Hagia Sofia – 52 Churches

I realized a long standing personal dream today when I stepped inside of the Hagia Sofia and admired it’s 1500 year old dome.

I looked up at the distant mosaic of the Virgin and Child, admired the Empress Irene and the Pantocrator, saw the sadness of John the Baptist rendered in little mosaic tiles like a pointillist’s painting. I stood in front of the conquered altar and defiantly said the Lord’s Prayer to myself in an attempt to make this an “official” church visit– since no religious services have been conducted inside the great nave since Kamal Ataturk secularized the monument into a museum in 1935.

The last Christian rites were interrupted because of the sack of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453.  For many Greeks it was a lifelong dream to see that service completed yet it is unlikely Hagia Sofia will ever see another Christian service. The symbolism and the antipathies are too strong so now it sits neutral, a museum to a strange time when the Roman Empire morphed into the Byzantine. An American politician has made some noise about turning Hagia Sofia back into a church,  but ….

I walked on marble floors so worn and ancient they felt soft and comfortable like old shoes. I touched the Sweating Column. I stood before the altar, now defunct and confused with Islamic scripture, and wondered at the coronations, the Easters, the Christmases that were celebrated there in the glory days of the Byzantine Empire, the Empress behind, sitting with her retinue in her loge.

It was freaky. To be there was an honor, an exceptional thing made real after years of reading about its splendor and magnificence, the Churbuckian version of a celebrity sighting only …. much more profound and humbling. To put it into perspective. I pay homage to history in my backyard that is four hundred years old — old weathered wooden houses and churches built by Pilgrims and Puritans. This was a wonder of the medieval world; at the time of its construction it was the tallest dome in the world and the largest enclosed space in the world. When one stands under the dome and looks up, blinded by the shafts of light through the windows, you have to ask “How did they get the stuff up there?”

Domes were throughout the  medieval era through the Renaissancs, incredibly difficult architectural challenges. The Pantheon in Rome is one great example of an ancient dome. The tale of Fillipio Brunelleschi’s great feat in giving Florence a dome on its Cathedral is fascinating. Domes were very high tech for their time, and Hagia Sofia’s is all the more remarkable for its early implementation and sheer size. Hagia Sofia has had several domes, the first one collapsed in 558 in an earthquake and had to be rebuilt. It was hit again in 868 and 989, yet the Emperors kept rebuilding.

The Hagia Sofia was the church of the Byzantine emperors, administered by the Patriarch of Constantinople, built by 10,000 laborers in six years and completed in 527 AD. It was commissioned by the Emperor Justinian and is a reflection of Roman culture for Constantinople was Nova Roma, the new Rome established by the Emperor Constantine — the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity — as a way to move the center of power from the tired and corrupt precincts of Rome to the strategically brilliant locale of Byzantium, a Greek village that dominated the Bosporous, arguably one of the most geographically strategic pieces of land in the world.

Hagia Sofia is a place of so many superlatives that it is hard to follow in the words of the historian Procopius or modern writers such as John Julius Norwich and Lord Stephen Runciman and describe it’s majesty.

The Service

There wasn’t any. There were a lot of Turkish and Japanese tourists. Everyone was holding a camera out in front of them, and some workers were erecting scaffoldings to commence some restoration work. I made my way to the altar and felt a little awestruck, but other than that … no music, no liturgy, no prayers. There was a huge feeling of, well, history, agelessness, ghosts, and some pride in being a human.

Random Observations

  • The first church I paid to enter. 20 Turkish lira. The ticket says “Ayasofya” the Turkish name for Hagia Sofia.
  • I will return before I leave on Sunday. It deserves a second visit I think.
  • The eastern porch smelled funny
  • The Sweating Column was very strange and has me convinced I have contracted a weird disease.
  • There are no stairs to the upper balcony, but a series of ramps with incredibly worn down stones.
  • The mosaics that remain, the Comenus, the Pantocrator, the one high above the altar of the Virgin …. simply breathtaking works of art. The Muslims plastered over most of them in the 15th century as Islam prohibits such imagery.
  • The external architecture is evidently the finest example of Byzantine architecture extant. It remind me a little of the Greek Orthodox church in Centerville on Cape Cod.
  • The big discs hung by the Muslims around the interior upset me as they have when I have seen them in photographs, yet I understand that the structure was holy to those Muslims who worshipped there for 500 years.
  • My chances for attending Muslim prayers grow slim. Colleagues are warning me away.

Next: more church in Istanbul!

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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