We must begin by explaining the origin of the name. Sophia, the name of a street dancer, a courtesane who became empress, has nothing to do with the name of this cathedral, which is taken from the Greek. Sophia meaning “wisdom" to which is added the adjective «Saint», to form the phrase "Divine Wisdom”.

It is said that Constantine built a church on the site of the present Saint Sophia in 325; surer sources have it that his son founded a sanctuary there in 360. This was destroyed by Eire in 404 and Theodosius II had it rebuilt in 415; but in the course of revolutions which shook the throne and divided the nation into two warring factions the Greens and the Blues, the temple was razed to the ground. It was then that Justinian decided to have a masterpiece, a work of unparalleled magnificence erected on this site. On February 29, 532, after a period of 39 days, he set his seal on the first stone of his new sanctuary.

This great work, one of the glories of the world, is the fruit of the labour of two Anatolian geniuses, the architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidor of Miletus. A hundred master-masons and ten thousand workmen worked under their supervision. The most precious metals that Asia Minor could provide were used in the construction.

A beginning was made with the transfer of 8 columns of red porphyry, originally from Heliopolis in Egypt, which were' first shipped to Rome and then conveyed to Byzantium; also marble, ingots of silver and gold, and ivory were sent from Ephesus, Baalbek and Delphi. All the richest and most costly materials - blocks of marble from the Marmara islands, green marble from Euboea and red from Synada [near Afyon] -were used in the construction. The yellow marble came from Africa.

It has been estimated that the expenses incurred in the course of construction amounted to 7,500,000 dollars. But if we take into account the cheapness of labour at that time, and the wide use of slave labour, it can be seen that the cost of the building must have amounted to considerably more than this. Justinian exhausted his treasury and was obliged to impose new taxes.

The emperor opened the church officially on December 27, 537, He was received by the Patriarch MENAS and in accordance with usage and custom had to enter the church with his hand in that of the Patriarch. Overwhelmed by the magnificence of the cathedral, Justinian forgot about the Patriarch, and advancing alone uttered the historic words «0h Solomon, I have surpassed thee!»

Even while not experiencing quite the same sensations of grandeur as the Emperor, and not possessing in any case the rank necessary for such a display of them, let us enter this majestic building and look about us, showing our admiration nevertheless, but with this difference, that instead of entering from the south after the fashion of Justinian, who trod the principal way into the church, we will enter from the eastern side, where the entrance is at present situated. Since we cannot step out either of the estate in life nor the century assigned to us, this is the only door available for our use. All the more so since the other one, historians inform us, was reserved strictly for ceremonial
occasions! The solitary air of the exterior Narthex and the lofty ceilings seem to be welcoming our approach. The doorway to the interior Narthex has a mosaic over it depicting, on a gold background, Jesus and Mary in the centre, on one side of them Constantine, founder of the city, and on the other Justinian, founder of the church; Constantine is offering up the city walls, Justinian the church of Saint Sophia.

The face of the east wall of the inner Narthex is covered right up to the ceiling with antique coloured marbles of great value; the interior of the building, surmounted by a most imposing dome, is reached by way of nine doorways. These nine gates give access to the heart of the church; the fifth of them, and the highest of all, was that used by the Emperor. Flanking it on either side was a guard-post where two retainers kept watch. Time, and the long hours of guard duty, has worn the stone, and the weight of the armed men who kept watch there has left a hollow place. The sight of it reminds us how vain are human pretensions and how fleeting our life on this earth, and awakens sad and heavy thoughts in us.

Our first sensation on entering is of the great height and lofty proportions of the building. Saint Sophia, with its heavy and rather forbidding external aspect, gives no intimation of the splendour and nobility of its interior. The length of the interior is 81,8O metres, that of the inner Narthex 10,50 metres, and the outer Narthex 6,60 metres making a total, when the thickness of the walls is added, of 101 metres. With its area of 7,570 square metres, it is fourth in size among the world's cathedrals, coming after St.Paul's in London St. Peter's in Rome, and the Milan Duomo. It must be remembered however, that these chuches were built at a later date: in its century Saint Sophia was the greatest monument the world had ever seen.

Let us advance now into the middle of the cathedral. The Great Dome claims our attention immediately; no visitor, no matter what his religion or race, can fail to be impressed by its scale and splendour.

After the restoration of the dome in 1847, the calligrapher Mustafa Izzet Efendi inscribed on it a verse for posterity in gilded Arabic characters.

