The Hagia Sophia cathedral has survived earthquakes and religious power struggles and has come to be associated with legend and lore.
1. The name
Many mistakenly believe that Hagia Sophia is dedicated to Saint Sophia, but it is actually dedicated to the Wisdom of God as the word Sophia means wisdom. There were once two more churches regarded as ‘Churches of Divine Wisdom’, but Hagia Sophia is the last one to remain.
2. Healing powers
It was once believed that the well in the centre of the main hall could cure disease. According to the legend, sufferers had to visit the well for three Saturdays in a row and drink water from there each time. An end was put to this tradition when Hagia Sophia was converted to a public museum in 1935.
3. Wish making
A mysterious weeping column stays moist the whole year round, even in the heat of summer. For years, the faithful have believed that the moistness comes from the tears of the Virgin Mary. The marble column is said to have healing qualities and believers place their thumbs or fingers in a hole in the middle of the column and then rub the area of their bodies in need of a cure. According to legend, Emperor Justinian managed to cure a migraine headache merely by leaning on the column.
Following the sacking of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia’s mosaics were sold, sacked and plastered over during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent. In 1847, Gaspare and Guiseppe Fossati were hired to restore the cathedral. During this stage they managed to uncover mosaics and showed Sultan Abdulmejid who thought the brothers had made these, and he got angry as he believed that they had made expenses to construct the works. Upon realising that the mosaics covered by his predecessors he was angry for having them hidden all along. Despite his amazement, he plastered and painted over them again, fearing people’s reactions to the icons appearing in the mosque. Once again, mosaics were plastered over in line with Islamic rules. The Fossatis brothers covered over the walls with Justinianic patterns, flowers, and other shapes, once again hiding the priceless Byzantine works until 1931 when work began on once again recovering the icons and turning the the world heritage site into a museum.
5. The last prayer
The last Greek Orthodox Patriarch prior to the 1453 siege of Hagia Sophia was supposed to have been praying as the Ottomans broke into the city, sacking and pillaging all they could find. He slipped out a side door and legend has it that he’ll return when the building becomes a church again in order to continue his prayers. Another legend refers to Constantine Palaiologos as the ‘Marble King’ and it is believed that an angel rescued the emperor when the Ottomans entered Constantinople and placed him in a cave near the Golden Gate in Istanbul where he waits to be resurrected in order to reestablish Christian Constantinople.
6. Empress Zoe
The Zoe Mosaic was rediscovered in 1934, and is very telling of Empress Zoe, daughter of Constantine VIII, and the life of intrigue in Byzantine court. Her father forced her to marry Argyros before his death, and she did so when she was 50 and still a virgin but she later fell in love with Michael, a young stable boy. Together, the Empress and her lover killed Argyros by drowning him in a bath. Michael became Emperor but died seven years later, leaving the kingdom to his nephew who imprisoned Zoe. Riots followed, and he was dethroned. Later Zoe married Constantine IX Monomachos. Each time she remarried, she would replace the face of the emperor on the icon, however for the brief period she was in prison, her nephew also replaced her face. An inscription above the empress says “Zoe, the most pious Augusta”.
7. Deesis Mosaic
The Deesis Mosaic, a masterpiece created in 1264 AD, has caused controversy due to the belief that the face may not be the image of Jesus Christ but Apollonius of Tyana. The theory was first proposed by late American researcher Robertino Solarion who said that the philosopher Apollonius was the model for Jesus, and the main evidence comes from the writings of Philostratus the Elder.
The lack of a crypt at Hagia Sophia has caused many to speculate that there may be secrets hidden underneath the magnanimous cathedral. A number of scholars believe that there may be concealed passageways underneath. When the city fell to Ottoman armies, the Greeks of Hagia Sophia would have been able to predict that barbaric acts would follow. It is possible that, knowing that the cathedral would be desecrated, ransacked and turned into a mosque, they were motivated to properly conceal any entrances to underground chambers. Though there is no proof that there are rooms underground, there is plenty of speculation regarding this.
9. Sultan Mehmet’s hoof
When the Ottoman Army entered Constantinople on 29 May, 1453, the looting began. The more vulnerable groups of the community, mainly women and children, sought sanctuary at Hagia Sophia. Nonetheless, the Ottoman army entered the cathedral and slaughtered all in their way. It is said that a 10-metre wall of corpses was flung in the cathedral during the blood bath. When Sultan Mehmet rode into the cathedral on his horse, his steed tripped over the bodies and kicked one of the columns. There is a dent in one of the columns said to have been created by the sultan’s horse on that day.
10. The graffiti
During repairs conducted in the 1990s, graffiti scrawled by a tenth-century worker was uncovered 150 feet above the floor. “Kyrie, voithi to sou doulo, Gregorio,” it said. “Lord, help your servant, Gregorius.”
+ 1 Gli, the cat of Hagia Sophia
This photographed feline is even featured on the museum’s website.