Thursday, January 12, 2017

January 12 ~ On this day, AD 532, the burning of Hagia Sophia II

Original steps leading up to the entrance of Theodosius's
Hagia Sophia. Taken from here.
Many people know of Justinian’s monumental basilica, Hagia Sophia, which has stood in Constantinople/Istanbul for nearly 1,500 years. Few people, however, realize that Justinian’s church is actually the third monumental basilica to be built on that site.

Originally completed in about AD 415, the second of the three great basilicas was burnt to the ground on the night of January 12, AD 532 during the Nika riots in Constantinople. For an overview of this tragic revolt that ended in the slaughter of over 30,000, see my previous post: Justinian 31, Factionists 10: The Nika Rebellion of AD 532.

Procopius of Caesarea, possibly an eye-witness, described the destruction of the church as follows:
The lowest dregs of the people in Byzantium once assailed the Emperor Justinian in the rebellion called Nika, which I have clearly described in my History of the Wars. To prove that it was not merely against the emperor but no less against God that they took up arms, they ventured to burn the church of the Christians which the people of Byzantium call Sophia, a name most worthy of God. God permitted them to effect this crime, knowing how great the beauty of this church would be when restored. Thus the church was entirely reduced to ashes. (Taken from The Church of Sancta Sophia, Constantinople).
Sadly, descriptions of the great church of Theodosius II in the surviving literature of the time are few and far between. We get a small sense of what it may have looked like in this brief notice from the Paschal Chronicle within the narrative of the Nika rebellion:
Thereafter, the rioters set fire to the bronze-roofed entrance to the Palace [the Chalke Gate], and it was burnt, together with the portico of the scholarii and the protectors and candidate, and there was a breach. And similarly both the Senate-house, by the Augustaeum as it is called, was burnt, and the whole of the Great Church together with its awesome and marvelous columns was completely demolished on all four sides. (Taken from “The account of the nika riots as evidence for sixth-century constantinopolitan topography,” by Nigel Westbrook.)
Remains of Hagia Sophia II, destroyed AD 532. Taken from here.
Filling in the gaps, we have some archaeological evidence that was unearthed in the open area in front of the existing Hagia Sophia in 1935 by A. M. Schneider. There is an excellent gallery of photos showing some of the monumental stonework associated with Theodosius II’s church on WikiMedia Commons, including the above frieze showing several lambs in a row.

Also floating around out there is this tentative reconstruction of the façade of Theodosius II’s church, showing the “awesome and marvelous columns” as described above in the Paschal Chronicle’s account.

The great church itself is supposed to have had a five-aisle nave and featured a golden altar donated by Saint Pulcheria, sister of Theodosius II. The altar is described as follows by Sozomen in his Ecclesiastical History:
In token of her virginity and the headship of her brother, she [Pulcheria] consecrated in the church of Constantinople, a holy table, a remarkable fabric and very beautiful to see; it was made of gold and precious stones; and she inscribed these things on the front of the table, so that it might be patent to all.
Unfortunately for this structure, it was roofed with wood which made it particularly susceptible to fire. Justinian's grand replacement, would not have this defect.

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