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7.2: Byzantine Hagia Sophia (537 CE)

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  • One of the architectural wonders of the world is Hagia Sophia (7.1), with its magnificence, functionality, and sheer size dominating the horizon. Hagia Sophia is located in Istanbul, Turkey, and has served as a Greek Orthodox church, a mosque, a basilica, and now a museum. The first church erected on the site in 360 CE had a wooden roof, burning down in 404 CE. The second structure, built-in 415 CE, again with a wooden roof, also suffered destruction from a fire in 532 CE. Construction of the current structure started in 532 CE, opened in 537 CE, and became a majestic example of byzantine architecture, the largest cathedral in the world for one thousand years.

    Hagia Sophia
    7.1 Hagia Sophia

    Hagia Sophia is Greek for “Holy Wisdom”

    The cathedral follows the traditional basilica style layout, a rectangular building with a door at one end leading down an aisle to the apse. Hagia Sophia was a commanding 100 meters long and 69 meters wide, the central dome as the principal emphasis. Emperor Justinian wanted the church to be the biggest and grandest, so the builder appropriated marble and columns from other structures in the ancient cities, including the Hellenistic columns from the Temple of Artemis. They brought in white marble and green porphyry from Egypt, yellow stone from Syria, black stone from the Bosporus. The marble was divided in half to make mirror images and used to line the interior walls (7.2). A total of 104 columns, 64 columns in the upper gallery and 40 columns in the lower gallery, were embellished with abstract designs (7.3).

    Interior columns
    7.2 Interior columns
    Hagia Sophia-107.3 Decorated column

    The original dome was constructed with a flatter roof and destroyed in the 558 CE earthquake when the extraordinary stress forces on the load-bearing sections of the dome caused the walls to push outward, collapsing the dome and crushing some of the walls. The architect redesigned and elevated the dome (7.4) about six meters higher, eliminating the lateral pressure on the walls and adding pendentives and ribs similar to the inside of an umbrella (7.5), the weight distributed along 40 windows to lower the overall weight of the dome. The newly completed dome (7.6) stood 55.6 meters high, the weight of the dome correctly distributed on the walls, still existing today.

    7.4 Interior of dome
    7.4 Interior of dome

    The walls were covered with marble and additionally decorated with mosaics, which are small pieces of cut glass, colored glass, colored stone or precious stone, and glazed tile. To create a mosaic, the artist drew a design on the wall or ceiling, then applied glue to the wall in small batches and pressed the pieces of mosaic into the glue. When the glue dried, sanded grout was mixed and spread into the cracks between the mosaics; a process similar to installing a tile shower today. Mosaics were generally vast, and the artist must regularly step away from the wall to ensure the colors and pieces get perfectly placed. In the Hagia Sophia, many mosaics (7.7) (7.8) are visible on the walls and domes, images of the artist’s representation of writings, geometrics, and figures. The decorative mosaics inside the cathedrals took over twenty years because mosaic work is challenging, requiring much patience.

    7.5 Architectural drawing of dome
    Interior of dome
    7.5 Interior of dome
    Comnenus mosaic
    7.7 Comnenus mosaic
    Empress Zoe mosaic
    7.8 Empress Zoe mosaic

    The church was considered the religious center for the Roman Empire, and the emperors were crowned in the church. During the crusades and subsequent wars, the church deteriorated until 1453 when the sultan conquered the area, repaired the damage to the structures, and converted the building into a mosque. The Sultan ordered all the Christian motifs to be removed or plastered over all the mosaics on the walls and ceilings, minarets, and other iconic structures. Islamic icons begin to cover the walls and ceilings, and the temple today is a museum displaying most of the different religious icons.

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