The Hagia Sophia museum has an entry price which is nothing short of a rip-off. Outside, you’ll be harassed by street sellers and impostors posing as guides. Inside it’ll be full of noisy and disrespectful people either yapping on their phones or to each other or simply too disinterested but nonetheless dragged there by their friends who’ve read the 15 must-see places in Istanbul article on a magazine at the hairdresser. And chances are that half of the place will be engulfed in scaffolding.
All these undeniable downsides shall not deter you, however, from visiting Hagia Sophia. Why? Because it’s, firstly, an amazing building. Secondly, it’s got an incredible history. Thirdly, because it’s so rich of details, testimonies of a distant past that you’d have to be utterly dull and shallow not to be blown away by it, oblivious to the crowds and riff-raff. Besides, crowds and riff raff always have been around places like this. Jesus might’ve booted the merchants out of the Temple on a Tuesday, but I’m pretty sure they were back in the following Friday.
I decided to pay my humble tribute to the basilica turned mosque turned museum by telling its story, a short abstract of it obviously. It’ll be a less-than-rigorous attempt, full of deviations to look at side events that caught my attention but – hopefully – it might stir your interest so that you’ll see Hagia Sophia for the grand marvel that is and not as a big, a little bit decaying building with no shops inside.
In the beginning there was a cathedral
Istanbul began its life as Byzantium, and it was in Byzantium that the first church was erected where Hagia Sophia now stands. Built in AD 360, the Magna Ecclesia lasted less than your average mortgage, being distroyed in a series of politically-related riots in AD 404. This didn’t deter the locals, now living in Costantinople, who in AD 415 inaugurated a new one. That didn’t last long too, for in 532 it was soon distroyed during the so-called Nika Revolt, a conflict that started as hooliganism and turned into a full-blown civil war (who said that sport violence was a modern invention?).
Few things remain of that old structure, notably some carved stone blocks that are now used as stomping ground for the local cats.
Third time lucky: Justinian and the foundation of Hagia Sophia.
The Byzantines wouldn’t let go, at least not without a fight. And this time the baton was picked up by Justinian I, a man who can be considered the true last Roman Emperor and the author of that Corpus Juris Civilis on which all civil laws systems are based on. He wanted to build an impressive monument to faith and, in order to do so, called in the Norman Fosters and Richard Rogers of the time: Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles.
Their brief was simple: build something that couldn’t be burned down by torch-toting, drunk chariot-racing fanatics and, while they were at it, make it the largest Christian temple on the face of Earth (those were the days when the Pope and the Costantinople patriarch were having a contest over who was the closest to God and every little helped).
What they came out with was by all means impressive:
The pains for the Cathedral, though, were far from over. The Marmara region lies on a fault line and earthquakes are a common occurrence. One such event struck the city in 557 and cracked the dome’s vault, prompting the emperor to appoint Isidore’s nephew, by happy coincidence also called Isidore, to fix the problem. Isidore the Younger soon found out that the cracks were due to the dome being too flat and, therefore, exerting too much pressure on the columns which, indeed, had started to bend. He oversaw the reconstruction of the dome which took the shape we now can see, a happy case of nepotism gone right.
Natural disasters seemed to take a particular liking to the Cathedral and that required a steady flow of repairs. In one of thems, made around the turn of the Millenium, amongst the many structural fixes there also was a cosmetic one: four giant cherubs popped up on the dome, as well as a mosaic of the Virgin Mary with the Baby on the apse.
Decline and reconversion: Hagia Sofia as a Catholic church and a mosque
Isolated from its Western Catholic brethren (the two confessions had officially separated in 1054), corrupted from within and eroded by the continuous warfare waged by the Seljuqs the Byzantine empire had to relinquish control of the city in the XIII century, when the Fourth Crusade decided that attacking fellow Christians was more a remunerative business than dying for the faith in Palestine. Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice who led the sack of the city at the end of the Crusade, is buried in the Church, his resting place signalled by a rather sober plaque not far from the balcony where VII century Scandinavian mercenaries scribbled, in runic, their names.
Then 1453 happened. At the end of a siege that lasted 7 weeks Mehmet’s II routed the Greeks, Genoese and Venetians garrisons around the city; Costantine, the last emperor, died in battle in a scene that, should Hollywood ever lay its hands on it, would require a properly epic soundtrack and plenty of special effects.
Mehmet II allowed, according to the custom, three days of pillage of the city before claiming what was left for himself, but – unlike many Crusader sieges – it wasn’t an indiscriminate ransack. Churches wwre spared, as well as the Genoese enclave at Galata. Hagia Sophia wasn’t so lucky: the invading Turks believed it to be the city’s coffer and marched directly towards it. Barricaded inside was a moltitude of civilians, priests and wounded soldiers who could put up little resistance: soon the Seljuqs were able to enter the church and, once inside, proceded to rape, kill and enslave whoever they found. Then, finally, Mehmet II arrived, stopping the bedlam: one of the Ulama in his entourage climbed on top of the altar and recited the Shahada: Hagia Sophia was now Istanbul’s largest mosque.
Laicity: a monument to the history of one of the world’s great cities.
Mustapha Kemal, or Atatürk, had a deeply radical agenda for the new country he revived out of the rubble left by a decaying Octoman empire. This agenda also included a fast-track modernisation and laicity, a principle under review by the current, increasingly authoritiarian, government.
The Hagia Sophia mosque was part of this plan: in facts the place was to close and, after 15 centuries of career as a temple, it was due to reopen as a museum: the thick carpets were removed, as well as the plaster that covered most of the mosaics. This work has allowed to discover some of the greatest mosaics ever made by the indisputed leaders of the trade. They are usually found in the side naves, or in the upper galley, or at the very entrance of the complex.
The result is a marvellous tribute to this great city’s history, a place where the different layers of civilisation can be seen under the same, glorious, dome. I cannot stress it enough: if you care just a little bit about history visit Hagia Sophia, and stay there for long.