Putting the ‘B’ into Byzantium

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On a recent visit to Istanbul, the first historical stop for The Scribblaire was Aghia Sofia (most commonly known as Hagia Sophia).  The Church of Holy Wisdom stands as a spectacular monument to the Byzantine Empire.  Built over earlier churches, the main church is over 1400 years old.  It was used as a church until the Ottomons converted it into a mosque in the 15th century and added minarets, mausoleums and other buildings to the site.  They also added a number of heavy buttresses at various points around the outside of the church.  Although these are not particularly attractive and obscure the original building, their existence probably saved the substantial structure and massive 184 ft dome from collapse.

Inside the vast building are a number of Byzantine mosaics which have survived the changing purpose of the building.  In the apse, a 9th century mosaic of the Virgin with the Infant Jesus on her lap looks over the basilica.  In the south gallery, another shows Christ with the Emperor Constantine IX on his right and the Empress Zoe on his left.  Upstairs is the Deesis mosaic which depicts the Virgin, Christ Pantocrator and St John the Baptist.   There is also some fabulous tilework from the Ottomon period onwards, including the mihrab, indicating the direction of Mecca.  The dome of the church is beautifully decorated with inscriptions from the Koran.

What the Scribblaire loved about this building was how each phase of its life was on show and that each sat alongside the other without destroying the previous one.  Aghia Sofia is still a Byzantine church, but it’s also a mosque, a museum and a stunning building.  I’m a great believer in historical evolution and this church is a perfect example of how something can adapt to the circumstances of the time, but not lose touch with its original purpose.

A few of the many photographs we took are included.

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The Scribblaire

February 2014

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