Hagia Sophia: Istanbul's Ancient Mystery (Video Review)

1,500 Year Old Sacred and Secular Architecture in Old Constantinople

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
Even after 1500 years the Hagia Sophia still stands proudly in the historical heart of Istanbul. Providence Pictures

On February 25, 2015, the American Public Broadcasting Service's NOVA program premieres its last video in the Building Wonders series, called "Hagia Sophia: Istanbul's Ancient Mystery".

The Hagia Sophia is a breathtakingly well-engineered structure, built at the behest of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I in the 6th century AD. Despite earthquakes and political upheaval, it is a remarkably stable structure, standing nearly 1,500 years, within the old city limits of Constantinople (today's Istanbul) in Turkey.

The Hagia Sophia began life in 532 as a Greek Orthodox structure, with a blended architecture borrowed from the Romans and Greeks. During the 4th crusade (1201-1202), Constantinople was sacked and the Hagia Sophia remade into a Catholic cathedral. In 1453 the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia was remade into a mosque. Finally, in 1935, at the request of Istanbul's leader Atatürk, the Hagia Sophia became a museum, blending the two, or maybe three types of religious structures into a single secular structure.

Nevertheless, despite this checkered history, and despite numerous earthquakes, the essential core of the building remains the same basic dome over a rectangle, an architectural invention 1500 years old but still fresh and meaningful.

Main Threads

The video examines two main story lines of the Hagia Sophia: construction and architectural history of the building; and ongoing preservation and restoration efforts.

The historical context of the original construction of the Hagia Sophia is a fascinating study in Byzantine politics. As Robert Ousterhout (Penn) describes it, Constantine the Great grew the Byzantine empire from his capital city of Constantinople out of the ashes of the Roman Empire; when Justinian took control, a power struggle followed, with riots in the streets burning down the city.

After slaughtering tens of thousands of rebels, Justinian rebuilt Constantinople, including a new church, using nearly the entire budget of the empire.

Joan Branham(Providence College) and Ahmet Çakmak (Princeton) discuss how the shape of the building was determined; how Greek mathematicians were brought in to design the perfect new structure for Christian churches when it becomes legal to do that in the 4th century Roman empire. Hagia Sophia was a new design, based not on ancient synagogues but rather on an amalgam of a rectangular type of building used in the Roman court of law, topped with a dome typically found on Greek temples centered over the top.

When the Ottoman sultan Mehmet conquered the city of Constantinople in 1453, instead of pulling the Hagia Sophia, he reimagined the remarkable hybrid building into a mosque, plastering over the Christian mosaics, building minarets and adding other sacred structures. In the process, Mehmet recreated the dome and rectangle as the ideal form for mosques for the future.

Restoration and Preservation

An important chunk of Hagia Sophia: Istanbul's Ancient Mystery is the preservation and restoration efforts in support of the ancient building.

Although the core structure has withstood nearly 1,500 years of earthquakes and political turmoil, the question remains: how much more can it stand? In this section, Eser Çakti of Bogazici University discusses her investigations creating a scale model of the structure, to conduct stress tests on it and better prepare for possible intensive earthquake damage.

Because Istanbul sits on a major fault zone, the museum staff has placed sensors on the Hagia Sophia to track vibrations, and those sensors are used to investigate structural integrity. The 7 ton model, built on a 1/26th scale, is fitted with similar sensors and placed on a shake table to be exposed to forces comparable to several repeating earthquakes.

At the same time, Sonay Sakar, architect for the Ministry of Culture in Turkey is overseeing the replacement of crumbling cement and sandstone of the building, by using ancient techniques.

The original bricks, he finds, are lighter than modern bricks, and the mortar layer thicker, making walls that are both flexible and strong.

Restoration of the Interior Decoration

Restoration of the cultural decorations of the Hagia Sophia has been ongoing off and on since its construction. The current state of the monument contains some Koranic and some Christian elements: the site functions as a museum, reflecting all cultural elements of the long history of use. Whether it will stay a museum, or revert to either a mosque or a Greek orthodox church is still under debate.

Some investigation into identifying the original Christian mosiacs likely hidden beneath the plaster are being carried out, but with the specific aim to preserve the overlying Koranic inscriptions and decor. To that end, armed with details about original Byzantine glass mosaics hidden beneath the plaster, archaeologists Hitoshi Takanezawa and Kobe Shukugawa of Gakuin University are looking for the mosaics using an electromagnetic scanner, used to find structural faults.

Interesting sidebars involves the work of Luciana Notturni at the Mosaic Art School of Ravenna who is working on reproducing Byzantine glass mosaics wtih gold leaf; and Carlo Agliati at the State Archives of Ticino, Switzerland, with paintings from an earlier reconstruction effort.

Bottom Line

Hagia Sophia: Istanbul's Ancient Mystery is an interesting introduction to the political, economic, religious and architectural significance of this gorgeous building.

The building itself is a landmark, not simply because of its stability and longevity, but because its iconic look transcends the various and related religions which it speaks to, reminding us of our common history and strengths.

The main controversy of the Hagia Sophia--whether it should remain a museum or be converted back to either an Islamic mosque or a Christian church--is touched upon but is not a focus of the discussion. I don't see how they could have fit it into the hour format because that's an issue that requires considerable thought and reflection: but you won't find it here. 

Hagia Sophia: Istanbul's Ancient Mystery. 2015. Narrated by Jay O. Sanders, written, produced and directed by Garry Glassman, Executive Producres Valeir Abita, Manuel Catteau, Senior Producer Chris Schmidt, Managing directory Alan Ritsko, Senior Executive Producer Paula S. Apsell. NOVA production by Providence Pictures, co-produced with ZED and ARTE France. Copyright 2015 WGHB Educational Foundation. Featuring: Eser Çakti, Robert Ousterhout, Ahmet Çakmak, Joan Branham, Luciana Notturni, Hitoshi Takanezawa, Kobe Shukugawa, Korhan Oral, Poligon Yapi, Carlo Agliati, Mustafa Erdik, Koray Durak

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Hagia Sophia: Istanbul's Ancient Mystery (Video Review)." ThoughtCo, Jan. 20, 2016, thoughtco.com/hagia-sophia-istanbul-video-review-170279. Hirst, K. Kris. (2016, January 20). Hagia Sophia: Istanbul's Ancient Mystery (Video Review). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/hagia-sophia-istanbul-video-review-170279 Hirst, K. Kris. "Hagia Sophia: Istanbul's Ancient Mystery (Video Review)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/hagia-sophia-istanbul-video-review-170279 (accessed November 21, 2017).