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December 21, 2021

Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and the Winter Solstice

Many may not be aware that the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople was built to be aligned along the sunrise on winter solstice. The same is true for the Church of Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki, which was modeled after that in Constantinople in the 8th century.

Hagia Sophia was therefore designed so that once a year, the first light of dawn after the longest night of winter, that is, on December 21st, enters the sacred temple, symbolizing in this way the birth Christ. Therefore, every year can be witnessed the rays of the sun piercing through the small window above the entrance of Hagia Sophia.

The design of the building was so carefully worked out that it signifies its devotion to the faith that God became man in Jesus Christ - that is, the whole building was oriented towards the first light of dawn after the longest night of winter, which symbolized the birth of Christ. Each brick is turned to indicate the purpose of the building is to serve as a church, so later religious conversions over the following centuries, including the most recent, when on July 24, 2020, Turkey, despite international outcry, converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque, are very problematic. Because the whole purpose of the building is integrated in the architectural plan of a church.

Since the church was dedicated to the Wisdom of God, Justinian's architects wanted to create a clever architectural design. Medical science may not have been as developed at that time, but mathematics was. Emperor Justinian commissioned the architectural design to two brilliant mathematicians, Isidore the Milesian and Anthemios of Tralles. Isidore was not known as an architect, but as a reputable university professor who was an admirer of Archimedes and Euclid, and systematically collected their work. Anthemios's scientific work dealt with, among other things, how light passes through holes, something that proved to be a key element for Hagia Sophia, whose longitudinal axis was designed to coincide with the rising of the winter solstice - a symbol of light in the heart of darkness.

Anthemios died early during the construction of Hagia Sophia and later, after the dome collapsed after an earthquake, Isidore's nephew, Isidore the Younger, was called to complete the work. Their greatest triumph was the use of masonry arches, ie hollow triangular structures which they used to hold the huge dome in the air above its square base. Simply put, they managed not to use bulky columns that would limit the large space below, and at the same time they built the largest dome in the world.

The Great Church was loaded with precious stones and materials to become the jewel of the Roman Empire. The interior of the building, from the floor to the walls, was decorated with selected marbles from the Cycladic islands of Greece and the entire Mediterranean. Marble held a special place in the aesthetic values of the empire, so symmetrical patterns formed by the natural lines of marble were just as important as paintings. Above a sea of marble there was a paradise of gold. Millions of gold tiles adorned the arches and domes to form exquisite mosaics. The faces of Jesus, the Virgin, the Archangels and the emperors were designed to look at the spectators, as well as to gaze at eternity. The light came either from the rays of the sun flowing from the rows of windows that penetrate the dome, or from candles at night.

An unprecedented amount of gold coins was spent, so that the church represents the glory of God. "When Hagia Sophia was officially inaugurated, the celebration lasted for days: thousands of deer, oxen, sheep and chickens, as well as bags of wheat, were distributed to the needy."

In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans, who turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque. In the years that followed, mosaics were plastered, marbles were covered with carpets, and many of the windows designed to carry light rays were covered. The minarets were erected. The building, however, remains in line with the east, as is customary for Christian churches, and because of its importance as the cathedral of the imperial capital, specifically with the rising of the winter solstice. During the conversion of the Great Church into a mosque, the Ottomans, because they could not turn the building towards Mecca, as is usual for mosques, had to place the mihrab, ie the recess that is usually located in the middle of the qibla wall and shows the direction of the Muslim prayer, a little to the right in the Sanctuary, a detail that disturbs the symmetry of the building.

As Olga Alexopoulou, a painter in Istanbul, writes of the phenomenon of the winter solstice and Hagia Sophia while the church serves as a mosque: "As the years will go by, perhaps the only thing that will be left is a beam of light hitting the windows of the Hagia Sophia apse in a perfect straight line during every dawn of the winter solstice, slowly making its elegant way to the Royal Door — otherwise known as the Door of Repentance where even emperors had to bow before entering."