The Folklore About Hagia Sophia

Benjamin Anderson

First published in Aktüel Arkeoloji; for the text in Turkish, click here.

Hagia Sophia is a wonder! Its beauty and scale overwhelm the viewer and demand explanation. How was it designed and built? How has its tremendous dome withstood repeated earthquakes? What is the source of the building’s beauty, and how does it continue to inspire viewers of all faiths and nations, century after century?

These questions are still discussed by scholars of architecture and history, and will continue to be debated in future. But many visitors without professional training have asked the same questions, and have discovered answers of their own. These amateur accounts form a rich and fascinating literature. We can call it the “folklore” about Hagia Sophia, even if this word is imprecise, joining together many different approaches and attitudes.

The folklore about the building is no less interesting than the scholarship. Perhaps the explanations that amateur viewers have offered in the past will not persuade today’s experts and scientifically-minded amateurs. But they can tell us a lot about Hagia Sophia itself, in particular its persistent ability to stimulate the imagination and evoke thoughts of the divine.

There is a massive body of evidence for popular interpretations of Hagia Sophia, beginning with the construction of the building in the sixth century and continuing to the present day. We cannot present a comprehensive account of it here. Instead, we will offer a sampling of folklore from different eras, focusing on stories from the ninth, fifteenth, and nineteenth centuries.

At least one consistent theme runs through all of the examples chosen. Amateur interpreters were exceptionally attentive to the physical structure and visual appearance of Hagia Sophia. They sought to answer their questions, not only on the basis of their beliefs and worldviews, but also through a detailed knowledge of the building itself.

Let us begin with one of the earliest, longest, and most influential accounts of the building, which was written by an anonymous amateur in the ninth century. Its Greek title translates to “The Story of Hagia Sophia.” The simplicity of the title conceals the complexity and diversity of its contents.

The author, writing three centuries after Hagia Sophia was built, offers detailed accounts of its conception, design, and execution. Nearly all of it is fiction – a work of imagination, not of historical research. Nevertheless, the author’s imagination was informed by a deep curiosity about the practical details of construction. For example, he provides detailed accounts of the sources of building materials, mentioning columns from Rome, Ephesus, and Cyzicus; the emperor’s efforts to purchase adjoining properties to expand the size of the church; and even the recipe that the builders used to mix the mortar.

One particular anecdote reveals the author’s close attention to the structure and the appearance of the building. While the builders were constructing the vaults above the galleries, their supervisor was summoned to the palace. He sent the workers to lunch and left his son in the gallery to guard the tools. A eunuch from the imperial palace, “clad in a shining robe and with a beautiful face,” appeared and told the boy to call back the workers, promising to remain on guard until he returned. The boy went to his father in the palace and told him what had happened. The emperor summoned all of his eunuchs, but the boy did not recognize any of them. Thus everyone realized that the man in the shining robe was in fact an angel. Accordingly, the emperor ordered the boy never to return to Hagia Sophia, “so that the angel may be forever on guard, as he has sworn.” The angel remains there today, and will “protect the church on God’s behalf until the end of the world.”

At first glance, this story may seem to be pure fantasy. Notably, however, the author gives the precise location where the angel swore his oath: “on the right side of the pier for the upper arch that reaches up to the dome.” The choice of this spot demonstrates a knowledge both of engineering and of art. In terms of engineering, Hagia Sophia’s four massive piers form the core of its structural design and hold up its great dome. In terms of art, recall the two angels in mosaic that stand to either side of the apse, clad in shining robes and with beautiful faces, just as the boy saw.

Mosaic of an archangel in the bema vault, Hagia Sophia (mosaic dates to the ninth century). Photograph: Dennis Jarvis, Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0.

If you go to the gallery, stand next to one of the eastern piers, and look across the aisle, you will receive a wonderful view of the angel on the opposite side. Perhaps this was even the origin of the story – did its author look at the angels in mosaic and see them as signs of the building’s divine protection?

“The Story of Hagia Sophia” was copied frequently by Byzantine scribes and is preserved in many medieval manuscripts. Interest in the stories that it contains persisted into the Ottoman era. Fatih Sultan Mehmed commissioned a Persian adaptation of the text, and a Greek copy, produced in 1474, is still preserved in the library of Topkapı Sarayı.

An anonymous Turkish chronicle, composed in 1491, also relates the story of the boy and the holy guardian, but with significant modifications. The boy is no longer the master’s son, but his apprentice; and the builders have not been sent to lunch, but have stopped work entirely due to a lack of funds. A holy person “with a luminous face” appears to the boy, who is guarding the tools, asks why the work has stopped, and, learning the reason, promises to reveal the location of a treasure. The apprentice hesitates to leave his post, and the holy person swears an oath to guard the tools until he returns. The boy tells his master and a group of wise men what happened. They realize that the visitor is holy, and forbid the boy to return to him. Instead, they visit him themselves, he shows them the location of the treasure, and construction resumes. When the holy person realizes that the boy will not return, he understands that he has been tricked, and disappears.

