Typical examples of the unique qualities of Byzantine architecture are found in Istanbul, the capital of ancient Byzantium. Architects, created a new style inspired by ancient monuments. Such as the basilica, which was basically a market or gathering place, a Roman hall of justice, was Christianized to become a church. In the place of a judge to settle small trade disputes, Jesus became the judge in Christianity. The basilica is oblong in shape. The interior is separated into three naves by a series of columns, with the middle nave wider than those beside it. On the eastern side is a semi-circular apse extending outward. To the west is a passageway or hall, called a narthex. On both sides are stairs leading to the galleries above the naves which were reserved for women. The ceiling of a basilica was double sloped, with a timber roof covered by tiles. This simple and spare church design was very popular, particularly in the early years of Christianity and the early era of Byzantine art, and many examples were constructed. Byzantine architecture incorporated the two plans—the basilica and the central gathering place—to produce a new creation toward the end of the 5th century—the domed basilica.
The clearest example of the domed basilica architectural design is St. Sophia, built between 532-537. It is the most magnificent of all the domed basilicas, which were first constructed in Anatolia. At the order of Justinianos, two Anatolian architects, Anthemios ofTralles (now Aydin) and Isidor of Meletus constructed St Sophia in the domed basilica style on an area where an old church had burned down. In this construction the essence of central-plan architectural style is obvious, with the central nave as the main area. The adjoining naves of classical basilican architecture are quite obviously sacrificed to the magnificence and width of the central nave. In St. Sophia the outer nave is first seen, relative to the atrium, then the wide main nave covered by groin vaults. Above the central axis are two half-domes. At the eastern edge of the 77-meter-wide middle nave is a protruding half-domed apse.
The great middle door opening off the narthex is the Emperor Gate, which was used only by the emperor and his closest retainers. One of the figurative mosaics remaining today is in the vaulted mirror above the Emperor Gate. Here Jesus is depicted sitting on a jeweled throne, resting his feet on a footstool. His right hand is raised in blessing. In his left hand is a book with the words, “I am the light of the world with God’s blessings.” The other mosaic is more realistic with a crown on his head, Jesus kneels before the throne. There are indentations on both sides of the throne; in the left is a bust of Virgin Mary, in the other an angel. It is thought that the emperor figure is that of Leon VI (886-912).
The largest and most beautiful of the mosaics is in the vault above the apse. This mosaic depicts Virgin Mary and, Jesus, sitting on her feet Mary wears a blue dress with the folds of her headscarf flowing over her shoulders. Each shoulder fold is embroidered with a tiny cross. Her right hand rests on Jesus’ shoulder, her left on his knee. Jesus wears a silver-gilded dress, with sandals on his feet. Mary sits on green, embroidered cushions on a jeweled throne. Under her feet is a jeweled footstool. On the arches above the apse is a large Gabriel figure. Gabriel, wearing duvetyn, has a cloak of white silk thrown over his chalamys (mantle). His wing feathers are colored blue, green and white.
In the first niche to the left is a mosaic of the young St. Ignatius who served twice as Patriarch of Constantinople, in 847 and 867; in the middle niche is the Patriarch Ionnes Khrysostomos, 394-404; and in the 5th niche is Ignatius Theophoros of Galata. The other three mosaic portraits are in niches at the edge of the north tympanum wall. These mosaics were made in the last quarter of the 3rd century. All the other figurative mosaics remaining today are in the north wall of the upper galleries of the narthex.
The most impressive view of St. Sophia is from the Sultan’s Gate at the entrance of Topkapi Palace. From this viewpoint for more than 14 centuries, world travelers have observed the majestic building with awe.
Popular Destinations in Istanbul
- Hagia Sophia
- Topkapi Palace