Who owns Hagia Sophia in Istanbul?
The church of Hagia Sophia is one of the most incredible buildings of all time, of any civilisation. Sophia means wisdom in Greek, so its dedication is to God as Holy Wisdom. In Byzantine times Hagia Sophia was the Cathedral of Constantinople. With the Turkish occupation in 1453 it was converted into a mosque and in 1935, under the guidance of the ‘father of modern Turkey’, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, it was turned into a secular museum and became the chief tourist attraction in Istanbul. A few weeks ago, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is losing his grip on power, converted it into a mosque with the first Muslim ceremonies held there this week.
To the Middle Ages, both in the East and the West, Hagia Sophia was the greatest building ever made. The French cleric, Abbot Suger of the Royal Abbey of St Denis in Paris wrote in his little book on his administration De Administratione in 1144 – “from very many truthful men, we had heard wonderful and almost incredible reports about the superiority of Hagia Sophia over any other building”. Abbot Suger in his own lifetime set out to match the beauty of Hagia Sophia in the rebuilding of his own church, that of St Denis in Paris, and in the process created a new style of architecture which we now call Gothic.
The legend of the Great Church was certainly not restricted to Suger and if we glance at the popular Old French Crusading literature, such as the amazing Pilgrimage of Charlemagne (Le Pelerinage de Charlemagne) of the mid-12th century – the great church appears as made of pure gold, studded with jewels, while its pulpit is a circular disk radiating with light.
For the medieval west Hagia Sophia was an object of envy – the greatest monument of the true and legitimate empire which they sought to emulate. For the medieval East, for the pagan Slavs it was the principle reason for their conversion to Christianity according to their earliest surviving literary source, the Primary Chronicle. Here it is narrated how the envoys of Prince Vladimir visited Constantinople and in 987 reported to their prince: “We did not know whether we were on earth or in heaven. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty and we are at a loss of how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there amongst men and that their ceremonies are fairer than those of other nations.” Legend has it that the Slavs on hearing this report on the beauty of Hagia Sophia decided that this indeed was the true faith and accepted Orthodox Christianity from Byzantium.
When the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, Hagia Sophia was the single most significant architectural monument on which they modelled most of their own subsequent domed mosque architecture. The great architect of Islam, Sinan, set himself the conscious goal to match in his mosques the splendour of the Great Church. In Canberra, the Australian War Memorial was conceived as a scaled model of Hagia Sophia.
This biggest, and according to many, the greatest church of Christendom, was built in a breathtakingly short period of five years, 532-37, by Emperor Justinian’s architects - Anthemios of Tralles and Isidoros of Miletus. Contemporaries speak of it as a gigantic fabric of vision with the dome appearing as if not supported from the ground, but as if suspended by a golden chain from heaven.
With an overall width of some 70 metres it is a breathtakingly bold building. To put it very simply, the architects took the basic basilica for the plan and placed on top of it a huge dome. But rather than trying to support the dome on pillars or columns, which would be close to impossible on such a scale, at the east and west ends they built two half domes as if falling into the centre, but prevented from doing so by supporting the huge weight of the central dome itself. Built in earthquake prone Constantinople, there was a partial collapse of the dome and repairs in 558, but for the next one and a half thousand years it has remained intact - over 55 metres above the floor with diameter of the dome some 33m.
If we still find the interior of Hagia Sophia overwhelming today even after the experience of skyscrapers and the megalomania of postmodern architecture, it is difficult to imagine its impact in 537 when it was first unveiled. Procopius, Emperor Justinian’s chronicler, noted "It seems not to be founded on solid masonry, but to be suspended by that golden chain and so cover the space. All of these elements, marvellously fitted together in mid-air, suspended from one another and reposing only on the parts adjacent to them, produce a unified and most remarkable harmony in the work, and yet do not allow the spectators to rest their gaze upon any one of them for a length of time, but each detail readily draws and attracts the eye to itself. Thus the vision constantly shifts around."
Hagia Sophia was envisaged as a building with the most impressive stage of all of Christendom, to celebrate the theatrical liturgy to God. A huge five-metre high mosaic image of the Virgin and Child appeared in the apse by 867 accompanied by archangels. Other figurative mosaics are found throughout the great church. This includes a huge Deesis mosaic image made in about 1261 – an abbreviated image of the Last Judgement where the Virgin and John the Baptist come to intercede before Christ for humankind.
The Erdoğan regime is clinging on to power with its actions becoming increasingly desperate and dictatorial. Converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque and covering up the mosaics during Muslim prayers is an attempt to appease the Islamic fundamentalists. This move will fail and while the governments of Greece, Russia and the United States have condemned the move, as has Pope Francis and the United Nations, it will be up to the people of Turkey to overturn this government. For the rest of us, we will need to boycott all travel to Turkey, which has become a dangerous country to visit, even for Anzac commemorations.
GRISHIN'S ART BLOG
Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA is the author of more than 25 books on art, including Australian Art: A History, and has served as the art critic for The Canberra Times for forty years. He is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Canberra; Guest Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and Honorary Principal Fellow, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Melbourne.
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