April 15th, 2010


Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

In 532 AD, construction began on the Hagia Sophia Church (Church of the Holy Wisdom of God) by order of Emperor Justinian in what was then Constantinople. It was completed in 537, and for the next thousand years its grand dome, 55meters/180 feet tall, made it the largest church building in the world.

Over the centuries, it has been damaged by repeated earthquakes and fires and ransacked by Christian knights in the Fourth Crusade, but it has also hosted coronations, excommunications, and synods.

When Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the city became Istanbul and the church became a mosque. Some of its mosaics were plastered over (and thus preserved) during much-needed major repairs to the building ordered by sultans. Four minarets were added to the outside and a mihrab and minbar to the inside.

The Republic of Turkey declared it a museum in 1935, and since then, many of the original decorations have been restored. I visited it on March 30, and here are a few photos.

The nave viewed from the upper gallery. The golden mihrab, the niche in the direction of Mecca, is a little off-center on the old altar. My camera – and the human eye – couldn't take in the full height of the domes cascading down from the heavens.

Precious stones decorate the throne and pedestal in a mosaic of Virgin and Child set against a 6th century golden background in the apse. It was inaugurated in 867. I also posted a photo of a mosaic in the upper gallery of Jesus Pantocator here.

The upper dome, decorated with Koranic inscriptions, rises above a six-winged seraphim and one of the calligraphic disks bearing names of key individuals in Islam. Despite conservation efforts, the building shows its age.

In this view toward the entrance, even one small corner reflects the church's soaring beauty.

— Sue Burke