Byzantine Jewel ~ Hagia Sophia

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The Hagia Sophia from Greek origins which means ‘Holy Wisdom’ was used as a church for 916 years, then as a mosque for 482 years after Istanbul was conquered by Fatih Sultan Mehmed & now a museum since 1935.

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This vast edifice was built over 2 earlier churches & inaugurated by Emperor Justinian in 537. During the 16th-17th centuries, the Ottomans converted it into a mosque & the tombs, minarets & fountain date from this period. Since 1st Feb 1935, the founding Father of modern Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had Hagia Sophia secularized into a museum welcoming visitors local & foreign.

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Near the entrance of Hagia Sophia is the Ablutions Fountain which was built in 1740 by Sultan Mahmud I (1730-1754) in the Turkish Rococo style. This masterpiece of Ottoman architecture is one of the largest & most beautiful of fountains found in Istanbul. It is octagonal in shape, covered by a dome mounted on 8 columns with 8 arches & 16 slices with bronze taps in the middle.

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This Shadirvan has a beautiful filigree lattice mounted on top of the marble slices. Fountains such as these were usually built at the yard or entrance of mosques, caravanserais, khanqahs & madrasahs to provide water for drinking & ritual ablutions.

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In the West garden are remnants from the 2nd Church reconstructed by Emperor Theodosios II (408-450) which were discovered during excavations 2m below ground level. Column bases and pieces with lamb embossings that represent the 12 Apostles & architectural pieces that belong to the monumental entrance or Propylon can be seen here.

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Exposed Buttresses that provide support against lateral forces arising from the immense weight of the roof structure. It is interesting that the mortar is as thick as the bricks & this probably  helped to cushion the structure  from the shock of earthquakes.  The Hagia Sophia which was the largest church ever built by the East Roman Empire in Constantinople was reconstructed 3 times at this location.

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This 16th century Ottoman Sundial designed for 41° 00′ 30″ North Latitude & 28° 58’45” East Longitude consists of the Dial stone, Pedestal & Gnomon. The Gnomon measures 5.57cm with intersecting curves which gives different readings such as time of day, seasons, sunrise/sunset & even the 2 prayer times at noon. Nothing short of amazing for a layman like me.

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These 18th century Public Fountains covered with marble are just by the side of the Vestibule door. They are contiguous to mosques & serve the purpose of charitably distributing water to the public. Wudu the ritual washing performed in preparation for prayer & worship would likely be done here by the Muslims.

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Meet Gli the handsome  feline resident at Hagia Sophia sitting on the Vestibule steps; he rose to fame quickly after exchanging greetings with US President Barack Obama in 2009.

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At the exit of the main building with the Vestibule on the left side. The 3rd Hagia Sophia construction combined the traditional basilica plans with the central dome plan & this monolith has 2 floors, 1 humongous nave, a high apse & 2 covered porches – the Exo-narthex  & Eso-narthex. This ambitious project  was commissioned to physicist Isidore of Miletus & mathematician Anthemius of Tralles by Emperor Justinian I, who wanted a basilica that was larger & more majestic than its predecessors.

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Four distinctive Minarets compliment the extensive Hagia Sophia complex. This Southwest Minaret has an identical twin in the Northwest & they were built by Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan during Sultan Murad III’s time. This Limestone & Sandstone  minaret which is 60m in height was designed to be higher than the main building  & was used for airing announcements & Adhan – the Islamic call recited by the muezzin for the 5 daily obligatory prayers.

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The Mausoleum of Sultan Murad III was built in 1599, 4 years after his death by Architect Davud Agha. One of the largest  of Ottoman tombs it houses 54 sarcophaguses belonging to the Sultan, his wife Safiye, his daughters, women of court & princes. It has a hexagonal layout, double domes, exterior marble coating & an arcade at the front. The interior is lavishly decorated with ceramics & there are some fine examples of Coral red Iznik tiles dating from the 16th century. The Red Brick Minaret in the Southwest  dates back to Fatih Sultan Mehmed’s period (1451-1481).

