Turkey has just been awarded the 2014 Trip Advisor Traveler’s Choice award as the #1 place tourists want to visit. Istanbul was voted the top travel destination, outranking Rome, Paris, New York, and London. In 2013 Turkey was already the sixth most visited country, with 35 million visitors.

All visitors to Istanbul goggle in amazement at Justinian’s creation, the Hagia Sophia basilica. A description of its conception and construction follows. Photos of the interior and exterior are on my Pinterest page: http://www.pinterest.com/carol8276/hagia-sophia/


Hagia Sophia: The Architecture of Aspiration

Let me tell you how I got interested in one of the main characters in my novel, Emperor Justinian of 6th-century Constantinople. My day job is writing about the history of art and architecture, and Justinian produced one of the all-time greatest monuments of the ancient world: the Hagia Sophia basilica in what’s now Istanbul. The church, whose name means Holy Wisdom, wasn’t just built under his aegis. It was conceived by him, financed by him, and micro-managed by him. People talk about his revising the Roman law code, which became the basis for all Western law, or his vision of reconquering the lost lands of the Roman Empire. Those achievements earned him the moniker Justinian the Great. Yet to my mind, his most sublime legacy is this church, still standing and still stunning.

The first church on the site was built by Emperor Constantine who founded Constantinople in 330 CE. Discontented rebels burned it to the ground in 532. Most people saw a smoldering ruin; Justinian saw an opportunity. Just forty days after the basilica toppled, Justinian had a plan for a new cathedral, the most spectacular in the world.

One of his outstanding talents was an eye for spotting talent in others. To construct his dream of a monument to outshine anything then known, Justinian tapped two mathematicians: Isidore of Miletus, an expert on vaulting, and Anthemius of Tralles, a geometrician and engineer. Their grasp of theory was probably firmer than their practical experience. That’s why they were able to imagine a structure so audacious, more practiced architects would never have attempted it. A contemporary historian described the task: “to apply geometry to solid matter.”

Justinian gave them an unlimited budget. He canvassed the Empire for skilled artisans and materials. Word went out to all corners of the Mediterranean to send whatever fragments of Classical architecture could be re-purposed for the structure. Porphyry columns and multi-colored marble began arriving from Libya, Egypt, Syria, and all over Anatolia.

The most astounding fact about this building—which has stood for nearly 1500 years—is that it was built in less than six years. Compare that to European cathedrals that took centuries to complete. How did Justinian do it? He appointed 100 foremen, each supervising 100 men for a total of 10,000 engaged in the project. He divided them into two teams: 5,000 on the northern end and 5,000 on the southern, in competition.

Each day the Emperor, clutching a staff and wearing a white linen tunic with a kerchief on his head to ward off the brick dust, visited the construction site to survey the day’s progress. Each day he paid the workers in silver coins, encouraging them and praising their work.

The riskiness of the endeavor was excessive. Not only is the church planted in an active earthquake zone, but the design was far beyond the technology of the time. Never had such a vast dome (100 feet across and 180 feet high) existed, and it was not exceeded until the 16th century. Putting a gigantic, circular dome on a square space had never been done either. Indeed, not until modern times was there such a huge, open, unsupported expanse under one roof.

Its colossal scale and revolutionary design match the Emperor’s ambition. He too planned to be unparalleled in history. When Justinian’s architects came to him quavering in fear, lamenting that the dome wouldn’t hold, he reassured them. The piers were cracking and seemed on the point of collapse, but Justinian, a devout believer, commanded them to continue building the four massive arches that support the dome until they met in the center. When the keystones were inserted, he promised, they would support each other.

Justinian’s court historian, Procopius, tells the story. “Anthemius and Isidore, terrified, told the Emperor that their technical skill was insufficient to save it, and straightaway the Emperor…commanded them to carry the curve of this arch to its final completion, saying, ‘For when it rests upon itself, it will no longer need the props beneath it’.”

The architects “carried out his instructions, and the whole arch hung secure, sealing by experiment the truth of his idea.” Procopius adds, “It was not with money alone that the Emperor built it, but also with labor of the mind and with the other powers of the soul.”

Unhampered by practical considerations, Justinian had faith in his novel structure. Later, when the huge piers were flaking under the weight of the superstructure, the architects again sought his counsel. “And again the Emperor met the situation with a remedy,” Procopius reports. He ordered the upper parts of the strained masonry removed and reconstructed after the mortar was dry. It worked.

Around Christmas of 537 the church was dedicated. Justinian marched in procession from his palace and entered the vestibule with the Patriarch. Then, alone, he strode to the ivory-and-silver pulpit and examined his creation. “Solomon,” he is said to have murmured, “I have surpassed thee!”

Justinian surpassed himself in celebrating. At a lavish banquet for his court and citizens, he roasted 6000 sheep, 1000 each of oxen, pigs and poultry, along with 500 deer.

Praise for his creation was immediate. The dome, perforated at its base by a ring of 40 arched windows (permitting shafts of light to irradiate the interior) still inspires wonder, seeming “not to rest upon solid masonry but to cover the space beneath as though suspended from heaven.” The whole, Procopius wrote, is “marvelous in its grace, but by reason of the seeming insecurity of its composition altogether terrifying. For it somehow seems to float in the air on no firm basis, but to be poised aloft to the peril of those inside it.”

The polychrome marble revetments on walls and floors are rainbow-bright. Justinian ordered marbles in all colors cut into panels, matching the patterns of their veining, in alternating bands of color: blue, red, purple, and green. “One might imagine that he had come upon a meadow with its flowers in full bloom,” according to Procopius.

Thousands of silver lamps hung from long, brass chains to illuminate the interior, and sparkling gold mosaics glowed on vaults and arches. “Thus through the spaces of the great church come rays of light, expelling clouds of care, and filling the mind with joy,” a contemporary poet wrote. Justinian may have been a lowborn peasant—in fact, the son of a pig farmer—but his creation is a lofty achievement, “soaring upward to the blue…even to the choirs of the stars,” the poet added.

Like Augustus, who famously said, “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble,” Justinian was unsurpassed as an imperial builder. The cost was immense: 320,000 pounds of gold. But its colossal scale and unprecedented splendor equaled his ambitions. Even today the Hagia Sophia inspires awe.

The Crusaders were not so awestruck as to defer plundering. On the Fourth crusade in 1204, on their way to the Holy Land, they dug up Justinian’s tomb. To their amazement, after 639 years, the corpse was fully intact. To get to the loot inside, they unceremoniously dumped the Emperor’s mortal remains from the sarcophagus.

A huge, gilt-bronze equestrian statue of Justinian also met an undignified fate. It had stood at the center of a forum for a thousand years, but in the sixteenth century Turks melted it down to make cannons.

One of the titles I considered for the name of my novel was Nothing Gold Can Stay, the name of a poem by Robert Frost. Frost notes how everything radiant and glittery eventually becomes tarnished and ordinary. The shining dawn becomes dull day. Eye-catching, fragrant flowers give way to plain leaves, just as “Eden sank to grief”.

True, youth becomes age, dreams give way to reality, and stars fall. Yet for me, the Hagia Sophia is an example of one man’s peerless vision. It became a mosque in 1453 and a museum in 1935, but its eternal form still inspires us to dare, to imagine, to strive, and not to let the light go out.