The Hagia Sophia is a treasure house of history – a building still standing and magnificent after 15 centuries. I could spend a week just examining its many parts and still find something new. But on my first visit I was especially interested in the green circle of marble in the women’s gallery where a thousand years of Byzantine empresses stood during the Divine Liturgy.
When you enter the Hagia Sophia, you are first in the outer narthex, a kind of vestibule, and then you enter the inner narthex. To the left is the entrance to a ramp that leads up to the women’s gallery. The zig-zagging ramp would have been equal to at least 3 or 4 flights of stairs, and held openings for air to circulate. I thought on the long walk up the ramp that it wasn’t quite fair for the empress to have to walk that distance, but our guide said the empresses were carried up in litters or sedan chairs (no mention of how other women might have reached it).
The women’s gallery is a capacious area extending around three sides of the building and larger than most churches. The empresses’ spot was perfectly centered to face the iconostasis and altar (it’s a little off-center now that the mihrab is in place). The first woman to stand on that spot would have been Theodora, the renowned wife of Justinian and pictured above in the famous mosaic in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.
It is easy to imagine the other empresses over the 900 years or so years before the Ottoman conquest of 1453 who also stood in that spot – a parade of women who left their mark on the Byzantine civilization in one way or another. Many were Theodoras, Irenes, Zoes, Maries, and Helenas – the favored names for women of this era. The last empress to stand on that spot was Maria of Trebizond, the third and last wife of the John VIII Palaeologus, the next to last Byzantine emperor. Maria died of plague in 1439. The wives of the last emperor, Constantine XI Palaeologus, died before he became emperor.
Here I am, standing in the empress’s spot on a chilly March day. I was lucky to have the opportunity to be photographed here since there was always a crowd surrounding it.
Don’t let the walk up the long ramp intimidate you – the sights in the women’s gallery level are so worth the effort. The museum’s most famous mosaics are on that level, as are the runes left by roving members of the Varangian guards, and the block of marble embedded in the floor with the Venetian Enrico Dandolo’s name carved on it (handy for those of us still upset about the Fourth Crusade to stomp or spit on).