Hagia Sophia: The Church of the Holy Wisdom

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Hagia Sophia

Photo Credit: Andrew Athanasiou

In May 2014 I was blessed to visit the city of Istanbul, or as we like to call it in the Orthodox Church, Constantinople. For over half of the first 2000 years of Christianity, Constantinople was the center of both the Roman Empire (referred to as Byzantine Empire) and the Orthodox Church. Emperor Constantine I (aka St. Constantine) moved the capitol of the Roman Empire to this city known then as Byzantium. Here the Church grew and flourished and at its center was the Great Church, Hagia Sophia, i.e. Holy Wisdom (not St. Sophia).

The current building, built in the 530’s AD, is a massive structure which still dominates the skyline of the Old Europe section of Istanbul. When approaching the Bosphorus (the connector between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea) by boat, Hagia Sophia almost seems to be floating – as if it is sitting above the Bosphorus skyline. It is no wonder people were always trying to take over the area known as the Quern City.

Once inside the largest part, the nave, it is hard to explain what it feels like, at best I would say that it is like you have entered a room with no ceiling. The structure has a massive central dome, which is supported on two sides by two other domes. It would be like going to a bigger basketball or hockey arena that has no supports to hold the roof, as the domes just seem to be up there without pillars or cross support.

It is the only building I have ever entered in that I feel I am not indoors. Not only this, but the walls have beautiful mirrored marble designs, creating a geometrical splendor. The cool colors of the rose and grey marble decor make us draw our attention to the ceiling, which is beautifully decorated with gold. I cannot imagine what it would be like to pray in this Church (turned Mosque then Museum), as my attention would most likely be drawn to the heavens. The dome has 40 windows with a corresponding cross on the marble floor hundreds of feet below. Now we know it as he bishop’s throne on the right of our churches, but this used to be the throne of the emperor, which is no longer in Hagia Sophia, but the ceremonial area in which the Emperor would be coronated can still be seen just a couple feet away from where the throne would have been.

At the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, this church was taken over and many martyrs were made that day. When it became a mosque, crosses were defaced (but not completely, as you can still see the original form) and the beautiful mosaic iconography was covered with plaster and painted over. According to our tour guide, the Ottomans attempted to cover the icon of the Theotokos in the central apse, where most of us know the Platytera icon to be, but in three instances the person doing the plastering was thrown down from the scaffolding. The Sultan then succumbed and just covered the icon with a screen.

This Church was the central Church of Orthodoxy and it had a major influence on our liturgical practices. Though most our churches can’t hold 15,000 people or have jeweled pillars filled with relics, we owe much of what we know and love as our Church to this amazing Church. If you ever have a chance to see it, go, it is breathtaking.

About Andrew Athanasiou

Andrew is a student of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, located in Brookline, Massachusetts. Andrew is a Masters of Divinity Student who is also a Seminarian. Andrew is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and his knowledge comes from five major sources: Greek Orthodox Seminary; Greek Orthodox Summer Camp; both being taught and teaching in Greek Orthodox Sunday School; and finally further readings and interests in other theological areas.

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This post was written by Andrew Athanasiou

About Andrew Athanasiou

Andrew is a student of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, located in Brookline, Massachusetts. Andrew is a Masters of Divinity Student who is also a Seminarian. Andrew is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and his knowledge comes from five major sources: Greek Orthodox Seminary; Greek Orthodox Summer Camp; both being taught and teaching in Greek Orthodox Sunday School; and finally further readings and interests in other theological areas.