Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia

There is perhaps one single place in this world where one can find the most true, clear, precise division between the cultures of the East and West; an actual point on the map where these 2 widely divergent cultures meet – often violently.

The country is Turkey. The city is Istanbul (formerly Constantinople – the seat of the Eastern Roman – Byzantinian – Empire). There, sitting on a little Peninsula in the Black Sea, is the world famous Hagia Sophia (Greek for “Holy Wisdom”) – one of the principle sources of contention between the Eastern and Western worlds (specifically, between Catholics and Muslims) for more than a millennium and a half.

The current building – that glorious domed cathedral – which is so famous for its architecture, is actually the third such building built in the same location. The first, commissioned by Constantine the Great (after whom the city of Constantinople was named) but consecrated under his son, Constantius II in A.D. 360, was destroyed during the Constantinople riots of A.D. 404. The Emperor Theodosius II inaugurated a second church in A.D. 405, but that one burned to the ground during a revolt a century later, in A.D. 532.

Finally, a third (and hopefully final) church, this one far more grand and befitting the wealth of the Eastern Roman Empire, was built under Emperor Justinian I between A.D. 532 and 537. It is this final building which will forever be known both for its architectural brilliance and for its tumultuous cultural history.

First, the architecture.

The Hagia Sophia (the full name was actually Church of the Holy Wisdom of God) is considered to be the crowning achievement of Byzantinian architecture, which combines elements of Roman architecture and Eastern architecture (a natural course, considering the location of Constantinople). Elements of this style include heavy uses of lighting (via windows), domes resting on massive piers, use of plaster and brick instead of stone, and heavy use of mosaics rather than sculptures. The Hagia Sophia, in particular, was perhaps best known for its dome, which was built to rest on square piers, which had never been done before and required a never before used technique using a shape called a pendentive (which is a triangular cross-section of a sphere, coming to rest at two distinct points, yet retaining great amounts of stability). In this way, the architects were also able to place a remarkable forty windows around the base of the sphere, which creates the famed lighting effects which dazzle visitors to the interior of the church, and give the appearance that the dome is resting on very little support.

Truly, the Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that it was such a high profile target amongst the enemies of Rome.

The trouble began during the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), during which time Constantinople was ransacked by western crusaders and many of the sacred relics held within the church were carried off (many of them still reside in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy). Two and a half a decades after this, in 1453, Constantinople was conquered by Sultan Mehmet el-Fatih – “The Conqueror” of the Ottoman Turkish empire. Under Mahmet’s reign, Constantinople would become known as Istanbul, and The Sultan was sufficiently impressed with the Hagia Sophia that he decided not to destroy it, as would generally have been done with relics of the “infidels,” but rather declared that it would be converted into his own imperial mosque. In fact, the Arabs didn’t even have to change the name of the building, as “Church of the Holy Wisdom” is a perfectly fitting name for a Muslim Mosque, which certainly made things simpler for everyone involved. The old Christian mosaics and inscriptions were plastered over and replaced with more “fitting” Muslim designs, and apart from a few major repairs to the aging building, most of the architecture was kept intact.

Perhaps it is a bit ironic that what began as a Christian Basilica was turned not only into an Arab Mosque, but into an Arab Mosque which would become the architectural inspiration for many other Mosques in Istanbul. Thus, Byzantinian Architecture was a combination of Roman architecture and Eastern Architecture, which in turn became an inspiration for further eastern (Muslim) architecture.

So, the Hagia Sophia remained in Arab hands, as did the rest of Turkey. Constantinople became Istanbul, and the world moved on.

Nothing much changed at the Hagia Sophia until just this past century. In 1934, Turkish president Kemal Atatürk, decided that the church had been a source of contention between the Eastern and Western worlds for too long. In a bold move, he decided to secularize the church, turning it into a museum, which contains both Christian and Muslim elements. There is still much controversy involved in the structure, however, for there are those who desire to tear down the plaster (and Arab art) in certain places in order to reveal some very old and priceless Christian art within the church, but it is generally recognized that a healthy middle ground must be found between the relics of the two faiths if any peace is to be found in this area.

Indeed, the continuing story of the Hagia Sophia is a story worth keeping an eye on, as it surely says a great deal regarding the conflicts between the East and West, just as it has for more than fifteen hundred years.