You might have thought that a church dedicated to wisdom would, by the very nature of things, have a long and peaceful existence – after all, both its builders and its worshippers should value wisdom above all else. Unfortunately the history of the most famous church with this dedication shows that the one thing we humans do not prize is wisdom.
In Constantinople the first church of Haghia Sophia (the original Greek name) or Santa Sophia as the Latins called it, was planned by Constantine when he built the city, but with so much else to do (and distracted by the endless controversy betwee Arius and Athanasius) he does not appear to have actually built the church. It was finished around 360 AD during the reign of his son, Constantius.
It was promptly deserted by the imperial court, for Constantius died the following year and the throne passed to his cousin Julian, better known to history as Julian the Apostate. However Julian only lasted for two years and his attacks on the Christian church were entirely unsuccessful. It was left to the Christians themselves to destroy the church of Haghia Sophia.
At the start of the fifth century AD the bishop of Constantinople was a man by the name of John, whose eloquence had earned him the nickname of Chrysostem – Golden Tongue. Saintly and austere himself, he was horrified by the licentious behaviour of Eudoxia, the empress, who was so bold and open in her immorality that she wore her hair in a low fringe, the recognised sign of a prostitute. John Chrysostem preached a vigorous sermon against the vanities of the court and Eudoxia promptly exiled him.
The ordinary man in the street, who admired John’s piety and thoroughly detested the luxury and corruption of the court, rioted in protest and when, that night, the wrath of heaven was signalled by an earthquake, the empress was forced to bring John back.
She had not forgiven him, however, and refused to allow her husband any contact with the man who was, after all, the leader of the Christian church. Six months later John, getting wind of another royal plot against him, mounted the pulpit in Haghia Sophia and preached his most famous – or infamous – sermon, based on the story of John the Baptist, which began, “Again Herodias rages . . . again she demands the head of John on a platter.”
The furious Eudoxia again exiled John – this time permanently – and again disaster struck the city. Fire broke out in the church of Haghia Sophia (though whether it was set alight by John’s supporters in protest or by the empress’ men for revenge is not known) and both it and the senate house next door were burned to the ground.
Work immediately began on rebuilding the capital’s most important church and eleven years later, in 415 AD, the church was rededicated to Haghia Sophia by the emperor Theodosius II. It lasted for just over a century, until there were some race riots.
Just as today we have a mania for kicking bags of air around and attaching great importance to contests between rival teams of kickers, so the Roman empire was caught up in a wave of emotion over chariot racing. Just as people today identify themselves with one football team or another, so the Romans identified themselves with one chariot racing team or another. And just as some football clubs – such as Arsenal and Manchester United – appear to grip the popular imagination more than others, so two racing teams – the Blues and the Greens – were more popular in the Roman world than their white or red contemporaries.
Politicians eager to curry favour with the electorate delight to appear at football matches and profess great fervour towards the popular or the winning team. Roman politicians favoured the Blues or the Greens for similar motives and gradually these teams came to wield a degree of political and social power.
The emperor Justinian, sick and tired of race riots between the supporters of the Blues and the Greens, cracked down on them and not only removed many of their privileges, but after one such riot condemned the seven ringleaders he had managed to arrest to be hung. When, however, the bodies were cut down, it was discovered that two of them were still alive and although the magistrates were all for hanging them again, a party of monks surrounded them and carried them off to sanctuary in a nearby church.
It is not clear whether the monks were acting from partisan motives as supporters of the Blues (or the Greens) or were simply from that section of the church which persists in doing good, no matter how much harm ensues. The police promptly surrounded the building and demanded the surrender of the two, whereupon the mob rioted, chased Justinian from the hippodrome (where he had gone to open the next series of races) and attacked and burned the palaces of the government officials they most disliked. In the resulting fires Haghia Sophia burned down again.
After four days of rioting Justinian, encouraged by his formidable wife Theodora, regained control by the simple expedient of massacring 30,000 of the rioters – a tactic we heartily recommend to the police next time the great unwashed decide that smashing windows in the city centre is the ideal way to protest against big business.
Once more Haghia Sophia had to be rebuilt, but instead of simply restoring the old building – a typical basilica with a large central nave flanked by one or more aisles – Justinian and his architects decided on an entirely new plan.
