Can East meet West, or about Turkey, which unites Asia and Europe. Part 3. Meeting of Two Empires: the Byzantines and the Ottomans

Aya Sofya or Saint Sophia, Istanbul. Photo by Alexey Soloviev, BlackSeaNews

Editor of Tourism Section of BlackSeaNews

Continued, click here for parts 1,2:
Can East meet West, or about Turkey, which unites Asia and Europe. Part One: Meeting with the Bosporus

Can East meet West, or about Turkey, which unites Asia and Europe. Part Two: Meeting with Byzantium

Exploring the shores of the Bosphorus, we ascertained the fact that geography of some points on the world map was predestined for foundation of the cities.

Visiting tourist sights, which our colleagues, Turkish journalists, included into the professionally compiled program of the 52nd World Congress of FIJET (World Federation of Travel Journalists & Writers), we can conclude, that they showed us those momentous buildings of Istanbul, which reveal the historical code of this magnificent city. The present and the following articles will refer to the key components of historical cipher of the eternal city, to those buildings, which help to understand its soul and decipher the code of its fate.

The silhouettes of slender minarets, colorful bazaars filled with aromatic spices and multicolored assortment of handicrafts of historic center of modern Istanbul merely enchants you with exotic touch of Orient. But the city, where history of East and West is knotted forever is, above all, one of the largest centers of cultural tourism of the world.

Majestic Aya Sofya or Hagia Sophia or Sancta Sophia is the best proof of this fact. The building of the church was converted into a mosque and then into one of the most visited museums in the world thanks to the wisdom of the founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Hagia Sophia means Divine Wisdom of God. That is how Christ the Saviour often referred to in the Scriptures. It is one of the three following emanations of Jesus Christ: Hagia Sophia (Sancta Sapientia) – Divine Wisdom, Hagia Irene (Hagia Eirene, Aya-Irene) – Divine Complacency or sometimes Divine Peace and Aya Dynamis – Divine Power.

From the previous article we also know that in Istanbul there is a church of St. Irene (the Aya İrini church). It went down in history due to the Second Ecumenical Council or First Council of Constantinople of the year of 381 and the first record of the city under the name of Constantinople in its documents.

The Council contributed to the further development of Christianity as the official religion. This period also saw continuation of the mass construction of churches commenced during the epoch of Constantine the Great. The first building of Hagia Sophia church, originally constructed in 324 – 337, was rebuilt in 360 during the reign of his son Constantius II.

Meanwhile pagan religion and culture fell to the eventual decay alongside with the Roman Empire. The last Olympic Games convened in 393 symbolized decline of ancient culture. Since then the Olympic temples gradually started to disintegrate. The final breakdown of the Roman Empire and the detachment of the Byzantine Empire would take place in 395, when under the will of dying emperor Theodosius the Great it was divided into Western and Eastern.

Ever and again various dramatic events would come to pass in the Eastern or Byzantine Empire. We can learn about them following the history of Hagia Sophia: in 404 the church was destroyed during the popular uprising, it was rebuilt, but the fire ruined the building in 415. That same year Emperor Theodosius II ordered to construct the new church of Hagia Sophia.

But all the above events could not meet any comparison with the global changes in the West. In 410 Rome was taken and plundered by Alaric, the leader of the Visigoths. It was nothing but the entrée to the final capture of Rome by barbarians. In 476 the regalia of the Emperor of the Western Empire were sent to Constantinople and the last pretender to the throne of the Western Roman Empire died in 480. Centuries-long domination of Roman Empire ends with its disintegration into several barbarian kingdoms and advent of Middle or Dark ages in Europe.

On the contrary, the authority and influence of the Byzantine Empire since 395 was on the ascent. Founded by Constantine the Great on the basis of imperial and Christian ideas, it would reach the peak of its grandeur and might 200 years after him. In VI century the fate would grant it one more Great Emperor. It was Justinian I. It is not by chance, that they called him the Great. In his reign the borders of the Byzantium would reach almost the size of the former Roman Empire (except Spain and Gaul). Yes, after him the Byzantine Empire still would have its crests and troughs, but never ever again it would be destined to enjoy the brilliance and prosperity of his reign.

