One should look no further in one's search for the most long-standing symbol of religion, culture, and history than the Aya Sofia. The building, found within the heart of a massively cultural city, has stood for over a thousand years, withstanding civil and foreign wars, outbreaks of plague, and even earthquakes. Located only miles from the North Anatolian Fault -- one that can be likened to the San Andreas Fault line in California -- the Aya Sofia has managed to evade the threat of major earthquakes (Aydingun, Sengul and Mark Rose). With a modernized Istanbul, it is a wonder how a building such as Aya Sofia can still stand, even amongst its modern neighbors -- ones filled with high-rises, dinghy apartments, and parking lots.
The Aya Sofia's longevity is certainly a major factor in its importance. It has become a world heritage site in accordance to UNESCO's standards (Hagia-Sophia.net). Its architectural creation has pegged it as an innovation during its time period, and until St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, the Aya Sofia had been the largest cathedral created in Christendom (Hagia-Sophia.net). Some are even undergoing a project that would further the renovations of such a building, though these plans remain inconsistent and lacking funds. It is no surprise, considering the entire endeavor of revamping the major architectural work of the "mosaics, frescoes, and masonry" is an overwhelming undertaking (Bordewich, Fergus). Furthermore, Aya Sofia's lasting mark as a religious and cultural symbol has sparked worldwide acclaim. What was once a cathedral had become a mosque; by the start of the Turkish Republic, Aya Sofia had become a museum. This in itself has made the Aya Sofia a contested public space.
2. Constantinople, the Byzantium Capital
To understand the importance of such a symbolic structure as Aya Sofia, one must look at the time period of its beginnings and those of its changes. One must also look at the city that houses Aya Sofia: Byzantine Constantinople or what is now called Istanbul. "Napoleon said that if the world were a single state then its capital would be Constantinople" (Henry, Shukman). In Napoleon's time, and perhaps all the way until the Turkish Republic, Constantinople was a symbol of a melding of cultures.
Constantinople stood as the once-proud capital of the Roman Empire that expanded from the West. The founder, Constantine I, had altered his Roman capital east as a strategic move; placing the capital on such a location would have allowed Constantine I the ability to rule both the eastern and western portions of his empire (Franko, Elyse). The empire itself would eventually divide into the Byzantine Empire and the Roman Empire, also changing the observed religions; what was once Christianity had been further split into Roman Catholic (the West) and the Greek Orthodox (the East). This division had been gradual, and had occurred hundreds of years after Constantine I.
The capital of the Roman Empire had lived through a rapid evolution. When the Western Roman Empire became overrun by the Germanic tribes of the north, the Byzantium capital prospered, and the empire grew to become the largest and most economically developed kingdoms in Europe. This Byzantium rule lasted over a thousand years, and only in the periodic wars of the latter years did history see the once-long-standing civilization crumble in the hands of the Latin Crusaders and finally collapse at the feet of the growing power of the Ottoman Empire (Franko, Elyse). By 1453, almost all of Byzantium rule had ceased to exist, crushed by a Muslim ruling class.
3. Christianity and the Hagia Sophia
With the creation of the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, Christianity had become a tolerated religion. Constantine I himself had shown a "marked preference for Christianity," converting to the religion even when most people expected the emperors to instill pagan practices (Stathakopoulos, Dionysios). Therefore the Byzantine Empire, even at its beginnings, had always been a Christian empire. And as the city expanded, there came the growing need to erect a main place of worship. Therefore the first undertaking to build a majestic Christian church within Constantinople took place in 360.
Under the organization of Constantius II, a basilican church was erected on the site of what would later hold the Aya Sofia ("Hagia Sophia"). This church would be short-lived, however, and by 404 it would be burned down, making way for Theodosius II's undertaking: the re-creation of the same church in 415. Through another uprising -- the Nika Revolt of 532 -- the church was once again burned down (Franko, Elyse). The third time, however, had become a charm, and learning from his predecessors, Justinian I sought to recreate the church through a more fire-proof construction.
