The Holy Wisdom of the Romans

Istanbul is a city of layers. Surrounded by clusters of skyscrapers, its business districts form the outer crust. Further in, identically patterned apartment buildings rub shoulders with European style palaces where Empire gave way to industrialisation and democracy. Towards the centre highways run parallel to crumbling medieval walls, within which mosques and bazaars stand next to and above Roman aqueducts and cisterns. Old wooden buildings surround art museums and universities, all the while minarets point to heaven above pubs and restaurants. The skyline is an eclectic mix, but for 1479 years it has been centered on one great edifice. A great mass of stonework, topped with a leviathan dome and four great minarets, blended seamlessly into the mix. This is the Hagia Sophia, during its history it came to symbolise the political and spiritual capitals of two Empires and their chosen brands of religion. It was the largest Christian cathedral for nearly a thousand years and became the inspiration for generations of Ottoman architects; even the smallest mosques in Istanbul share its defining silhouette. The Hagia Sophia was the greatest architectural achievement of the Late Roman Empire and is a lasting testament to the great ingenuity of these people. To me its significance lies in the way it illuminates a period lost to historical darkness. It is the legacy of an Emperor who upheld a classical greatness to the still pan-Mediterranean Roman Empire. It is a symbol of an age famous for collapse but also, if we move away from conventional viewpoints, one of continuations and new beginnings. We can learn many things from the Hagia Sophia, not least of which is that the events of history rarely conform to clearly demarcated and preconceived periods which progress in a logical way; history is messy, confusing and often uncomfortable, but it illuminates the world around us in ways we may never have imagined.


Today the Hagia Sophia exudes permanence. It is nearly impossible to imagine anything standing in its place, especially anything far less grand. However the Hagia Sophia was, in fact, preceded by two churches on the same site. The first, inaugurated in 360 C.E. was rather unimaginatively named the ‘Megale Ekklesia‘ or Great Church. Although nothing remains of this church we know it had a wooden roof which became a prime source of fuel for fires started during riots in 404 C.E. Some ten years later a second church was inaugurated on the site. This one seems to have been a bit more grand as remains of its stonework are on display in the grounds of the Hagia Sophia today and this is when that very name was applied. It still, however, had a wooden roof and became a case study in the repetition of history when, in 532 C.E., it too burned down during the Nika riots. This time no wood was to be used in the construction, and not just to avoid future fires. The political situation which led to the riots and surrounded the newly crowned Emperor Justinian I’s legitimacy led him to embark on no ordinary building project. These events which troubled the beginning of Justinian’s reign are their own remarkable story and deserve their own discussion and analysis. For now let us focus on the Hagia Sophia itself. From the beginning the great Basilica was designed to showcase the power of the Roman Empire and its Emperor, even to outdo the great Temple of Solomon so the story goes. Justinian appointed Isidorus of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles as head architects on the project which may have seemed an odd choice at the time as neither were, formally, architects. They were, however, renowned mathematicians and scientists and brought an appropriately unorthodox view to designing and building “one of the largest, most lavish and most expensive buildings of all time.” (A History of Western Architecture, David Watkins, pg. 94) Their challenge began with the logistical puzzles of such a project. Managing such a large workforce as was needed may not have been a huge problem in the Imperial capital, one of the largest cities in Europe at the time, however obtaining, processing and transporting all the necessary resources, in what was a relatively short amount of time, was a challenge. Beyond the thousands of tonnes of brick and mortar, stone and iron which was needed as the structural basis of the building, exotic and finely wrought materials were sought out to fulfil the greatness which was so desired. The many multicoloured and patterned marble panels  which adorn the walls today seem like a visual novelty, however each different type was quarried and produces in a different part of the empire; green porphyry from Eğriboz Island, pink marble from Afyon and yellow from North Africa.

The multicoloured marbles

The many columns, which are both structural and decorative are also linked to the great reach of the empire. Although it is difficult to verify, it appears that as many as eight columns were taken from the ancient ruins of the temple of Jupiter in Baalbek, Syria, dismantled and shipped to Constantinople. It is possible that many other columns used in the construction were recycled from other ancient ruins of temples from places like Ephesus, Athens and Cyzicus. Certainly there is precedent for this as many such sites were pilfered for local building projects and there was a history of bringing ancient monuments to Constantinople, such as when Theodosius shipped the Obelisk of Thutmose III from Egypt to put in the hippodrome and which can still be seen today. The purpose of doing this creates a link to the classical past, but also demonstrates the Christian dominance over ancestral paganism. On top of this (literally) the distinctive byzantine capitals show us an artistic and economically active empire, capable of it’s own artistic expression as well as borrowing from the past.


