Mediterranean as “Our Sea” (Mare Nostrum)
To further our understanding of Hagia Sophia, we first need to consider the historical and cultural context that led to the building of this magnificent landmark. We are looking at the Mediterranean basin, a vast region spanning the three continents of Europe, North Africa and Asia. For many centuries it was a place of interaction – either through conquest or trade – between different cultures. But it was not until the establishment of the Roman Empire that the Mediterranean became politically and culturally unified.
Going back in time some two thousand years, we see the entire region unified under the single authority of Rome. Never before in history did such a vast region live in relative peace and prosperity. During the so-called ‘Roman Peace’, trade and commerce flourished and the population thrived. The Mediterranean Sea was called by the Romans Mare Nostrum (meaning ‘Our Sea’). This was indeed the very focus of the empire around which a network of roads and maritime trade routes were established. These routes connected distant peoples of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds; people who, over time, developed common cultural traits.
The Roman Empire was eventually divided. Its western part was soon overrun by Germanic tribes and by the year AD 476 and it ceased to exist. The eastern part of the empire lived on for another thousand years. This Eastern Roman Empire, now more commonly referred to as Byzantium, initially retained most features of Roman culture. However, these features diminished over the centuries, as the empire gradually turned into a Christian medieval state, and its borders and military power dwindled. Nevertheless, the Byzantines continued to refer to themselves as Romans.
Istanbul (Rome Secunda) with unrivalled beauty
The capital of the Byzantine Empire was Constantinople. It was named after Emperor Constantine, who founded the city in the year 330 on the site of an ancient Greek colony known as Byzantion. Constantine chose this location for its extraordinary strategic position at the entrance into the Bosphorus strait, and at the very point where Europe meets Asia. This was to be the new capital of the empire, built to rival the ancient city of Rome itself. It was even dubbed Roma secunda or ‘Second Rome’. As the old city of Rome declined, Constantinople surpassed it and came to be celebrated for its size and unrivalled beauty.
In our journey to discover Hagia Sophia, our quest will take us to the sixth century. At this time, the Eastern Empire was not only experiencing its greatest moment as a military superpower, but it was also respected for its wealth and cultural achievement. This was the high point of the First Golden Age of Byzantium, which largely coincides with the long reign of Emperor Justinian from 527 to 565. This portrait from Ravenna in Italy is the only surviving likeness of the great emperor, under whose patronage the Byzantine capital was embellished with some of its most notable monuments.
The main attractions of Byzantine Constantinople were located around today’s Sultan Ahmed Square. This is the elongated space running parallel to and alongside the Blue Mosque and an area at the very center of the city’s life during the sixth century. It was here that one of the largest buildings of antiquity – the Hippodrome – once stood. It could accommodate as many as 100,000 fans who came to watch chariot racing, the most popular sport of the time.
Niko riots and construction of Hagia Sophia
Procopius, the leading historian of the 6th century, is our main source for information about the construction of Hagia Sophia. He describes how during the games in the nearby hippodrome in the year 532, the two main rival fan groups joined forces against the emperor in a protest. With the support of some senators, the protest turned into a violent insurrection during which much of the city center was destroyed and many thousands were left for dead. This was the ‘Nika revolt’, named after the rioters’ victory cry (the word Nika is, in fact, Greek for ‘Victory’).
After the riot, Justinian was eager to restore his authority. Standing at the ruins of the cathedral that had burned to the ground in the riot, he vowed before his people to build a church that would far surpass anything seen before.
Five years later, the church was finished and it was consecrated on December 27th 537. Legend has it that upon seeing his new church, Justinian exclaimed: ‘Solomon I have outdone you!’ The emperor was referring to the temple built by the legendary King Solomon in Jerusalem, as described in the Bible. Emperor Justinian had fulfilled his promise. The new cathedral was not only of unparalleled scale and beauty, but it was also a bold exploration of the very limits of what can be conceived. It was an engineering masterpiece that finds few parallels in the history of architecture.
It was also an unprecedented departure from tradition. This was a time when most churches were simple longitudinal structures (known as basilicas) covered by a wooden roof. The builders of Hagia Sophia introduced a system of domes and semidomes of such a vast scale that most people were awe-struck when they saw it. Myths and legendary accounts soon started to surround the building. One such account, by an anonymous author, claims that an ‘angel of the Lord’ had appeared to the emperor and revealed him the shape of the future church.
Such a departure from contemporary building conventions was indeed an extraordinary feat that could only have been accomplished by extraordinary individuals. Indeed, Hagia Sophia was built by two scholars, Anthemius of Tralles (present-day Aydin in Turkey) and Isidorus of Miletus (present-day Milet in Turkey). Anthemius was an expert in projective geometry; he also wrote a dissertation on mathematics and mechanical devices. Isidorus was a professor of geometry and mechanics at the universities of Alexandria and Constantinople, and also an inventor.
This formidable building remained one of the largest churches throughout the next thousand years. In volume, it can be compared to the Cathedral of Amiens, the largest of all the classic Gothic cathedrals of France. But to understand the magnitude of the Byzantine achievement, it should be noted that Amiens was built in 1220, some seven centuries after Hagia Sophia, and that it took half a century to complete. Similarly, the Cathedral of Saint Paul in London, built more than 1,100 years later, took 31 years to build. Hagia Sophia, on the other hand, was built in five years.
This fact alone makes us wonder about what kind of organization, resources, and skills were needed to achieve such a feat. In addition to its structural innovation and aesthetic properties, Justinian’s church was an exploit in logistics. The workmen, ten thousand of them according to a later source, were organized into two groups working independently on opposite sides until they met at the dome level. This was the Roman technique used in the construction of bridges.
Little remains of the Hippodrome and even less of the nearby Great Palace, but right next to their remains stands the grandest of all monuments of the Byzantine Empire: Justinian’s imperial cathedral dedicated to Divine Wisdom (known as Hagia Sophia in Greek and Ayasofya in Turkish). When it was built, Hagia Sophia was one of the largest buildings in the world. Its unparalleled scale and magnificent dome, which captivated the imagination of contemporary authors, haven’t ceased to inspire wonder and admiration ever since. Even today, Hagia Sophia is the single most distinctive landmark associated with the city of Istanbul.
[Based on Cultrex Hagia Sophia mobile app]
Text: Dr. Bratislav Pantelic
Cultrex photography: Alex Wong