People in Hagia Sophia

Posing for a selfie

I wanted a clear and unobstructed photo of the marble door in the south gallery of the Hagia Sophia. This is not easy, because a continuous stream of people go through it. After a long wait I decided that I should be taking photos of tourists instead. In any case, ambush photography is great fun: you take photographs of people who are being photographed by others. The Family and I had an argument a few days before about whether Chinese tourists outnumber everyone else.

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I’m not terribly good at pinpointing nationalities, but by my count about two and a half photos out of the eight in the slide show contain Chinese people. A significantly larger number come from eastern Europe. Add in the west Europeans, Turks, and a smattering of people from across Asia outside of China, and I think you begin to get a picture of where the tourists come from. About half of them take selfies, a fourth have someone else take their photo, and the rest are not interested in their own photos. My survey was interrupted because I was spotted while taking a non-ambush photo. I had to go back to being a tourist interested in the marble door again.

Sober cold stone

You enter the Hagia Sophia from the narthex on the west, so that the first thing you see when you step into the square naos is the immense apse right in front of you. It is difficult to tear your eyes away from it, but it is worthwhile later to come back to this place and look at what was behind you. The beautiful west gallery above you is fabulously decorated with mosaics and a carved stone railing between elegant pillars (featured photo). The gallery had collapsed in an earthquake in 989 CE, and the portion which was rebuilt has painted plaster instead of the mosaics of the rest of the interior. You can tell this easily by the fact that the paint is beginning to peel.

The details on the pillars are amazing. I brought my camera down to the pillars that hold up this curved gallery simply because it is there. Time and invaders have been kind to this part of the structure. The details are as razor sharp as they would have been 1500 years ago when they were freshly chiseled out. It is hard to remember that the use of regular geometric floral motifs was deliberate: it would be faster to do this repeatedly.

Above the Imperial Door in the middle of the western wall is this small stone inlay panel. I’m fairly certain that this must have symbolic meaning, but neither my audio guide, nor any references throw any light on it. I could remain ignorant for ever, or I could toss this question out to you (o gentle reader). What is the symbolism in this panel?

In the south eastern corner of the naos the light was much better. The carved capitals of the pillars were as breathtaking as the black, white, and red inlay work in the wall next to it. But all this was outshone by the mosaic above the pillar, with its large fields of gold. This is stone on fire, heady, breathtaking; quite the opposite of stone cold sober.

On another wall we came across panels of marble: Afyon marble, white with purple patches, alternating with Carian marble, red with white flakes. Between the panels ran a band of Tunisian marble with its dark veins running through reddish white. The light from the large windows lit up this wall and the gold tesserae of mosaic above it.

The cubicle that you can see in the photo above is the library of Sultan Mahmud I. We looked through the golden grille in the southern vestibule which separated it from the rest of the space. My audioguide did not warn me to spend time looking at the railing above it, which you can see in this photo. This railing is decorated with a repeating pattern of regular nonagons (nine-sided polygons). Constructing regular nonagons with compass and ruler is an ancient problem, and its solution presented in this railing was a statement about the mathematical prowess of the architect, Mimar Sinan. I must remember to take a close look at it the next time I visit this museum.

Let me end this post with a photo taken in the south gallery, one level above this. Again you see the wonderful carved capitals of the pillars similar to those in the featured photo. The complexity of the mosaic above the pillars is astounding for something made in the 6th century CE. Beyond it you can see part of the central dome, with the some of the forty windows which run around its base, and the forty ribs which support it. This was the main innovation of Isidore the Younger when the dome was re-erected in 563 CE, five years after the earthquake which destroyed the original dome.

Stress and buttress

I was trying to get a close look at the western turrets added to the Hagia Sophia in the 16th century CE by Mimar Sinan (featured photo) when I realized that I was looking at four buttresses to the church. I stepped back a little to photograph them in their entirety (below) and realized that they were actually flying buttresses. I’d thought that they were invented in the 12th century in France, so this surprised me.

Hagia Sophia is remarkably stable, given the frequency of earthquakes in Istanbul. Over 1500 years, the dome has had to be rebuilt only twice. A large part of this stability is due to the geometric design of the dome, with its supporting half domes built atop a central square section. However, recent studies found that the improperly cured bricks and mortar miraculously make the structure stronger than properly cured bricks of the 6th century would have. This is likely to be an accident of the hurried construction of the church, rather than deliberate materials science, especially since this technique was not used in any other Byzantine structure. Even with this fortunate accident, the pressure of the huge dome would have caused the structure to collapse if it were not for buttresses added over the years.

