For anyone interested in Byzantine church history and church architecture, İstanbul is unequaled as the place to study and appreciate it.
At the end of the First Ecumenical Council in Bicaea (325), Constantine ordered a delegation of bishops to accompany him to the town of Byzantium. This was the place that he had picked for his new capital, after having considered and rejected Alexandria Troas among other locations. Taking a church already in existence, Constantine enlarged it and dedicated his first cathedral to St. Irene (Divine Peace). It remained the city’s cathedral until 360 when the first St. Sophia (Divine Wisdom) was dedicated. From then on the two buildings were identified as one Great Church (Magala Ekklesia in Greek); they shared much of the same history over the years. St. Irene was the cathedral again from 404 to 414 when St. Sophia had been destroyed. Burned to the ground in the Nika riots in 532, both churches were rebuilt by Justinian. St. Irene suffered damages from fire 564 and from earthquake in 740.
St. Irene is important in Christian history as the setting of the meetings of the Second Ecumenical Council in 381. Unlike the other Byzantine churches in Istanbul, St. Irene was never converted into a mosque. For years under the Ottoman Empire it was first an arsenal and then a military museum. Now some of the classical music concerts of the yearly İstanbul Internation Festival are held here. Other than on those evenings, one must apply to the Ministry of Tourism in Ankara for permission to gain entrance to it.
St. Irene is interestin as a church building because it shows a transition in type from a basilica (an oblong building used as a court and having a semicircular apse at one end) to a cruciform church with a central nave flanked by two transepts. In St. Irene, the transepts are defined inside the structure by columns rather than in the exterior outline of the buildings as in the true cruciform church. A few of the capitals on the columns carry monograms of Justinian and Theodora similar to those in St. Sophia. The apse has the only surviving Byzantine synthronon (the tiers of seats for the bishops9 in İstanbul. (It makes an excellent riser for a chorus today.) Underneath it is a passage that the bishops could have used to get from one side to the other without crossing in front of the altar.
For both Christians and Muslims, St. Sophia is holdy ground. The name, St. Sophia, means holy wisdom. When Sultan Mehmet II took the city in 1453 this symbol of profound knowledge and sovereignty became the prime mosque of his capital. Recogizing its historic and universal importance, the Turkish government made it a public museum in 1935.
The museum of St. Sophia (Ayasofya Müzesi) appears to many visitors to be more like and echoing barn than a place of worship. In spite of that, its esthetic proportions, its size, its antiquity and its history have challanged architects, theologians, generals, historians, novelists, artists, and politicians to admire, to study and often to covet it. The clorser one looks at it, the richer becomes one’s appreciation of the building and the people who added to its history.
In addition to the current protective scaffolding, inside the nave you will notice the expanse of the building, and your eyes will be drawn to the dome which rises 56 meters above the floor. Is diameter is about 32 meters; the irregularity of its circle was caused during the reconstruction when the dome was replaced and heightened after it fell. Four huge piers stand at he corners of the 31m2 central area and lead up to four arches. Those blend into the graceful pendentives used to solve the architectural problem of balancing a dome on top of a cube. Between the piers, columns of red porphyry and vert antique help support the galleries and the semi-dmoes. Inscribed in the marble floor you can see small X’s that mark the plumb line of each of the ribs of the dome.
The six large disks with the names of God, of Muhammad, and of the first caliphs and imams punctuate the angles of the domes. These were installed in the mid-19th century by the architect Fossati who was charged by Sultan Abdülmecid with restoing the building. (Another account dates them to the of a certain calligrapher İbrahim in 1650.) The patterns in the marbles of the revetment were made as the blocks were sliced and then placed side by side. Many sightseers entertain themselves imaging faces and animals in these patterns.
If you have been impressed by the size of the nave from the ground, you may be even more amazed at the size and the height of the dome as you look at them from the galleries. Take a minute as you reach the north gallery to look down its length and see in the elliptical arches startling evidence of the speed with which the building was constructed. The arches lean outwards showing the plastic quality of the cement when the heavy dome was added.
Some of the graffiti in the balcony make footnotes to Byzantine history. Scratchings on one of the north walls show the outline of a sailing ship. They hint at a long, boring service. On the balustrade of the south balcony are Nordic runes cut there perhaps by a 9th or 10th century Viking who served in the emperor’s army. The east wall of the balcony is decorated by rather crude mosaic portraits of several royal figures. Two of them represent the Empress Zoe (1028-1054) and her husband. Her husband’s face was changed from her first, Romanus III (whose death she arranged), to her second Michael IV (whose nephew deposed and exiled her and whom she subsequently blinded), to her third Constantine IX (who outlived her).
The finest of all the mosaics is in the south gallery. An early 14th century work, it is called the Deisis, a common Byzantine grouping with Christ, flanked by Mary and John the Baptist on either side. Even as a fragment this a masterpiece of the artistic expression of pathos and compassion.