We were excited to visit this most famous icon in Turkey, the Hagia Sophia. A more than 1,000 year old symbol of antiquity and of importance to both Christianity and Islam.
We were lucky to have booked a hotel that had a view of the Hagia Sophia and only 5 minutes walk to this scared place. We stayed at Ottoman Hotel Imperial. Great hotel.
I had always been intrigued by Hagia Sophia. It has the most interesting history of religious building I’ve ever heard of (it’s now a museum).
The space inside was massive. Unfortunately, my pictures don’t do it justice. You would need a really good camera to capture the enormity of this place. I was absolutely caught off guard.
I immediately fell in love. It is old and looks run down. The design is a dichotomy of Byzantine Christianity and Islamic architecture. Byzantine aspects are more than 1,000 years old. Islamic facets were only 500 years old. And yet, they still blend so well together like a seamless whole unlike the monstrosity of that Catholic Church that is plopped in the middle of the Mezquita (mosque in English) in Cordoba, Spain. I’m a Catholic and I still find that church jarring – it is totally out of place in the solemn magnetic space of the Mezquita.
I couldn’t help but be drawn to Hagia Sophia. I don’t know. It was just something about the place.
It had more to do with its story.
Hagia Sophia was characterized by being burned down by riots throughout its history.
The first church built on Hagia Sophia was in 360 (360 years after Christ’s death). The mighty Christian religion (still unified yet had to deal with a lot of ideologies in its factions – Arians, Monophosites, etc.). It burned down because of a riot. First one.
In 415, Emperor Theodosius II (responsible for all those awesome city walls surrounding Istanbul today) built another church. In 532, Hagia Sophia burned down again because of a riot. Second one. This riot was especially important because it was the Nika riots. Nika means “victory” in Greek. Nike anyone?
There’s so much to say about the Nika riots because it’s such an important part of Byzantine History or the Eastern Roman history but I won’t talk about it here. There’s too much so I invite you to check out that awesome story by clicking on the link. It’ll take you to its Wikepedia page.
Here’s the short to the Nika revolt. This happened because the great current emperor, Justinian (one of the greatest Byzantine emperors of all time – you’ll find his bust in U.S. Congress) wouldn’t pardon a couple of Blues and Reds prisoners. Blues and Reds are sports teams for chariot races. They also have a fanatic fan base. They are also politically affiliated. So imagine if your political party had a sport team (hockey, basketball, soccer – you name it) and make them as loud as the American N.R.A. and as sneaky as the Mob – you have your Blues and Greens. They are a political sports mob. They were getting a little out of control doing whatever they want in the city that Justinian wanted to set an example by executing them (hey, it was ancient times) in the Hippodrome (like the Byzantine version of the Coliseum) . The crowd pleaded mercy for their favorite sports teams and when it didn’t work they decided to lynch Justinian. Bad idea, Justinian. With the power of the mob, they fanned out of the place and started looting and burning the city including Hagia Sophia.
Emperor Justinian was terrified but his wife, Theodora (interesting character – she used to be a prostitute/actress and moved her way to the top to marry the son of a peasant general) shook some sense into him and proudly declared she’d rather die while wearing the purple (purple is the royal color and was like wearing a crown) than die in exile stripped of power. Justinian bribed a couple of important people in the Blues faction saying he has always been loyal to them and convinced them to withdraw their support and group from the mob. The mob was all gathered in the Hippodrome. Then he sent his general Belisarius (another great character, learn more about him here. I’m a big fan of his creativity and strategic genius) to essentially, annihilate the mob in the Hippodrome with his disciplined soldiers. It was a blood bath but the next day brought peace to Constantinople.
Thus Justinian decided to rebuild the Hagia Sophia we know today. It was shocking to learn they finish building this massive structure in 6 years (that’s in 500s folks. It took people 182 years to build Notre Dame in 1163. That’s 500 years later). They employed 10,000 people to build the biggest dome structure of its time and for many years it will continue to hold this title.
Upon Hagia Sophia’s opening ceremony, Justinian – struck by its beauty and grandeur – knelt and say, “Solomon, I have outdone thee.”
Hagia Sophia would continue to be the bastion of Christian faith until Constantinople was invaded by its own Christian brother in the West, the Crusaders. It was briefly a Roman Catholic church then returned to Greek Orthodox. Then Turks invaded the capital. It was converted to a mosque. Then when Turkey was gripped with nationalistic fervor after losing a lot of its territories during World War I, it was turned into a museum under Ataturk, the first Turkish president. Turkey also became secular.
What’s interesting to note is that when it was a mosque, the less orthodox sultans respected the history Hagia Sophia had and couldn’t bring themselves to destroy the Christian iconography that so characterized Byzantine art. So they plastered over the Byzantine frescos and art. When it was converted to a museum, they uncovered most of the plaster that hid the brilliant Christian art. Each has their own story tell which I will show in the succeeding posts.
And there you have it. The short history of Hagia Sophia. I hope I have made it as interesting to you as it was to me. If you’re traveling and a lover of history, you must visit this place!