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December 21, 2022

The "Secret" of Hagia Sophia That Can Only Be Seen on December 21st

December 22, 2020

A pilgrimage to Hagia Sophia on the morning of December 21 gives us the opportunity to witness the architectural secret that has protected the purpose of the Temple of God's Wisdom for centuries.

Guided by the painter Olga Alexopoulou, she explains that Hagia Sophia was designed in such a way that once a year, the first light of the dawn after the longest night of winter enters the monument, symbolizing the birth of Christ. We started at 8:00 in the morning. The goal was 8:25 to be in our place, inside the monument, to see the sun's rays piercing through the small window above the entrance of Hagia Sophia.

"We will be the first witnesses for the first time after so many years, maybe even centuries if we manage to do it," whispered Olga.

The two architects of Justinian

"The design of the building was so carefully worked out that it declared its devotion to Christianity – 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 show the building's purpose as a church, so subsequent religious conversions over the following centuries, including the most recent one, when on July 24, 2020 Turkey converted, despite international outcry, Hagia Sophia into a mosque, is so problematic. Because the entire purpose of the building is integrated into the architectural design of the church.

Since the church was dedicated to the Wisdom of God, Justinian's architects wanted to create an intelligent architectural design. Medical science may not have been as developed at that time, but mathematics was. Justinian entrusted the architectural design to two brilliant mathematicians, Isidore of Miletus and Anthemios of Tralles. Isidore was not known as an architect, but as a respected university professor who admired Archimedes and Euclid, and systematically collected their work. Anthemios' scientific work deals with, among other things, how light passes through holes, which 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 upon to complete the work. Their greatest triumph was the use of masonry arches, hollow triangular structures which they used to hold the huge dome in the air above its square base. Simply put, they managed to avoid using massive columns that would limit the vast 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 Byzantine 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 designs formed by the natural lines of the marble were as important as paintings. Above a sea of marble was a paradise of gold. Millions of gold mosaic pieces adorned the arches and domes to form exquisite mosaics. The faces of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Archangels and the emperors were designed to look at the viewers, as well as to gaze into eternity. The light came either from the rays of the sun streaming in from the rows of windows that pierce the dome, or from lamps in the evenings.

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

Landing in today's sad reality

While Olga was explaining how much the Hagia Sophia of Byzantium gleamed in the gold, we closed our eyes and saw her in front of us. Imagine the chandeliers filled with lighted lamps, Olga told us, and the Emperor there in the middle of the building during his coronation ceremony. And we saw the Emperor in front of us resplendent. And then she brought us back to reality:

"In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans, who turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque. In the years that followed, mosaics were plastered over, marbles were covered with carpets, and many of the windows designed to bring in rays of light were covered over. The minarets were erected. The building, however, remains aligned with the east, as is customary for Christian churches, and because of its importance as the cathedral of the imperial capital, specifically with the sunrise of the winter solstice. When converting 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, i.e. the recess that is usually located in the middle of the qibla wall and shows the direction of Muslim prayer, a little to the right of the Sanctuary, a detail that disrupts the symmetry of the building," she continued to explain to us.

We bumped into reality when she asked us to look up at the curtains that hid the mosaics: “A millennium and a half later, the latest mosque conversion dictates that the masterpiece mosaics of the Sanctuary, instead of being preserved in a museum setting, are covered by curtains so they not be visible during the Muslim prayer. The marbles have been covered with carpets and any Christian artifacts that can be removed will be taken to a museum in the city."

Our hearts turned black. The Muslim prayer was over and there were very few Muslims participating.

We waited for the curtains to come down as promised during its conversion from a museum to a mosque. But the curtains still hid the mosaics. Finally, the time came when we would see the light passing through the holes of Hagia Sophia as designed by Isidore and Anthemios. We waited until 9.00 but the sun betrayed us. The clouds covered its rays and did not let it enter Hagia Sophia. We looked at each other sadly but we didn't give in.

Instead, we made the promise: "See you here next year again, we'll come until we see the sun enter Hagia Sophia." Olga encouraged us even more: "We will come every year and as the years go by, maybe the only thing that will be left is a ray of light that will pass through the windows of Hagia Sophia in a perfect straight line every sunrise of the winter solstice, slowly making her elegant way to the Royal Gate – otherwise known as the Gate of Repentance, where even emperors had to kneel before entering.”

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.