In photos: Turkey’s Aya Sofya is an ancient marvel

Carla Danziger
McLean, Va. / Albany, Calif.

Photo: Carla Danziger Aya Sofya (also known as Hagia Sophia), one of the world’s most iconic buildings, has been an Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) landmark for almost 1500 years. Consecrated as an Eastern (Greek) Orthodox cathedral (“Church of the Divine Wisdom”) in 537, Aya Sofya received Christian worshippers and visitors for the next 816 years until the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453. Admiring the beautiful church, the Ottoman sultan ordered it to be converted to a mosque. Christian mosaics were removed or plastered over, and Islamic features added, including four minarets. For the next 482 years, the mosque welcomed Moslem worshippers.

Photo: Carla Danziger
Aya Sofya (also known as Hagia Sophia), one of the world’s most iconic buildings, has been an Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) landmark for almost 1500 years. Consecrated as an Eastern (Greek) Orthodox cathedral (“Church of the Divine Wisdom”) in 537, Aya Sofya received Christian worshippers and visitors for the next 816 years until the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453. Admiring the beautiful church, the Ottoman sultan ordered it to be converted to a mosque. Christian mosaics were removed or plastered over, and Islamic features added, including four minarets. For the next 482 years, the mosque welcomed Muslim worshippers.

Traveling to Istanbul, Turkey, last spring I did not expect to find any links to Scandinavia, but to my surprise I did. In the world-famous Aya Sofya, there’s graffiti left by at least one of our Viking ancestors. Who knew?

Photo: Carla Danziger Viking Graffiti. Historians have traced these markings carved into a marble banister in  the upstairs south balcony of Aya Sofya to a Viking Mercenary, Halfdan, who visited Aya Sofya in the 9th century.

Photo: Carla Danziger
Viking Graffiti. Historians have traced these markings carved into a marble banister in the upstairs south balcony of Aya Sofya to a Viking Mercenary, Halfdan, who visited Aya Sofya in the 9th century.

The runic characters that I saw are attributed to Halfdan, a Viking mercenary, believed to have carved his name in the marble in the 9th century. The inscription is worn down so much that it is only half legible, but it’s thought to say something akin to “Halfdan was here” (“Halfdan carved these runes”).

Photo: Carla Danziger Viking Graffiti.

Photo: Carla Danziger
Viking Graffiti.

Although apparently the first, he was not the only Viking to leave his mark. Similar—but later—Runic carvings have also been discovered in another part of the upstairs gallery. These are believed to have been done by a member of the Varangian Guard, an elite unit of the Byzantine army, to which Norse mercenaries flocked beginning in the 10th century.

Photo: Carla Danziger After the end of the Ottoman Empire, the first president and father of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, ordered that Aya Sofya be turned into a museum; it opened as such in 1935. Christian and Moslem art and architecture can be viewed amidst scaffolding that supports part of this ancient icon. Forty-three million tourists visit Istanbul each year, several million of whom visit Aya Sofya.

Photo: Carla Danziger
After the end of the Ottoman Empire, the first president and father of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, ordered that Aya Sofya be turned into a museum; it opened as such in 1935. Christian and Muslim art and architecture can be viewed amidst scaffolding that supports part of this ancient icon. Forty-three million tourists visit Istanbul each year, several million of whom visit Aya Sofya.

Restoring and keeping up Aya Sofya is a tricky matter, given the building’s long history. Christian mosaics and other art have been restored, but often at the expense of the later Muslim art that covered it. Yet examples of both remain.

All in all, it’s a unique historic marvel!

All photos by Carla Danziger. With thanks to research sources Lonely Planet Guide and Wikepedia.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 3, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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