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Istanbul III: finding words about Hagia Sophia

Returning, while I’m on leave for the vacation, to the blogging backlog brings us back again to Istanbul and to a building already mentioned, the archetypal Byzantine one indeed, except in as much as there was nothing else to equal it; Emperor Justinian I made sure of that when he had it built in the 530s, and as we’ll see its inheritors did their sporadic best to maintain his high standard. I refer of course to the building that was the Church of the Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, which has also in its history been the Ayasofya Mosque and is now, for the moment at least, the Ayasofya Museum. You have to visit it if you’re in Istanbul, probably even if you’re not a Byzantinist, but if you are subsequently faced with saying anything about it, you meet several difficulties immediately. Firstly, this is probably the most over-described building in the history of Byzantium: finding anything new or even very interesting to say is hard.1 Secondly, when you see it, it becomes clear that it is an incredible, nay, amazing, mess of rebuilding, modification, repair and adaptation, cutting across and through each others’ layers in such a way as to make it quite hard to understand what you’re actually looking at.

Additions to the westwork of the Church of the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

These additions to the westwork showcase the problem even before you get close. Try reading a sequence out of this!

Then, once you are inside, there’s the further problem that ongoing conservation efforts mean that it’s always principally occupied by scaffolding; you really can’t see it as its makers and users intended, let alone photograph it. The layout of the building already makes it very hard to convey any photographic idea of its towering airy bulk, but the scaffolding makes it more or less impossible.

Hagia Sophia during its time as a mosque. Illustration by Gaspare Fossati and Louis Haghe from 1852

This is, in fact, one of those times where representational art does a better job than actual photography. This here is Gaspare Fossati & Louis Haghe, “Vue générale de la grande nef, en regardant l’occident” (1852), which is public domain via Wikimedia Commons, and shows the building in use as a mosque but still conveys the space better than photos do

Interior photograph of the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul, as of summer 2016

This is the best interior picture I could get myself, and you can see that our artists above probably exaggerated the height but maybe nothing else

But you can’t be a historical blogger and not try to say something. I figured that since my actual impression being there was that you couldn’t hold it all in sight and understanding at once, and I had to resort to parsing fragments of it one by one and then trying to assemble a picture, the former process at least would make a blog post. The thing is that the building is in some sense still occupied by many of its historical actors. I don’t just mean the legend that the patriarch who was saying Mass when the city finally fell to the Turks in 1453 is still waiting, hidden somewhere inside, for Christian worship to be restored there once more—though once you have been inside that seems a lot more plausible—but that various users of the space made sure they were instantiated in it, centuries apart from each other.2

Mosaic depiction of Emperor Leo VI abasing himself before Christ in the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

Emperor Leo VI (886-912), abasing himself before Christ, installed as part of the resolution of a dispute he was having in which the Patriarch barred him from entering the church. I had to use a weird filter on this to get the colours to come out; for something more like true colour see the one of this mosaic in its setting (far) below

Mosaic depiction of Emperor John II Komnenos with his wife and son and Christ in the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

Mosaic depiction of Emperor John II Komnenos (1118-1143) and his wife Eirini, flanking Christ, with their subsequent son Alexios squeezed in round the corner, in the imperial gallery

Mosaic depiction of Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and Empress Zoe, with Christ, in the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (1042-1055) and his wife Zoe, around the corner of the gallery from the previous

Not everyone who left their mark here was quite so elevated, however, even in the imperial gallery…

Runic graffito naming Halfdan in the balcony of the imperial gallery of the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

Runic graffito naming Halfdan on the balcony parapet of the imperial gallery. A Varangian vandal?

The interplay of centuries gets still more complex where these actors chose to reflect on each other…

Mosaic donor portraits of Emperors Constantine I and Justinian I in the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

Mosaic donor portraits, in the southwestern entrance, of Emperors Constantine I (306-337) and Justinian I (527-556) offering the Virgin Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia respectively; paradoxically, this is a tenth-century addition to the church.

… or to try to eradicate each others’ practice!

Removed decoration in the arcade vaulting of the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

Fairly clear here, three patches where figural art has been removed and crosses emplaced instead, presumably during the late eighth century

Visible removal and replacement of figural decoration in arcade vaulting of the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

A more elaborate instance in the same arcade, where non-figural decoration appears to have been deployed around the crosses… by the Ottomans?

What this is all telling us is that this was a place worth making a mark on, because it would be seen by those who mattered; it was a space with centuries of bubbling public flow of the great and good through it, each conscious of the previous centuries accumulating, between which one’s mark now had to be inserted.

Inscription of the acts of a synod of 1138 displayed in the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

Acts of a synod of 1138, displayed where everyone who mattered would see them (in the outer antechamber), though I’m not sure since when

A burial in the walls of the imperial gallery of the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

A tomb set into the wall of the imperial gallery, who knows whose?

