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Hagia Sofia

 

I was in the Hagia Sofia last summer. It's big. For those who don't know, it's the giant, famous, domed building that defines the skyline of old Istanbul today, along with two mosques whose forms are derived directly from it, the Blue Mosque and the Suliemanye Mosque.

After the fall of the Western Roman empire, in 476, the remainder of the dwindling empire was administrated from Constantinople, modern Istanbul. Of course, with the loss of the fertile provinces of Gaul, Germania, Hispania, Britannia, indeed the loss of the entire Italian peninsula, and the tax revenues these regions would have provided, the empire had to make due with less. Yeah. So they built an entire new capital full of giant palaces, surrounded it with a "wall" which is more like one endless Tower of London stretched forty miles long to surround their capital, and in it, built the biggest grandest structure ever yet constructed on earth, the Hagia Sofia. Poor guys. It's tough making do with less.

The Hagia Sofia was a church, of course, because these particular Romans had, a couple generations earlier, made Christianity the State Religion of the Empire. One of the reasons Emperor Constantine moved the capital from Rome was to avoid cranky, old money families who were loyal to the ancient religion. So he, and his heirs, the Emperor Justinian specifically, were out to prove a point with this structure. Rome was still in the game, just, a new game.

This giant monster of a building was completed in five years, which, for an old hard-hat hound like me is remarkably similar to any really big civic scale project today. After Constantinople finally fell, a thousand years later, to the Turks, it was made into a mosque, and after the Turkish Empire fell to Kemal Ataturk's secular revolution, it became a museum. It is many things; sacred, storied, mystical, impressive, but chiefly, it is simply huge. The dome, which is itself really huge and golden, sits supported by four equally huge half domes, also pretty much golden, which sit above a set of huge golden arches. People walking around on the floor are to the dome, about what those little green plastic army men are to your living room ceiling. Nowadays with indoor stadiums and all, we are often inside larger spaces, but ours are all built with steel and fancy modern materials. Hagia Sofia was built of bricks and stone by guys walking up and down on wood ladders. Take it from me, it feels different to walk around under two football fields worth of fifteen hundred year old masonry.

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