Monday, 15 July 2013

Preview: The Hagia Sophia

There are some places that simply shouldn't be around, buildings that should have collapsed or been torn down many times over. They are like old grizzled war veterans that have survived disease and gunfire and untold hardship to become ageless. Sitting at the heart of Istanbul, surviving centuries of war, earthquakes, pillage, and religious upheaval is one such building - the Hagia Sophia.

The Hagia Sophia, also known in Turkish as the Aya Sofya, has been around for 14 centuries, surely justifying its meaning of "Holy Wisdom". It's seen a lot over these 1400 years. It's been at the heart of the Byzantine Empire, then the Ottoman Empire, and now the Republic of Turkey. Mirroring this, its life began as a Christian church, before much later being converted into a Muslim mosque, and it now finds itself as a secular museum. And it's not just old and experienced, it's big too. For 1000 years, it was the biggest church in the world. Fusing the styles of Imperial Rome with the newly Christian Byzantium, it was a unique architectural form. Crowned by a huge and celebrated dome resting on a squarish body, the Hagia Sophia is a mass of curves and angles, and seems to spread out as though a fat man in the middle-seat of an aeroplane trying to take up as much space as possible.

It still shows the scars of all this time and turbulence, but most of what we can see now is superficial. The riches once lavished upon it are long gone, stripped away and stolen, and much of the exquisite decoration has been vandalised or painted over. This is inevitable - I don't think anything even half the Hagia Sophia's age has survived without being entirely gutted and plundered at some point. The best we can hope for is secret caches hidden to the world, such as Tutankhamen's tomb, but we live in too turbulent a world for open displays of wealth to survive the disharmony and fighting we contrive. The Hagia Sophia has seen it and its city besieged and sacked on more than one occasion, each time seeing vast amounts of bloodshed and ruin. The irony of the Hagia Sophia however, it that is perhaps because of this turbulence that it still stands today.

Let's rewind first to the 4th Century AD, and just after the founding of Constantinople by the Roman Emperor Constantine, who also kickstarted the Roman Empire's conversion to Christianity. His son, Constantius had taken over after his father's death, and built the first version of the Hagia Sophia in 360 AD. It didn't last long. During riots in 404 AD it was burnt down deliberately by the supporters of a hardline priest, in response to the immorality of the imperial court and females in general. These wicked woman, always out to cause trouble. The priest himself, Saint John Chrysostom, claimed the fire appeared spontaneously, as though from God. Riots took care of the Hagia Sophia's second incarnation too, in January 532 AD. This time the riots started at a chariot race, ostensibly between rival supporters, but with underlying political causes. 30,000 people died and half of Constantinople burnt down, including Hagia Sophia Version 2. Construction of Version 3 started just 39 days after the fire.

Therefore, the Hagia Sophia that stands today exists because of the destruction of two earlier versions. This isn't so unusual - many grand buildings are on their second or third versions, or more. St Paul's is on its fifth. What's more unusual is that subsequent upheaval likely saved it. In a different world, one in which Constantinople had never been invaded, the Hagia Sophia might be in ruins, or long ago collapsed and dismantled, or maybe on Version 4. It was completed in a very speedy five years, ten months and four days, aided by the clever tactic of having two opposing teams of 5000 workers, alternately working either days or nights from opposing sides of the building, thus fostering a competitive spirit. This made construction rapid. We still see this done today sometimes - each of the twin Petronas Towers were built by either a Korean or Japanese firm. Cost was not an issue, just speed. The Hagia Sophia was decorated in gold mosaic, marble figures, and rare materials. Columns of porphyry thought to have once stood at the Temple of the Sun in Baalbek and from various other exotic sources adorned the interior. Constantinople wanted to show off its wealth.

But perhaps it was all a little too quick. The two architects chosen were not architects at all - they were mathematicians. There was a lot of trial and error, and the emperor was impatient for a quick return. And although he was delighted with it upon completion, proclaiming, "Solomon, I have outdone you," he had not built something to last. In 553 AD, an earthquake weakened parts of it, and in 557 another earthquake hit. The following year the main dome collapsed - and it is considered fortunate the entire church didn't crumble around it. The dome was rebuilt, stronger this time it was hoped, and the Hagia Sophia lived for another day.

