A look at the mosaics inside the Hagia Sophia: they tell a layered and important history

Many are afraid that the decision to reinstate the monument as a mosque puts the depth of the Hagia Sophia’s history at risk

Powered by automated translation

From whitewashing to looting to outright desecration, the mosaics of the Hagia Sophia have endured a lot since the Byzantine structure was built in the sixth century.

Now, with the monument's reconversion to a mosque, many fear that the mosaics may be under threat again.

On Monday, a spokesman for Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), tried to assure conversion-critics of the mosaics' safety, saying they will be covered by curtains or lasers during prayer times. But it's still not immediately clear how the lasers will work in a structure that's more than 50 metres tall.

In the first few hundred years of its existence, the Hagia Sophia boasted some of the most sophisticated mosaics of its time. Made of tesserae of glass, stone and ceramics, as well as gold leaf, the Byzantine works – unlike the Classical Greek and Roman pieces that preceded them – favour symbolism over realism.

The artists behind them created exaggerated and idealised images to reflect what they thought existed within a person’s soul. Their goal was to instil awe, and to give the feeling of occupying a spiritual realm.

But not everybody has been an admirer.

Those early works were all destroyed during the Byzantine Iconoclasm movements in the eighth and ninth centuries, which condemned the use of religious images and icons. Most of the mosaics that adorn the monument’s walls today were made between the 10th and 12th centuries; but those have come under attack, too.

During the Fourth Crusade, in 1204, Latin Crusaders attacked and desecrated the cathedral before ousting the Patriarch and replacing him with a Latin bishop. Many beautiful mosaics were pried out in the process and then shipped to Venice.

Then, in 1453, after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople and the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, the mosaics were covered in whitewash and plaster. They were uncovered in 1847, during the restoration of the monument by the Fossati brothers.

The Swiss architects copied the mosaics for their records before they were covered again. They remained concealed until 1931 when Thomas Whittemore, a US scholar and archaeologist, began a recovery programme to restore them.

The restoration effort came three years before the decree by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Republic of Turkey, which turned the architectural marvel into a museum.

The move granted the monument a universal legacy. It celebrated the structure’s expansive history, as well as Istanbul’s position as a centre of various cultures and faiths.

With its pewter-hued domes and soaring minarets, the Hagia Sophia has been crowning Istanbul’s skyline long before the transcontinental city was called that.

The terracotta-coloured structure is likely the most important Byzantine artefact we have left today, and its function has long been a barometer of the city’s political condition.

It is perhaps for this reason that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has decided to convert the site to a mosque again. Analysts say it is a thinly veiled attempt to cement his legacy and influence with Turkey’s conservative base. A way to detract attention from the country’s turbulent economic state.

But the fear is that Erdogan’s decree puts the Hagia Sophia’s cross-cultural legacy, and its mosaics, at risk.

The mosaics

Some of the most remarkable mosaics within the Hagia Sophia are the angels that adorn the flanks of the central dome.

epa01809254 The angel mosaic is seen after it uncovered at Hagia Sophia Museum in Istanbul, Turkey on 25 July 2009. Experts have uncovered one of the six angel mosaics within the world-famous Hagia Sophia Museum in Istanbul after it had been hidden for 160 years behind plaster and a metal mask.
The mosaic, which measures 1.5 meters by 1 meter, was last seen by Swiss architect Gaspare Fossati, who headed restoration efforts at the museum between 1847 and 1849, and Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid. Experts were surprised to see that the mosaic, believed to date from the 14th century, was so well preserved.  EPA/TOLGA BOZOGLU *** Local Caption *** 01809254
The angel mosaic after it was uncovered at Hagia Sophia Museum in 2009. EPA

The bowl of the dome is believed to have once been adorned by a huge cross, and later a mosaic of Christ Pantocrator. Made in the ninth century, the mosaics of the six-winged angels, The Seraphim, decorating the brim around the dome were seen as the protectors of the central image. The Seraphim's faces were covered with stars in 1609, during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Ahmed.

Although the Fossati brothers uncovered and made a copy of the angels in their notebooks, the angels' faces were concealed again.

In 2009, experts uncovered one of the six angel mosaics within the Hagia Sophia after it had been hidden for 160 years behind plaster and a metal mask. Experts were surprised to see that the mosaic, believed to date from the 14th century, was so well preserved.

Another remarkable mosaic is the one located in the triangular wall surface above the Imperial Gate. The gate was used by emperors when entering the church.

The mosaic depicts the emperor (who analysts believe represents Leo VI the Wise or his son, Constantine VII) bowing down before Christ, who is seated on a jewelled throne and holds up an open book that reads: “Peace be with you. I am the light of the world.”

There are circular medallions on each side of Christ’s soldiers. One of them depicts Mary, whereas the other shows the Archangel Gabriel.

Another significant mosaic is the Virgin and Child, which was one of the first mosaics to be created after the period of the Iconoclasm. It shows Mary sitting on a backless throne, the Child Jesus on her lap. Her feet are rested upon a pedestal decked with precious stones. The mosaic, like the others on the Apse, are set on the original golden background of the 6th century.

The mosaic of Empress Zoe is another interesting one. Dating back to the 11th century, the work depicts Empress Zoe on the right, holding a scroll that represents the donations made to the church.

C231DE Empress Zoe mosaics,Hagia Sophia in istanbul,Turkey
The Empress Zoe mosaic. Alamy Stock Photo

On the left of the mosaic is Emperor Constantine IX, a bag of coins in his hand that also symbolises the donations. Christ sits on a throne in the middle. Wearing blue robes, he holds a bible and gestures a blessing with his right hand.

There are a litany of other non-mosaic artworks that are equally exceptional.

There are the large Lustration urns, carved out of a single block of marble, and the wishing column, which is said to be damp when touched and as such has supernatural powers. There is also the sultan’s imperial lodge – with its marble carved Turkish rococo grill – and the loggia of the empress.

The Marble Door – also called the Door of Heaven and Hell – is carved with depictions of fruit and fish; while there are also Viking scripts found around the site – one of which reads “Halfdan was here” in an etching that seems analogous to the desk-scribbles of schoolchildren, except this one was by a Viking mercenary.

I have never seen the Hagia Sophia in person. As many across social media express their gratitude at having visited the site prior to Erdogan’s decree, I begin to rue that fact again.

Ten years ago, a relative of mine, having returned to Syria from a week-long summer trip to Istanbul, described the monument as “a place beyond belief”, whistling and shaking his head, words failing to express the magnificence of what he saw.

Sure, his testimony was considerably less articulate than what the Byzantine scholar Procopius said of the site’s main dome in the 6th century: “It seems not to be founded on solid masonry, but to be suspended from heaven.” But still, I was struck by second-hand awe from my relative nonetheless.

Of course I wanted to visit myself, but unfortunately the opportunity never came. Instead I read up on its history – how it had been a church for more than 900 years and a mosque for nearly 500 – looked at photographs of its architecture that seamlessly blended elements from the two faiths – and though it intrigued and amazed, I was not filled by that same sense of lost-for-words wonder as my relative.

I suspect you can only get that dizzying sensation from being there yourself. Hopefully I will be able to visit one day, and it will be all there for me to see.