Hagia Sophia was constructed between the years 532 and 537 upon the decree of Emperor Justinian (527-565), in the form as we see it today. Later on, all of its surfaces, arches, vaults and domes, except its walls covered with pieces of marble, were ornamented with mocaics, competing in beauty only with each other. Procopius, the historian-writer contemporary of Emperor Justinian, the Great, rhapsodizes with admiration over the incredible beauty of Hagia Sophia, the grandeur of its dimensions and the harmony in its scales.
The fact that the inner decorations were made with the idea of creating only colourful and gilded surfaces, have made it possible for them to survive until now. These decorations are seen in the cross vaults of the inner narthex, and in the interior on the vault on the right, upon entrance from the imperial door, were decorated with golden mosaics at the time of Justinian, the Great. It is not definitely known whether these mosaics with figures of that period have survived or not. If they did, they must be scraped out during the hostile attitude manifested during the period of Iconoclasm between the years 726 and 842.
All the mosaics with figures that . we see today in Hagia Sophia, are those made after the closure of the period of Iconoclasm, that is to- say, starting from the year 867. When the Byzantine Empire got hold of Byzantium once more again in 1261, after the Latin invasion of 1204, the making of mosaics were taken up again. Since these mosaics were made on different dates, there is, therefore, no unity of style and contemporary workmanship.
After the conquest of Istanbul by the Turks and the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, the mosaics in Hagia Sophia were not destroyed, but after some time later they were covered with a thin coat of plaster. The mosaics were in such a covered state until the middle of the Nineteenth Century. G. T. Fossati and his brother Guiseppe Fossati, who came to build the Russian embassy, started to clean these coats of plaster in 1847, upon orders from Sultan Abdulmedjid. With the work continuing up to 1849 these plaster covers were removed, and the designs of the mosaics were sketched to be published. These sketches, however, were not published, but were kept in an archive in Switzerland. The architect W. Salzenberg, who was sent to Istanbul by the German Government in those years for repairs in Hagia Sophia, extracted reliefs and sketched the designs once more and published them in 1854. After the conclusion of the work by the Fossati brothers, Sultan Abdulmedjid has visited Hagia Sophia, and has seen the mosaics. He had them eventually covered again in an easily removable manner, in order to prevent their deterioration by the damp air. In 1932, in the period of the young Turkish Republic, the mosaics were cleaned again in asicientific way by Thomas Whittemore, on behalf of the Byzantine Institute of America. Carrying his work up to 1958, Whittemore uncovered all the mosaics, and published them in detail.
The following words of Whittemore, uttered during his work, are quite meaningful: “Earthquakes and time have deprived the building of many masterpieces of the art of mosaic pictures, but those remaining have been always well preserved by the Turks during the nearly five hundred years that they have used the building. ” Aside from the mosaics we have seen, there were other mosaics, which have not survived, but the existence of which we learn from various sources. We would like to mention briefly these mosaics that either the locations are not known, or we can not possibly see, due to the destruction caused by numerous earthquakes, and especially the one taking place in 1894. In the Sixth Century, in the interior of Hagia Sophia there was a huge cross in the middle of the main dome. A portrait of Jesus was made in replacement, after 842. These mosaics were also deteriorated in 889 and the mosaics of Christ Pantocrator were made instread, in a medallion of eleven meters diameter. These mosaics were in existence until the end of the Seventeenth Century. And later on an inscription with a very good caligraphy was made in replamecement. This inscription, which contains Koranic Verses,are the work of Kazasker Mustapha Izzet Effendi. It is not 1 known, however, whether the I mosaics of Christ are still ! underneath, or not.
It is also known that of the great i arches carrying the main dome of Hagia Sophia, the one on the east, I was decorated with mosaics. In I these mosaics, the throne prepared for Jesus Christ was to be seen. On the northern side of the arch, mosaics of Virgin Mary and right opposite of them, there were those of John the Baptist. On the lower tips of the arch, there was a portrait of Emperor John V Palailogos (1341-1391). At the beginning of the arch there were figures of two eagles. It is now known that these decorations were made following the repairs in 1355. On the middle of the western arch, there were portraits of the Virgin, and apostles Peter and Paul in a medallion. In the earthquake taking place in 1894, this arch was highly damaged and destructed. Of the vaults located in the middle of the southern gallery , on the one in the east, there stood a great Pantocrator, and on the one in the west, there was a group of apostles. In the chapels within the southern buttress, there are remains of mosaics, which are badly damaged. The mosaics in the vaults of the northern gallery , the existence of which are known, have not survived. In the lower floor, on the door which was named by Fossati as “the door for the poor” , it is known that mosaics portraying a group of 5 – 6 persons were in existence.