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This is the Eso-narthex or  inner porch built at the Western end of Hagia Sophia that opens up into the nave. The vaulted ceiling is beautifully decorated with Byzantine artworks, mosaics  & stucco that have survived to date.

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The white marbles used in the architecture originated from Marmara Island, the green porphyry from Egriboz Island, the pink marbles from Afyon & the yellow from North Africa. The highly decorated  walls were established by dividing single marble slabs & combining them to create symmetrical designs.

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Skilled artisans have laid these beautiful gold mosaics or tessarae that adorn the curvy ceilings at the Eso-narthex or inner porch. These Byzantine decorations are part of the original 6th century cathedral.

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Two gigantic Marble urns (tap on the lower part) stand at the lateral nave  near the entrance. They were brought from ancient Pergamon by Sultan Murad III & they date from the Hellenistic Period (BC330-30). Each can hold 1250 liters  & was used for distributing Sharbat, a traditional Middle Eastern cold fruit punch served during Holy nights & celebration prayers & water on normal days during the mosque period.

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Light & shadows at play –  On the right aisle by the nave is a Maksure  which is a private wooden section used for community lectures on religious & scientific topics by eminent teachers & scientists scheduled during non-prayer times. There are 11 such Maksures within Hagia Sophia.

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Standing in the central Nave, the vastness & grandeur of the Hagia Sophia is not diminished even with a large section cordoned off for restoration works. On a lighter note, a tiny piece of stucco actually landed on me & I fully understand why research, repair & restoration work continues to this day. It is the 2nd most visited museum in Turkey & an important tourism site in Istanbul today.

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Lovely antique Byzantine brass chandeliers or choros with glass lamps & electric bulbs in warm tones that imitate candlelight illuminating the  Hagia Sophia.

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During the East Roman period,  Hagia Sophia rose in prominence & became the Empire Church. The Omphalion with these colourful stones creating an intertwining circular design was where the coronation of Eastern Roman emperors took place.

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The Dome alone has 40 windows & there are many windows at every quarter letting in light with reflections on the interior walls & mosaics creating a celestial & mystical effect. We see an interesting  juxtaposition of Christian & Muslim influences throughout the whole architecture.

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This is the Minbar or Pulpit  installed by Murad III (1574-1595) where the Iman of the mosque would stand & deliver a sermon. Notice the colourful stained-glass windows in the apse which help to make the interior of Hagia Sophia bright as compared to many colossal buildings which are dim indoors.

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The Mihrab  is the niche that indicates the direction of Mecca & it is situated  in the apse directly opposite the main entrance. On each side of the Mihrab are these giant candlesticks that were pillaged from the conquest of Hungary by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566) during the 16th century.

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The Sultan’s Loge was built by Italian-Swiss architects the Fossati brothers who undertook the restoration of Hagia Sophia for Sultan Abdul Mecit between 1847-1849. Within the gilded wooden cage is where the Sultan prayed on Fridays,  during Festival prayers & on Holy nights as this was the Imperial mosque in the city.

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This Iznik tile panel with floral motifs is found at the Narthex on the left side of the Altar.  Chini refers to ceramic tiles & pottery of special quality produced in Iznik during the 15th-16th centuries which was representative of the cultural & artistic zenith of the  Ottoman Empire.

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This long & winding Ramp at the northern part of the Exo-narthex or outer porch gives you access from the ground floor to the upper level gallery.

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At the West gallery a green stone marking  on the floor indicates where the Loge of the Empress used to be. This was where she & the court ladies would observe the proceedings below.

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This priceless view from the West Gallery where the cavernous chamber totally overwhelms; which was also the magnificent view the Empress & her entourage enjoyed.

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This Marble Door separates the West & South Galleries. It is rumoured to be the “Gate of Heaven & Hell” with one door representing Paradise & the other Hades. There is plant, fruit & fish motifs sculpted  on the panel surfaces. The area after the door was used as a venue for Synod meetings & resolutions regarding religious affairs of the state when  Hagia Sophia was appointed  the Imperial church.