Patterned marbles
A typically Byzantine capital







These multi-featured columns form an important part of the internal structure and contribute to the symphony of design that makes up the fantastical interior of the Hagia Sophia. It is a truly cavernous space, and seems almost an impossibility when it is first seen, as it appears so dense and massive from the outside. Within, however, it rises and soars, the columns point up to the dome, which stretches out and back down again seeming to rest on nothing, hanging weightless in the air. Indeed Procopius mentions this very effect; “For it seems somehow to float in the air on no firm basis, but to be poised aloft to the peril of those inside it. Yet actually it is braced with exceptional firmness and security.” (Buildings, line 34, pg.17)  This effect was no accident and creating it was no mean feat as the gigantic building, and the dome itself, is incredibly weighty. The columns help by maintaining the support offered by a wall, without contributing as much weight onto the foundations, and also allowing for a more open space. Similarly the many windows that dot the walls, but which are most conspicuous in formations beneath the great dome decrease the cumulative weight of the supporting walls and allow cascades of light to accentuate the colourful and gilded mosaics that once covered the walls, although precious few of which survive today. It was the dome itself which presented the biggest challenge to the architects. Not only was it to be the largest dome ever built, it was also supposed to fit onto a square base, in order for the church to conform to the basilica design which was conventional at the time. This was achieved through the full realisation of an unusual and rarely used architectural feature known as pendentives.

One of the pendentives, featuring a seraphim.

Essentially these “spherical triangles”, as David Watkins describes them, connected the dome with the square base beneath it. This was made of four massive ‘piers’ (essentially giant, built in, columns) which were connected one to the other by huge arches reaching up to the base of the dome. The pendentives fill the space between the dome and the arches and help channel the weight down into the piers, which are themselves supported by huge buttresses which project out of the building. The aforementioned columns help support the north and south sides of the square, however the other axis is left completely open, with the arches hanging over empty space. This is where the already complex amalgamation of circular dome and square base is complicated to create a rectangular shaped interior. This was achieved with two semi-domes, which extend out from each open arch and are themselves by three smaller semi-domes each, creating a kind of cascading effect. Altogether it creates the full nave and three apses that are so typical of a basilica. Ultimately these seem, individually, quite simple and it can be difficult when seeing them in person to pick them out from one another. This seeming simplicity belies the complex processes of fitting these uncomplimentary parts together and filling the spaces between with functional structure as well as gaudy decoration. This is a theme of the design of the great building, as Procopius says;

“All these details, fitted together with incredible skill in mid-air and floating off from each other and resting only on the parts next to them, produce a single and most extraordinary harmony in the work, and yet do not permit the spectator to linger much over the study of any one of them, but each detail attracts the eye and draws it on irresistibly to itself.” (Buildings, line 47, page 21)

The synthesis of form and function and the blending of complex and gigantic architectural features into the decorative milieu, in short, the creation of a whole that appears greater than the sum of its parts is the true genius of Anthemius and Isidorus’ mathematical approach and is the basis for the magnificence of the Hagia Sophia.


The previously mentioned Procopius is our main source for the events surrounding the construction of the Hagia Sophia. He was the official historian and chronicler of Justinian I’s reign and he composed three works on the subject which survive today. The first, Wars, is an account of Justinian’s military endeavours focussing on the reconquest of Italy and Rome. The second, Buildings, is an analysis of Justinian’s building projects, of which there were many, and contains an account of the construction of the Hagia Sophia. His third work, Secret History, by far the most interesting, is a strange refutation of his previous praise for Justinian and categorically condemns the Emperor. This work contributes to and complicates the fact that, despite certainly being an eye-witness to the events he describes, Procopius’ position as court historian means he is obliged to overly favour the actions of his patron and thus cannot be relied upon to give an objective report of the truth. Especially as he basically admits to this in the Secret History. As for Buildings, he does accurately describe the physical details of the Hagia Sophia and gives us an impression  of the effect the completed building had on a contemporary eyewitness. However, he also tells that when confronted by problems which even their learned minds could not overcome the architects approached Justinian for advice. Despite having no knowledge of architecture, Justinian correctly tells them what to do and Procopius posits divine intervention to explain this. He assures us that there were many witnesses to this which is why he reports it as fact. This can certainly be explained by an expected amount of bias on the part of Procopius, ever needing to reinforce the legitimacy of Justinian. However we must also remember that this would have made sense at the time, given that Justinian, as Emperor, was God’s chosen ruler of Christendom and the success of the project was seen as a reflection of God’s will. A later medieval collection of stories about Constantinople continues this theme with a story of an angel who helps the building efforts by watching over the stockpiles of material, literally a guardian angel. Although Procopius’ account is problematic we can see that, ultimately, the vision he describes for Justinian, of building the greatest Christian temple ever seen does, in a way, come to pass. For nearly a thousand years the Hagia Sophia was treasured by the city’s inhabitants, despite the long decline of their empire. Even after the inevitable fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks its greatness persisted, inspiring the conqueror’s own architectural conventions for hundreds of years and remains a principle attraction of modern Istanbul. What we can take from this is a realisation that our conception of history is very different to that of pre-enlightenment eras. That is to say that the empirical study of history is a relatively recent convention and that to the people of the past religious mythologising served as and, in some ways does convey to us, historical truth. Certainly this is one reason why the time of the Hagia Sophia is, in many ways, a forgotten era. As the people of the time relied on folklore and myth to tell their histories, so it has fallen out of our more rigorous understanding of history. However, as we have seen, this is no reason to cast aside these narratives they relate to us the experience of those who told them and are still embodied by things such as the Hagia Sophia.