Interestingly, this version of the story, like the Greek tale of six centuries before, concludes with a precise description of the site of the encounter, but names an entirely different place. The author explains that, if you enter through the door that faces the mihrab of Hagia Sophia and turn to the left, you will find a rectangular column in white marble. Since the holy person swore to remain until the apprentice returned, he has not actually left, but has only become invisible. Accordingly, this column possesses a certain power, and visitors came to rub it and scrape it with knives – so much so that it had to be covered in bronze. This is clearly a reference to the famous “weeping column” in the northwest corner of Hagia Sophia, which is indeed covered in bronze, and which visitors still touch today in hopes that their wishes might be fulfilled.

The wishing column (dilek taşı) in the northwest corner of Hagia Sophia. Photograph: Haluk Comertel, Creative Commons license CC BY 3.0.

The anonymous chronicle of 1491 also marks a shift in the identity of the building’s divine guardian. He is never called an angel – indeed, for most of the story he is simply a “holy person.” But the author also remarks in passing that “some people say this holy person was Saint George.”

In popular Anatolian belief, Saint George was identified with the prophet Khidr / Hızır, who quickly assumed a prominent role in stories about Hagia Sophia. For example, writing in the seventeenth-century, Evliya Çelebi explains that the spot in the center of Hagia Sophia directly underneath the dome is known as the maqâm of Khidr, “where some thousands of holy men have enjoyed the happiness of discoursing with that great prophet”

The interior of Hagia Sophia in the 17th century: note the angels in the pendentives. Guillaume Joseph Grelot, Relation nouvelle d’une voyage de Constantinople (Paris: Rocolet, 1680). Photograph: Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg.

Until now, all of the sources that we have considered have been written, the work of literate men. Doubtless all of these authors were aware of popular, orally transmitted stories about Hagia Sophia, which must have influenced their work. But it is only in the nineteenth century, when folklore itself became a topic of academic research, that we find direct transcripts of oral traditions. One story from this period helps to explain the association of the dome with Khidr, while also bringing us back to the subject of angels.

In 1894, Henry Carnoy and Jean Nicolaïdès published a volume in French on The Folklore of Constantinople. Nicolaïdès was born in İncesu, Kayseri, and moved to Istanbul to continue his education, where he collected the stories related by his fellow residents. Consider the following, which was told to him by Hamdi Hoca, a student of theology from Ankara:

One day during Ramadan, a drunk man went to stretch out under the dome of Hagia Sophia. Meanwhile the faithful gathered there to pray and to listen to the sermon of the imam.

As the drunkard lay on his back, Khidr approached him and said, “Are you not ashamed to remain here?” The man seized Khidr by the arm and pointed to the dome. Khidr saw the angels of God delivering sermons of their own, and he understood that the man was on his back to better understand their discourse.

“I do not want to let you go,” said the man. “You are Khidr. I will reveal your presence, and the people will tear you limb from limb.” But Khidr managed to escape.

As soon as he was free, Khidr looked for the drunkard’s name in his book, but he could not find it. He addressed himself to God: “My Lord! Why is this man’s name not in my book? Clearly he is a saint.” And the Lord replied, “Khidr, there is more than one prophet, and more than one saint, whose name is not entered in your book.”

Like the earlier stories about the boy and the divine guardian, this one too is rooted in the structure and appearance of the building. Anyone who looked to the dome in the nineteenth century would have seen angels – the seraphim in the pendentives, the only figural mosaics that were never entirely concealed in the Ottoman period. Within the cupola, he would have seen the content of their discourse. At the summit of the dome, namely, appears the Light Verse, Qur’an 24:35, which was executed by the calligrapher Kazasker Mustafa İzzet Efendi in 1848-49.

The dome of Hagia Sophia, with the seraphim in the pendentives and the Light Verse in the cupola. Photograph: Rabe!, Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0.

Let us return to the questions that we posed at the beginning, and ask if the folklore about Hagia Sophia helps us to understand them better. Certainly the stories have caused us to look closely at the building and notice specific details of its structure and decoration. Do they also bring us closer to the source of the building’s beauty, and its continuing ability to inspire viewers?

There are at least two answers. First, we have seen that the stories often feature mediators between the human world and the divine. Angels, saints, and prophets – all of these are messengers who move back and forth between heaven and earth, helping the one to understand the other. Hagia Sophia, too, is somewhere in between, neither entirely of this world nor completely apart. Recall the famous story of the Rus ambassadors who visited Hagia Sophia late in the tenth century and reported back to their Tsar Vladimir: “we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.”

The second answer is based on the consistent reference to specific locations within the church. The three stories related above have given us a tour of the entire elevation of Hagia Sophia: from the weeping column on the ground level, through the galleries, and all the way up to the very summit of the dome.

So perhaps the folklore shows how Hagia Sophia inspires thoughts of a world beyond, even while it remains firmly grounded in this world. The means by which it achieves this are not supernatural or ineffable, but tangible and visible: the very fabric of the building and the rich detail of its decoration. Throughout the many changes in its function, Hagia Sophia continues to embody the ability of human art to intimate the divine.

Further reading:

For “The Story of Hagia Sophia,” see Albrecht Berger, Accounts of Medieval Constantinople: The Patria (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013).

For the anonymous chronicle of 1491, see Stephane Yerasimos, La fondation de Constantinople et de Sainte-Sophie dans les traditions turques (Paris: Institut Français d’Études Anatoliennes d’Istanbul, 1990).

For the story of Khidr and the drunkard, see Henry Carnoy and Jean Nicolaïdès, Folklore de Constantinople (Paris: Emile Lechevalier, 1894).

Written 20.IX.2020.