December 14, 2010

6th Century Baptismal Font Discovered In Hagia Sophia

December 14, 2010
Hurriyet Daily News

A baptismal font unearthed during restoration of Hagia Sophia has been revealed to the press. The baptismal font dates back to the sixth century and was used in mass baptism ceremonies. The pool, which shows the cultural and architectural style of the Byzantine period, will open to visitors in the spring.

A large baptismal font unearthed during restoration work in the Hagia Sophia and dating back to the sixth century was shown to press members at a press conference Monday.

Istanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture Agency head Yılmaz Kurt noted that a Google search of “Hagia Sofia” yielded 800,000 results and said Istanbul was home to popular world cultural heritage sites. “We are proud to take the initiative in the restoration of this heritage site, provide financing and finish such a huge renovation project.”

Outlining the history of Hagia Sophia, Kurt said: “The construction of Hagia Sophia was ordered by Constantius II. The structure opened in 360 A.D. Its roof burned in a fire in 404 and its restoration took 10 years. In 415, Hagia Sophia opened once again. This second structure burned down in 532 and the church was constructed for the third time under Emperor Justinian. The columns of the Artemis Temple in Ephesus were used in its construction; it opened for the third time in 537. The dome was damaged in earthquakes and completely destroyed in 558. It reopened in 562.”

Kurt said the museum had undergone many restorations between 562 and 2010, the most comprehensive of which was during the reign of Sultan Abdulmecit, between 1847 and 1849. “Archaeological work was also carried out during the restoration process after which it became a museum,” he said.

Kurt said the ancient baptismal font, which was unearthed during archaeological work, would be open to the public for viewing. “The baptismal font was positioned in a place in the structure that was closed to visits. It is made of solid marble. The font, which shows the cultural and architectural style of the Byzantium period, is still very strong and clean. It is very important in the history of the museum and everyone will be able to see it.”

Hagia Sophia Museum Director Haluk Dursun said 2009 and 2010 were the best years for the museum in terms of restoration. He said there were two very important events during the restoration process, the removal of the 17-year-old scaffolding and the discovery of a mosaic featuring a six-winged angel figure.

Dursun said they decided to open the baptism pool to visitors as a surprise for 2010. “As of next spring, visitors will be able to see the baptismal font.”

He also noted that the Hagia Sophia was chosen as European Museum of the Year for 2010 thanks to the comprehensive restoration work and had received the Rotandi Award.

Baptistery becomes sultan tomb

Speaking about the features of the baptismal font, Dursun said the Hagia Sophia’s Byzantine (Greek Orthodox) baptistery building had been turned into an Ottoman sultans’ tomb, and the sixth-century baptismal font in it was moved to the baptistery’s courtyard.

He said the sultans who were buried in the tomb were those who had been dethroned. “When Sultan Mustafa I and Sultan İbrahim were buried there, the baptistery turned into a sultans’ tomb and the baptismal font in it was moved to the court without being damaged. It remained under the soil. This court is a very beautiful section showing Byzantine art.”

Dursun said olive oil was used in baptism ceremonies in Byzantine Orthodox culture. Historical olive oil cubes and sarcophaguses were also unearthed in the court.

He said as part of the restoration work in 2010, the baptistery’s courtyard was restored and the baptismal font was unearthed. “This font was used in mass baptism ceremonies. I guess we are the first ones to see it since the conquest of Istanbul, because the baptismal font was never used again once the Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque.”

Visits in spring

Dursun said the baptismal font was 3.32 meters long, 2.52 meters wide and 1.16 meters deep. He said interest would increase in the Hagia Sophia Museum when the pool opened to visitors in springtime.

“The number of visitors will reach 3 million. I am concerned about this big interest, because the museum is too narrow. It creates problems when these types of work are visited by lots of people.”