in various countries, etc.) appealed to Erdoğan to reverse the decision. But the response to all the world criticism was the Friday prayers in the Hagia Sophia on July 24, 2020 which was attended by the President himself. Since then, the Hagia Sophia is once again a Muslim mosque that can be visited by all tourists freely.
Christian murals are closed during Muslim services
Architectural features of St. Sophia Cathedral
The Cathedral of St. Sophia, built during the heyday of Constantinople, became one of the most important Orthodox churches in the history of church-building. This was due to its geographical location in the capital of the Byzantine Empire and its unique architectural and artistic solution, which made it a masterpiece in the temple construction of the period.
According to the historical reconstruction of St. Sophia Cathedral originally looked like this
The Cathedral of St. Sophia in Constantinople is a striking example of the transition from basilica temple construction to cross-dome construction. On the one hand, the plan of the cathedral looks like a rectangular quadrangle (76x68) with three naves, slightly elongated, as it should be a basilica. On the other hand, its middle, wider nave is a square nave with a 30-diameter dome above it.
The small central dome, 50 meters above the ground, consists of 40 radial arches resting on a strong base created by four massive pillars and huge arches. In the lower part of the dome, between the arches, there are windows that visually form a single light belt. Except for these windows, the temple is also illuminated by windows of big and small niches. The spherical triangles, the so-called sails linking the dome with the rectangular volume were later successfully applied in architecture.
Although the dome of the cathedral has been altered several times, it makes a strong impression
The sub-dome space is significantly expanded by adjoining rather voluminous niches (western and eastern) with their half-dome endings. Further the general space of the temple is expanded by smaller niches, three on each side. The eastern niche of the main volume is continued by niches one of which (central) is the altar part of the temple. It is distinguished on the general plan of the temple by the projecting semicircle of apse. The central niche out of three adjoining the western niche is not shaped as a semicircle but as a rectangular box with three doors leading to the narthexes.
The arches of the lateral aisles on the southern and northern sides are decorated with fine columns of porphyry and malachite. They were brought specially from the temple constructions of Egypt and Asia Minor. Behind these columns the gallery spaces are organized. Interestingly, in the center of the cathedral was marked the place that was the symbol of the center of the Byzantine Empire. Here later all Byzantine emperors were crowned.
The site of the center of the empire and the coronation of Byzantine emperors is available for review
There are also mystical places in the cathedral in the form of a copper "weeping column," which supposedly grants wishes and brings healing, and a cool window, through which at all times of the year a chill blows and a mysterious noise is heard.
The interior of the temple, reflecting the basic traditions of Byzantine art, such as grandiosity, opulence, and solemnity, was perfected even after the construction was completed. Especially after the end of the period of iconoclasm. The walls were covered with mosaic murals. The mosaics of the 9th-14th centuries depicting seraphim, archangels, the Mother of God with the Child Jesus, some prophets and saints, Byzantine emperors, etc. are extant today.
Byzantine mosaic art of the cathedral
Walking around St. Sophia Cathedral, you can see Christian and Muslim elements of its decorations. The Christian ones include, first of all, Byzantine mosaics, partially preserved on the walls, vaults, sails, etc. One can trace how the art of Byzantine mosaics was perfected from the 9th century to the 14th century. They were all created after the end of the period of iconoclasm, during which the original decoration of the temple was destroyed.
The paintings of St. Sophia Cathedral from the distant past are awe-inspiring
The mosaic painting above the entrance to the narthex, depicting the blessing of Emperor Leo the Sixth by Jesus (9th century), is of enduring interest. Christ himself is depicted seated on a throne, the emperor is kneeling before him on his left, and in the medallions on either side of Jesus one can see images of the Archangel Michael and the Virgin Mary.
There is also a unique lifetime mosaic depiction of Emperor Alexander the Third at the Easter service (early 10th century) on one of the columns of the upper gallery. And a mosaic painting of Our Lady in the doorway of the south vestibule dates from the end of the 10th century. Here next to Our Lady one can see Emperors Constantine (right) and Justinian (left) presenting her with valuable gifts in the form of the city of Constantinople and the Cathedral of St. Sophia. This is almost the only work of art of ancient Byzantium where the two emperors are depicted together.
The image of Our Lady with Constantine and Justinian is truly unique
More recent mosaic paintings of the St. Sophia Church (11th century) are the image of Constantine the Ninth and his wife Zoe presenting gifts to Jesus and a mosaic with the Virgin Mary and the upcoming Emperor John the Second and his wife Irene (12th century), which are on the walls of the upper south gallery.
Constantine the Ninth and his wife Zoë near to Jesus. This is an 11th century mosaic
There are also the remains of the Deesis mosaic, dating from the 13th century, which shows a very artistic and spiritually intense depiction of Jesus with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist.
Little has survived of the Deesis mosaic, but the craftsmanship of this art is admirable
The most noticeable mosaic images for tourists in the main hall are the figures of seraphim in the triangles of the eastern sails. These images have been available for viewing only since 2009.
Muslim architectural elements in the cathedral
The fact that since the 15th century St. Sophia Cathedral was used as a Muslim mosque, could not but affect its architectural appearance and interior design. About the attached minarets it was already mentioned above. But it concerned external changes. For Muslim divine services it was necessary to equip mihrab (a place showing the direction of prayer) and minbar (a rostrum for the Imam). But the thing is that the orthodox altar of St. Sophia Cathedral was located on the east side of the temple, and the mihrab should have been placed to the southeast, i.e., to Mecca, which was done. Thus, the prayers were placed at a slight angle to the center of the main volume of the room.
The Muslim mihrab is located in the former Orthodox altar
A tall and beautiful carved marble minbar appeared in the temple during the reign of Murad the Third towards the end of the 16th century. The mihrab in the altar part was built during the reconstruction of the cathedral in the mid-18th century by Sultan Mahmud the First. The mihrab seen by today's tourists is a later restoration (mid-19th century). On both sides of the mihrab are rare bronze candlesticks brought to Istanbul by Suleiman the Magnificent himself from his conquest of Buda.
The high carved minbar to the right of the mihrab appeared in the temple in the 16th century.
In addition, the interior of the temple contains 8-meter-long shields with surahs from the Koran. Surahs from the Koran also decorate the dome, covering the earlier image of Jesus there. The Arabic script also adorns the stained glass windows.
The stained-glass windows in the temple are in the traditional Muslim style
In addition to Christian and Muslim signs and symbols, traces of Kievan Rus can be found in the temple in the form of Slavic graffiti from the 11th-15th centuries, and traces of the Scandinavian Vikings in the form of Runic inscriptions. Both are an analogy to the modern inscriptions "here was that".
The cathedral's galleries are equipped with reading rooms for reading religious books
To visit this unique architectural and historical monument of Istanbul, which is located on Sultanahmet Square, you can on your own and for free, but only during the hours not occupied by namaz (prayer). There are certain dress code requirements: all visitors must remove their shoes and women must cover their heads and shoulders with scarves.
With a leisurely and detailed tour of the temple, you can touch the amazing antiquity
St. Sophia Church is open daily from 9 am. It closes at 5 pm in winter and at 6 pm in summer.