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Marble Corinthian columns with stylised  capitals along the South Gallery with ornate Byzantine designs,  frescoes & chandeliers that spell opulence & create the palatial atmosphere.

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On the western wall in the South Gallery is the Deesis Mosaic which draws the most attention. It is considered the finest in Hagia Sophia because of the softness of the features, the humane expressions & colour tones of the mosaic which typified Renaissance in Byzantine pictorial art.

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The partial remains of the 13th century Deesis Mosaic depicts Christ in the middle, with John the Baptist on the right & Virgin Mary on the left. Intercessory prayers are directed to Jesus imploring him to have mercy on humanity on Judgement day.

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Corinthian marble pillars  with ornate capitals intricately carved out of a single piece of marble. Byzantine architecture featured symmetry, increasing geometric complexity, freer use of classical orders, complex domes, use of mosaics rather than sculpted decorations & windows with thin alabaster sheets that softly brighten interiors.

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The Komenonos Mosaic dates from 12th century & is found at the last bay in the South Gallery. This  beautiful mosaic depicts Virgin Mary holding Christ, flanked by Emperor John II Comnensus & Empress Irene. The Byzantines brought the art of mosaic-making to an apex  with  mosaic tesserae where the gold leaf was sandwiched by 2 pieces of clear glass in a flat cube. This produced a golden reflection from in between  the tesserae as well as in front, giving a far richer & luminous effect than just plain gold leaf gilding.

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Another splendid  work at the South Gallery is the Zoe Mosaic depicting Christ with Emperor Constantine IX & his wife, Empress Zoe. Mosaic art flourished during the 6th-15th centuries in the Byzantine Empire & Hagia Sophia is one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture with its interior decorated with mosaic, marble pillars & sacred  relics of great artistic value.

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Eight gigantic calligraphic roundels measuring 7.5m in diameter written by Caligrapher Kazasker Mustafa Izzet Efendi between 1847-1849  hang on the main walls of the structure. The gilded letters are written on a green hemp background & fastened to frames made of lime wood which are light & durable.

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The Upper Gallery encloses the Nave in a horseshoe shape ending at the apse. A large number of mosaics were uncovered in the 1930’s by a team from the Byzantine Institute of America led by Thomas Whittemore & it is believed that there could be more covered  under the layer of plaster but the challenge of conservationists is striking a  balance between uncovering Christian iconographic mosaics & the preservation of important & historic Islamic art.

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The Dome with a 30m diameter rises 55.6m from the ground & perches on 4 main arches. Hagia Sophia survived a big fire in 859, an earthquake in 869 but the dome was damaged after the quake of 989. Part of the dome & arches collapsed in earthquakes that happened in 1344 & 1346 & extensive repairs were carried out at that time. The 35th verse of the Quran is written on the Main dome by  a famous Calligrapher Kazasker Mustafa Izzet Efendi. Just to get an idea of the enormity of this Dome; the Statue of Liberty sans pedestal can fit in here!

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The Sunu Mosaic panel which dates back to the 10th century adorns the tympanum  at the Southwestern entrance & was re-discovered in 1849 whilst repairs were carried out by the Fossati brothers. In the middle is Virgin Mary with baby Jesus on her lap; on her left is Emperor Constantine holding a maquette of Istanbul & on the right is Emperor Justinian I  with a model of Hagia Sophia which they present to Mary, the protector.

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Sparkling like a jewel at night, I paused once again to admire the Hagia Sophia from Sultanahmet Square in Istanbul.

A visit to Hagia Sophia which is situated in Sultanahmet, is a must when in Istanbul. You have to experience this over 1400 years old architectural wonder to appreciate the scale, beauty & sophistication that this 6th century jewel of the Byzantine capital formerly known as Constantinople possesses. Today, it is venerated in the art world & its sheer size & functionality  is truly impressive & I am certain it would leave you in awe!

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