The Hagia Sophia is unique for a variety reasons. For one, the floor plan of the church, turned mosque,is a square with an impressive mosiac, golden dome mounted on top. From the outside, these features are fully visable, but the tangible experience of walking through the Hagia Sophia is something truly different.
The architectural aspects of the Hagia Sophia are undoubtedly impressive. For example, the marble siding, which is only a few inches thick, surrounds the lower interior. What makes this marble interior most interesting is the symmetry of the design; the marble is cut in such a way that the slabs are placed against one another and the slabs create opposite, mirror images of each other. This creates a beautiful"butterfly" effect. While much of the color of this marble has faded over time, in it's height, the striking color and patterns of the marbling would have left even the most skeptical visitor with visions of grandeur. This rippling effect was meant to evoke imagery from the Bible, in particular, the story Genesis, or the Christian story about creation.
Another significant architectural detail is the impressive golden dome, which inevitably gave me a neck ache because I kept craning my neck up to get a greater look at the beautiful features. The golden dome was added during the reign of Justinian I, and it was meant to provoke powerful imagery of light; light often plays an important role in representing divinity or "Godliness" in Christianity. This dome which is pierced with a ring of windows around it's edge gives the visitor an impression that the dome is perhaps not attached to the building, but rather suspended from a golden chain that descends from heaven. This effect is best witnessed on bright, sunny afternoons.
Beyond the visual imagery, sounds also travel and resonate through the walls of the Hagia Sophia. This long, sustained sound is known as "wet reverberation," which means that the sounds travel and repeat for long periods of time. This gives the visitor an impression of water. The audio and visual constructions that imitate water are described in early biblical stories, too.
Religious symbolism runs rampant through the Hagia Sophia and mosaics (small tiled art) grace the walls to show praise to key figures. At the imperial gate, one is introduced to the Hagia Sophia with the image of Jesus flanked on both sides by Mary and an arch angel Gabriel. The next mosaic work that one will notice is a key image of Byzantium: the Virgin and Child flanked by Justinian and Constantine, who were both Byzantine emperors. Each one of these emperors bestows a gift to Jesus. On the right, one sees Justinian offering a mini- replicate of the Hagia Sophia and on the right one sees Constantine (where the name Constantinople originates) offering a gift of the walled city.
As the visitor moves forward through the shrine, you enter the large main open area of the the mosque with the grand and exciting, domed ceilings, which are a mainstay of the Hagia Sophia. This particular part of the mosque tells a most entrancing story about the transformation of Constantinople.
In 1453, Mehmet II conquered the walled city of Constantinople after a seige that last for 57 days. Upon entering the Hagia Sophia, Mehmet, who was only 21 at the time, came across a fellow soldier who was wreaking havoc on the building and gradually defacing it, in what he believed was the most appropriate response to conquest. Mehmet asked the soldier, "Wherefore does thou that?" (why are you doing that?), and the soldier responds "for the faith." At this point, Mehmet strikes the soldier in anger and replies, "Ye have got enough by pillaging and enslaving the city, the buildings are mine!"
Mehmet claimed the Hagia Sophia and converted it into a mosque. The circular disks that hang around the interior, with beautiful calligraphic designs remind worshipers of this key transformation from what was "Constantinople" and what is now "Istanbul." These brilliantly decorated disks represent the four rightful caliphs, or successors after the death of Muhammad and include: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Sunni Ali. Consequently, the role of Sunni Ali, a blood-relative of Muhammad, would cause a great schism or divide in Islam. This divide created the Sunni and Shiite divisions in modern Islam.
Today, the Hagia Sophia is not considered a church or mosque. Attaturk, Turkey's first democratically elected president, claimed it as a secular, meaning non-religous, museum, which has spurred discussions among intellectuals and theologians alike: what does the Hagia Sophia represent today?
Until then, I'll leave you with this catchy and familiar song.