Contrary to Constantine, whom people feared, Justinian produced the impression of an open-hearted and calm person. Never did he show his anger nor raised his voice, but his orders did send thousands of people to death and were executed in full obedience. So, in the parlance of the nowadays, he was the great executive, who always managed to build a dream team around him.

Construction of the Hagia Sophia bears record to this. In the year of 532 Constantinople was terribly damaged during the «Nika» revolt, crushed by Justinian’s commanders who exterminated nearly 30 000 of its participants. St. Sophia was burned down and was all in ruins.

However, only forty days after the uprising, on February 23, 532 the most ambitious construction of Justinian’s time was started on his order. It would cost 20,000 pounds of gold (1 pound – 453.6 g.) or the Byzantine Empire income of three years. The northern and southern sides of the new cathedral of St. Sophia were built simultaneously by two teams of 5000 people each, which constantly competed with each other.

The dome of Hagia Sophia is among the five largest in the world. Photo by Alexey Soloviev, BlackSeaNews

The design for the building was made by two prominent architects and mathematicians Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles. It was revolution in architecture: instead of the usual rectangular shape, it was almost square, its highest point was at not above apse sanctuary of its eastern part, but at a high central dome.This is the way how tremendous, «as if hanging down from the heaven on a golden chain», dome with diameter of more than 31 meters and a height of 55,6 meters came into being. Light streaming through 40 windows cut into its base creates impression that the dome is hovering in the air. Only in almost 1000 years the world would see the domes of larger diameter, but even now it is among the five largest domes in the world.

The cathedral became an embodiment of the strength of the immense empire. The best details of ancient temples were brought from everywhere for its decoration: eight porphyry columns of the Roman Temple of the Sun, the bronze from the Temple of Artemis and eight columns of dark-green marble from Ephesus, several columns from Athens.

The walls were decorated with marble slabs of various shades and splendid precious mosaics with prevailing golden color. The numerous gold fixtures were arranged all over the cathedral to ensure good lighting.

The fifteen meter solid silver iconostasis was the real wonder for the people of the church, which remained for centuries the main and the largest Christian sanctuary of the world. The Shroud of Christ used to hang near the inlaid with gold and precious stones altar.

The cathedral was full of other priceless relics - the Venerable Cross of the Lord, brought from Jerusalem by the Empress Helena, the table at which the Last Supper took place and many, many others.

In five years, ten months and four days after the launch of construction Hagia Sophia was inaugurated on December 27, 537. Upon seeing the splendor of the new church, Justinian exclaimed: «Oh, Solomon, I have surpassed thee»! Constructed by him church was superior to the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem and all the other pagan and Christian religious buildings of Roman and Greek times. Majestic, yet airy, as if floating in the air, a huge cathedral with the area of 7500 sq m was often called «Megalo Ecclesia» or «Colossal Church».

Upper Gallery or choir of Hagia Sophia. Photo by Alexey Soloviev, BlackSeaNews

It was the real architectural manifestation of the accumulated experience of construction of huge structures in ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium as well as of the economic might of the Byzantine Empire.

Advantageous geographical position developed Constantinople into the main center of trade between Europe and Asia. But Justinian added to the main economic fundamental of the Empire of the previous times, – grain trade, yet another important element – silk.

As the West was facing the hard times, the Byzantium was increasingly ever more focusing on trade with the East – with China and India, famous for its spices, silk and precious stones. Justinian managed to cope with obstructions from the part of Persia. It not only controlled caravan tracks and sea lanes through the region of Persian Gulf, but also imposed enormous customs tariffs on silk, the most demanded item of goods of the day.

Justinian paved the new trade routes bypassing Persia, and the northern one, through the Crimea, appeared to be the most successful. Thus, for its protection the Byzantine fortresses were constructed along the Crimean coast in the VI century.

