Some 170 years after the first construction of a church on the Bosporus River, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I ordered the construction of a third building on the site. Just six weeks after the Nika Revolt left the second church a smoldering ruin, the project for a new house of worship began on February 23, 532. Taking elements of the previous design, the massive basilica is one of the ancient world’s masterpieces, surviving in Istanbul, Turkey to this day.
According to tradition, Constantius II inaugurated a large church next to the site of the imperial palace in February 360. Though it is difficult to tell for certain who began the project — either Constantius or his father, Constantine — writings describe the temple as one of the jewels of contemporary architecture. Alongside the neighboring Hagia Eirene, this “Megale Ekklesia” (“Great Church”) served as the primary gathering places for Christians in the Byzantine Empire for nearly five decades until rioters set fire to it in 404.
A decade later, Emperor Theodosius II presided over a ceremony opening the second building. Consisting of marble blocks with a wooden roof, the new construction took on the name Hagia Sophia — “Holy Wisdom.” For more than a century, it retained its predecessor’s place as the hub of Christianity in eastern Europe, taking on the additional role of being the location for crowning new Byzantine rulers. Early in Justinian’s reign, however, it would come down like the first.
Near the end of 531, two major social groups — the Blues (aristocrats) and Greens (merchants) — were unsatisfied with Justinian’s rule. Some disputed the truth of his ascension to the imperial crown, while others felt oppressed by taxes levied to fund his ambitious wars to reclaim the furthest boundaries of the Roman Empire. When members of both factions were sentenced to death for roles in the murder of several people who attended recent chariot races, tensions became worse. After two men escaped and were cornered in a local church, Constantinople (modern Istanbul) turned into a powder keg.
Hoping to soothe the populace, Justinian called for a day of chariot races and reduced the sentences of both men to imprisonment. The move backfired. People arrived at the Hippodrome, next door to the Great Palace, filled with animosity toward the ruler, insulting him throughout the day. Slowly, Blues and Greens stopped cheering for their particular charioteers and instead shouted “Nika!” (“Conquer!”) as a statement of intent. With the day’s racing program complete, the restless crowd poured into the streets setting fires, burning large swathes of the city — including the timbers of the Hagia Sophia a short distance away.
Two days later, Justinian sent one of his men to remind the Blues whom he supported, pointing out the person they wished to replace him was a Green. When the leadership was pacified by an offer of gold from the Emperor’s servant, the Blues left the Hippodrome. Two of Justinian’s generals, Belisarius and Mundus, led their soldiers in and thrashed the remaining unarmed civilians. With 30,000 opposition dead, Justinian now had full control of the government.
Unchallenged, Justinian launched one of the most prolific construction phases in ancient history. Turning to Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles as chief architects, he demanded a new and grander Hagia Sophia with an unparalleled design on February 23, 532. The historian Procopius relates Justinian’s desire to include materials from all over the Eastern Roman Empire, pulling stones from Egypt to the south and marble from Thessaly to the west, not to mention islands throughout the Sea of Marmara. Remnants from the Temple of Artemis were even dragged 230 miles to the northeast from Ephesus to form supports for the weighty plaster walls and high ceilings.
The scale of the basilica would be unlike anything seen in Europe or Western Asia at the time. The dome would tower 180 feet above the floor below and spread more than 100 feet across. In order to suspend the heavy ceiling, four triangular pendentives — upward arching triangles — were created to fit the elliptical roof on a square room, the first time in history the architectural issue had been solved. With the full structure a whopping 330 feet long and 225 feet wide, Hagia Sophia would become the largest cathedral on the planet for the better part of a millennium upon its completion in 537.
From there, it would be another three decades before the walls were completely decorated with the elaborate gold, silver and white mosaics Justinian requested. For nearly 900 years, the building served as the primary church in Orthodox Christianity, surviving several earthquakes despite faulty construction. (Masons used less brick than mortar, making the sides of the building susceptible to collapse.) Though the artwork would eventually be covered by iconoclastic policies of the Orthodox Church in the 8th and 9th centuries, as well as Muslim invaders that conquered the city in 1453, the church remains one of the architectural wonders of the world.
In 1943, almost five centuries after Mehmed the Conqueror took Constantinople and converted the Hagia Sophia into an Islamic temple known as Aya Sofya Mosque, the building reopened as a museum. Carefully removing the white plaster on the walls and pulling up carpets laid on the floor, curators made the magnificent artwork visible again to an awestruck public. Officials outlawed worship of any kind within the building, only recently allowing a small prayer room for Christian and Muslim staff.
Now one of the most-visited monuments in all the world, Hagia Sophia is again under threat of destruction — this time from Mother Nature. Perhaps the first example of Byzantine architecture, the Turkish Ministry of Culture and World Monuments Fund continue working to stabilize the structure and interiors against deterioration from rising humidity.
Also On This Day:
1455 – Publication of the Gutenberg Bible, the first Western book printed using movable type
1836 – The Battle of the Alamo begins in San Antonio, Texas
1898 – Emile Zola is imprisoned for accusing the French government of anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus Affair
1927 – Physicist Werner Heisenberg describes the uncertainty principle for the first time in a letter to colleague Wolfgang Pauli
1991 – Coalition infantry launches forward into Iraq from Saudi Arabia, beginning the ground phase of the Gulf War
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