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F - 92 : Three Emperors - Three Temples

Emperors assemble armies, build fleets, conquer countries, build new capitals and have a knack for leaving behind monuments – Napoleon left the Arc de Triomphe in the Tuileries, Augustus & Hadrian their mausoleums in Rome, Darius his tomb in Persepolis, Constantine a new capital city on the Bosporus and Theodosius gave us Istanbul’s still standing double walls. The truly powerful emperors build temples though. Today, am going to talk about the Pantheon, the Hagia Sophia and the Suleymanyie Mosque – all symbols of Imperial Power .

The Suleymanyie Mosque built by Suleyman the Magnificent in 1527 AD


These three magnificent sites tell us far more than just their own story. We detect the reach of empire in the materials used, the technical sophistication is visible in the engineering applied, the building cost reflect the empires’ wealth and the building time the power of the emperor. We all know that it took centuries to build European Cathedrals. They were built with limited resources. A powerful emperor did not have such constrains.

The Roman Empire during Hadrian's Reign


Marcus Agrippa’s original Pantheon, a temple dedicated to Augustus, Rome’s first divine emperor, burnt down and did not survive. What we admire today is a building that the future Emperor Hadrian built in 126 AD. It was designed as combination of a square and a circle. Its 43.3 meter (142 ft) wide dome is still the largest unsupported dome in the world. What an achievement for an almost 1’900 years old building. The dome of the Capitol in Washington is “only” 96 feet in diameter.

Hadrian's Pantheon (to all Gods) today in Rome with the 16 granite Columns from Egypt


The Portico was built with 16 massive granite Corinthian columns. They were 11.8 meter tall (39 ft) high, weighted 60 tons each and came all the way from Egypt. First dragged on sledges over land, then put on barges to sail down the Nile, crossing the Mediterranean on one of Rome’s big cargo vessels and then brought up the Tiber on another set of barges. These columns alone tell a story of empire. Asking quarries thousands of kilometers away to carve something precise for a building in Rome is a organizational achievement lone. Delivering them intact to Rome is a miracle in logistics. Could not find the cost of the Pantheon anywhere.

Detailled Plan of the Pantheon in Rome


The Pantheon is famous for its “light-weight” concrete dome which was made with pumice and volcanic ash. The supporting rotunda still needed 6-meter-thick brick walls. The “thickness” of the dome gradually decreases as it reaches the oculus (hole on the top) from 6.4 meters to 1.2 meters. It took only 5 years to build the rotunda and another 5 years to build the dome. The engineering required for building such the dome is amazing even today. The Romans could tap into a deep pool of talents. Their payment method was less sophisticated, however. The lead architect under Hadrian, Apollodorus of Damascus was executed over a design argument. Sic!

The Byzantine Empire under Justinian had reconquered much of lost Western Rome


The Building of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople follows a similar pattern. Completed in 537 AD after only five years, the building combined architectural traditions from Persia, Syria and Mesopotamia with Greek and Roman styles. The Hagia Sophia was commissioned by Emperor Justinian after the Nika Riots which almost cost him the throne. He had to show that he was God’s chosen regent thus commissioned the two famous Greek architects Isidore of Miletus and Antemio de Tralles to build the church of all churches, something the world had never seen before.

Detailed Plan of the Hagia Sophia with its massive Brick Pillars supporting the Dome


The Hagia Sophia is basically a giant brick building erected on a box 70 meters wide and 75 meters long and faces Jerusalem to the East. With 56 meters in height the building is 13 meters taller than the Pantheon but its dome is only 31 meters wide. The massive pillars supporting the dome are made of brick, as is the dome, albeit supported by a light layer of mortar. The technology of building light concrete domes had been lost. The architects resolved the problem by distributing the dome’s weight and inserted arches. The also made the mortar lighter by baking the stones and gravel used.


