The previous two Hagia Sophia’s had been destroyed by an earthquake and a fire. The largest domed church in the world at the time it was built, the Hagia Sophia took only five years to be completed. I think I can speak for my classmates when I say that this was one of the most impressive things we learned today about the Hagia Sophia, because it is so big and beautiful that it is amazing that it was completed in such a short time.
The Hagia Sophia had once been covered in mosaics, but due to a period of Iconoclasm (destruction of icons) in the 8th century, the mosaics that included icons were destroyed, and instead empty frames cover the walls. This period ended in the 9th century and few icon mosaics were added. However, when the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453, the church was converted into a mosque. Because the Islamic religion also forbids the use of icons, the icons in the Hagia Sophia were boarded up and hidden from the world until the mosque was converted into a museum in the mid 1900s. During this time of Ottoman rule, the four minarets were also added to the Hagia Sophia, as well as Islamic calligraphy and a mihrab that pointed southeast towards Mecca. However, it was kind of sad to see how bad the condition of the Hagia Sophia is, and to learn that the dome will probably collapse in about 200 years from now.
We then visited the little Hagia Sophia, a smaller church-turned-mosque that is still a mosque to this day. I really liked this mosque because it gave us a new appreciation for the Islamic religion, and it was also beautiful and calming. We had to take our shoes off to enter and all the girls covered our hair with headscarves, and it was just a completely different experience than anything we have had in Turkey so far. Just like the Hagia Sophia, minarets, Islamic Calligraphy, and a mihrab had been added to the church to make it a mosque. These additions were really cool to see in both places, because they were placed in a way that threw off the symmetry of the churches. It was easy to see that they were added later and not originally placed there.
After this we went to the Mosaic Museum, where we saw many old mosaics that had once covered the floor of The Great Palace of the Byzantine Empire. Although there are many mosaics we could not see because they were built over by the Ottoman Empire by structures such as the Blue Mosque, which is still standing today, the mosaics we did see were fascinating. There are over 150 different characters of people, animals, and plants in all the mosaics, including those we couldn’t see. The ones we saw were extremely detailed, with shading and colorations that made them look like paintings not tiny pieces of tile put together.
We then took a break for lunch, and then continued with the St. Savior Church in Chora. Chora means “outside”, named this because it had once stood outside the original city walls of Constantinople, but when the Theodosian walls were built it was within the walls, but kept its name. This church was magnificent, because it was covered in mosaics that depicted many stories from the Christian New Testament, including those of the Virgin Mary growing up and the miracles Jesus performed.
Overall the day was very informative and impressive, and it feels like we’ve learned a lot in a very short time. It’s hard to believe our first week is almost over, but it has been amazing!