Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
Hagia Sophia, which is considered as one of the eight wonders of the world, also occupies a prominent place in the history of art and architecture. It is one of the rare works of this size and age that has survived to our day. The church (called Ayasofya in Turkish) is erroneously known as Saint Sophia in the west. The basilica was not dedicated to a saint named Sophia, but to Divine Wisdom.
This was the site of a pagan temple, and the three separate basilicas built here in different times were all called by the same name. Although no churches were built during the reign of Constantine the Great, some sources maintain that the first Hagia Sophia basilica was built by him. Actually, the first small basilica with a wooden roof was constructed in the second half of the 4th century by Constantinius, the son of Constantine the Great.
This church burnt during the riots in 404, and a second and larger basilica that replaced it was inaugurated in 415. During the bloody uprising of 532 that broke out at a chariot race in the Hippodrome, ten thousands of the inhabitants of the city were killed and numerous building destroyed.
The Hagia Sophia church was among the structures burnt during this so-called "Nika" revolt which was directed against Emperor Justinian.
When Justinian finally suppressed the revolt, he decided to build a house of worship "the like of which has not been seen since Adam, nor will it be seen in the future." Construction started in 532 over the remains of the previous basilica and it was completed in five years. In the year 537, elaborate ceremonies were organized for the dedication of this largest church of Christendom. The emperor spared no expense for his church and placed the state treasury at the disposal of the architects, Antheius of Tralles and mathematician Isidorus of Miletus. The design of the dome followed in the tradition of Roman architecture, and the plan of the basilica was even older. Round buildings had been successfully covered with domes before. But in Hagia Sophia, Justinian was attempting for the first time in the history of architecture to build a gigantic central dome over a rectangular plan.
Priests kept intoning prayers throughout the construction. Marbles and columns taken from the remains of earlier eras from almost all parts of the empire were used for building material. Later many esoteric stories were invented to explain the origin of these materials, particularly the columns, which were gathered from such far ranging sources.
During the reign of Justinian, Hagia Sophia was a manifestation of refinement and pomp, but in later eras it turned into a legend and a symbol.
Because of its dimensions which could not be surpassed for the next thousand years and the financial and technical difficulties involved in its construction, people believed that such a building could not have been achieved without the assistance of supernatural powers. Although Hagia Sophia is a 6th century Byzantine work, it is an "experiment" in the Roman architectural tradition that has neither a predecessor nor a duplicate. The contrast between the interior and the exterior and the large dome are legacies of Rome. The outer appearance is not elegant; it was built as a shell, without much care for proportions. On the other hand, the interior is as splendid and captivating as a palace. As a whole, it is an "imperial" structure.
During the dedication ceremony, the emperor could not suppress his excitement. He entered the church in a chariot, thanked God, and shouted that he had outdone King Solomon.
The basilica developed into a large religious center with tall buildings surrounding it. The scene was now set for the clashes between the Byzantine emperors and the Eastern Church that would last for centuries.
Despite its uniqueness and magnificence, the structure has some vital faults. The most important problem was the enormous size of the dome and the pressure it exerted on the side walls. The architectural elements necessary for transmitting the weight of such a dome to the foundations were not fully developed at that time.
In time the side walls kept leaning outwards and the original low dome collapsed in 558. The second dome to be constructed was much higher and reduced in diameter, but almost half of this dome also collapsed twice, in the 10th and 14th centuries. Vast sums were spent in all ages for the upkeep of Hagia Sophia. The immediate restorations undertaken after the Turkish conquest in 1453 to convert it into a mosque saved this beautiful building. Among the major restorations at later times were the buttresses built by Turkish architect Sinan in the 16th century, the restoration by the Fossafi brothers in mid-19th century, and the repairs including the fortification of the dome with iron bands after 1930. Existing modern portable metal scaffolding will make future restoration work easier.
After serving two different religions with the same god, 916 years as a church and 477 years as a mosque, Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum on Ataturk's orders. Between 1930 and 1935 the whitewash on the walls was cleaned to reveal mosaics, which are among the most important examples of Byzantine art.