Columns from Ancient Temples used to distribute weight


The relatively small interior columns which carry the weight of the arches were shipped from old temples in Baalbek, Ephesus, Miletus and Delphi. They are only a fraction of the size of the pillars in the Pantheon. It indicates that the Byzantine Empire - even at its zenith - did not have the resources to quarry and transport large pillars. They had to pilfer old sites. Add to it that Byzantine vessels had 200 – 300 cargo tons only, very little compared to the much larger Roman freighters of 3’000 tons. But no doubt, the Hagia Sophia is a tremendous church. It is said to have cost 145’000 kilos of gold, a number I doubt. Under Justinian, Byzantium had annual revenue of 5 million solidi or 32’000 tons of gold only. I assume his court officials exaggerated the number to proof that “he who could build it must be God’s regent”.

Hagia Sophia today with the Minarets added by the Ottomans - it is now a Mosque again


The above facts indicate that wealth and technical sophistication in the Byzantine Empire was not on par with the Roman Empire any more. Rome's western part had not collapsed as our history books suggest. It slowly expired and disappeared in the sea of inflation which ruined an economy based on division of labor and long-distance trading. Whilst Rome’s wealthy eastern part had survived, if suffered from the same problems. As Roman towns shrunk in size, so did the knowhow in engineering and architecture. During the many civil war in Byzantium, to many libraries went up in flames. Knowledge was lost – often forever.

The Ottoman Empire under Suleyman the Magnificent, the 1st Ottoman Protector of Mecca


It would take a thousand years until a mightier Emperor than Justinian governed in Europe again. It was Suleyman the Magnificent, the conqueror of Rhodes, Hungary & Mesopotamia who also was the Protector of the Holy Sites in Mecca and Medina. In October 1557, after 7 1/2 years of construction, the Suleymanyie Mosque was inaugurated. It cost 59 million silver Akçes (69’620 kg of silver), equivalent to 2’450 kg of Gold. It seems Suleyman’s mosque was 60 times cheaper than the Hagia Sophia (!) – but we should blame Justinian’s court officials. We still have amazingly detailed records of the expenses and the work done for the Suleymanyie Mosque. The Ottomans were rather thorough book keepers.

Detailed Plan of the Suleymanyie Mosque - compare it to the Hagia Sophia above


The Suleymanyie Mosque’s dome is 53 meters high; its diameter 26 meters wide. It has four minarets 76 meters tall and a colonnaded forecourt with a central fountain. The peristyle’s pillars were marbles, granites and porphyries. They came from ancient temples in Baalbek, Egypt and Greece. Their origin is similar to the columns used in the Hagia Sophia. But their weight was back to Roman standards. They are ginormous. The same is true for the four square pillars which support the dome and the thousands of marble slabs which decorate the walls and floors. They were taken from the Hippodrome of which almost nothing remains today. It may be a reason why the mosque was less expensive. The quarry was right in town!

The Massive Pillars surrounding the Forecourt of the Suleymanyie Mosque


In its appearance the Suleymanyie Mosque resembles the Hagia Sophia with its two big domes in the middle and the other two half domes next to the entrance. It is as if the Suleymanyie Mosque was designed to show that the Ottoman rulers were not only the heirs to the Roman Emperors but also heirs to the Caliphs of Baghdad, the direct descendants of Prophet Mohammed. What neither the Persians nor the Romans achieved, the Ottoman did.

The Suleymanyie Mosque Complex with Madrases, Library, Soup Kitchen and Bazaar


The Pantheon, the Hagia Sophia and the Suleymanyie Mosque are symbols of power to show that their rulers were chosen by God. The Pantheon stands for an empire rich and powerful beyond imagination, the Hagia Sophia tells us “we are not done yet and still powerful”, the Suleymanyie Mosque that finally the Ottoman rulers brought east and west together. All of them are of such size, splendour and beauty that men impossibly could have built them. They must have been created with God’s help. Which is precisely the rational why they were built in the first place.





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