Sarcophagus thought to belong to Empress Eirini II, shown in the mosaic above, in the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

Sarcophagus thought to belong to Empress Eirini II, in one of the side aisles

Even the Crusader regime that ruled here between 1204 and 1261, although they were, quite symbolically, propping up something they themselves had nearly brought down around them, are very visible indeed in the surviving fabric, albeit anonymous (weirdly, it occurs to me, like their coinage).3

Entrance to the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

The entrance as it now is, showing the substantial and, one might fairly say, ugly, buttresses added during the Latin period to stop the building collapsing

And then of course there were the Ottomans! Because, as I’ve said, for a while this flagship building of the city served in the fleet of its captors, before they could assert themselves with more confidence in a new mosque intended to rival and exceed what Justinian and his successors had done for so long. So there are marks of Ottoman use here too, quite apart from the flags of the modern Turkish state that now remind us whose museum this is.

Ottoman sultans' signature devices hanging in the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

Sultans’ tughras hanging in the nave


Iznik tiles depicting the Qa'ba in the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

A sixteenth- or seventeenth-century depiction of the Qa’ba, done in Iznik tiles, inset into a pillar near the mihrab


The Sultan's enclosure in the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

The building was used as a mosque right up until 1931, and up until 1922 therefore it retained space for the Sultan to make his prayers in security and (limited) privacy, behind this rather fancy screen in the south aisle

And now, and for some time, the necessary work of conservation complicates the story still further, by exposing old bits anew!

The women's gallery in the Ayasofya Musezi, under restoration in 2016

The women’s gallery, under restoration


Mosaics of saints on the south wall of the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

A bad photo, because of distance from the subject and wobble, of two of the now-restored mosaics of Saints John Chrysostom and Ignatius the Younger; you have to imagine these right around the nave, now

Sometimes, of course, it just piles them up outside. It’s not completely clear how much of the kind of sculpture park in the gardens of the museum belonged to any version of the building itself, or even its predecessors, but they’re hard to ignore anyway.

Large fragment of Roman stonework in the gardens of the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

A large fragment of Roman stonework, now more properly in use as shade by a cat

Remnant of a Roman entrance pediment in the garden of the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

Remnant of a Roman entranceway which must have been pretty splendid whatever it was part of

Sections of Roman ornamental roofing in the garden of the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

Probably parts of a roof? They’re really quite large. These may have come from a previous church on or near the site, demolished after the fire of 532; or they may just have been dumped here to look at, I’m not sure…

None of these various adaptations and programs of improvement are uniform or visible everywhere, however, so one is perpetually being shouted at visually from a different century wherever one is in the building. After a while, you have to cease to try to understand it, at least for a while, and just soak it up by sections and fragments.

The entrance to the nave of the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

Entrance to the nave, with Leo’s apology mosaic above and marble all around

North end of the western aisle of the Ayssofya Musezi, Istanbul

More marble and lots of ornamentation, in the north end of the western aisle

Marble walls in the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

More marble; it’s quite plentiful here…

Ornament and detailing around the base of the dome of the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

Ornament and detailing around the base of the dome, which you then see imitated in a lot of nearby early modern mosques

A monogrammed carved capital in the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

Many of the finely-carved capitals atop such columns have monograms at the centre of their decoration, which are (presumably?) the sculptors’

Marble gateway to the imperial gallery of the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

Marble gateway to the imperial gallery

Decoration in the arcade of the imperial gallery in the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

Decoration in the arcade of the imperial gallery

I took more photos, but that already seems like quite a lot. I may not have managed to explain it or give an adequate impression of Hagia Sophia then (when?) or now. But if I’ve convinced you you need to see it yourself, this post has done some kind of work anyway…


1. Wikipedia’s bibliography is currently fairly substantial here, and will do better than anything I could put together, but if you want quick reference, for the Byzantine period at least a start is Cyril Mango, “Hagia Sophia in Constantinople” in Alexander Kazhdan (ed.), Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (Oxford 1991), 3 vols, II pp. 892-895; for the more recent struggles over the building’s use, still very much ongoing, see Sigrid Rettenbacher, “Hagia Sophia and the Third Space: An Enquiry into the Discursive Construction of Religious Sites” in Ulrich Winkler, Lidia Rodríguez Fernández and Oddbjørn Leirvik (edd.), Contested Spaces, Common Ground: Space and Power Structures in Contemporary Multireligious Societies, Currents of Encounter 50 (Leiden 2017), pp. 95–112, DOI: 10.1163/9789004325807_017.

2. This legend and more are recounted and even maybe sourced in Henry Matthews, “From the Fifteenth Century to the Present Day” in W. Eugene Kleinbauer, Antony White and Matthews, Hagia Sophia (London 2004), pp. 81-122, but I confess I know that from this news story rather than the actual work.

3. For Crusader interventions, see David Jacoby, “The Urban Evolution of Latin Constantinople (1204–1261)” in Nevra Necipoğlu (ed.), Byzantine Constantinople: monuments, topography, and everyday life, The Medieval Mediterranean 33 (Leiden 2001), pp. 277–297; for the anonymous (and also ugly) coinage, see Michael F. Hendy, Coinage and Money in the Byzantine Empire 1081–1261, Dumbarton Oaks Studies 12 (Washington DC 1969), pp. 191-217.

3 responses to “Istanbul III: finding words about Hagia Sophia

  1. Pingback: Istanbul IV: still waters run deep | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  2. Pingback: Istanbul VII: a mosque with a longer history | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  3. Pingback: Seminar CCXLIV: an East vs. West clerical normality contest | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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