The Historical Christian Arrangement of Hagia Sophia

There has, understandably, been a great deal of focus in recent weeks on Hagia Sophia which, for most of its existence, was the patriarchal cathedral of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), built in A.D. 537 under the Emperor Justinian.  While it is commonly referred in the media to as a former "Greek Orthodox Cathedral"  this is something of an oversimplification since for most of its existence it existed in the undivided Church of East and West, prior to the Great Schism. Regardless, this point is of less relevance than the fact that, since the mid-15th century and the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, it served as a mosque. While the recovered Christian mosaics of Hagia Sophia are well enough known, what is not particularly well known is the Christian ordering of Hagia Sophia prior to its conversion.

In view of that, and in view of the current interest in the building, I thought it would be worthwhile to present some historical recreations of Hagia Sophia as it would have existed historically as a Christian temple.

We will begin with the interior since this will be the primary point of interest to many.

"Interior of Hagia Sophia during the Empire" by Johnathan Tate Sr.
The altar and sanctuary were located beneath the great mosaic of the Theotokos.  Many of the features of the sanctuary of Hagia Sophia will be familiar to LAJ readers as they present a common ordering found in the earlier centuries of church history and found in many of the Roman basilicas: an altar covered with a ciborium, the sanctuary screened off, a raised ambo and so on.

Here are a couple of graphical reconstructions showing these elements:

The following might present a slightly clearer view:

Here you might recognize some features akin to Santa Maria Assunta -- specifically the cathedra of the patriarch and the seating arrangement of his liturgical court more generally (called the synthronon).

It is also worth noting that the space between the columns of the cancellis that surround the altar would have been veiled with ornamental silks as was commonly done in this period -- a feature that is thought to originate in Roman judicial ceremony.

In front, you can see the ambo (which is depicted here in this manuscript illumination):

As far as the exterior of Hagia Sophia is concerned, the most obvious difference would be the absence of the minarets of course, but in addition, there was once a more ample courtyard in front of the basilica:

In many ways, Hagia Sophia presents an interesting mixture of elements which, today, we might consider distinctly "Byzantine" and others we would tend to think of as particularly "Roman."  What this perhaps demonstrates more than anything is the shared ancestry of the Christian East and West.

Putting all of this together, one can well imagine the sight of the multi-coloured marbles and the silks that adorned the building, the golden light coming off the mosaics above and the soft glow of the flickering lamps that would have been in and around the altar and sanctuary of the great church; one can also smell the sweet scent of the incense as its smoke rose through the dusty light toward the great apse above -- and here is what it have sounded like:

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