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Hagia Sophia:The Rise And Fall Through The Decades

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From the Great Egyptian Pyramids to the high rise buildings of New York City, architecture is an integral part of our everyday lives. It is on rare occasions that we, the citizens of the world take a step back to notice the beauty of the architecture around us. Seldom do we contemplate the evolution of architecture from the simple villages of yesteryear to the complex cities we have today. Looking back in history, one of the most remarkable Byzantine architectural works was completed time and time again despite the decades of destruction. Each time it was rebuilt it became stronger than the church that preceded it. The name of this masterpiece is Hagia Sophia, a secret yet to be told to the world.

Hagia Sophia, also known as The Church of Holy Wisdom is located in Istanbul, Turkey and was built in 360 AD. The church is believed to have been founded by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. The former name of Hagia Sophia was Megale Ekklesia, which means the great church. Megale Ekklesia was the largest church within the borders of Constantinople (Nelson, 25). Fourth century theologians had given the name of Sophia to Christ. Hence, the reason many scholars state that the church was a dedication to Christ by Constantius. Both names, Hagia Sophia and Megale Ekklesia are used today for the church (Cruey).

The church has suffered greatly throughout the centuries through an array of destruction both natural and intentional. Hagia Sophia was first built on a hill overlooking the Sea of Marmara. This same hill on which the church was built is where the ancient temple of Apollo once stood (PBS online). Constantine's son Constantius II was the individual responsible for the completion of the church. The church resembled a basilica type structure with a rectangular floor plan, it is thought that the eastern wall of the church was circular and had a timbered roof (Kleinbaur and Mathews 87).

During riots in 404 AD, the church was burnt to the ground. The riots occurred because Emperor Arcadius sent Patriarch John Chrysostom of Constantinople into exile for criticizing the Empress. After the destruction the church was rebuilt in 415 AD by Emperor Theodosius II who built a new and improved church with the help of architect Ruffinos. The second church was also created in Basilica style and was 60 meters wide at the time (Nelson 45).

The church was once again burnt to the ground as a part of the Nika Revolt against Justinian in 532 AD. Constantinople was almost completely destroyed by fire at this time (PBS Online). Not only was Hagia Sophia destroyed but so were other buildings of great importance which included the Church of St. Eirene, Zorzip Bath and Samsun Hospital (Levy and Salvadori 22).

Justinian was able to take the burning down of the church to his advantage. Justinian ordered the construction of a new church. This would be the third time this church would be built. Justinian created the most impressive church of the time through the opportunity that he had created for himself. Historians state that Justinian had put himself in charge of his project and supervised the building of his church. Anthemius of Tralles and Isodorus of Miletus were two of the most famous architects of the time that helped with the construction of the Byzantine masterpiece. They supervised ten thousand laborers and one hundred master builders throughout the duration of the project. The church was built in five years, ten months, and four days, which was a very short time for a church of this caliber. Historians find it ironic that Justinian's rule that caused the revolt and led to the destruction of Hagia Sophia gave him the opportunity to build one of the greatest church structures in the history of Christianity (Klienbaur and Mathews 30).

During construction Anthemius was not sure how he was going to be able to build a circular dome on top of a square base. Despite the puzzle, Anthemius was able to come up with a solution. He decided that the dome needed to be supported by four massive columns at the base. Four arches swing across, linked by four pendentives. The apices of the arches and the pendentives supported the circular base from which rises the main dome. Beams of light stream through the 40 windows and illuminate the interior, decomposing the masses and creating an impression of infinite space (Nelson 34). Anthemius was able to engineer a remarkable design which made Hagia Sophia the most complex and remarkable creation of the time.

Three earthquakes, August 15, 553 AD, January 14, 557

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