The four flying buttresses on the western facade, which you see in the photo above, are remarkable. They look like they are, at least in part, made of the same material as the rest of the western facade. This was rebuilt in 994 CE, within five years of its collapse during the earthquake of 989 CE. So I wondered whether the flying buttress was invented by the Byzantines before the French. The older view is stated clearly in this paper from 1935, “… we can at once discard any hypothesis which would date these buttresses to the ninth century, for the simple reason that flying buttresses were unknown before the twelfth century”. This paper buttresses this erroneous reasoning with an aesthetic judgement that these four are different from “ungainly masses” which were erected by Byzantine and Turkish architects, and so must have been made by French engineers who arrived here during the Venetian occupation.

The modern view is different. Flying buttresses have been discovered in buildings in Cyprus which were buried in the 8th century CE, well before its reinvention in France. So these buttresses which puzzled me could have been a Byzantine construction from the 10th century CE. In a structure as old as the Hagia Sophia, one seldom has a clear answer to questions of provenance unless there is contemporary documentation. For these four there is none, although the circumstantial evidence is that the buttresses are about a thousand years old. This raises the inverse question, could the engineering idea of flying buttresses, which began to be used from the 12th century in western Europe, have been carried there from Byzantium?

Galleries of Mosaics

There was a lot of work going on inside the Hagia Sophia when I visited. The whole of the north section of the naos was taken up by an enormous scaffolding, so you could neither look out of the north gallery, nor get a good view of the inner north wall of the naos. In the south gallery too, there was much work on, so some of the mosaics I wanted to see were not visible. What could be seen was quite stunning.

The mosaic of Komnenos

This large mosaic was probably covered in plaster at some time, because you can see the surrounding layer of thick plaster. It shows the emperor John Komnenos II holding a bag of gold, and his consort, the empress Irene, with a scroll flanking a seated Madonna and Child. The featured photo is a detail of this 12th century mosaic. Some art historians believe that the plaster covering was historically useful, since it prevented visitors or workers from removing the gold tesserae. This mosaic is so well preserved that you could believe it.


One of the most famous of the mosaics is the Deisis (or Deesis, the English spelling is ambiguous). No writing about it fails to mention that the icon of Deisis always has at its center the Christ Pantokrator, and is surrounded by other holy figures praying to him. One of the introductory pieces that I read mentioned that this also illustrates a hierarchical style of prayers, where you pray to a saint to pray on your behalf: very bureaucratic and Byzantine.

My first reaction to it was a disappointment: so little of this 13th century work remains! Judith Herrin, in her magisterial book on the Byzantine empire says that there was a superstition that a little stone chip, tessera, from holy paintings could bring you luck, and that there could have been a thriving trade in pieces of this mosaic. Peter Sarris also talks about late Byzantine superstitions regarding images.

Nevertheless, when you look at details of what remains, it is stunning. Byzantine art took a long time to recover from the iconoclast politics. Sarris points out that representational art had not died out altogether, but many of the skills had been lost, and had to be redeveloped. When you compare the Mary here with that in the earlier mosaic on the apse, you can see how much more nuanced this is. Five centuries separate these two mosaics.

The incredible detail on the face and hair of John the Baptist, seems so much more naturalistic than, for example, the hair on the head of Irene in the Komnenos mosaic (featured photo). About a century separates the two. In matters of skill, it is not only the schooling that is important but also the individual.

The Family and I were not the only people who spent a long time in front of this mosaic, admiring little details. There was quite a crowd. And why not? After all even experts in art or Byzantine history devote considerable energy and space in discussing this mosaic.

Marble Door

We came up to the galleries through ramps at the north eastern end of the structure. The gallery on the southern side is divided into an outer part (where the Empress Theodora is said to have sat for the opening of the church in 536 CE) and an inner part (where the Synod council of 1166 CE is supposed to have met). Between them is a door made of marble.

Every door inside the museum is a choke point, through which an enormous number of tourists stream. I waited for a clear shot, but could not get one. The shot that you see above is the best that I could do. I was a little anti-social, and planted myself in the middle of the stream, depending on the goodwill of people to stop. Most did, so I could quickly take this shot and move away.

My audio guide pointed out various interesting features on the door, including a story that one side of the door represents heaven and the other hell. The only difference I could see was that one side was well-lit and the other a little dark. In any case, this door was plundered from some old Greek structure and brought here, and so probably was not designed to have any symbolic meaning at all.

