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Hagia Sophia the unknown

Istanbul’s Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) Museum is one of the most visited in the world. Its construction was commissioned to two architects from Anatolia by the Emperor Justinian in 537 during the period of the Eastern Roman Empire. More than any other building after the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, it has engendered competition among architects all over the world who tried to imitate it out of awe and envy. In terms not merely of its architectural design but also of many features on its interior and exterior, it has always remained a focus of interest and curiosity. Nevertheless, there remain many aspects of the Hagia Sophia that are still not well known. 

The present-day Hagia Sophia is actually the third church to be built on the same site. This Mega Ekklesia, or ‘Great Church’, was built after the first two, and its name was not Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) but Mega Ekklesia and remained so for a long time.

Apart from the main building, the Hagia Sophia has two other buildings, one of which is thought to be the baptismal. Estimated to be older than the present-day Hagia Sophia, one of them served as the treasury building and was on the northeast; the other was the baptismal on the southwest.

The Hagia Sophia was the Church of the Eastern Roman Patriarchate. The Church’s Holy Synod used to convene in chambers along the corridor on its south facade..

The foundations of the west wall of the second Hagia Sophia are still standing and greet visitors with lambs symbolizing the twelve Apostles.

The present-day Hagia Sophia is actually the third church to be built on the same site. This Mega Ekklesia, or ‘Great Church’, was built after the first two, and its name was not Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) but Mega Ekklesia and remained so for a long time.

Apart from the main building, the Hagia Sophia has two other buildings, one of which is thought to be the baptismal. Estimated to be older than the present-day Hagia Sophia, one of them served as the treasury building and was on the northeast; the other was the baptismal on the southwest.

Inside the Hagia Sophia are works of art not only from the Eastern Roman period but even some from the pagan period of civilization in Anatolia, and from the various civilizations of the Middle East, namely, the 2nd century B.C. ‘Beautiful Door’ from Tarsus, countless Hellenistic period marbles, columns and water vessels from Pergamum, and other similar pieces.

The level of the ground on which the Hagia Sophia stands has risen due to construction rubble and the ruins of older buildings, and the square harbors traces of several layers of civilization..

Not only did the Hagia Sophia lodge monks, priests and the officials of the Patriarchate, but there was also a convent in its courtyard where a large number of nuns lived

Besides a primary school, an observatory, two public fountains, a large triangular fountain, and a gigantic central pool, other structures erected in the courtyard of the Hagia Sophia during the Ottoman period include a small wall fountain, a large soup kitchen, a medrese or religious college, and two sun dials.

In different periods, various items in the Hagia Sophia were removed and smuggled outside of Turkey, where they are exhibited today in certain European museums. 

There are three large mausoleums and one small mausoleum in the garden of the Hagia Sophia. Five Ottoman sultans also rest in the same courtyard, three of them in the main church building, the other two in the baptismal building. Individual mausoleums were not built because the sultans in question were all deposed. The conversion of a baptismal into a sultan’s mausoleum is without example elsewhere.

The Hagia Sophia was the oldest, largest and most important mosque of the Ottoman period and number one in state ceremonies and protocol.

The Hagia Sophia is where the Byzantine emperors were crowned. The emperor would be received here by the Patriarch and crowned at a specially marked spot in the nave of the church.

The Hagia Sophia is one of the places where the finest examples of ceramic tiles in Istanbul can be seen. Sixteenth and seventeenth Iznik tiles adorn the Hagia Sophia from the imperial mihrab to the library and the interiors and exteriors of the mausoleums.

The largest calligraphic panels found in any mosque in Istanbul are in the Hagia Sophia. At 7.5 meters in diameter, Kazasker Mustafa İzzet Efendi’s eight compositions are particularly noteworthy. The Hagia Sophia was the mosque for which the Ottoman sultans inscribed the largest and the most calligraphic panels, which they then gifted to it. (Mustafa II, Ahmet III and Mahmut II.

One of the largest and most beautiful of Mimar Sinan’s mausoleums is that built for Sultan Selim II in the courtyard of the Hagia Sophia.  There is a total of 120 bodies inside the mausoleum in this section of the courtyard where only those close to the sultan were interred; in other words, there is no graveyard as such.

The mosaic face of an angel was uncovered here in July 2009 and presented to museum-goers as well as the world of scholarship.

A Koranic verse which reads that Allah is the light of earth and sky adorns the dome of the Hagia Sophia. Inscribed at the apex of the dome, it is the highest of all mosque inscriptions. (The Light Sura, verse 35) 

Following the mausoleum commissioned to Mimar Sinan for Selim II, Chief Imperial Architect Davut Ağa designed a mausoleum for Murat III. The door of the mausoleum is one of the finest examples of wood workmanship and one of the loveliest mausoleum doors in Istanbul.

It is a mosque where a library was erected inside the main building and thousands of bound volumes were donated by a sultan for the benefit of researchers and bibliophiles and for the common people to educate themselves by attending the mosque lessons.

In a form of Ottoman mass education, lessons were given at the mosque. More than ten classes were taught in separate rooms, elective courses were offered for the first time and the first ‘open education’ was provided.