The Hagia Sofia Church and its chequered history

There can be few monuments as old and with a history as chequered as the Hagia Sofia in Turkey which has literally changed religions on more than one occasion, suffered a complete refit, had many of the original artefacts stolen and been effectively vandalised on more than one occasion. There may be some who have never heard of the Hagia Sofia but to give a small taster of the history, it was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly 1000 years until the Seville Cathedral was built in 1520. But that is just the start of the story!

The original Hagia Sofia

While there is very little remaining of the original church which was inaugurated by Constantius II in February 368 it has a history which has seen it change religion and change hands on numerous occasions. It seemed that every time there was a conflict in Turkey the new party who took control decided to make their own changes to the Hagia Sofia which had become something of a central point for the country.

There is some debate as to who actually ordered the building of the original Hagia Sofia but this just adds to the history and the mystery surrounding the building. Originally built on a pagan temple ground  the church was developed next to the Imperial Palace where a small church called the Hagia Eirene acted as the official cathedral for the leaders before Hagia Sofia was finished.

The second church

During a number of riots in the year 404 the original Hagia Sofia was burned to the ground although a second replica was immediately commissioned and inaugurated in October 405. However the wooden roof was the catalyst for a major fire in January 532 which saw the second church burnt to the ground although rather bizarrely a number of the original marble blocks from the second church still survive to this day and are located in one of the country’s leading museums.

The third church

Immediately after the destruction of the second church, Emperor Justinian I took a decision to build a third and totally different building which was larger and more revolutionary than anything seen before. It is this cathedral which held the position of the largest cathedral in the world for over 1000 years and still survives to this day. Such was the quality of the building work and the planning which had gone into the project it has been able to withstand a whole host of natural disasters.

The fact that the development took five years to build was a masterpiece in itself with material for the cathedral drawn from all over the world. The Emperor demanded the Hellenistic columns from the temple of Artemis, large stones from quarries in Egypt’s, green marble from Thessaly, black stone from the Bosporus region as well as yellow stone from Syria. It soon became apparent that this was a major work of art as well as a major work of architecture and involved over 10,000 people in the five years it took to build.

The main dome was created at the time when such structures were very uncommon and nothing of this size had been attempted before. It is rumoured that theories from Heron of Alexandria were used to construct the dome which was finally inaugurated in December 537.

The history of the third church

Major earthquakes in the region in 553 and 557 caused irreparable damage to the main dome which collapsed during a later earthquake in 558. This collapse destroyed much of the inner sanctum of the cathedral and the Emperor ordered a complete refit and a heightening of the dome by an additional 6.25 m which took the interior height to 55.6 m. The new Hagia Sofia was completed in December 562 and played a major part in the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople and was the principal setting for coronations and major ceremonies of the time.

In 726 we saw Emperor Leo the Isaurian take the throne and order all religious icons and images to be scrubbed from the Hagia Sofia cathedral. As more and more Emperors came and went in the region, the architecture, pictures and icons of the church were changed on a regular basis as was the style of religion. The dome was further damaged in 869 and 989 and after a period of rebuilding it was reopened in 994 although by now the dome had collapsed on at least four occasions.

The capture of Constantinople

When Constantinople fell during the so-called Fourth Crusade between 1199 and 1204 the Hagia Sofia was ransacked and nearly destroyed by the Latin Christians who stole a number of items including a stone from the tomb of Jesus, the Virgin Mary’s milk, the shroud of Jesus and the bones of many latter-day Saints. Many of these items were later found scattered amongst Western churches with some returned to the original owner and others now available for viewing in museums around the world.

Hagia Sofia converted to a mosque

When the Ottoman Turks took over Constantinople in 1453 the Hagia Sofia was immediately converted into the Ayasofya mosque although the church had gone to rack and ruin by this time with entrance doors in need of repair and the general condition of the monument downbeat to say the least. The next hundred years saw a number of leaders come and go but each and every one tempted to protect the Hagia Sofia and a number of new attractions were brought from conquests all over Europe.

A number of mausoleums and smaller religious buildings were added in the surrounding areas as the original site of the Hagia Sofia was yet again recognised as a major symbol of the area. It was also during this period that a number of earthquake experts of the time were brought in to review and introduce a number of support structures to the building, which had taken a serious battering over the years. The building has since been transformed into a museum which tracks the history of the area and the building itself.

The structure

The Hagia Sofia is seen as the first real demonstration of the Byzantine architecture and the fact that it remained the largest cathedral in the world for over 1000 years says everything about the structure and its quality. The largest columns in the building are around 20 m tall with a diameter of 1.5 m with each column weighing in excess of 70 tonnes and made up of solid granite.

The interior of the structure is even more impressive with a central dome posting a diameter of just over 31 m and raised to a height of over 55 m. The dome is supported by an array of coloured windows which cascades beams of light down into the main attendance area. When you consider that this project was undertaken in the fifth century it actually beggars belief.

The Hagia Sofia is decorated with ancient designs and pictures, full of ancient artefacts and the colours inside the building have to be seen to be believed. The Hagia Sofia has a history which few buildings in the world can even come close to, has been around for well over 1000 years and changed hands and religions on numerous occasions.

The artefacts left in the building today are priceless, the building is recognised by many as one of the wonders of the world and the whole site is available for tourists to visit.

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