North wall

At this level you could see some of the mosaic panels on the upper walls of the naos. The view from the north gallery was completely blocked off by a scaffolding, so I could only look out from the south.

I could see only one mosaic which has been disinterred from under a thick layer of plaster. Who is it? A saint, by the halo around his head, and probably a Patriarch, from his priestly clothes. If this is indeed of the Patriarch Ignatios, then the mosaic dates back to the 9th or 10th century, soon after the end of the iconoclast period.

Let it be

Imagine that it is the winter of that terrible year of 537 CE. The sun has been a wan disk in the sky, giving some light but no warmth. It is six years since the riots in which the center of Constantinople was burnt down by a mob, and the terrible massacre of the unarmed rioters thereafter. Belisarius has defeated the Vandals, but his army revolted the previous year. The revolt was put down, but the capital city of half a million people is desperate for food. For two years crops have failed because of the strange sun. It would be one and a half thousand years before anyone realized that the awful weather was due to an immense volcanic eruption whose ashes took time to settle out of the stratosphere, causing widespread crop failure across the globe. Two days after Christmas of that year, the people of Constantinople would enter the Great Church, six years in the making, and gaze in awe around the biggest building in the world. Your imagination doesn’t have to go into overdrive, because even today that space is awesome.

The narthex had seemed crowded, but in the naos the same crowd was diluted to homeopathic proportions. Your eye is constantly drawn up. It took be a while to realize why: light came in through tall windows above us, and the openings in the dome, the lower part of the vast space is relatively dim. The golden mosaics that the Hagia Sophia is known for are far away in the upper regions of the structure. The clever ancient architects still direct our eyes exactly where they wanted it to land. Eight great circular calligraphic panels were made by Mustafa Izzet during the restoration of 1847. The panel on the right (photo above) reads “Allah” and the partly obscured pane on the left says “Muhammad”. The emperor Justinian I wanted this to be a statement about his political power. The statement is clearly visible even today, and was hacked perfectly in 1453 by sultan Mehmet II.

In this profusion of abstract floral patterns, and a few six-winged archangels scattered around the naos, the figure of the Madonna and Child in the apse is very prominent. This was revealed by Patriarch Photius in 867 CE. Revealed is perhaps the right word to use here, because this was newly made, plastered over an older cross which was part of the original artwork from the time of Justinian I. But Photius claimed that it was original, and that the recently defeated iconoclasts had plastered the cross over it. This was another hack of the Great Church for political power. During the iconoclast century the skill required for such a work had been lost. It suffers from comparison with older (or later) works.

I turned around slowly, to take in the upper galleries. The photo above shows the southwestern gallery, where the empress Theodora, wife of Justinian I, and one of the first of the powerful Byzantine empresses, is said to have sat during service. Next to her gallery is the panel inscribed with the name of the third caliph, Uthman. The eight circular panels each have diameters of 7.5 meters, and are said to be the largest pieces of Arabic calligraphy in the world. You can see in these photos how the central dome is supported by half-domes to the east and west (above the apse and the narthex). These supporting domes, and the square ground plan of the naos are important to the stability of a structure which has lasted for 1500 years in an earthquake-prone region.

The entire north side of the naos was taken up by a scaffolding which was being used for restoration work. The Family said “We will have to come back to see this place without those iron bars.” We stepped forward towards the apse. This is a busy place, with people taking selfies. We clicked a few, and then turned our attention to the minbar, the pulpit. This is the work of the 16th century architectural master, Mimar Sinan, who also designed two of the four minarets outside Hagia Sophia.

Right in front of us was the only human-sized element in the whole place, the mihrab, or the prayer niche. It is noticeably off-center, because it has to indicate the qiblah, ie, the direction of Mecca. I haven’t been able to discover whether this is the original mihrab ordered to be constructed by sultan Mehmet II. The two gigantic candle stands that you see here were brought from the cathedral of Buda by Suleyman the Magnificent. The symbolism was hacked again in 1935 by Ataturk, who declared that this place should become a museum, a perfect solution for a secular state.

Over my head

I had to try, but I don’t think it worked. I tried to keep people away from the Hagia Sofia, so that I could have the place to myself the next time I visit, but no one seemed to take me seriously when I said it is not worth seeing. So here is the truth, it is worth seeing but it is unhealthy. You’ll walk around with your head turned up, your mouth open, taking shallow breaths, until you start feeling giddy and you fall and hurt yourself. So don’t go to Hagia Sofia. There, that featured photo is of the decoration on the arch just inside the main hall. The number of people who bumped into me as I took that photo is numberless. Now that you have seen it, do you really need to go?

