The World’s First Mega-church
Byzantine architecture, empires, mosaics

The World’s First Mega-church

Empires put up buildings, and when those empires are religious, they put up buildings of worship.

The Roman Empire was weakening when, in 324 CE, Emperor Constantine opened a second branch 840 miles to the east. He built a new church in the city he named after himself. Completed in 360 CE, it was known as the Hagia Sofia, Sofia being the phonetic spelling of the Greek word wisdom.

In 410 CE Visigoths destroyed Rome, and the western half of the empire sharply declined. Constantinople became the center of the Christian world, and the Hagia Sofia became the symbol of Byzantium.

Fires and revolts destroyed several versions of the Hagia Sofia. The current building was put up by Emperor Justinian I between 532 and 537. Built on a scale unprecedented in human history, it was the largest church in the world, and it maintained this status from 360 to 1453 CE, over a thousand years. It remains the finest example of Byzantine architecture.

Of his work, Justinian was said to have proclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!”

Ten thousand workers built the Hagia Sofia to a height of 180 feet, the same height as the Statue of Liberty’s torch. They completed its massive dome in only five years. The building measures 230 by 246 feet and its dome spans 102 feet. Its interior is full of handcrafted mosaics dating back as far as the eighth century. Other inside surfaces are made of green, white and purple marble.

In 1204 Latin Crusaders offended by Eastern Orthodox beliefs sacked the Hagia Sofia, stealing many of its precious relics. After the Muslim conquest in 1453, the Hagia Sofia was turned into a mosque. Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish Republic, proclaimed it a museum in 1934.

Nowadays the largest structures in the world are factories, office buildings and shopping malls. But even now, the Hagia Sofia is the fourth largest church in the world. It receives about three million visitors each year.

I cannot fully imagine the how a person of the sixth century, accustomed to squat, dimly-lit structures, would have felt standing in such an enormous, enclosed building.  The fact that it stood at all must have seemed like a miracle, proof of the immense power of God.

Today’s mega-churches are built to serve large congregations, and most are not architecturally distinctive. I tend to view these buildings as expressions of overweening pride, ignorance of Jesus’ message of simplicity. But I find it difficult to think that way about a building that has stood for 1500 years. Any venality or baser motives on the part of the Hagia Sofia’s creators has been lost to the ages. Endurance trumps vanity. Brilliant architecture trumps mediocrity. I realize that my sentiments lack consistency.

Let me show you some photos of the church, visible from almost every part of Istanbul’s Old City. The lovely structure is different each time I see it, so I find myself continually photographing it.

Viewed from a ferryboat on the Golden Horn. Minarets were added during its mosque years.
Closer view — note orange stucco facade
Angled view — note buttresses, added in the ninth or tenth centuries
The interior of the church is vast, impossible to capture in one photograph. Here are some attempts.
View toward front. Medallions in Arabic commemorate Muslim prophets. Note how small visitors appear.
The building’s interior glows with tones of gold, burgundy and gray-green.
Fresco of Mary and Jesus on side of dome
People come from all over the world to see the Hagia Sofia.
The other amazing aspect of the Hagia Sofia is its mosaic panels. To see some of them, you have to trudge up a long, dank, medieval ramp. I love how the otherwise obsessively clean Turks have kept this ramp as is, with the dirt of ages ground into the floor. At the top, around a corner is a dazzling surprise.
The expression on this mosaic panel moves many visitors to tears.
Mary and Jesus with Emperor Johannes Comnenus II and Empress Eirene
Gold mosaic detail

I love the Hagia Sofia.

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