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Hagia Sophia in Turkey

Emperor Justinian commissioned Hagia Sophia Church. The construction was begun in 532 and its opening ceremony took place in 537. It was dedicated to Christ as Holy Wisdom. The architects of the building are Anthemios of Tralles and Isidoros of Miletos. With its huge dome and immense dimensions, Hagia Sophia was a real challenge for the Ottoman architects. It was an inspiration source and also a representative of a conquered culture, which was to be surpassed. Sinan accomplished this difficult task. He reached to an excellence far-surpassed Hagia Sophia's heavy monumentality (Suleymaniye and Selimiye Mosques)

Hagia Sophia or Holy Wisdom is the mother church of all Eastern Christians of the Byzantine liturgical tradition both Orthodox and Greek Catholic. Early accounts suggest that the site of this, the grandest church in Christendom, in the first millennium had been the site of a pagan temple appropriated for the service of the new religion. The first church on the site was built by the Eastern Roman Emperor Constantius, son of Emperor Constantine, who had liberated the Christian faith from centuries of persecution. Constantius' church was consecrated in 360 AD. At first it was known as the Great Church because it was the largest at the time. Later it became known as Holy Wisdom, a name attributed to Christ by theologians of the 4th century.
In 404 AD the church was destroyed by mobs set into action when Emperor Arcadius sent Archbishop John Chrysostom into exile for his criticism of the Empress. In 415 AD Emperor Theodosius II rebuilt the church. It too fell victim to a rampaging mob at the time of Monophysite heretics in 532 AD. The new Emperor Justinian, firm defender of orthodoxy, made short work of the howling heretics and ordered that construction begin on a new basilica such as had never been seen before. The construction work lasted from 532 to 537; the new church was consecrated by Patriarch Menas on December 27, 537.

Architecturally the grand basilica represented a major revolution in church construction in that it featured a huge dome which necessitated the implementation of new ideas in order to support the weight of this dome, a feat which had not been attempted before. The dome which became universal in Byzantine church construction represented the vault of heaven thus constituting a feature quasi-liturgical in function. In the days when there was no steel used in construction, large roofs and domes had to be supported by massive pillars and walls. The dome of Hagia Sophia was supported by four piers (the solid supports from which the arches spring), each measuring about 118 square yards at the base. Four arches swing across linked by four pendentives (the parts of a groined ceiling springing from the pillars). The apices of the arches and the pendentives support the circular base from which rises the dome which is pierced by forty single-arched windows which admit light to the interior.

The church itself measures 260 x 270 feet; the dome rises 210 feet above the floor and has a diameter of 110 feet. The nave is 135 feet wide, more than twice the width of the aisles which measure 62 feet. Because Constantinople lies in an earthquake-prone region, the massive structure of the Great Church was deemed sufficient to meet the threat. That expectation however was disappointed when in later years earthquakes destroyed parts of the church and dome, requiring massive repairs including the construction of large buttresses to support the walls which in turn held up the dome. (1)

In 1204 AD, Roman Catholic crusaders of the Fourth Crusade attacked and sacked Constantinople (2) and the Great Church, leaving behind a legacy of bitterness among Eastern Christians which continues to this day. For more that 1000 years Holy Wisdom served as the cathedral church of the Patriarch of Constantinople as well as the church of the Byzantine court but that function came to an end on May 29, 1453, when the Ottoman Turkish Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror seized the Imperial City and converted the Great Church into his mosque. It remained a mosque until 1935 when Turkish head-of-state Mustafa Kemal converted it into a museum. Years later the plaster which had been applied by the Muslims to cover the icons was removed revealing for the first time to modern eyes the extent of the desecration perpetrated by the Muslims in their effort to render the structure appropriate for their own purposes.

In its heyday as the Imperial church, Hagia Sophia was served by 80 priests, 150 deacons, 60 subdeacons, 160 readers, 25 cantors and 75 doorkeepers. It was the model for other Byzantine churches throughout Eastern Christendom as seen for example in the Church of Holy Wisdom in Kyiv. In the Slavic East the style was modified to suit the Slavic esthetic sensibilities, most notable in Russia where the soaring but narrower domes top the many beautiful churches.

In the 1000 years that Hagia Sophia was the see of the Patriarch it was also seen as the mother church of the Christian East. The liturgies which evolved there in the full panoply of the splendor of the Imperial court gave them the dignity and stunning beauty which they possess today, in contrast to the more restrained liturgies of other traditions. Thus Eastern Christians of the Byzantine liturgical tradition are the inheritors and descendants of Byzantium, recalling whenever the Divine Liturgy is celebrated the glory of the Great Church in its ancient days.

Where once potentates and patriarchs, prelates and priests, saints and sinners moved in solemn procession, tourists now loiter and stare. The images looking down from the walls are no longer the windows to heaven but silent witnesses to the profanities of the Muslims and the vulgarities of the tourist trade. Gone are the chanting priests; gone too are the smells and bells of the East. No longer do the cherubim descend to accompany and to praise the Holy Mysteries. The Great Church is little more than a mound of architecturally ordered stones devoid of the life of liturgy. Away from the rule of the heathen Turk, in other places where orthodox Christians may gather one can still perceive imperfectly that vision of the splendor of heaven unfolded in the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, for ours is truly a royal worship, the prayer of kings.



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