Much has been said concerning Hagia Sophia’s recent reconversion to a mosque. The perceived setback for Christianity notwithstanding, Hagia Sophia’s nature as a site for religious dialogue and cultural exchange is not just dependent on its being a secularist museum showcasing the juxtaposition of monotheistic faiths. Rather, it is intrinsic to the originally Orthodox cathedral’s location, construction, architectural fabric and intended function, which symbolize interface in several ways.

The Hagia Sophia of today is basically a 6th-century edifice. Two earlier Hagia Sophia churches were burnt down in riots, the second round of these being the Nika riots during the reign of emperor Justinian I. We use the terms Byzantine or Byzantium to refer to the imperial polity which reached its height under him. Its own people however called it the Roman Empire. Constantine I, who legalized Christianity in AD 313, had shifted the empire’s capital from Rome to the location of an old Greek fortress on the Bosphorus, the strait which divides Europe from Asia. The fortress was Byzantion, which he renamed Constantinople. Justinian would be the last emperor to speak Latin, the language of ancient Rome. Thereafter the empire continued to call itself the Roman Empire even as Greek became its main language. Justinian himself was Illyrian, or in today’s terms, Croatian.

In those basic geographical and historical underpinnings lie the ingredients of various interfaces.

First, there is the empire’s transition from paganism to Christianity. Justinian’s construction of the magnificent Hagia Sophia which exists today was arguably the high-water mark in imperially sponsored church-building which resulted from Christianity becoming the official Roman religion sometime after its legalization.

Second, is the Roman re-encountering of its cultural predecessor in ancient Greece, through relocation to Byzantion and the increasing adoption of the Greek language. Till today the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which has honorary primacy amongst Eastern Orthodox churches and once had Hagia Sophia as its cathedral, is Greek-speaking.

Third, is the contribution to the Roman Empire by its peoples from beyond the Italian lands, as personified by Justinian.

The fourth relates to the Nika riots that originated partly in a tax revolt, and partly as a punch-up between opposing audience factions in Constantinople’s circus. The unrest escalated after Justinian refused the demands of the factions, which had in the meantime united, for a pardon of escaped offenders in the revolt. Perhaps 40,000 were killed in the suppression of the unrest which destroyed part of the city. To discourage further trouble, Justinian set large numbers to work on rebuilding projects, including Hagia Sophia’s, which was supposedly intended to surpass Solomon’s temple in grandeur and monumentalize Justinian’s own greatness. Out of this political and urban upheaval came the unlikely synthesis of ruler and subjects in creating the marvel of Hagia Sophia.

The building itself and its intended functions embody the meeting of opposites and different modes. Whereas its predecessors had modelled themselves upon the Roman town hall or basilica, the new Hagia Sophia combined the basilica form –– rectangular, apsidal, internally colonnaded and clerestoried –– with the central plan of building around a circular dome resembling those of certain Graeco-Roman temples. The basilica would until modern times be the main basis for Western Christian churches; the central plan however has predominated in Eastern Christianity.

Left: The basilica form with side rows of columns supporting arches, called colonnades, looking towards a semicircular apse comprising three subsidiary apses with their own semidomes. The upper-level windows on the basilica’s sides form the clerestories. Partly visible above is the dome. Right: The apse, including a huge mosaic in the central small semidome, of the Theotokos or Mother of God holding the Christ-child, as seen from ground level. Photos, left to right: YSW & EC 

Hagia Sophia’s enormous dome rests on a square base. This ‘squaring of the circle’ is achieved by pendentives, triangular sections of a spherical surface which provide circular support for a dome by filling the upper corners between four arches arranged to form the sides of a square. Hagia Sophia is a major early example of fully realized pendentive use.

The dome in relation to the apse. Photo: EC

Reliance on pendentives, thanks to Byzantine influence, is also great in Islamic architecture. In fact, Turkish mosques attest strongly to the stylistic impact of Hagia Sophia.

The influence of Hagia Sophia on Turkish mosques. Photos, left to right: EC & YSW

The church’s structural elements, such as its massive supporting piers, are disguised, and to an ancient chronicler its dome appeared to be suspended from heaven. Art historians describe how inside the building, solid walls ‘dissolve’ into their ephemeral opposite of light. And yet, in Byzantine art light also represents the eternal divine. The morphing of solid to light and the ‘suspended’ dome are effected by windows which pierce the walls, including about forty around the base of the dome by which light streams into the building. Lavish gilding, as well as richly veined marble cladding, imbue the interior with beauty that the Byzantines regarded as a vision of paradise.

Left: Windows encircle the dome, while angels –– including three with obscured faces –– adorn the pendentives. Right: Marble cladding or revetment on the walls. Photos: YSW

The church’s mosaic icons of holy figures can be seen as human participations in God’s primordial imaging of himself in Christ, who is the icon of the invisible God. Byzantine icons are also to be understood as channels through which to communicate with the sacred mysteries beyond these physical objects themselves, such as Christ or the saints whom they depict.

Gilded mosaics. Left: The Deisis, or tripartite icon of Christ in majesty, flanked by his mother the Virgin Mary, and cousin John the Baptist. Right: The Virgin and Child being offered the domed Hagia Sophia church by Justinian, and the city of Constantinople by Constantine. Photos: YSW

The meeting of terrestrial and celestial in Hagia Sophia therefore echoes the meeting of man and God in the person of Christ. In Byzantine times the church was furthermore a metaphor for the caesaropapist interdependence between the worldly emperor and the divinely representative religious patriarch.

Kiev’s Primary Chronicle famously relates how in AD 988 Prince Vladimir’s emissaries, upon experiencing the liturgy in Constantinople, said, “we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men”. Their report led to the conversion of Vladimir and his seminal Russian state to Eastern Christianity.

Turkey’s Orthodox Christian minority today is far from the influential force that was Byzantium. For now, their former cathedral has lost even its museum status. But it has not yet lost its intrinsic quality as a place which has brought about, and is itself the fruit of, meetings between God and man, eternal and temporal, believer and non-believer, emperor and commoner, East and West. There is still much more in Hagia Sophia’s beautiful and chequered make-up to give hope. Perhaps its history of reaching across divides could be a plank of a refreshed dialogue about its role in a desecularizing Muslim country.


Rachel Choo was formerly coordinator of the archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore, and has a master's degree in art history from Goldsmiths, University of London. Photographs courtesy of Yung Shing Wai, Charlotte Yung and Edward Choo.