Meanwhile, on the Justinian’s order several monks secretly brought silkworm eggs together with know-how from the East and made Constantinople into the first European city to establish silk factories and start silk production. Justinian introduced state monopoly: silk fabrics were not allowed to be sold freely, but were brought from the factories to the Treasury of the Emperor.

The weavers of the Byzantium invented a new technology to make particularly beautiful and magnificent fabrics with repeated patterns. Because of monopoly the Byzantine customs did not allow to export especially valuable fabrics to the West. In the interim silk in Constantinople could be seen everywhere: in the markets, in rich houses and palaces, on the altar of Hagia Sophia and the other churches. Some of the 555 clergy men of the Hagia Sophia cathedral were dressed in vestments made of particularly precious silks.

In today's Hagia Sophia the famous silks of Byzantium cannot be seen any more, but one can still imagine its brilliance considering mosaics of the cathedral and at the same time deciphering the fate of the empire, of Constantinople and of the church.

Look at the ones dating back to the period of Justinian the Great – mostly geometric and without representation of human images. This trend would finally prevail in 726, when the Emperor Leo III started the iconoclastic campaign to prohibit the display of the human representations of saints.

As a result, believers run away with icons to the remote areas of the Empire, particularly to the Crimea, where the cave monasteries were founded at that time. During the period of iconoclasm the human images of saints were destroyed all over the Byzantine Empire, including those ones in St. Sophia. Byzantine iconoclasm did not enjoy any welcome in Rome, furthermore, it resulted in the collapse of its influence and gradual breakaway of Rome from Byzantium.

IX century was marked by the fact of crowning Charlemagne Emperor of the West Roman Empire by Pope Leo III in 800 in Rome. It was meant to reduce Byzantine influence in Rome. Relations between Byzantium and Rome continued to aggravate and not mostly because of the bans on silk export, but due to the serious religious controversy, partly smoothed in the time of Justinian the Great.

Central mosaic: Our Lady with Child. Photo by Alexey Soloviev, BlackSeaNews

In 843 the period of iconoclasm, at last, finally came to an end and in 867 the magnificent mosaic image of Our Lady with Child graced the semi-dome of central apse of St. Sophia. But in the same very year of 867 the conflict between the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople would become more strained.

Another outstanding mosaic is located over the Central or Imperial Door. It depicts Jesus Christ and Leo VI the Wise, Emperor who ruled at the turn of the IX and X centuries. Exactly during his reign Prophetic Oleg besieged Constantinople in 907 and left his shield on the gates of Constantinople, and on September 2, 911 Leo VI signed the commercial treaty with Rus’ and it became the very first record of the country, largest part of which is called now Russia.

One more mosaic above the door leading into the narthex reminds us of the X-century: Our Lady and two great emperors: Constantine and Justinian. In this century Byzantium and Rome would further break away from each other: in 962 the German king Otto I was declared the Emperor of Holy Roman Empire which covered the territory of Central Europe.

Jesus Christ and the Emperor Constantine IX Monomakh. Photo by Alexey Soloviev, BlackSeaNews

Another mosaic of Hagia Sophia dates back to the XI century and portrays the emperor Constantine IX Monomakh, grandfather of the Grand Prince of Kiev Vladimir Monomakh. His face is calm, he is yet not aware, that at the end of his reign St. Sophia cathedral is to see the fatal event, a signification of the future tragedy of the Byzantine Empire. In the summer of 1054 legates of the Pope arrived at Constantinople, but their talks with the Patriarch of Constantinople reached an impasse.

On July 16, 1054 during the Divine Liturgy Roman envoy, Cardinal Humbert placed on the altar of Hagia Sophia papal bull excommunicating the Patriarch of Constantinople. In a while Patriarch Cerularius convened synod to excommunicate Humbert and the other envoys. In the world history this day is known as the East–West Schism or the Great Schism of 1054 or the day of division of the Christian church into Eastern Orthodox Church and Western Catholic Church. As for Constantine IX, he tried to remedy the situation, but alas died in January of 1055.

Our Lady and Emperor John II Comnenus and Empress Irina. Photo by Alexey Soloviev, BlackSeaNews

And one more mosaic: Our Lady and emperor John II Comnenus and his wife Irina. It dates back to the year of 1120 and again features calm faces of the rulers of the great empire.

