Jul 5, 2011
7 Wonders of the Medieval World - Part VI
The Church of the Holy Wisdom, known as Hagia Sophia in Greek, Sancta Sophia in Latin, and Ayasofya or Aya Sofya in Turkish, is a former Byzantine church and former Ottoman mosque in Istanbul. Now a museum, Hagia Sophia is universally acknowledged as one of the great buildings of the world.
Famous in particular for its massive dome, it is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and is said to have changed the history of architecture. It was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years, until Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520.
The architects of the church were Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, who were professors of geometry at the University of Constantinople. Their work was a technical triumph, even though the structure was severely damaged several times by earthquakes. The dome collapsed after an earthquake in 558 and was replaced in 562.There were additional partial collapses in 989 after which an Armenian architect named Trdat was commissioned to repair the damage.
For over 900 years the Hagia Sophia was the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople and a principal setting for church councils and imperial ceremonies. In 1204 the cathedral was ruthlessly attacked, desecrated and plundered by the Crusaders, who also ousted the Patriarch of Constantinople and replaced him with a Latin bishop.
Despite this violent setback, Hagia Sophia remained a functioning church until 1453 when Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror entered triumphantly into the city of Constantinople. He was amazed at the beauty of the Hagia Sophia and immediately converted it into his imperial mosque.
Hagia Sophia served as the principal mosque of Istanbul for almost 500 years. No major structural changes were made at first; the addition of a mihrab (prayer niche), minbar (pulpit) and a wooden minaret made a mosque out of the church. At some early point, all the faces depicted in the church's mosaics were covered in plaster due to the Islamic prohibition of figurative imagery. Various additions were made over the centuries by successive sultans.
The most famous restoration of the Hagia Sophia was completed between 1847-49 by Abdülmecid II, who invited Swiss architects Gaspare and Guiseppe Fossati to renovate the mosque. The brothers consolidated the dome and vaults, straightened columns, and revised the decoration of the exterior and the interior.
In 1934, under Turkish president Kemal Atatürk, Hagia Sofia was secularized and turned into the Ayasofya Museum. The prayer rugs were removed, revealing the marble beneath, but the mosaics remained largely plastered over and the building was allowed to decay for some time. Some of the calligraphic panels were moved to other mosques, but eight roundels were left and can still be seen today.
In 1935, the first Turkish President and founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, transformed the building into a museum. The carpets were removed and the marble floor decorations such as the Omphalion appeared for the first time in centuries, while the white plaster covering many of the mosaics was removed. Nevertheless, the condition of the structure deteriorated, and the World Monuments Fund placed Hagia Sophia on 1996 World Monuments Watch, and again in 1998.
The building's copper roof had cracked, causing water to leak down over the fragile frescoes and mosaics. Moisture entered from below as well. Rising ground water had raised the level of humidity within the monument, creating an unstable environment for stone and paint. With the help of financial services company American Express, WMF secured a series of grants from 1997 to 2002 for the restoration of the dome.
The first stage of work involved the structural stabilization and repair of the cracked roof, which was undertaken with the participation of the Turkish Ministry of Culture. The second phase, the preservation of the dome’s interior, afforded the opportunity to employ and train young Turkish conservators in the care of mosaics. By 2006, the WMF project was complete, though other areas of Hagia Sophia continue to require conservation.
Today, use of the complex as a place of worship (mosque or church) is strictly prohibited. However, in 2006, it was reported that the Turkish government allowed the allocation of a small room in the museum complex to be used as a prayer room for Christian and Muslim museum staff.
For an interactive floorplan, click HERE.