The Hagia Sofia was constructed by Justinian I after riots which nearly caused his downfall. As a show of power, the construction was finished in six years. This was hardly enough time to enable artists to make complicated mosaics or paintings. The result was an innovation: build simple geometric or floral designs to cover huge surfaces relatively fast. Examples are these crosses over the doors in the narthex. They are not from the iconoclast centuries, ie, the 8th century CE on. This is the original decoration from the unveiling of the Hagia Sofia on December 27 in 532 CE. Mind that crick in your neck as you gaze up at them; it will only get worse.

This mosaic, over the imperial door, can really strain your neck. It was stuck on over a mosaic cross in the 9th century CE. The ruler of everything is wearing pretty interesting sandals; on a human it could cause an aching toe. The throne has a back shaped like a lyre, and the book in his hand is open to a page that reads “Peace to you, I am the light of the world.” Mary peers out from the medallion to his right, and the winged archangel Gabriel looks severely at your craning neck from the one on his left. The identity of the prostrate emperor (in nicely patterned socks but without sandals) is a fraught question. I appreciate the arguments which lead to his identification with the Byzantine emperor Leo VI, whose fourth marriage (to the Zoe who would never be recognized as empress) was against church law. Due to this he was denied entrance to the church by the Patriarch and had to grovel in front of this very door on the feast of Epiphany in 907 CE. The mosaic is now widely known as “The Humiliation of Leo VI”.

By now your neck has frozen, so you might as well look up at the ceiling of the narthex, and the beautiful floral mosaics in it. The manufacture of the glass and stone chips, called tesserae, their transport, and assembly, must have been quite an industry. There are reams of scholarly papers written about them. Microscopes have been constructed with fiber optics which allow their study without removing or damaging them. You really don’t need to go there; you can read all about it.

By now the blood will be draining from your head, you might be on the verge of collapse. At this point you will see barrel vaulting made with stones brought from across the empire: red Egyptian porphyry, and green from Peloponnese, black-veined white marble from France, red-veined yellow marble from Tunisia, white marble with purple spots from Afyon in Turkey, white-veined red marble from Caria, white marble from Marmara, and a dark green marble from Thessaly. All this and you haven’t even had time to look at the interior. Save your breath, stay at home, buy a coffee table book.

All that you need to know about Hagia Sofia

“Just crowds of tourists.” I was told. “Needs about 20 minutes.” The Family reported being told. “The sense of the sacred has long fled this place.” A famous travel writer would be the first to know. Take the advise, and don’t spend the couple of hours inside that we did. All you will get is a view from the inside of an engineering marvel from 537 CE, which was the center of the Christian church for a thousand years, before it became an Ottoman mosque in 1453, and eventually, in 1935, a museum.

Instead, take up position between the Sultan Ahmet Mosque and the Hagia Sofia, and take a photo. Pay special attention to the 32 meter main dome, it was designed by Anthemius of Trelles and Isidorus of Miletus. You don’t really need to know that the dome was too grand for its time, and that it collapsed in an earthquake in 558 CE, was rebuilt in 562, collapsed again twice, and was eventually rebuilt on a smaller and more manageable scale in the 14th century CE. Ignore the fact that the present structure was sacked several times before the arrival of the Turks: once by Vikings in the 8th century, and more famously by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 CE. Definitely ignore the minarets; they were added by the Turks (the two that you see on the left in the featured photo were designed by Mimar Sinan, an architectural genius in the time of Suleyman the Magnificent, and the red brick one on the right is the oldest, possibly from the 15th century).

If you really have an urge to go in then briefly take up a position in front of the central door. You have a clear view of two mosaics, one of Christ Pantocrator in the narthex, and the other of the Madonna over the altar. The mosaic of the Pantocrator stands above the 7 meters high Emperor Door, with a bronze frame and wood said to have been salvaged from Noah’s Ark (oh how I Want to Believe), so this is a great place to stand. Another advantage is that you will hear every language in the world as people stream past you.

Only Connect

If you thought literature doesn’t move society, you should think again. E. M. Forster’s words have been taken very seriously by almost every living human. “Only connect” is now an epigraph to live by. There is now a clear answer to the ancient question, “What does it mean to be human? What sets us apart from all animals?” A cell phone, and a burning desire to post instantly.

This photo was taken an aeon ago (by Instagram time) in the Hagia Sofia. Looking at it I wonder whether the definition of being human has really changed. Isn’t this just another expression of being a social animal? Each of the people you see here is connected to their social network. Connections grow stronger the more you connect.