But the tragedy is already close and it is hard to imagine, but in less than 100 years, in summer 1203 the fleet of the Fourth Crusade led by 95-year old Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo would emerge on the Bosphorus. Half-blind old man persuaded the crusaders to attack Constantinople instead of the Holy Land and in 1204 they would plunder and burn down nearly one-third of the city of Constantinople.

For fifty years, most of the city was in the hands of the Crusaders and they continued to take out its wealth. Absolutely right were those who discouraged Justinian the Great from finishing the walls of the cathedral with gold. Crusaders broke in pieces the famous silver altar of St. Sophia and even tore off the door casing. Precious and sacred Christian relics were taken to the west, some of them are still in the cathedral of San Marco in Venice, the others are scattered all over Europe, including the legendary Shroud, which is now in the cathedral in Turin in Northern Italy. From 1204 to 1261 Hagia Sophia was used as a Roman Catholic cathedral and Enrico Dandolo, who died in Constantinople in 1205 and was buried at its choir.

Jesus Christ from famous mosaic of Deesis in Hagia Sophia. Photo by Alexey Soloviev, BlackSeaNews

Perhaps, the most splendid mosaic of the cathedral is not far from this place. It is the miracle, without seeing which, one should not leave the Hagia Sophia. It is famous Deesis or «Prayer»: Our Lady and John the Baptist, pray to Christ Pantocrator (the Almighty, Ruler of the World) for the salvation of mankind.

They date this amazing mosaic within the range from the 12th century till the second half of 13th century. Thus, some say that its lower part was destroyed by the Crusaders, some claim it was done later. But let’s praise all the gods for preservation of its upper part, real symbol of the peak of Byzantine art. Just one look into the eyes of Christ on this mosaic and you understand the meaning of the notion from the Scriptures: «Wisdom of God» and read there the apprehension of fate of the empire and the church.

Oh, yes, the Byzantine Empire would rise from the ashes in 1261 and its capital Constantinople would be again authorized completely by the Emperor. But neither the city, nor the empire would ever gain the former grandeur again.

And in the evening of May 28, 1453 the last Christian liturgy would be fulfilled in the Hagia Sophia and continue throughout the whole night. It crowned the sunset of the great empire. The last emperor of Byzantium, Constantine XI Palaeologus Dragas would pray in the cathedral for the salvation of the city of Constantine the Great and then together with troops leave for the last battle to protect the city and the empire.

It marked the end of the 53-day besiegement and the Battle for Constantinople, where about 30,000 defenders of the city fought against several hundred thousand strong army of Mehmet Fatih, which included twelve thousand Janissaries.

Constantine the Great, Founder of the Second Rome died on May 22, 337, while on May 29, 1453 his empire perished. The doors of Hagia Sophia were broken down by the Turkish Janissaries, there in the church a lot of people were taken prisoners of war, but according to the legend, the priest with the chalice in his hands managed to escape miraculously in a column in the northwest corner of the building.

Mehmed II entered triumphantly into Constantinople. He rode along the main street, called then the Mesa, directly to the Hagia Sophia. One legend tells that he rode on his white horse into the church to accentuate his victory, the other legend declares that he dismounted, kneeled and sprinkled his head with a handful of dust, displaying humility and respect to the beauty and grandeur of the cathedral.

On his orders it was rebuilt into the main mosque and became known as Aya Sofia Cami or Hagia Sophia Mosque. Another order of the sultan was to take the bones of the leader of the Fourth Crusade, Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo out of the Hagia Sophia and throw them to the dogs.

Thus, on May 29, 1453 the Byzantine Empire which lasted for 1123 years virtually ceased to exist.

But even now magnificent marble columns, splendid dome, mosaics of Hagia Sophia provide the evidence of the remarkable achievements of Byzantine in engineering, art and architecture. Among components of the Byzantine Empire legacy one can mention modern jurisprudence, the fundamentals of law-ruled state, based on the Roman law, as well as the school and higher education system - the first university was founded in Byzantium already in the V century. Foundations of the modern law, diplomacy and finance system were also laid there.

