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Colors of Istanbul: Hagia Sophia

While planning for my Istanbul itinerary, the first destination I had in mind was the Hagia Sophia. Ever since I was a child, I’ve always wanted to see it. I remembered being interested in history back then. I loved reading about conquests, monarchy and wars. However, I have found most customs and political decisions back then to be questionable. While facts and dates may be a bit blurry from my memory, my interest in history has never wavered.

It was the opportunity to see the mosaics that I was looking forward to. True enough, it didn’t disappoint. It was remarkable seeing them.

15Hagia Sophia This mosaic is located at the upper south gallery on the east end.  Here, Virgin Mary stands in between the Emperor John II Comnenus and his wife Irene. She is holding child, Christ.  Christ is giving his blessings with his right hand while holding a scroll with left. The scroll in the Empress’ hand  symbolizes the donations to the church, and the Emperor is carrying a purse of gold as a symbol of donations to the church

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Located at a high point in the apse, the mosaic shows Virgin Mary sitting on a backless throne decorated with jewels, and holding Christ on her lap. On each side of the image stand archangels Michael and Gabriel.

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The most notable mosaic in Hagia Sophia, the Deesis mosaic presents an image of Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist, imploring Christ for mankind’s salvation. It dates back to 1261 and is considered to be the finest, with its soft tones,  and the emotional realism as shown in the faces of the figures.

16Hagia SophiaIn this mosaic, Jesus Christ is shown sitting on a throne decorated with jewels. He is blessing with his right hand, and holding the bible with his left hand.  Empress Zoe is on his left, offering a scroll that symbolizes the donations she made to the church. The face of her consort is believed to have changed three times, previously showing  her two former husbands. The mosaic shows the face of her final spouse Constantine IX Monomachus. Just like the empress, Emperor Constantine IX is offering a purse, a symbol for his donation to the church.

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Aside from the mosaics, another notable feature of Hagia Sophia are the rounded calligraphic panes on the walls. In the present day, there are eight of these panes containing the names of Allah, Muhammad, and the four caliphs, namely Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali as well as the grandsons of Muhammad, namely Hasan and Husayn.  These calligraphic panes are the largest ones in the Islamic world.

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Hagia Sophia’s dome is distinctive for being much larger than other churches. The dome lies on four pendentives wherein these pendentives enable its transition into the square shape of its piers below. The pendentives distribute the weight of the dome and place support on the four arches resting on huge piers.

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History

The rich history of Hagia Sophia began in fourth century when it was constructed during the reign of Constantine the Great. Constantine was the first Christian emperor and the founder of the city of Constantinople. The first church was covered with a wooden roof and expanded vertically however it was burned down after a public riot.  The second church was built by his son Constantius and the emperor Theodosios II. The second church shared similar characteristics with the first one, both had wooden roofs. Again, it was burned down during the Nika riots of 532.

The Hagia Sophia that we see now was built under the reign of Emperor Justinian I. This has been considered a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture, rich with mosaics, domed roof and marble pillars.

The structure was severely damaged several times by earthquakes but it sustained the most damage when the cathedral was attacked and desecrated by the Crusaders.

Later on, Sultan Mehmed’s conquered the city of Constantinople. He admired the beauty of the Hagia Sophia and immediately converted it into his imperial mosque. Hagia Sophia served as the principal mosque of Istanbul and was a model for many of the Ottoman mosques of Istanbul such as the Blue Mosque. In its transition to a mosque, a mihrab (prayer niche), minbar (pulpit) and a wooden minaret were added.  Hagia Sophia’s mosaics were covered by the Turks, due to the Islamic prohibition of religious imagery.

The Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’ in 1935.

I would truly recommend for visitors to read Hagia Sophia’s history prior to coming here. The official site has compiled information that would give glimpse to Hagia Sophia’s past. As usual, it is better to come early to avoid crowds and long queues.

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