On the meeting point of two worlds, the ornament of Turkish homeland, the treasure of Turkish history, the city cherished by the Turkish nation, İstanbul, has its place in the hearts of all citizens. -Mustafa Kemal Ataturk
Like Turkey itself, the Ayasofya is a meeting of two worlds. For more than 100o years, this triumphant symbol of Christianity stood, rising from the ashes and destruction of previous church’s – until 1453 – when Mehmet II – the conquering 21 year old brought an end to the Byzantine Empire. He invoked the name of Allah and declared the great house of Christian worship, a mosque.
That first moment of entering the Ayasofya is breathtaking, the stunning external architecture merely a teaser of what awaits within.
The interior is richly decorated, with mosaics well preserved, and marble columns. But these pale in the shadow of the great dome and its surrounding arches. An almost holy light reflects from the forty windows surrounding the base of the dome.
It is well worth allowing a good couple of hours to explore the Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia in Greek). Camera’s – but no tripods are allowed. Arrive early in order to miss the crowds – or even pre-purchase tickets online.
GUIDE TO THE MOSAICS
Imperial Gate mosaics: located in the tympanum above the gate, used only by the emperors when entering the church. Based on style analysis, it has been dated to the late 9th or early 10th century. The emperor with a nimbus or halo could possibly represent emperor Leo VI the Wise or his son Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus bowing down before Christ Pantocrator, seated on a jeweled throne, giving His blessing and holding in His left hand an open book. The text on the book reads as follows: “Peace be with you. I am the light of the world”. (John 20:19; 20:26; 8:12) On each side of Christ’s shoulders is a circular medallion: on His left the Archangel Gabriel, holding a staff, on His right His Mother Mary.
Southwestern entrance mosaics, situated in the tympanum of the southwestern entrance, date from 944. They were rediscovered during the restorations of 1849 by Fossati. The Virgin sits on a throne without a back, her feet resting on a pedestal, embellished with precious stones. The Child Christ sits on her lap, giving His blessing and holding a scroll in His left hand. On her left side stands emperor Constantine in ceremonial attire, presenting a model of the city to Mary. The inscription next to him says: “Great emperor Constantine of the Saints”. On her right side stands emperor Justinian I, offering a model of the Hagia Sophia. The medallions on both sides of the Virgin’s head carry the monograms MP and ΘY, an abbreviation of “Mētēr” and “Theou“, meaning “Mother of God”.
Virgin and Child: this was the first of the post-iconoclastic mosaics. It was inaugurated on 29 March 867 by Patriarch Photius and the emperors Michael III and Basil I. This mosaic is situated in a high location on the half dome of the apse. Mary is sitting on a throne without a back, holding the Child Jesus on her lap. Her feet rest on a pedestal. Both the pedestal and the throne are adorned with precious stones. These mosaics were believed to be a reconstruction of the mosaics of the 6th century that were previously destroyed during the iconoclastic era by the Byzantines of that time, as represented in the inaugural sermon by the patriarch Photios. However, no record of figural decoration of Hagia Sophia exists before this time. The mosaics are set against the original golden background of the 6th century. The portraits of the archangels Gabriel and Michael (largely destroyed) in the bema of the arch also date from the 9th century.
The Emperor Alexander mosaic is not easy to find for the first-time visitor, located in the second floor in a dark corner of the ceiling. It depicts Emperor Alexander in full regalia, holding a scroll in his right hand and a globus cruciger in his left. A drawing by Fossati showed that the mosaic survived until 1849, and that Thomas Whittemore, founder of the Byzantine Institute of Americawho was granted permission to preserve the mosaics, assumed that it had been destroyed in the earthquake of 1894. Eight years after his death, the mosaic was discovered in 1958 largely through the researches of Robert Van Nice. Unlike most of the other mosaics in Hagia Sophia, which had been covered over by ordinary plaster, the Alexander mosaic was simply painted over and reflected the surrounding mosaic patterns and thus was well hidden. It was duly cleaned by the Byzantine Institute’s successor to Whittemore, Paul A. Underwood.
The Empress Zoe mosaics on the eastern wall of the southern gallery date from the 11th century. Christ Pantocrator, clad in the dark blue robe (as is the custom in Byzantine art), is seated in the middle against a golden background, giving His blessing with the right hand and holding the Bible in His left hand. On either side of His head are the monograms IC and XC, meaning Iēsous Khristos. He is flanked by Constantine IX Monomachus and Empress Zoe, both in ceremonial costumes. He is offering a purse, as symbol of the donation he made to the church, while she is holding a scroll, symbol of the donations she made. The inscription over the head of the emperor says: “Constantine, pious emperor in Christ the God, king of the Romans, Monomachus”. The inscription over the head of the empress reads as follows: “Zoë, the very pious Augusta”. The previous heads have been scraped off and replaced by the three present ones. Perhaps the earlier mosaic showed her first husband Romanus III Argyrus or her second husband Michael IV. Another theory is that these mosaics were made for an earlier emperor and empress, with their heads changed into the present ones.
The Comnenus mosaics, equally located on the eastern wall of the southern gallery, date from 1122. The Virgin Mary is standing in the middle, depicted, as usual in Byzantine art, in a dark blue gown. She holds the Child Christ on her lap. He gives His blessing with His right hand while holding a scroll in His left hand. On her right side stands emperor John II Comnenus, represented in a garb embellished with precious stones. He holds a purse, symbol of an imperial donation to the church. Empress Irene stands on the left side of the Virgin, wearing ceremonial garments and offering a document. Their eldest son Alexius Comnenus is represented on an adjacent pilaster. He is shown as a beardless youth, probably representing his appearance at his coronation aged seventeen. In this panel one can already see a difference with the Empress Zoe mosaics that is one century older. There is a more realistic expression in the portraits instead of an idealized representation. The empress is shown with plaited blond hair, rosy cheeks and grey eyes, revealing her Hungarian descent. The emperor is depicted in a dignified manner.
The Deësis mosaic (Δέησις, “Entreaty”) probably dates from 1261. It was commissioned to mark the end of 57 years of Roman Catholic use and the return to the Orthodox faith. It is the third panel situated in the imperial enclosure of the upper galleries. It is widely considered the finest in Hagia Sophia, because of the softness of the features, the humane expressions and the tones of the mosaic. The style is close to that of the Italian painters of the late 13th or early 14th century, such as Duccio. In this panel the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist (Ioannes Prodromos), both shown in three-quarters profile, are imploring the intercession of Christ Pantocrator for humanity on Judgment Day. The bottom part of this mosaic is badly deteriorated. This mosaic is considered as the beginning of the Renaissance in Byzantine pictorial art.
The northern tympanon mosaics feature various saints. They have been able to survive due to the very high and unreachable location. They depict Saints John Chrysostom and Ignatius the Younger standing, clothed in white robes with crosses, and holding richly jewelled Holy Bibles. The names of each saint is given around the statues in Greek, in order to enable an identification for the visitor. The other mosaics in the other tympani have not survived probably due to the frequent earthquakes as opposed to any deliberate destruction by the Ottoman conquerors.