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For almost a thousand years Aya Sofya, or Haghia Sophia, was the largest enclosed space in the world, designed to impress the strength and wealth of the Byzantine emperors upon their own subjects and visiting foreign dignitaries alike. Superbly located between the Topkapı Palace and Sultanahmet Camii on the ancient acropolis, the first hill of İstanbul, the church dominated the city skyline for a millennium, until the domes and minarets of the city’s mosques began to challenge its eminence in the sixteenth century.
Aya Sofya, “the Church of the Divine Wisdom”, is the third church of this name to stand on the site. Commissioned in the sixth century by Emperor Justinian after its predecessor had been razed to the ground in 532, its architects were Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus. Prior to their pioneering design, most churches followed the pattern of the rectangular, pitch-roofed Roman basilica or meeting hall. Anthemius and Isidore were to create a building of a type and scale hitherto unknown to the Byzantine world, and no imitation was attempted until the sixteenth century. The mighty thirty-metre dome was unprecedented, and the sheer dimensions of the structure meant that the architects had no sure way of knowing that their plans would succeed. Constructed in five years, the building survived several earthquakes before, some twenty years later, the central dome collapsed. During reconstruction the height of the external buttresses and the dome was increased, and some of the windows blocked, resulting in an interior much gloomier than originally intended.
In 1204 it was ransacked by Catholic soldiers during the Fourth Crusade. Mules were brought in to help carry off silver and gilt carvings and a prostitute was seated on the throne of the patriarch. In 1452, far too late, the Byzantine Church reluctantly accepted union with the Catholics in the hope that Western powers would come to the aid of Constantinople against the Turks. On May 29, 1453, those who had said they would rather see the turban of a Turk than the hat of a cardinal in the streets of Constantinople got their way when the city was captured. Mehmet the Conqueror rode to the church of Aya Sofya and stopped the looting that was taking place. He had the building cleared of relics and he said his first prayer there on the following Friday; this former bastion of the Byzantine Christian Empire was now a mosque.
Extensive restorations were carried out on the mosaics in the mid-nineteenth century by the Swiss Fossati brothers, but due to Muslim sensitivities the mosaics were later covered over again. The building functioned as a mosque until 1932, and in 1934 it was opened as a museum.
Stepping inside Aya Sofya, eyes blinking to adjust to the subdued lighting, inspires a sense of awe in even the least spiritual of visitors. Though essentially a square, the nave, surmounted by its heavenly cupola (far more impressive when viewed from inside rather than outside) is rectangular, culminating at its eastern end in an impressive apse. At each corner of the nave are semicircular niches (exedrae). The galleries, which follow the line of these exedrae around the building, are supported by rows of columns and by four piers, which double as the main support of the dome. The columns supporting the galleries are green antique marble, while those in the upper gallery of the exedrae are Thessalian marble. Upstairs in the western gallery a large circle of green Thessalian marble marks the position of the throne of the empress.
The interior of the church was originally lit by legions of lamps, whose flickering light reflected in the pieces of glass or gold which had been carefully embedded at minutely disparate angles, giving an appearance of movement and life to the mosaics. What remains of the abstract mosaics, and of the large areas of plain gold that covered the underside of the dome and other large expanses of wall and ceiling, dates from the sixth century.
The figurative mosaics, dating from after the Iconoclastic era (726–843), are located in the narthex, the nave, the upper gallery and the vestibule. Some of the most impressive are in the south gallery where there’s a comparatively well-lit mosaic depicting Christ, the Virgin and St John the Baptist.
On the east wall of the south gallery is a fine mosaic of Christ flanked by an emperor and empress. It is believed that the two figures are those of Constantine IX Monomachus and Empress Zoë, who ruled Byzantium in her own right with her sister Theodora before she married Constantine.
Also in the south gallery is a mosaic dating from 1118, depicting the Virgin and Child between Emperor John II Comnenus and Empress Irene, and their son Prince Alexius, added later. This is a livelier, less conventional work than that of Zoë and Constantine, with faces full of expression: Prince Alexius, who died soon after this portrait was executed, is depicted as a wan and sickly youth, his lined face presaging his premature death.
One of the most beautiful mosaics in the church is a Virgin and Child flanked by two emperors, located in the Vestibule of Warriors. To see it turn around and look upwards after passing through the magnificent Portal of the Emperor. Dated to the last quarter of the tenth century, the mosaic shows Emperor Justinian, to the right of the Virgin, offering a model of Aya Sofya, while Emperor Constantine offers a model of the city of Constantinople.
Also worth noting is the famous brass-clad weeping column, located in the northwest corner of the aisle and usually identifiable by the crowd it attracts. A legend dating from at least 1200 tells how St Gregory the Miracle-worker appeared here and subsequently the moisture seeping from the column has been believed to cure a wide range of conditions.
What is left of the structures from Aya Sofya’s time as a mosque are the mihrab, set in the south wall of the apse, the mimber (pulpit), the sultan’s loge (a raised kiosk allowing the sultan to worship hidden from prying eyes), and most strikingly, the enormous wooden plaques that bear sacred Islamic names of God, the Prophet Mohammed and the first four caliphs. These and the inscription on the dome by the calligrapher Azzet Efendi all date from the time of the restoration by the Fossati brothers.