People of all languages, religions, and backgrounds can pray together in a tolerant environment. This is not a myth, it is reality in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, in a unique work of art, leaning back on the deep blue sea and monumental architecture. It is by far, the world’s most beautiful and precious jewel, a sacred temple gifted to all humanity from the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I: The Hagia Sophia.
The story of this magnificent monument located in the old city centre of Istanbul is just as interesting as its appearance. The Hagia Sophia was rebuilt after the Nika Revolt, in a construction period of just four years and ten months. Due to the fact that plenty of columns and materials were still available from before parts were demolished, the building could be reconstructed swiftly. However, legend has it these building materials were not brought in from just any building, but from the Temple of Solomon, a common tale to be told among the Byzantine people. Unfortunately, we cannot claim this to be true, however, we do know that the new and glorious church became reality in 537. This was specified by the Historian of Procopius, he also stated that Emperor Justinian was referring to the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, which strengthens the myth. According to the tradition Justinian exclaimed: “O Solomon! I passed you!”. This is the symbolic expression of the relation between Justinian and Prophet Solomon, which is now still to be found on the Emperor’s Gate of the building. In addition to this link between the two buildings, they also share other similarities. Both temples were built on sacred grounds, and they are known to be some of the most sacred temples in the world.
The mysteries and legends of the Hagia Sophia are not just engrained in the structure of the building which were built by one person for the worship of human beings. Instead, the holy shrines legends are transmitted from generation to generation. According to a legend, Emperor Justinian was not happy with the architectural projects presented to him wen rebuilding Hagia Sophia. The story goes that during a religious ceremony he grabbed a piece of bread which was then taken away by a bee. Everybody in the empire started to look for this bee and the piece of bread, which belonged to the emperor. The person who would manage to return the bread would be rewarded. When the bread and bee is finally returned, both are stuck inside a honeycomb, which is shaped like a church. Due to the fact that the holy bread is shared above the altar, and the honeycomb resembles a church, Justinian decides that the Hagia Sophia should be modelled after this divine plan.
Another legend which involves the drawing up of the Hagia Sophia considers Justinian dream. Unhappy with the course of events and the work of the famous architects, Justinian went to sleep one night. In his dream he finds himself on the vacant land on which the Hagia Sophia will be built, on that spot a radiant face appears. The face looks to the left, and remains waiting in one corner. Justinian follows the face, and notices a silver plates in the hand of the figure, on the plate a picture is drawn of a church. It is precisely the image the emperor had in his mind, so he proceeds to pray to God that he can keep this picture in his mind and us it to make the church. When finished praying, the face smiles at him and says: “take this picture, the church made according to his example!”. Justinian gratitude is great, and he immediately provides the architects with instructions.
Located northwest inside the Hagia Sophia, an interesting column, known as the “Sweating” or “Wishing” column, stands. It is recognizable by the hole in the middle which is covered by a bronze plate. Aside from its appearance, it is said to have healing powers. Legend has it that Emperor Justinian wandered in the building with a severe headache, after leaning into the column he realized it had disappeared. The story spread among the general public and the myth regarding the healing power of the column persists up until today. Perhaps you should visit the Hagia Sophia and try it. It supposedly works when you put your finger in the hole and rub the spot on your body that holds the disease. However, this is not the only story that makes its rounds about this spot. The Ottoman legend tells the tale of Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror with Hagia Sophia. After the fall of Constantinople, he performed first Friday Prayer in Hagia Sophia by the imamate of Akshamsaddin, who is his mentor. However, they were unable to start the prayer due to the fact that the building was not faced to Kaaba. The legend tells that Khidr (a figure described in the Quran as a righteous servant of God possessing great wisdom or mystic knowledge) appeared at that moment, attempting to move the building so that it would face Kaaba. When one of the people saw Khidr, he was unable to complete this. To this day, people make their wishes by rotating their thumb a complete clockwise tour inside the hole. This symbolizes the act of Khidr.
The ‘Sweating Column’ is not the only column in the Hagia Sophia that has a mysterious history. One of the columns has some mysterious hand figures on it. The origin of these hands is unknown, but they are rumoured to belong to the Virgin Mary. However, this is not the only story, rumour has it that the giant who returned the column from Mount Qaf (it is a mythological mountain of ancient Muslim tradition renowned as the “farthest point of the earth”) gave it the signature hit. In general hand figures are one of the most ancient talismans. For centuries people believed they had protective powers against bad magic and evil spirits. The first examples of hand figures were found in Çatalhöyük and Hacılar, Neolithic settlements in the Anatolia, and also in Chauvet and the Lascaux Caves. This explains why this column is surrounded by so much mystery and stories.
In addition to beautiful stories behind the columns, you should also look up when you enter the Hagia Sophia; the domes boast the depiction of angels, one in each corner, painted so that their feet are placed on the upper level of the largest dome. The angels depicted are better known as Jibril, Mikail, Israfil and Azrael. Upon the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, the angels spoke to him from their mouths located in the middle of their stomachs. Each spoke about their own region; Jibril announced what happened in the east, Mikail told about enemies in the west, Israfil knew the future of the north, and Azrael gave news of the death of a variety of rulers throughout the world. These prophecies, said to be depicted on the columns which belonged to the angels, allegedly ceased to exist after the death of Prophet Muhammad.
As this article demonstrates, the Hagia Sophia is riddled with secrets which are there for you to unravel. There are probably still numerous legends which are unknown to us. From that perspective, this building may be Justinian’s greatest present to humanity.
 Procopius, Byzantium’s Secret History: Istanbul, 2008, p.38-40.
 Erhan, A. Ve Pelin, Ç. (2016). Ayasofya’nın Gizli Tarihi: Beyaz Baykuş, Istanbul, p.51-52.
 Günümüz Türkçesiyle Evliya Çelebi Seyahatnamesi: YKY, Istanbul, 2003.
I’m a history student at İstanbul Bilgi University
I write because I have a lot to say!
Photo Credits: Mattia Panciroli