Hagia Sofia means ‘Holy Wisdom’ in English. Emperor Justianian dedicated it to Jesus Christ and said his famous claim ‘Solomon, I have surpassed you!’. Because King Solomon of Israel, son of King David, built a huge temple of God in Jerusalem (1 Kings chapter 8).
Hagia Sofia was built three times. The first one was a basilica with a wooden roof and was built in 390 AD. This original church Megale Ecclesia (Great Church) was burned down in a rumpus in 404. Theodosius replaced it with a massive basilica which was burned down in the Nika Revolt against Justinian in 532. Justinian began rebuilding the Hagia Sophia in the same year. The architects were two Anatolian geniuses, Anthemius of Tralles, an engineer and a mathematician and Isidorus of Miletus, an architect. They used materials from all over the empire. In the construction ten thousand workers worked under the supervision of one hundred master builders.
The Hagia Sophia has a classical basilica plan and the main ground plan of the building is a rectangle, 70 m / 230 ft in width and 75 m / 246 ft in length. The central space of the Hagia Sophia is divided on both sides from the side aisles by four big piers and 107 columns (40 downstairs, 67 upstairs) between them. The space is covered with a huge dome which is 55.60 m / 182 ft high. The dome, due to earthquakes and restorations, is slightly elliptical with a diameter of 31.20 m / 102 ft on one axis and 32.80 m / 107.60 ft on the other.
When Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmet immediately went to the Hagia Sophia and ordered that it be converted into a mosque. the Islamic elements were added such as minarets, the mihrab and the minber all of which were appropriately positioned to face toward Mecca, 10 degrees south of the main axis of the building. The architect Sinan made restorations and added Islamic elements to the building. Buttresses were added in the Ottoman period. Two huge marble jars were brought from Pergamum in the 16C and probably used to keep oil for candles. The eight round wooden plaques at gallery level are fine examples for Islamic calligraphy. The names painted on these plaques are Allah, Prophet Mohammed, the first four Caliphs Ebubekir, Omer, Osman and Ali, and the two grandsons of Mohammed, Hasan and Huseyin.
Ayasofya was used as a church for 916 years and as a mosque for 481 years. In 1934, by the order of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, it was made a museum and has since been open to visitors.
There are many mosaics on the walls of this church. Whitewash or plasters either of the iconoclastic or the Islamic period helped to protect the mosaics. Mosaics of major importance are as follows:
In the inner narthex above the main entrance, also called the Imperial Gate, there is a 10C mosaic depicting Jesus as pantocrator seated upon a jeweled throne, dressed like an empire, and making a gesture of blessing with his right hand. In his left hand he is holding a book with an inscription of these words: "Peace with you, I am the light of the world." On both sides of Jesus Christ are two medallions. The Virgin Mary on the left and an angel with a staff on the right. Emperor Leo VI is depicted kneeling in front of Jesus.
On the pendentives are depicted winged angels with covered faces. The ones in west pendentives are imitations in paint from Fossati's restoration.
Above the main apse is the mosaic depicting the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus. She is sitting on a bench with her feet resting on a stool. Her right hand is on her son's shoulder and her left upon his knee. Jesus is raising his right hand in blessing and holding a scroll in his left hand.
The galleries; first the most important scene is the 13C mosaic of the Deesis on which Jesus is standing between Mother Mary and John the Baptist and they require mercy for mankind from Jesus.
At the far end of the last section in the south gallery is a mosaic showing Jesus Christ on his throne with his right hand giving blessing to mankind and holding the Bible in his left hand. On the left, the 11C Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus offers a money bag and Empress Zoe holds a scroll on the right. The emperor's face in the mosaic was changed each time when Zoe changed her husband. Constantine IX was Zoe's third husband.
To the right of the mosaic of Zoe there is a 12C mosaic showing the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus flanked by Emperor John II Comnenus offering a bag of gold and red-haired Empress Eirene holding a scroll. At the extension of the mosaic on the side wall is the figure of Prince Alexius.
At the end of the inner narthex, before going out to the courtyard (today's exit) stands the 10C beautiful mosaic: The Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus in her lap, on one side Emperor Constantine offering a small model of the city as he is accepted as the founder, on the other side Emperor Justinian offering the model of the Hagia Sophia as the emperor who had it built.
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