One doesn’t need to ask directions to the Hagia Sophia while in Istanbul — as long as you’re on the correct side of the Bosporus, you’ll see it. It is a magnificent structure — formally a church and mosque, it is now a museum — that cannot be described with mere words.
My friend Düzgün, my ever-faithful Turkish pilgrimage companion, accompanied me to the great church. Düzgün was born into a Muslim family but converted to Christianity more than a decade ago. Yet, he had never considered going to these important Christian sites before we met.
We stepped into the Hagia Sophia, and a shiver immediately went down my spine. I looked over at Düzgün, and he smiled; he apparently had the same reaction.
Every Christian who steps into Hagia Sophia experiences the same feeling.
Hagia Sophia means “Holy Wisdom” in Greek. The cathedral’s original name is actually The Church of the Holy Wisdom of God, that is, Jesus as the Logos. This was the patriarchal basilica of the Archdiocese of Constantinople.
Despite its extravagance, both in decoration and dimension, anything that is seen by the modern pilgrim is merely a vestige of the Hagia Sophia’s former glory. This is an incredible space, and despite being decommissioned as a church for the previous five centuries, it overwhelms the senses.
Even in its present “dormant” state, neither church nor mosque, the light pouring into Hagia Sophia’s enormous space around us was vibrantly palatable. I felt transported — until I looked upwards. When I did, I felt the floor beneath me fall away. It was the largest unsupported dome I had ever seen or could have ever imagined. But its dimensions aside, it was a work of beauty beyond that which would normally be considered possible with human hands.
The 102.5-foot-diameter dome rises 182.5 feet above the entire nave and rests on an arcade of 40 arched windows, giving the impression that it floats ethereally over the nave.
The illusion is perfect.
According to art and Church historians, the dome contains one of the greatest Christian mosaics in the world, a depiction of the Pantokrator — Christ as Master of the World. It dates to the 6th century and lies beneath an example of Islamic calligraphy.
Hagia Sophia was a truly important church for much of the first millennium of Christianity. The first church on the site was inaugurated in 360 and was, along with nearby Hagia Eirene, the principal church of the Byzantine Empire. It burned down and was replaced in the early 5th century.
This church also burned down, in 532, and the Emperor Justinian I quickly began work on a third structure, the one that exists today. He had material brought from all over the Byzantine Empire, and at the height of its grandeur, said of the church, “Solomon, I have outdone thee,” referring to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Long the seat of the patriarch of Constantinople, the church became a Roman Catholic cathedral in 1204 amid the Latin occupation of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. The Byzantines recaptured the city in 1261.
It also remained the largest cathedral in Christendom for a millennium — until the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See (Catedral de Santa Maria de la Sede) was built in Seville in 1520 in celebration of the reconquest of Spain and victory over Muslim invading forces.
Hagia Sophia is richly decorated with countless mosaics, added throughout its existence, depicting Christ, the Virgin Mary, angels, a myriad of saints or, in some cases, Christian emperors and empresses. But other than these magnificent mosaics, nearly the entire church’s interior is decorated with simpler geometric patterns.
The cathedral was sanctified not only by the presence of God in sacramental form, but also by the presence of hundreds of saints, including five doctors of the church recognized by both Catholics and Orthodox, including:
• St. Gregory of Nyssa (330-395), a mystic, monk and staunch defender of Trinitarian theology at the Council of Constantinople, part of which took place at Hagia Sophia.
• St. John Chrysostom (d. 407), a monk whose name means “golden mouthed,” referring to the eloquence that characterized his homilies. Born in Antioch, he was made patriarch of Constantinople in 398 and celebrated Mass at Hagia Sophia.
• St. Basil the Great (329-379) was a staunch defender of Catholic theology and defied Emperor Valens, who was a supporter of Arianism.
• St. Gregory Nazianzen, “the Great Theologian” (329-390), spent his time as patriarch of Constantinople defending Catholic Trinitarian theology, suffering great persecution while doing so.
• St. Gregory the Great (540?-604), the Roman Benedictine monk who served as papal nuncio to Constantinople. At the age of 50, he was elected bishop of Rome.
• Pope St. Martin I (d. 655), the sixth-century pope, argued against the Monothelite heresy espoused by the Emperor Constans II of Constantinople, soon incurred his wrath, and was kidnapped from Rome and brought to Hagia Sophia to stand trial. He was tortured and sentenced to death in 656. The patriarch of Constantinople stayed Martin’s execution, but he died anyway, as a result of the starvation and hardships he endured. Pope St. Martin I was the last martyred pope.
• Blessed Pope John XXIII (1881-1963) served as papal legate to the Eastern Church between 1935 and 1944 and visited Hagia Sophia many times before being elected Pope.
Mosque and Museum
For 482 years, Hagia Sophia was a mosque (1453-1935). During those years, most of its mosaics were destroyed or covered with stucco, due to Islam’s ban on representational imagery. This process, however, was not complete. In fact, pilgrims noted Christian icons could be found throughout the building well into the late 1800s.
In 1935, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey, turned Hagia Sophia into a museum. With the new renovations, the stucco covering the Christian icons was removed for the first time in nearly 500 years, as were the carpets revealing marble floors not seen in many centuries.
As Düzgün and I stood beneath the great dome, I repeated its name over and over to myself: Hagia Sophia, God’s Holy Wisdom, Christ the Logos. The words of the Evangelist came to me: “In the beginning was the Word; the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
I looked around Hagia Sophia and took a long deep breath and offered a short prayer for wisdom for the world.
Angelo Stagnaro writes
from New York City.