Beyond the brilliance of the revolutionary techniques used during its construction and its value as an expression of Late Roman artistic and architectural achievement the Hagia Sophia stands as  a beacon, a shining spotlight dispelling the gloomy myth of a ‘Dark Age’. The concept of the dark ages may appeal strongly now to a modern fascination with apocalypse and the aftermath of total societal collapse. However it has been a popular theme in the Western conception of history for a long time. Perhaps due to the gothic drama (pun intended)  which has characterised the period. Perhaps it is an obsession with a cleanly ordered and teleological classification of events. Certainly the conception of a dark age sprang from this as the common narrative of European history became that of the fall of the Roman Empire into barbarism and the eventual recovery of classical greatness during the renaissance, eventually leading to the enlightened modern world. History does not conform to our orderly machinations, however, and a closer study reveals that the course, or rather courses, of history spread and grow like great fractal blooms, a chaotic spread of interconnected causal events growing from one to another, rippling across space and time through their effects on the people who witnessed them. The past is revealed to us through its imprint  on the minds of these people, recorded in writing and the physical shaping of the world through artifice, architecture and the manufacturing of goods. To bring this back to the topic at hand, during a period typically characterised by the fall of the Roman Empire into chaos and violence, a Roman Emperor commissioned the construction of one of the greatest buildings ever seen, showcasing the combined efforts and material of a pan-Mediterranean empire. The Hagia Sophia was truly a great Roman building project as could be seen throughout the more ‘traditional’ Imperial and Republic periods of Rome. Even the motivations for its construction appear very traditionally Roman; a distraction of a divided populace after a change of ruler and setbacks in the age old struggle with Persia.

While it is impossible to deny the societal dissolving of the Roman Empire in Western Europe during the Late Antiquity to Early Medieval period, one cannot simply relegate the events and people of this era to a historical black hole. Even as the Western Empire disintegrated as a distinct entity, the ‘Barbarian hordes’ who are traditionally charged with its destruction, are the very same people who take up the mantle of governance throughout the old provinces of the empire, often in attempt to remake it. What we see is a fusing of cultures, the tribal Germanic coming to shape and be shaped by the imperial Roman. Law, language, religion and art are mixed together forming the basis of later medieval societies and, indeed, those of modern Europe. These successor kingdoms operated within a new framework of ‘international relations’ with the Roman Empire as it remained in the East, sometimes working together, other times at odds, maintaining a politically and socially connected world. This is the world that the Hagia Sophia represents. While it was certainly one of radical change, it is not necessarily negative. While there is war and bloodshed and the destruction of once cherished institutions there is also the forging of new societies, the creation of beautiful art and development of architectural techniques. This world had always faced times of war and chaos both on the periphery, against other states and peoples, and within, during some stunningly violent civil wars. This world knew change well and it was not in spite of this great changing that  the foundations of the modern world appeared, but rather because of it.

And so the Hagia Sophia stands at the centre of the many layers of Istanbul. Although it has seen great change and been greatly changed itself in its long history, it remains still. A testament to a famously chaotic time, but also to a great wisdom. A wisdom that is holy, not in a religious sense, but in its impact on humanity, in its place as the foundation of much we hold dear to this very day.


Further Reading