Hagia Sophia: Jewel of Istanbul

Hagia Sophia: Jewel of Istanbul

An iconic part of Istanbul’s silhouette, Hagia Sophia, with its giant domes and soaring minarets, symbolizes a cultural collision of epic proportions.

Hagia Sophia was built by architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus under the direction of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. Its name translates from the Greek as “Sacred Wisdom.”

The Hagia Sophia was built in the remarkably short time of about six years, being completed in 537 AD. To put this in comparison it took nearly a hundred years for its contemporaries to construct the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.


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This magnificent building combines a longitudinal basilica and a centralized building in a wholly original manner, with a huge 32-metre main dome and two semi-domes, one on either side of the longitudinal axis.

There are three corridors separated by columns with galleries above and great marble piers standing up to support the dome.

Beneath the dome, there are 40 windows with sunlight coming through.

The style of the Hagia Sophia, particularly its dome, would go on to influence Turkish architecture. The stereotypical Turkish mosque architecture was hugely inspired by Hagia Sophia.

The building stands not only as a magnificent architectural treasure but also as a tangled accretion of myth, history, symbol and conspiracy.

Due to many mysterious events connected to this magnificent building, many legends and conspiracy theories were handed down from generations to generation from the city’s earlier to latest inhabitants; from Romans to Ottomans and to Turkish people today.

The water-well in the great hall in Hagia Sophia | Image courtesy of www.hayalleme.com

The water-well in the great hall in Hagia Sophia | Image courtesy of www.hayalleme.com

The water-well in the Great Hall

People with heart diseases used to visit this water-well after the morning prayer and drink water believing the water had healing powers. The tradition had to come to an end when Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum.

The water-well has a diameter of 50 cm. As it is rich in minerals, its water is a little bitter. The water depth is estimated to be more than 7 meters.

As for the water’s effect on heart disease; some experts believe this is pure psychological. In other words, the patient believes that the water will have healing power thus, thanks to the growing hope, the effects of the channels of sadness in the brain are decreasing. This makes the patient feel better.

Angel figurines on the dome in Hagia Sophia

Angel figurines on the dome in Hagia Sophia

Angels and the sarcophagus under Hagia Sophia

The sarcophagus of Queen Sophia is positioned delicately just underneath the altar. On the dome, hanging above the sarcophagus, you can see the four angel figures; believed to be Azrael, Israfel, Gabriel and Michael. According to the folk culture, the casket was positioned in such a way that if it was to be moved, Hagia Sophia would have collapsed.

The angels are portrayed with their wings spread. According to the legend these angels are painted to protect the coffin.

The Claw in the Dome

Just about 6 meters above the ground, near the header of the pillar supporting the southeast side of the building; you can see what almost looks like a large claw mark.

According to the folk culture, as Mehmed II rode his horse through the hall, his horse left a mark on the pillar.

The Basilica Cistern is one several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath Istanbul and is located 150 meters southwest of the Hagia Sophia

The Basilica Cistern is one several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath Istanbul and is located 150 meters southwest of the Hagia Sophia

Underground Tunnels

There are numerous tunnels underneath Hagia Sophia. It is believed that these tunnels were built to provide diversion or escape options for the East Roman emperors. According to folk legends, one of these tunnels go all the way to Kinaliada, the closes of the Prince Islands in Istanbul. Excavation inside these tunnels is dangerous which makes it almost impossible for archeologists to learn more thus leaving the tunnels as another unsolved mystery.

How many crypts, cellars and underground tunnels are there that have been kept hidden from the public? Tom Sawford, a blogger with passion in Byzantine history, looks into this in depth in his blog article What Secrets are hidden under Hagia Sophia?

Runic inscriptions in Hagia Sophia

You can see runic inscriptions on the balcony pillars and bars of Hagia Sophia’s second floor. Similar inscriptions are also found in some cellar doors underneath the building. These are believed to be left by Vikings.

Hagia Sophia is the venue of the Great Schism of 1054

An envoy sent by Pope Leo IX, entered Hagia Sophia on Saturday, July 16, 1054 to announce that the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius was be excommunicated. A week later the Patriarch solemnly condemned the cardinal.
This dramatic incident marked the beginning of the schism between the Latin and the Greek churches, a division that still separates Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox today.

Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a Catholic Cathedral

As a result of Fourth Crusade, Hagia Sophia was converted into a Catholic Cathedral for a few decades.

Hagia Sophia looted & sacked by Crusaders

The Crusaders looted, terrorized, and destroyed Istanbul and Hagia Sophia during the Fourth Crusade. Many ancient and medieval Roman and Greek works of immeasurable artistic value were either stolen or destroyed.

The Crusaders took many sacred Christian art with them back to Rome. Some of these have only recently been returned to the Hagia Sophia Museum as a gift from the Vatican.

Many other priceless historical artworks made of bronze or silver was melted down for its content by the Crusaders.

Hagia Sophia becomes the death of Enrico Dandolo

Pope Innocent had appointed the Duke of Venice Enrico Dandolo, as the commander of the Latin armies. Dandolo thus was assigned the duty of capturing Istanbul from the East Romans.

The rules of Istanbul at the time, Alexios Doukas, sent a warning message to Dandolo . If Dandolo was was to touch Hagia Sophia, he would die. Indeed, Dandolo’s army invaded Istanbul however he died during the invasion. Dandolo was later buried in Hagia Sophia.

The venue for Picatrix translations

One of the most important works of medieval and Renaissance magic, Picatrix was translated into various languages in the cellars of Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia in early 20th century

Hagia Sophia in early 20th century

Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque

A new chapter in Hagia Sophia’s life began in 1453 with Ottoman conquest of Istanbul.

The East Roman Empire had been in fast decline and by 1453 the Hagia Sophia had fallen into disrepair. Nevertheless, Mehmed II was very impressed with the magnificent cathedral and decided to convert it into a mosque.

Ottoman historian Tursun Beg’s praises on Hagia Sophia gives you an idea how it was viewed by Ottomans at the time. “What a dome, that vies in rank with the nine spheres of heaven! This building is where the entire architectural science is showcased” wrote the historian during the 15th century.

Four minarets, each taller than 60 meters were eventually added to the building.

Hagia Sophia’s conversion in to a museum

In 1934, the new Turkish republic secularized the Hagia Sophia and turned it into a museum.

The Turkish Council of Ministers stated that due “to its historical significance, the conversion of the (Hagia Sophia) mosque into a museum will please the world and its conversion to a museum will cause humanity to gain a new institution of knowledge.”

Other legends about Hagia Sophia

There is a date inscribed on the third pillar at the southern entry of Hagia Sophia. The inscription reads “On the eighteenth day Sunday, the year 1038”. According to the legend, this is supposed to be the end of the world.

According to another legend, some holy artifacts including the nails used to crusify Jesus, are kept in a secret chamber in Hagia Sophia. Some of these legends go on to suggest The Second Coming of Jesus will start from Hagia Sophia.

With many superstitions, mysteries and conspiracy theories attached, The Hagia Sophia may still attract many new and intriguing discoveries in the years ahead.

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