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Archaeologists May Have Found the Place Where Roman Emperors Were Baptized

Excavations conducted around the largest Christian cathedral built in the ancient Mediterranean have yielded new archaeological discoveries.

Hagia Sophia, a 6th century CE cathedral which now serves as a museum within the city of Istanbul, Turkey (image by Derzsi Elekes Andor via Wikimedia).

The latest book from Byzantine archaeologists Ken Dark and Jan Kostenec, Hagia Sophia in Context: An Archaeological Re-examination of the Cathedral of Byzantine Constantinople, examines the new archaeological discoveries made within and around the largest Christian cathedral built in the ancient Mediterranean. In excavations conducted between 2004 and 2018, the Hagia Sophia project, led by Dark and Kostenec, exposed a number of new structures that together radically alter our understanding of the topography, role, and use of the cathedral over 1400 years ago. It also demonstrates that the monumental structure has long been a political lightning rod used by emperors, sultans, and now presidents.

Long before Notre Dame caught fire a few weeks ago, fires were a looming threat for ancient cathedrals. One of the most famous structures to suffer fire’s destructive power is Hagia Sophia (in the modern Greek, “Holy Wisdom”), a former cathedral and then mosque which now serves as a museum in Istanbul, in modern day Turkey. The building that stands today is actually the third version of the structure built on the sacred site; it was originally erected in the then-developing city of Constantinople. In 360 CE, the Roman emperor Constantius II built the first iteration of the church, simply called Megale Ekklesia (“Great Church”), which was then damaged by fire and rioting in 404 CE. It was rebuilt shortly thereafter by emperor Theodosius II in 415 and soon thereafter began to be referred to as Hagia Sophia, before being damaged again by the widespread rioting surrounding the Nika Revolts in 532 CE. Employing the famed architects Anthemios of Tralles and Isidoros of Miletos, the emperor Justinian immediately rebuilt Hagia Sophia in just 5 years and consecrated it in 537 CE as a physical testament to his piety and potency.

A new Baptismal font discovered at the Hagia Sophia (image by Ansgar Bovet via Wikimedia).

One of the biggest discoveries alleged by Dark and Kostenec is the uncovering of the ‘Great Baptistery” just north of the church, which would have been used to baptize members of the imperial family from the 6th century CE onward. In the 10th century book De ceremoniis, which records the correct performance and topography of various rites, ceremonies, and processions, the author distinguishes between two baptisteries near Hagia Sophia: the Great Baptistery and the Small Baptistery. This study also enriches our knowledge of the architectural decoration of Hagia Sophia by uncovering marble that may have constituted a courtyard for the earlier Megale Ekklesia and recognizing a hitherto unknown porch to the cathedral. Excavators also uncovered an inlaid porphyry circle that may have been the exact spot where Justinian once stood during certain ceremonies. As it turns out, even Roman emperors needed to have a reminder for where they needed to stand.

The northeast vestibule, seen from the east. The blocked marble framed door and the greenstone pier are on the left and the porphyry disc in the floor is in the centre (image courtesy Oxbow Books).

Perhaps the largest contribution of the publication of these excavation findings is expanding our understanding of how the cathedral worked in tandem with the Patriarchate, the various buildings which housed the Patriarch, the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The recent excavations appear to have pinpointed the Patriarchal library and better defined the Large Hall and a surrounding building called the Thomaites, after an ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople named Thomas I (607-610 CE). The spatial and aesthetic connections between Hagia Sophia proper and the surrounding buildings of the Patriarchate demonstrate an interconnected network of ecclesiastical buildings that could function alternately for imperial ceremonies, synods, study, and worship.

The rectangular room on the upper level of the southwest buttress, showing two phases of its fresco decoration on the east wall and part of the north wall (seen from the southwest). The earlier fresco on the east wall imitates polychrome marble wall revetment, with a cross between two purple discs above the door opening into the cruciform chapel on the east side of the buttress. The later fresco shows figural decoration on the east wall and this continues on the north and west sides. There is a fragmentarily preserved underdrawing of the enthroned Christ, holding the Gospels and Blessing (and to whom saints approach from both sides) over the doorway in the east wall (image courtesy Oxbow Books).
The rectangular room on the upper level of the south-west buttress. Figures of saint-bishops in the upper part of the west wall (Phase 3 of the fresco decoration of the west wall), seen from east (image courtesy Oxbow Books).

Hagia Sophia was in constant use until the sacking of the city in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks. It was then that Mehmed II and his troops captured Constantinople and began to promote Islam. Hagia Sophia became a mosque, but was then turned into a museum in 1935. Recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to turn the site back into a mosque, though many have noted that this is a common election move meant to demonstrate his conservative values and rally his followers prior to an election. In March elections, Ekrem Imamoglu, of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), caused political tumult when he won the election to be Istanbul’s mayor. His victory ended 25 years of domination by Erdogan’s political party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Turkey’s election board has now annulled the March election and scheduled a new election for June 23.

An interior view of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey (image by Dean Strelau via Wikimedia).

For the over 3 million visitors who travel to see Hagia Sophia every year, these elections may or may not have an impact on their experience within the great house of worship. What can at least be said is that the energetic and important work of archaeologists in and around the great structure over the past two decades have helped the rest of the world to better understand Justinian’s vision for Hagia Sophia and how it functioned as the epicenter of ecclesiastical life centuries before. Understanding the monument’s manipulation in the past may now help us to understand how it is being wielded in the present.

Hagia Sophia in Context: An Archaeological Re-examination of the Cathedral of Byzantine Constantinople, was published this year by Oxbow Books.

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