This superb dome which seems in its remoteness to belong to the sky rather than the earth, can only be properly viewed from below by taking as reference points the marks cut into the stone; these are fixed in relation to a central point immediately below the apex of the vault, and mark the extent of the contour. The dome is 55 metres 60 cms in height; one side measures 30 metres 876 mms. to the centre, the other 31 metres 877 mms. Thus dome does not form a perfect circle. In the beginning the circumference was exactly regular and the dome somewhat more sharply inclined, but at its restoration, in order to strengthen it further, the present shape was imposed on it, it should not be forgotten that Saint Sophia has suffered damage from several earthquakes and has been frequently repaired.

The first great damage occured in 558. In January 369 after earth tremors lasting 40 days, the dome threatened to cave in. In 986 the dome seemed increasingly on the point of collapse, and the church was closed to the faithful for ten years while expensive repairs were carried out, at a cost of 10,000 Byzantine gold pieces. After this it was reopened for worship; but in 1346, vault subsided again, and lack of funds precented any repair, so that the church remained deserted. Formerly the church possessed a great many costly ornaments, doors covered with plated silver, columns of rare marble ringed with bands of silver, valuable Ikons framed in gold, massive silver chandeliers, challices and other sacramental articles, golden candlesticks hassoks sewn with silver thread, altar clothes of the same material, all of a dazzling richness. The greatest destruction of all these rare objects took place during the pillages of the 4th Crusade, when the Latins devastated the city. The marble fitments of the interior, the frames of gold and silver, doors and other parts of the sanctuary were lifted out bodily, and the precious metals melted down. Rarely has there been anything to equal this looting of the Crusaders in the year 1204!

A Russian priest visiting Byzantium in 1350 describes the appalling evidences of destruction he saw in the plundered city.

The Castilian Ambassador Don Clavijo relates when he was passing through the city in 1402, he saw the gates of the desecrated Basilica lying abandoned on the ground.

In 1453 when the Turks took Constantinople they found Saint Sophia in this condition. Sultan Fatih the Conqueror converted the ancient sanctuary into a mosque and was the first to utter there the ritual prayer of the faithful. At first the mosque was provided with a wooden minaret, later replaced by one in stone. The building was reinforced with buttresses and a mihrab was consecrated in the interior. Beyazit II, the son of Mehmet II the Conqueror, added a second minaret to the mosque of Saint Sophia.

Under the reign of Selim II, the conqueror of Cyprus, some sliding of the foundations was noticed, and certain buildings in the vicinity had to the demolished, the stones of which were set to build pyramidal supports for the walls of the mosque, while steps were taken to preserve the matchless dome. The work of restoration was undertaken by the great architect Sinan. This same Sultan had a school and a mausoleum erected and a garden lay out in the precincts of St. Sophia.

The Sultans Selim I and Murad III added two further minarets; in 1717 Ahmet II carried out fundamental repairs on
the mosque.

It was between 1847 and 1849, in the Osmanli Era, that important restorations were undertaken, presided over by the Swiss architect Gaspar Fossati, who reinforced the dome with a framework of iron, and protected the mosaics from damp by covering them lightly with lime, thus also observing the due forms prescribed by the moslem religion; in addition he consolidated the columns.

On the initiative of the Grand Resit Pasa, the organizer of this important restoration, a sum of 200,000 Turkish gold liras was devoted to the gigantic task.

An earthquake of 1895 caused some damage to the mosque which was repaired two years later.

The founder of the Turkish Republic, Ataturk a man of genius, foremost among statesmen, and profound humanist, removed from Saint Sophia its religious character by transforming it into a museum in 1935 thus putting It at the service of all humanity. From 1926 - university professors of high repute supervised a fundamental, rational restoration of Saint Sophia; the dome was once again reinforced, this time with steel hoops, and the effects of humidity were removed. In 1931 the American Association of the Preservation of Byzantine Monuments undertook the cleaning of the mosaics, and since 1955, thanks to funds granted for this purpose, Ayasofya has always been kept under inspection and restored as the need arose.

Haghia Sophia continued...
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Haghia Sophia

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Telephone: 90-212-5220989 | 90-212-5221750

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Saint Sophia at Constantinople: Singulariter in Mundo
Mosaics of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
Hagia Sophia: Architecture, Structure, and Liturgy of Justinian's Great Church
The Hagia Sophia : From the Age of Justinian to the Present
Hagia Sophia, 1850-1950: Holy Wisdom Modern Monument
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