But still, what was the reason of collapse of such a powerful empire – was it a trade war with the Venetians who brought the Crusaders or the might of new and developing Ottoman Empire? What actually destroys countries and empires?

Perhaps the best answer one can find in the following story. Young military leader Mehmet II was only 21 years old when he captured Constantinople. Looking the city around, he was amazed to see extreme wealth and size of some of its houses. Mehmet II knew about city's defenders’ lack of funds and thus called the richest people of Constantinople to ask why no money had been provided by them for the defense of their city. The rich men responded that they had preserved the money for the winner, Mehmet II. And the young sultan surprised everybody with his wisdom. His order stated: these rich people should be beheaded and their bodies should be thrown to the street dogs.

They also say that the foundations of the Byzantine were undermined by corruption and oligarchy. These phenomena were constantly but not too successfully fought against in the empire where the state central power enjoyed the leading position.

Embezzled officials were exiled, their property was confiscated, but the oligarchs and bureaucrats used to hire a large number of servants and guards and successfully resisted the sanctions imposed by the state, teetering on the brink of civil war. They gradually promoted reforms aimed at decentralization of power and many profitable, strategic and exclusive state functions such as customs receipts from enormous international trade on the Bosporus and Dardanelles gradually fell into the hands of separate families.

Oligarchic disintegration of the state continued, accelerated and contributed the fall of the empire as most of the richest families of Constantinople did not give anything of their wealth for the defense of the city. Still, those who were not executed on the orders of Mehmed II, managed to run to the west together with their money. They failed to have successful business there and faced destruction and poverty.

In meanwhile the Saint Sophia was turned into a mosque. On Friday, June 1, 1453 Mehmet II was present there at the solemn prayer, which marked the completion of these works. Later four minarets were attached to the cathedral, the four round leather medallions with quotations from the Koran and the names of the first caliphs were hanged inside. Mehmet II supported policy of religious tolerance, and this might be the reason that mosaics, depicting human representations of saints were preserved. They were not removed, but were simply disguised with plaster.

There they discovered them through the centuries during the restoration works of 1847-1849s. They were copied and covered again.

In the twentieth century, Turkey was fortunate with the leader. Evidences of respect to him and his portraits can be seen in modern Turkey everywhere. It is Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who carried out the wise reforms in the country. Due to the fact that in 1931 he separated church from state, in 1935 on his order St. Sophia was converted from mosque into a museum and even the huge leather medallions were removed.

After his death in 1938, medallions, which were considered to be the largest samples of Arabic calligraphy, were brought back, but at the same time cleaning and restoration of Christian mosaics of the Byzantine period continued.

Aya Sofya – one of the most visited museum of Istanbul. Photo by Alexey Soloviev, BlackSeaNews

And now, before entering the Holy Sophia through the Imperial Doors which according to the legend were made of wood remained of Noah's ark, we can admire the preserved mosaics of Jesus Christ above it. He is portrayed on the throne of Byzantine empire with an open book bearing inscription in Greek: «Peace be with you. I am the light of this world».

As you enter Hagia Sophia in the apse of the former cathedral you see the huge mosaic of Our Lady gently observing giant medallions of the former mosque with quotations from the Koran. This is the place when you once again recall that Hagia Sophia means Divine Wisdom in translation.

At this point, you realize that Hagia Sophia or Aya Sophia is a real monument to the wisdom of the representatives of East and West, who constructed it and then prevented its destruction, thus, through the centuries giving people of the world an opportunity to visit it as the museum.

Then you can cast a farewell glance at the mosaic above the door leading into the narthex: Our Lady surrounded by two great Byzantine emperors: Constantine with the model of founded by him city and Justinian with the model of St. Sophia and as you leave the Hagia Sophia you plunge into the streets of the modern metropolis, which for nearly 500 years was the capital of the Ottoman Empire.

But about changes, which took place in the city after the meeting of two empires, we will tell in the next article.

To be continued