Turkey's monument to fortitude; Church: Built in A.D. 537, Hagia Sophia remains standing after dozens of earthquakes and centuries of political upheaval.


In A.D. 537, Emperor Justinian looked upon Hagia Sophia, the magnificent basilica his 11,000 stonemasons had raised in five years, and cried out, "Oh, Solomon, I have surpassed thee!"

Indeed Hagia Sophia, the church of Divine Wisdom, did surpass the temples of Jerusalem in size and grandeur, as it did any other house of worship for 1,000 years to come.

Overlooking the Golden Horn in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia was crowned with a 100-foot-wide dome that seemingly floated in the air, hovering over a brilliant row of windows and an ascending series of domes and arches.

Then came the earthquakes.

As they had throughout the ages, quakes began marching west along the Anatolian fault toward Constantinople, today's Istanbul, Turkey.

In 553, Hagia Sophia lurched and cracked to a distant temblor. In 558, a major quake near the city sent the one-of-a-kind dome crashing 150 feet to the floor.

Undaunted, Justinian had the nephew of the original architect build a new "floating" dome, 20 feet higher than its predecessor. The record is silent on Justinian's comments at the reopening, but his monument still speaks with power more than 1,400 years later.

In the immediate aftermath of the catastrophic earthquake centered in nearby Izmit, Turkey, a few news accounts noted in passing that Hagia Sophia had apparently escaped any damage.

Others ignored that bit of good news altogether. Perhaps it seemed in poor taste to worry about a museum piece when it was estimated that hundreds of people lay dead in the rubble.

Now the official death toll from that quake has surpassed 13,000, a number beyond easy comprehension. Bodies pile up, while hundreds of thousands of homeless wait in the rain for somewhere to live. Talk grows of government instability and social breakdown.

While Hagia Sophia's survival does not subtract an ounce of grief from that scene, the building's storied history gives Turks a reason to look to the future.

Hagia Sophia -- sometimes known as St. Sophia -- is one of the wonders of the world. Its architecture remains a subject of amazement and study. From the stone filigree capping its columns to the intricate gold mosaics lining the walls and domes, it is an aesthetic treasure.

It sits at the center of the history of two dominant civilizations, the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. It dwarfs the few remaining structures of its era in grandeur and humbles its architectural and aesthetic peers in age.

Most important, Hagia Sophia is not a ruin. It is a survivor.

Minor earthquakes have rattled it dozens of times. Five catastrophic temblors have sent part or all of its landmark dome crashing to the floor. Fires have licked and crackled at its walls.

Each time the rulers and people of Constantinople and later Istanbul brushed themselves off and set about rebuilding Hagia Sophia so that it could be used once again -- first as a church, then as a mosque, now as a museum.

Hagia Sophia knows something about government instability and social breakdown as well. It has been captured and recaptured, watched empires rise and fall.

Crusaders rode their horses into the sanctuary in 1204, and Kurdish terrorists set off a bomb in the building in 1994.

Indeed, Hagia Sophia was born in violence, as the early Byzantine equivalent of soccer hooligans burned the previous cathedral on the site to the ground.

That first church, known as Megalo Ecclesia (roughly, "really big church"), was dedicated in 360 by Constantine, the emperor who tolerated Christianity in the Roman Empire and built the new capital in the East that eventually took his name.

Early in the sixth century, tensions rose between two groups of sports fans known as Blues and Greens, who frequented the Hippodrome adjacent to the cathedral. Along with competing sports allegiances, these groups took on religio-political identities, the Greens representing tradesmen and artisans who believed Christ had one nature, the Blues representing aristocrats and the orthodox church belief in Christ's two natures -- human and divine.

In 532, the Blues and Greens began to fight, first against one another, then together against Emperor Justinian. Justinian ordered a bloody crackdown, but not before Megalo Ecclesia was burned to the ground.

To demonstrate his power, Justinian had a new mega-Megalo Ecclesia, unlike any building previously built, designed in a matter of weeks. Building began just 39 days after the fire was extinguished.

Purple porphyry columns made in Egypt were brought in for the new church, as well as ivory, gold and marble from the farthest reaches of the empire.

As gaudily awe-inspiring as those first years were, Hagia Sophia would be nothing more than a historical footnote had Justinian not undertaken a complete renovation after the 558 earthquake, with additional buttressing against future quakes.

Emperor Basil I made the same choice after the earthquake of 869, as did Basil II after the catastrophic quake of 989. The 10-year renovation after the 1346 quake was still more courageous, as leaders of the dying Byzantine empire raised private funds to undertake what public coffers could not.

Others allowed it to stand as well. Though the crusaders looted artifacts from the church and desecrated its altar, they spared the building. Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror personally stopped his Ottoman soldiers from ransacking the church in 1453. He quickly converted it to a mosque, sparing it from the fate that destroyed lesser churches throughout the city.

His successors ordered that the sublime icons lining Hagia Sophia's walls, offensive though they were to Muslims, be plastered over rather than destroyed, effectively preserving the mosaics.

Last week geologists in Turkey and the United States agreed that the next major earthquake on the Anatolian fault -- a matter of when, not if -- will strike under the Sea of Marmara, or perhaps in Istanbul itself.

To underscore their warning, they might point to Hagia Sophia, whose scars and architectural patchwork are proof that catastrophe has struck before, and catastrophe will strike again.

But Hagia Sophia, flexing its domed shoulders over the heart of the old walled city, also stands as evidence of humankind's durability. Individuals, families, even empires may fall, but their ideals of beauty and faith are not so easily demolished.

Hagia Sophia's pragmatic wisdom -- repair the wounds of the past, buttress as best you can against the future -- is not a message of comfort, but it is a message of hope.

Pub Date: 9/04/99

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