The many legends of the Hagia Sophia
‘Aya Sofia, Constantinople…’ by Gaspare Fossati, Louis Haghe, 1852.On the day when the Hagia Sophia basilica was first opened in 537 A.D., the Byzantine emperor Justinian is supposed to have entered the building and cried out, “Solomon, I have surpassed you.” The reference in the Bible is to the building by King Solomon of a temple in Jerusalem. True or not, it is one of the first of many legends that have come down to us in regard to the great sixth century cathedral that still stands on Istanbul’s historic peninsula.
Hagia Sophia’s fame spread so far and wide that at least one legend related to the Prophet Muhammad sprang up, according to Henry Matthews in his article, “From the Fifteenth Century to the Present Day,” in the book “Hagia Sophia.” One of the church’s half domes collapsed in the early seventh century and no one in Constantinople was able to repair it. So the emperor sent word to the Prophet and he sent them back with instructions on how to repair the half dome - along with many camels loaded with a special mortar made with sand from Mecca and some of the Prophet’s saliva. Muhammad also reported that he had seen a model of the Hagia Sophia in heaven when he was taken by the Angel Gabriel one night.
So many legends have grown up around the Byzantine church over the centuries, some of which are very well-known. Another legend, from even before it was built, relates how the imperial treasury ran out of money and how an angel, in human guise, provided the money needed to finish the work. In a later period the priests who served the church are thought to have buried much of their treasure somewhere beneath the building when the Ottoman Turks initiated their final siege of the city in 1453. If they did, it has never been found and much more likely it was carted off to Europe by the Crusaders who conquered the city in 1204.
Yet another story from the conquest in 1453 concerns the Greek Orthodox patriarch who was supposed to have been praying when the Turks broke in. He slipped out a side door and one day it is expected that he’ll return when the building becomes a church again and will finish his prayers.
Or take the so-called “perspiring” column inside the building on the northwest side. You are told to insert your finger in it and you will find that your finger is wet. This was supposed to cure seeing or fertility problems, courtesy of St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (Miracle Worker). Somehow, after centuries of pilgrims rubbing themselves against it to relieve their pains, they wore this hole in the column, and if there is moisture in the hole, it must have come from the cisterns beneath the structure. Or how about the main entrance door that is supposed to have been made out of the wood from Noah’s Ark?
The eye of Mother Mary.
There are many more legends than the ones mentioned briefly above and we now have a brand new publication, “Ayasofya Efsaneler” (The Legends of Hagia Sophia), written by Dr. Ferhat Aslan and published by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s Kültür A.Ş. (Culture Inc.). This book of 360 pages contains 90 legends and is illustrated with documents, engravings and paintings. The contents not only consist of the legends but where and when they took place, their source, who and what motifs were involved including angels and demons, and evaluations of their importance.
“Ayasofya Efsaneleri” (which is to be published in English in 2015) contains extensive information about the architecture and construction of the building itself and its fortunes over nearly 1500 years. The author continues with a largish section about legends and how they were formed in general and in specific the legends around the Hagia Sophia. Of further interest is his evaluation of the resources available for the legends including electronic sources in Turkish, English and Russian. And all this is before you ever get to the legends themselves.
One of the more extraordinary legends is the very first one about Safiye Banu, the wealthy daughter of a ruler. She founded a city named Sofya after her name. When she died, she willed that her wealth be used to build a “mescid” or small mosque so her father had all the materials brought from the palace of the Prophet Süleyman at Edincik and used in the building of the Hagia Sophia. Variations of this basic legend include Sofia being the name of the wife of a Byzantine ruler. The fourteenth century historian, Ibn Battuta, was of the opinion that such an extraordinary structure couldn’t have been built by one person and attributes it to Asaf, the son of the grand vizier of the Prophet Süleyman.
The dome of the Hagia Sophia and its ability to survive over the centuries – it has fallen but was restored – attracted the admiration of everyone including the naïve who were prone to suggesting there was something miraculous about it. To account for this, it was thought that the bones of the prophets were gathered from various Arab lands and placed among the bricks in order to secure them.
Speaking of the dome, Fatih Sultan Mehmed had a golden ball suspended from the center of the dome and beneath it, Hızır is supposed to have prayed just underneath this ball and so the place became a particularly important spot for praying. Hızır was and maybe still is a rather shadowy figure who was considered a servant of God and a teacher of the prophets.
Variations on a theme
A variation of the disappearing patriarch mentioned above is the disappearing Constantine, the last emperor of Constantinople. His body was never found after the conquest of the city so the legend grew that he would one day return and, entering the Hagia Sophia by the imperial entrance, would turn the building back into being a church.
The eye of Mother Mary (Meryem Ana) refers to the hole in one of the columns mentioned above but amplified. The column was originally thought to have been at Mother Mary’s home where one day Jesus came and said he was to be tortured. Mary began crying and her tears fell on the column, leaving a hole that was permanently wet. Anyone who puts their thumb in the hole and makes a wish will have it granted. The story is a good example of how a legend can change over the centuries.