Justinian I was a military man, a leader of action and ambition (Stathakopoulos, Dionysios). He was the source of many contributions that lasted in Constantinople long after his time; his Corfus Iuris Civilis had become the standard law book for the empire. But it was his "vision and drive" that strove to create the Hagia Sophia in its beginning stages (Stathakopoulos, Dionysios). Employing brilliant architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, the Hagia Sophia came to fruition in 532 ("Hagia Sophia"). This endeavor was a major feat, as the cost itself totaled to around 145,000 kg of gold, almost $3 billion in American dollars (Hughes, Virginia).
4. The Ottomans and the Ayasofya Camii
Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, and on the day of its capture, a triumphant Mehmed II paraded straight to the Hagia Sophia and immediately declared it a mosque. To Mehmed II, the Hagia Sophia had been a "physical embodiment of imperial power," and in his great ambition to rule a vast empire, he declared the ownership of the cathedral as his (Bordewich, Fergus). To continue the massive changes from Byzantine rule to Arab rule, Mehmed II renamed the Hagia Sophia in the Turkish tongue, calling the newly-altered cathedral the Ayasofya Camii. To remove the signs of Christian worshipping within the Ayasofya, the Ottoman sultans underwent renovations that covered up all the Christian symbolism found within the mosque.
Within the next hundred years, the Ayasofya had been renovated and altered. Windows and doorways were added in order to allow Muslims to see the open horizon that would point them to Mecca (Franko, Elyse). Throughout these renovations, minarets and other additional rooms were added to the Ayasofya, and various Byzantine artworks had been displaced. By the end of the 19th century, the Ayasofya had become a true symbol of the merging of both eastern and western cultures. The Christian Hagia Sophia had drawn Christian pilgrimages; likewise, the Muslim Ayasofya brought many Muslims into Constantinople for their own spiritual journeys.
The Ayasofya as a mosque had remained as such until the dawning of the Turkish Republic, and it was only after World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire that the Ayasofya was changed out of its purpose once more. In 1934, the Turkish Republic declared that the structure would once again serve a different, secularized purpose: this time as a museum and as the Aya Sofia (Bordewich, Fergus).
5. Aya Sofia's Grand Structure
At its inception, the Aya Sofia was a majestic architectural work of art. Justinian I's architects and engineers had made the structure fireproof, and when an earthquake suffered the destruction of the first dome, Justinian ordered a more stable dome built to withstand the natural disaster. This 55-meter-high dome would suffer partial collapses within the next thousand years, but it would keep its longevity, a feat that has produced admiration and wonder in scholars studying the Aya Sofia's structure.
The importance of the Aya Sofia's architecture lies in its innovative style and later on, its cultural influences. Before the Aya Sofia, "virtually all domed structures [were] essentially domes on cylinders" (Hughes, Virginia). The Aya Sofia, however, has a strong square core as its base. The museum's pendentives were also unique to the structures of the time period; the "concave triangular sections of brick and mortar [made] smooth structural transitions between the curved tops of the four arches and the bottom of the dome" (Hughes, Virginia). Make no mistake, the beginning influences were Roman in nature; however, the influences of the eastern cultures and the necessity of adapting a building to withstand earthquakes gave way to the majesty that became the Aya Sofia.
"Visible for miles across the Sea of Marmara," the Aya Sofia, "with its giant buttresses and soaring minarets, symbolizes a culture collision of epic proportions" (Bordewich, Fergus). As a Byzantine cathedral, stained glass windows of Christian iconography decorated the walls and ceilings. As a Muslim mosque, minarets were constructed in order for the ease of the calls to prayer. As a structure of over a thousand years old, the Aya Sofia had combined these two worlds -- the eastern and the western -- through the use of mosaics, art, and renovations undertaken throughout the years.