Anthemius was a native of Tralles (now Aydin), a city some 27 miles east of Ephesus, who trained in mathematics and engineering in Alexandria. After finishing his education he moved to Constantinople, where his abilities brought him to the notice of the emperor. He worked on the churches of St Sergius and St Bacchus and so impressed Justinian that he was put in charge of all building work in the capital.
Isidore, who also came from near Ephesus, is less well known. He may have studied at Alexandria, but the only thing we know for sure is that he achieved fame by writing a commentary on the work by Heron of Alexandria, a first century mathematician, on the subject of vaulting. Without steel beams to support roofs, the arch was the only practical way to cover a large open space and although, as Ctesiphon shows, wonderful things could be accomplished with bricks and stone, the fact was that the size of a building was always limited by the size of the vault that could be used to cover it.
The two men came up with the idea of a square building that would be roofed, not with a vault but with a dome. This involved solving several problems, the first of which is that a dome is round, so how do you put a round dome on a square building? The second problem is that a full dome, as a half sphere, is half as high as the width that it covers. Not only does this require a lot of materials, but it may not fit in well with the overall look of the building. Anthemius and Isidore wanted a fairly flat roof.
A dome, like an arch, works by squeezing together the blocks of which it is made up. That is fine for the ones in the middle, which are squeezed by the blocks on either side, but what about the ones at the edge? They are squeezed on one side by the blocks of the dome, but on the other side the pressure has to come from the wall on which the dome rests – and a thin high wall doesn’t really have much sideways strength! Even building the dome out of pumice stone in an attempt to lighten it was not sufficient.
The solution adopted by the two architects was to support the walls by additional half-domes, a feature that gives Haghia Sophia its characteristic silhouette and had the additional benefit of increasing the useable floor space of the building.
Although Justinian more or less gave his architects a blank cheque, he was noted for being careful and even parsimonious with his money. The builders therefore sought to minimise costs by using recycled materials and letters went out to every provincial governor demanding that ruined or deserted buildings be examined and an inventory of suitable elements drawn up. As a result eight porphyry pillars, once belonging to the Temple of the Sun in Rome, were sent to Constantinople and even Ephesus contributed eight green marble ones.
According to Procopius the building work was divided between two teams of 5,000 men, one working on the south and the other on the north, the idea being that competition between them would ensure that the work was done in the fastest possible time. Despite the emphasis on speed, however, the entire interior of the building was covered in plain gold mosaic – some four acres of mosaic made up of tiny cubes of glass onto which a fragment of gold leaf was placed and then fixed in place with a thin square of clear glass fused onto the cube!
The interior of the church was full of light and glittering splendour. The dome, 107′ across, had forty windows around its edge so that it appeared to rest on a delicate fretwork. Beneath it was an area 245′ x 230′, one of the largest roofed areas free of pillars in the world. The iconostasis or screen that separated the altar from the rest of the church, was fifty feet high and made of solid silver. There were innumerable golden lamps hanging on golden chains from the ceiling.
To the believer, however, the real glory of the church was its incomparable collection of relics: the whole True Cross (together with the hammer and nails used at the crucifixion), Christ’s swaddling clothes, the table used at the Last Supper, and a variety of bits and pieces of countless saints.
On December 27, 537 AD, five years, ten months and four days after work started on the Great Church, Justinian entered the completed building for its consecration. According to witnesses, he stopped just inside the great door and gazed about him, then raised his hands in wonder and exclaimed, “Glory to God! Solomon, I have surpassed thee!”
Regrettably, the wonderful building did not survive unscathed the various disasters that befell Constantinople. Right from the start there was evidence that the architects had miscalculated the forces involved in the building, for Procopius, a contemporary historian, records that some of the pillars in the upper levels were so overloaded that flakes of stone began to split away from their surface.
Earthquakes in 553 and 557 seriously weakened the dome, which collapsed on May 7, 558 when the eastern arch and its half-dome fell. Isidore, the architect who rebuilt it, was the nephew of the original architect, but he either could not afford the luxury of building in pumice or felt that it was an experiment that had failed. He built a rounder dome that was 20′ higher than its predecessor.
