Hagia Sophia - the Hagia Sophia as we say here - is certainly the most emblematic monument of Istanbul, or rather of Istanbul! Known throughout the world for its architectural and aesthetic prowess, it also has some unusual and interesting anecdotes.
1- The construction of all records for Hagia Sophia!
First of all, before letting you cross the threshold, it is necessary to announce that you are actually here in front of the 3rd version of the Saint-Sophia church. The one that was inaugurated by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 537 – so about 1500 years ago! It was built on the still smoldering ruins of the 2nd one, itself built on those of the 1st Hagia Sophia church, dating from the year 360. (If there is no trace left of the 1st one, you will be able to admire some remains of the second Hagia Sophia. (Just before entering, on your left, the remains of the first 5 steps and a portion of a frieze, sculpted with sheep!)
For the rest, it is the church of Justinian with additions that will be made later by the Ottomans, such as its buttresses, its 4 minarets, its fountain, its Mirhab, its Minbar …
But one of the things that surprised me the most was the time it took to build this Basilica. A little less than 6 years! 5 years and 10 months to be precise… incredible for the time! For comparison, consider that the construction of the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral took more than 200 years, to be consecrated only in the 14th century! The Blue Mosque which faces Sainte-Sophie was built in 7 years, but it was in the 17th century, that is to say 1000 years later, with much more modern technical means!
One can only imagine the number of workers and the pressure they had to undergo to realize the most grandiose church in the world (Justinian had given carte blanche on the expenses! and so much the worse for the taxpayer!!!).
Even today, Hagia Sophia dazzles by its interior space, the volume of its nave, the height and the diameter of its dome (about 31m in diameter and 56m high!).
2- Le lifting of Zoe!
In the upper south gallery, there are extraordinary Byzantine mosaics, one of which represents the Empress Zoe and her husband, Constantine IX, around Christ. In reality, Constantine being her 3rd husband, the face and the related inscription were redone 3 times! And at the same time, Zoe had her portrait redone – or photoshopped as we would say today – to look younger after each remarriage! Nevertheless, the finesse of the mosaic is extraordinary.
The story of this rascal Zoe is rather amusing, even if it was less so for her husbands. Daughter of the emperor Constantine VIII, Zoë grew up in the gynecee – the Byzantine harem – away from any carnal temptation… until her first marriage, at the age of 50 (finally!!!).
It is thus with an old relative (literally as well as figuratively) that she is married, whereas the emperor is dying. But this husband, Roman III, does not last long, since she has him murdered after 6 years… by the hand of her lover! Immediately, Zoé marries him in second marriage, making him the emperor Michel IV, and adopts his nephew in order to have an heir.
Because this second husband, of fragile health dies of disease hardly 7 years later. Zoe being “only a woman”, who moreover is 63 years old, it is her adoptive son Michel V who mounts on the throne. But the ungrateful one schemed to try to have Zoé locked up in a convent (after 50 years of gynecee, no way!!!). Supported by the people, it is finally Michel V who has to take his legs to his neck – and who gets his eyes gouged out for the pain!
Zoe thus preserves her position of empress and marries a third time in 1042 with a youngster this time, of about forty years, who becomes the emperor Constantin IX (that we see thus on the mosaic). They reign together (with the mistress of Constantine, making household to 3!) until the death of Zoe in 1050.
3- A Viking Graffiti!
Another original anecdote, these are the graffiti or runes of Viking origin that can be seen in the upper gallery of the Basilica of Hagia Sophia, engraved in the marble of the parapet at the level of the mosaic of Deisis.
These inscriptions would be dated from the 9th century. While the Byzantine Empire reigns over a large part of the Mediterranean, in the Scandinavian countries rages the Viking people!
At that time, if commercial exchanges already seem to exist between Viking and Byzantine, it is especially from the 10th century, that the Emperor Basil II will anchor these relations. He then created within his army, the Varangian guard or Varègue. Composed of mercenaries of Scandinavian origin, it ensured his close protection. It would have existed officially until the 14th century.
The inscriptions that can be seen in Hagia Sophia would be Viking runes whose translation is “Halfdan engraved these runes”, in other words Halfdan is the author of this Viking graffiti, proof of his passage to Constantinople about 1000 years ago… It is of course strictly forbidden to imitate him!
4- Gli, the super-star cat of Hagia Sophia
Here is a cute anecdote… You know that cats are the real masters of the current Istanbul! And that you will meet them absolutely everywhere, whether in the streets, the restaurants, the museums and thus also in Hagia Sophia!
But there is one that has been noticed even more, to the point of becoming a real star … it is the cat named Gli!
Gli, is not a cat like the others, since he has his own Facebook page! His international fame today comes from his meeting with the American President Barrack Obama during his official visit in 2009 in Istanbul. Not impressed in the least, Gli let himself be caressed by Obama in front of the cameras of the whole world and quickly created the buzz.
Even today, you can meet Gli the cat in Hagia Sophia, taking selfies with tourists who often don’t know that they are dealing with a star!
5- The sweaty column with wishes!
A little anecdote for the superstitious! Before leaving the nave of Hagia Sophia, from the northwest, you will notice a column or more certainly a crowd around a column. As you approach you will ask yourself “what are they all doing twisting their arms in front of this column? It is in fact the “sweating column” which would have the property to grant wishes, heal the sick and make pregnant women fall.
The origin of this superstition goes back to the Emperor Justinian who one day, struck by a severe headache would have leaned his head on this column (at random among the 107 columns of Saint Sophia). Luckily, this one was miraculous and his headache passed! That was all it took for the legend to be born… Afterwards, it was attributed a whole bunch of virtues.
Today covered with a copper plate, which shows the hole formed by wear, you have to put your right thumb in it and make a wish. If your thumb comes out wet, you will be fulfilled! If you are in pain somewhere, just touch the painful area to get relief. It is said that it is the tears of the Virgin Mary that flow through the marble of this column.
For a more “rational” explanation, it is said that the column was blessed by Gregory the Thaumaturgist. He was a beatified bishop of Cappadocia in the third century, well before the construction of Hagia Sophia. However, this blessing is not impossible since the columns were recovered from ancient monuments, spread throughout the Byzantine Empire.
Later, when Mehmet II the Conqueror enters Istanbul and converts the Basilica into a mosque, another legend claims that a divine intervention would have started to rotate Hagia Sophia to orient it in the direction of Mecca. But surprised by a passer-by it could not succeed (it lacks just a few small degrees). The Muslims would therefore reproduce this gesture – putting their right thumb in the hole of the column and making with the palm of the hand a complete turn clockwise – to try to make Saint Sophia turn. We can also suppose that some take advantage of this to make a wish, just in case…
That’s it for this first series of 5 anecdotes about Hagia Sophia.