Saturday, February 15, 2014

92. Holy Wisdom

One of the most famous landmarks in Istanbul- and a must visit - is the magnificent Hagia Sophia    ( from the Greek: Ἁγία Σοφία, “ Holy Wisdom “ ). This building was originally a Greek Orthodox basilica dedicated to the Wisdom of God, but it has changed religious directions a couple of times over the centuries.

... main entrance in the building ...

In 1204 it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral under the Latin Empire, and then the building became an imperial mosque from 1453 until 1931. Finally it was secularized and opened as a museum in 1935.

From the date of its construction in 537, it served as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral and seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and was the third Church of the Holy Wisdom to occupy the site - the previous two having both been destroyed by rioters. 

... restoration work on the dome is under way
 - and scaffolding closes a large area to the left side ...

The Church was famous, in particular for its massive dome, and it is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture; said to have "changed the history of architecture". It remained the world's largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years, until Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520. The church contained a large collection of holy relics and featured, among other things, a 15-metre (49 ft) silver iconostasis ( a wall of icons and religious paintings ).

In 1453, Constantiople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II, and although by this point, the Church had fallen into a state of disrepair, nevertheless, it made a strong impression on the new Ottoman rulers who ordered this main church of the Orthodox Christianity converted into a mosque. The bells, altar, iconostasis, and sacrificial vessels and other relics were removed and the mosaics depicting Jesus, his Mother Mary, Christian saints and angels were also removed or plastered over. Islamic features – such as the mihrab, minbar and four minarets – were added. 

It remained a mosque until 1931 when it was closed to the public for four years. It was re-opened in 1935 as a museum by the Republic of Turkey. From its initial conversion until the construction of the nearby larger Sultan Ahmed Mosque ( the Blue Mosque ) in 1616, it was the principal mosque of Istanbul. 

Throughout the centuries the building has suffered greatly from earthquakes and fires, despotic rulers and invading armies – including the sacking of the city by the Crusaders and the Ottomans. 

QuoteUpon the capture of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade ( 1202-1204 ), the church was ransacked and desecrated by the Latin Christians and many reputed relics from the church – such as a stone from the tomb of Jesus, the Vigin Mary’s milk, the shroud of Jesus and bones of several saints – were sent to churches in the West and can be seen there now in various museums. 


QuoteConstantinople was taken by the Ottomans on May 29, 1453. In accordance with the custom at the time Sultan Mehmet II limited his troops three days of unbridled pillage once the city fell, after which he would claim its contents himself. Hagia Sophia was not exempted from the pillage, becoming its focal point as the invaders believed it to contain the greatest treasures of the city. Shortly after the city's defenses collapsed, pillagers made their way to the Hagia Sophia and battered down its doors. 
Throughout the siege worshipers participated in the Holy Liturgy and Prayer of the Hours at the Hagia Sophia, and the church formed a refuge for many of those who were unable to contribute to the city's defense, such as women, children and elderly. Trapped in the church, congregants and refugees became spoils to be divided amongst the Ottoman invaders. The building was desecrated and looted, and occupants enslaved, violated or slaughtered; while elderly and infirm were killed, women and girls were raped and the remainder chained and sold into slavery. 
Priests continued to perform Christian rites until stopped by the invaders. When the Sultan and his cohort entered the church he insisted it should be at once transformed into a mosque. One of the Ulama then climbed the pulpit and recited the Shadada ( the Islamic creed – “There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God” ). 

... the Islamic ablutions fountain at the entrance to the building ...

In 1935, the first Turkish President and founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, transformed the building into a museum. The carpets were removed and the marble floor decorations 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 in 1996 the World Monuments Fund placed Hagia Sophia on watch. 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 donations the 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, 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.  

... the neighbouring Blue Mosque seen through an upper level window ...

... another window view ...

... east side view ...


Although use of the complex as a place of worship (  mosque or church ) should be strictly prohibited, in 2006 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, and since 2013 from the minarets of the museum the muezzin sings the call to prayer twice per day, in the afternoon.

... another view of the neighbouring Blue Mosque ...

Such a magnificent building, and hopefully over the coming years a full restoration of the crumbling stonework and deteriorating mosaics will return it to its grand Christian and Muslim past.