With the conquest of Constantinople, which was renamed as Istanbul, from the Byzantium Empire, the Ottomans turned the then-biggest church of the Christian world into a mosque, sending shocking waves across European capitals.
The famed dome of Hagia Sophia, an architectural marvel built by the Roman Emperor Justinian I in 537 AD, had stayed like a jewel in the crown of Christendom for more than a thousand years until 1520, when the Catholic cathedral of Seville was completed.
But according to many experts, had the Ottoman rulers not stepped in, the dome of Hagia Sophia wouldn't have survived for long. In the 16th century, they assigned their chief architect Sinan, the most skillful builder of the Ottoman era, the task of fortifying the magnificent walls of Hagia Sophia to ensure its dome stood firm for centuries to come.
“In order to ensure the durability of the building (Hagia Sophia), the surroundings of which were designed for the mausoleum of Sultan Selim II, the son of the Magnificent Suleiman, and his family, Architect Sinan [Mimar Sinan in Turkish] quickly added big buttresses around Hagia Sophia,” said Hayri Fehmi Yilmaz, a Turkish art historian.
“Some of these buttresses had also been built in the Byzantium era. But we understand that Hagia Sophia’s dome put an extraordinary pressure over the rest of the structure, so Sinan placed stone buttresses around the building to lighten its load,” Yilmaz told TRT World.
“He even experimented with the practices of flying buttresses, which was common in European architecture, on the East Wing of Hagia Sophia, incorporating them into the Ottoman art. This clearly shows an intense effort to keep the building up”.
Without Sinan’s crucial intervention, Hagia Sophia and its supplementary structures might not have made it to the present era, according to Yilmaz.
Sinan was born in Kayseri, a central Anatolian city, in the late 1490s. There are different theories about his origin. Some historians say he was of Greek descent, some say he was Armenian, and many others say he was either an Albanian or a Christian Turk — and that he converted to Islam and eventually ended up in Istanbul, where he was trained as an architect.
During his long life, Sinan oversaw enormous construction projects across the Ottoman Empire, from the splendid Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, to bridges, caravanserais, madrasas and other structures. He designed over 300 historic structures.
“While the Hagia Sophia’s huge dome collapsed after its first construction and needed several renovations due to partial collapses in the pre-Ottoman period, during the Ottoman era and following that, we don’t see a long-term need for repairs in the building. The main reason for that is Architect Sinan,” says Yasin Karabacak, a Turkish researcher, whose book over Hagia Sophia will be published in the upcoming weeks.
“Architect Sinan’s buttresses and minarets helped Hagia Sophia survive until now without requiring any big renovations. When you pay attention to his minarets in particular, you could clearly see his purpose to support the building with their heavy presence,” Karabacak told TRT World.
During his remarkable career, Sinan was known to have a great fondness for aesthetically-built thin minarets. But for the sake of saving the grand structure, he chose durability over his aesthetic taste and built thick minarets on the West Wing of Hagia Sophia.
The other two minarets at the East Wing of Hagia Sophia were built in different periods by different builders, according to most experts.
“The base of the minarets [at the West Wing of Hagia Sophia] is much bigger than the base of any other minarets of other mosques. In the Sultanahmet Mosque across Hagia Sophia, you would not see this much heavy blocks on the base of its minarets. It shows Sinan wanted to use even minarets as buttresses to support the building,” the researcher says.
Karabacak thinks that if Sinan had not intervened to save Hagia Sophia, the dome of the building might have collapsed like it did on previous occasions before the Ottomans took control of the building.
How Ottomans cared about Hagia Sophia
But long before Architect Sinan, the Ottomans had appeared to have a special interest in Hagia Sophia.
While Mehmet the Conqueror ordered Hagia Sophia to be turned into a mosque, he did not remove the Christian mosaics of the building, allowing them to survive for centuries.
The Ottoman sultan, who had been a lifelong admirer of Istanbul, had expressed his sadness after seeing a literally ruined city, as he entered the great walls of the old Roman capital following the end of a bloody siege.
The city’s new ruler, who was reportedly fluent in western and eastern languages including Greek, Latin, Persian and Arabic, could not help but utter a Persian couplet while touring the city centre around Hagia Sophia and the old Byzantium Palace:
“The spider held back the curtain door at the Emperor’s palace
The owl was playing a military tune at the dome of Efrasiyab’s palace.”
Efrasiyap refers to a legendary great commander mentioned in the famed Persian legend Shahname, usually perceived as the main enemy of Persians.
“Hagia Sophia was also not in a good condition due to the Byzantium Empire’s bankrupt financial situation,” says Aysegul Elif Sofuoglu, a professional guide and researcher on the history of Istanbul, referring to Mehmed the Conqueror's disappointment over the city’s dilapidated condition.
A century after the Muslim conquest, under Sinan’s tutelage, the Ottoman administration wanted to renovate both Hagia Sophia and its surrounding areas.
“There were complaints to the Ottoman palace that the static balance of Hagia Sophia might be damaged due to some house construction next to the building. As a result, the palace decided to implement a comprehensive restoration project,” Sofuoglu told TRT World.
“People did not want to leave their houses obviously. In the face of growing opposition, the palace applied to the top religious authority of the time, Ebussuud Efendi, the Shaykh al-Islam, who was the supreme religious judge of the Ottomans,” says Sofuoglu.
When some residents, who rejected to leave their houses, grounded their rationale on the fact that Hagia Sophia used to be a worshipping place for Christians, the Ottoman top religious authority reportedly said that it could not be the case anymore, wrote Gulru Necipoglu, a Turkish-American professor of Islamic Art at Harvard University, in her book, Age of Sinan, Architectural Culture in the Ottoman Empire.
In his famous fatwa, Ebussuud Efendi, one of the greatest Ottoman religious scholars, clearly said that because Hagia Sophia is not a church anymore and it’s a mosque, being part of an Islamic foundation, no true Muslim can desire the collapse of the building, according to Necipoglu.
As a result, the fatwa ordered an immediate evacuation of people from houses close to Hagia Sophia, paving the way for Architect Sinan’s restoration project of the building.
Since then, Hagia Sophia has stood alone like an island in the middle of the old city, waiting for its next worshippers.
[NOTE: Aysegul Elif Sofuoglu, one of the experts quoted in the story, is the wife of the author.]