Unfortunately this did little for the pressure on the walls and in 989 the western arch and half-dome collapsed under the strain and took one third of the dome with it. The wall and dome were rebuilt, but in 1346 the eastern arch gave way once more and the dome again crumpled in ruin. The fourth dome has only survived because in the 1860s the Swiss-Italian architects Giuseppe and Gaspare Fossati were called in to undertake rennovations and Gaspare inserted huge iron chains around the base of the dome so that the outwards pressure is now contained by the chains rather than by the walls.
When Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror captured Constantinople in May 1453 his first act was to enter the Great Church and order his personal muezzin to climb up into the pulpit and give the Muslim call to prayer. Since then the church has been a mosque, though it throws an interesting light on Islam to note that the fabulous mosaics were not at first covered up and for fifty years the True Believers and the Caliph himself prostrated themselves under the beneficient eyes of the Pantrocrator and the Theotokos without feeling in any way threatened or desecrated.
Some mosaics were covered over by Sultan Ahmet III (1603) and the rest by Mahmud I (1730-1754). Uncovered by the Fossati brothers, they were inspected by Sultan Abdulmejid, who is supposed to have commented, “They are all very beautiful but for the time it is not appropriate to leave them visible. Clean them and cover them over again carefully so that they may survive until they are revealed to view in the future.” (It is salutory to remember that Byzantium itself went through the century-long Iconoclastic Controversy which resulted in the loss of untold treasures of art and beauty.)
After the peaceful revolution following the First World War the Young Turks rejected the caliphate and as a symbol of the secular state they wished to establish, in 1934 the mosque was deconsecrated and turned into a museum, which it is today.
Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey and the man who signed the decree, appointed Thomas Whittemore and his Byzantine Institute of America to uncover the legendary mosaics of Haghia Sophia. Although much was done, the work of stabilising the mosaics is still going on and for a number of years visitors to the church have had their view of the famous dome obscured by a huge tower of scaffolding which has begun to seem like a permanent fixture. Saracettin Sahin, director of the Haghia Sophia Museum, claims that the scaffolding will be moved to the south-east quarter of the dome next year and the work of restoration will be complete by the end of 2004. We do not intend to risk money on the fulfilment of this claim.
In 1993 historian Rowland Mainstone reported to UNESCO that the plaster covering the mosaics, put there by the Fossati brothers, was crumbling away and taking the mosaic with it. The chief cause of the trouble was damp – water leaking in through the lead roof was one culprit, but another was condensation on the cool walls and dome in early summer.
Mainstone commented, “The loss of so much of the figural mosaic cannot be blamed on Muslim religious zeal but must be attributed chiefly to loosening of the plaster setting beds as a result of water seepage, earthquakes and long-term structural movements.” Mosaic depictions of Jesus’ baptism and of the Day of Pentecost that once stood in the side galleries have completely disappeared and other mosaics are badly damaged.
Revza Ozil, of the Turkish Central Laboratory for Restoration and Conservation, estimates that only about 53% of the original mosaics are still intact. Unfortunately 15% is covered by the Fossati work and 29% by Muslim plaster, leaving only 9% of the original still visible today.
Since 1992 work on conserving the remaining mosaics has been going on – replacing the clear glass over the gold leaf where it has fallen away, injecting glue behind the cubes or their plaster base where either is loose, flaking paint reattached or replaced. On the exterior the walls are being repointed, a tedious and boring task that will probably take four years to complete.
According to legend, as the Muslims entered the Great Church in 1453 the two priests who were celebrating the mysteries at the high altar gathered up the sacred elements and walked towards the back of the church. As they reached the wall it opened up to receive them and then closed on them, hiding them from Muslim eyes. On the day when Constantinople is reclaimed by the Christians and becomes Byzantium again, the wall will open and the monks will re-emerge to take up the service where they left off.
Personally I am sorry that the building is a museum. There are, in the Middle East, several buildings that are used by both Christians and Muslims for worship. The Dome of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives is one such: used as a mosque for most of the year, at the time of the Feast of the Ascension the building is taken over by Christian worshippers for three whole days. I wish that both sides could agree to allow the other to use the building for its original purpose – the worship of God.
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