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The dramatic story behind one of the world’s greatest churches

The Hagia Sophia was rebuilt after riots, fires destroyed much of Constantinople

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The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey

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Editor’s note: This was written prior tolast week’s announcementthat the Hagia Sophia would be converted from a museum to a mosque.

On Jan. 13, 532, riots broke out in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire. (The city of Rome itself had long since become a backwater and had finally been conquered by barbarians. The residents of the Empire still called themselves “Romans,” though, and their capital city was officially known as “New Rome.”) Within a week, tens of thousands of residents were dead and nearly half of the city had been burned or otherwise destroyed, including the foremost church of the empire, the Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”).

What caused the violence? Two “demes” or associations of chariot-racing fans — the Greens and the Blues — had divided the city between them for generations. These groups weren’t only about sports, though. They also resembled political parties and, all too often, brutal rival gangs. In 531, several members of both groups had been arrested for murder following a previous, smaller, riot after a chariot race. Most of those had already been executed.

However, two of the convicted rioters — for good or for ill, one from each faction — escaped and took refuge in a church, which was soon surrounded by an angry mob. Already unpopular for various policies and mired in negotiations to end an unsuccessful war with Persia, the Emperor Justinian sought to placate the crowd by commuting their sentences to imprisonment. The crowd responded by demanding that they be altogether pardoned. Justinian refused.

On Jan. 13, both Blues and Greens gathered for a new set of chariot races in the city’s great “Hippodrome” or horse racing arena, which could hold 100,000 spectators. Justinian watched from the imperial lodge, which was directly connected to his palace. (The outlines of the Hippodrome and its racetrack are still clearly visible in the heart of the city today. The space is ornamented with a “serpent column” and an Egyptian obelisk; the four sculpted horses that once adorned the Hippodrome now decorate the façade of the Basilica of St. Mark, in Venice, Italy.) Soon, angry political chants arose from the audience and the mob emerged from the race track to burn and destroy.

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The Obelisk of Theodosius is at the former Roman Hippodrome, in Istanbul, Turkey.

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The situation grew so critical and unmanageable that Justinian prepared to flee the city. He had a ship moored directly by the palace, ready for quick escape. It is said, though, that his legendarily beautiful, intelligent and steel-willed wife, Theodora, talked him out of it. “Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as empress,” she told him (and has been translated a variety of ways from the original Greek), reminding him that “imperial purple makes a fine burial shroud.”

Soon, Justinian thought of a plan: He sent Narses, a highly-trusted palace official, to the Hippodrome, where an angry crowd had now gathered to crown the aristocratic Hypatius as the new emperor. Courageously, the slightly-built eunuch approached the Blue faction, reminding them that the Emperor Justinian, of relatively low birth himself, had always favored their more populist cause and that the aristocratic Hypatius was a Green. Then he distributed the gold. When the coronation commenced, the Blues suddenly walked out.

Shortly thereafter, imperial troops under the command of the great generals Belisarius and Mundus entered the Hippodrome, sealing its doors and proceeding to kill all of the rebels — roughly 30,000 — who remained. Hypatius was executed, and any senators who had supported him were exiled.

Now, though, Constantinople needed to be rebuilt — and most particularly its great church. By Feb. 23, 532, Justinian had decided to build a yet more magnificent Hagia Sophia on the site of its predecessor, which had been destroyed by rioters. Significantly, he selected two mathematicians as his architects, and the building plainly shows their influence.

Justinian dedicated the new church on Dec. 27, 537, somewhat less than six years after construction began. It was the largest building in the world. It is reported that, upon entering the building that day, Justinian was thinking of the famous temple of Jerusalem. “Solomon,” he is reported to have remarked, “I have surpassed you!” (Again, various translations from the original Greek exist.)

For nearly a thousand years, until the cathedral of Seville supplanted it in 1520, Hagia Sophia was the world’s largest Christian church. Until 1453, when the Ottoman Turks took the city and renamed it Istanbul, Hagia Sophia served as a cathedral, the seat of the patriarch of Constantinople. At that point, it became an imperial mosque — and the prototype for Turkish and Turkish-influenced mosques ever after. In 1935, it became a museum and one of Turkey’s most popular tourist attractions.

 It surely ranks among the most remarkable buildings in the world.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directsMormonScholarsTestify.org, chairsinterpreterfoundation.org, blogs daily atpatheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.