Haghia Sophia: The Great Church
text by George Martin
photographs by Ilene Perlman
Houses of worship shape the rites, even the faith, of the congregations who gather within them. Solomons temple in Jerusalem is an obvious example. With its construction, the Divine Presence moved from a tent in a rural shrine into a grand temple adjacent to the royal palace, where God was worshipped with the pageantry befitting the royal court. Henceforth, Jewish sacrificial worship became increasingly centralized in Jerusalem.
The Church of Haghia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey has likewise had a lasting impact on faith and worship. It is often simply called the Great Church because of its grandeur and its important role in the Byzantine Christianity.
An engineering marvel of late antiquity, Haghia Sophia stood unsurpassed in size and splendor for a thousand years. Even today it dominates the skyline of modern Istanbul -formerly Constantinople which from 330 to 1453 was the capital of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire. Time has faded Haghia Sophias splendor, but not diminished the majestic soar of its arches and domes.
After Constantine I defeated his rivals for the Roman throne (c. 324), he accepted the Christian faith, which he credited for his victory. In 328, Constantine began to move his government to the East, to the Greek town of Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople, the city of Constantine.
In an effort to stress the Christian nature of the new Rome, Constantine began constructing a number of churches, the most important being the Church of Haghia Sophia, Greek for Holy Wisdom, for it is dedicated to Christ, the Wisdom of God.
Constantines church was rebuilt by the Emperor Theodosius II in the mid-fifth century, after it was destroyed during riots that broke out in 404 when the patriarch, John Chrysostom, was sent into exile. Theodosiuss church was also destroyed by riots (532) during the reign of Emperor Justinian I (527-565).
There could not have been a better time than the reign of Justinian for a church to need rebuilding. Justinian walked in the company of great ruler-builders of the ancient world: Solomon, Herod, Constantine. Driven by a complex mix of piety and pride, Justinian built or rebuilt churches throughout the empire, including the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and 34 churches in Constantinople itself. Justinian resolved to rebuild Haghia Sophia as the greatest church on earth. He succeeded; it would be a millennium before St. Peters in Rome would provide a worthy rival.
Justinian employed two masters who were mathematicians as well as architects, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, and told them to disregard all questions of expense. Their mathematical skills were put to the test, for they set out to resolve on a grand scale the challenge of supporting a round dome on a rectangular base. Anthemius and Isidore used only the common structural materials of the time chiefly brick for the walls, buttresses and dome of the building, but they fashioned them into an architectural masterpiece, as a virtuoso might play an exquisite sonata on an ordinary fiddle.
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Tags: Eastern Christianity Turkey Haghia Sophia