Earthquakes continued to be the Hagia Sophia's main enemy - between the 7th and 15th Century, twenty-three different earthquakes were recorded. There were ten alone in the 11th Century. This was all bad news. The Byzantine Empire was in decline, and there wasn't the will nor the expertise to save the grand, lavish, but ultimately unstable structure. Instead, it took an invasion - the Fourth Crusade. This 13th Century episode of opportunism, when Venetians and other Western powers plundered Constantinople, murdering thousands and stripping the city of nine centuries of priceless art, culture, and wealth, is regarded as one of the darkest moments of organised Christianity - although organised banditry is closer to the truth. The invaders smashed up the Hagia Sophia and had a prostitute dance on the altar. But, ironically, the next two generations of occupation may then have saved it. Once the city had settled down, the greater technical know-how and experience of Western Europe helped stabilise the slowly collapsing church. The addition of buttresses - a popular innovation with Western cathedrals - provided significant structural support. Without the Fourth Crusade, Constantinople might have retained its priceless treasures, but it might also have lost its jewel.

The Latin occupation only lasted a couple of generations, and Byzantine Constantinople limped on a little longer. Until finally, in 1453, it fell to Muslim invaders. As ever, thousands died, riches were stripped, and the Hagia Sophia was desecrated. Many churches were totally destroyed. But then in marched the guy in charge, the Ottoman Emperor Mohammed II, and decided he liked the great domed building. The Church of the Hagia Sophia became the Grand Mosque of the Aya Sofia; Constantinople too was changed - it now became Istanbul, deriving from the Greek for "into the City". The building was converted and changed, and further stabilised after a couple of centuries of earthquakes and slow decline. Significantly, over the centuries, the four minarets that still surround it were built. These make the building look substantially more striking, in my opinion. In turn, the Hagia Sophia became hugely influential on Ottoman architecture - the mosques that fill Istanbul and Cairo owe it a huge debt. Further essential restoration followed in the 19th Century, and after Turkey became a republic in 1923, the Hagia Sophia went through its final change, into a museum, opening to the public in 1934.

I've been to the Hagia Sophia before, in 2001 during four months of travel. My motives for travelling then were a little different from now, mostly centred on drinking and... no, only centred on drinking. I recall liking the Hagia Sophia, but not being bowled over, and preferring the nearby Blue Mosque. In fact, all I said about it in my blog (which I hesitate to link to, as it's mostly appalling) was "I went to the Aya Sofya, an ex-church, ex-mosque, and it was soothing and I walked around." However, I'm fairly sure then there was some construction going on and, as my blog also states, I was hungover and in a foul mood. I also knew next to nothing of the history, so my conclusions were both influenced by mood and somewhat superficial. Still, at least I remembered to take a photo.

Despite my judgement then being rather on the cursory side, I suspect that I'll come to roughly the same conclusion - thumbs up, but not jumping for joy. The Hagia Sophia is an epic building in history, with a ton of stories and significance and influence; it was the headline act of one of the greatest ever cities built - Istanbul is still pretty cool, but primetime Byzantine Constantinople sounds like something else. Perhaps its true glory lies in the past, and if I'd lived in the 10th Century and been doing my Wonder quest then, it might have been a stronger candidate. Although perhaps it just needs a more considered assessment than from a hungover 22-year-old.

I'll try and give it that considered assessment next year, probably January or February time, when I hope to visit, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then also.


  1. I was fortunate enough to travel through Istanbul last year, and I stopped in at several of the major landmarks in the Old City (the palace, the Blue Mosque, the Sultan Mehmet II mosque, the Basilica Cistern). They were all fine buildings, and I thought that the Cistern was particularly magical - this may have been because I visited in July with temperatures in the low 40s, and the Cistern is wonderfully cool and quiet.

    But the Hagia Sofia blew everything else away. It was an amazing experience, and I absolutely loved the building. The history is certainly part of it, and knowing the background enhanced the experience. But walking around the building had a profound impact on me. It truly is an extraordinary place.

    I hope you are in better shape to experience it next time around. :)

    1. Cheers. There is no doubt that age and history give a building a more powerful impact. That's where most modern buildings fail - they simply don't have the gravitas that age brings. The Hagia Sophia has an astonishingly rich history, and by this criteria alone it is one of the world's heavyweights.

      Some great structures reward those that really pay attention to detail, and so rather than march through it with a hangover, I hope that a considered and leisurely visit allows me to more fully appreciate its charms.


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