Whether serving as Christian church, Islamic mosque, or secular museum, Hagia Sophia and its soaring dome have inspired reverence and awe. For 800 years, it was the largest enclosed building in the world—the Statue of Liberty can fit beneath its dome with room to spare. How has it survived its location on one of the world's most active seismic faults, which has inflicted a dozen devastating earthquakes since it was built in 537? As Istanbul braces for the next big quake, a team of architects and engineers is urgently investigating Hagia Sophia's seismic secrets. Follow engineers as they build a massive 8-ton model of the building's core structure, place it on a motorized shake table, and hit it with a series of simulated quakes, pushing it collapse—a fate that the team is determined to avoid with the real building. (Premiered February 25, 2015)
Hagia Sophia: Istanbul's Mystery
PBS Airdate: February 25, 2015
NARRATOR: Hagia Sophia: for nearly a thousand years, the largest enclosed building on Earth. Its heavenly dome soars 180 feet high, supported by arches that inspire awe to this day for their strength and resilience. When it opened, gold mosaics covered over four acres of its walls and ceilings.
How did ancient builders construct such a magnificent monument?
ROBERT OUSTERHOUT (University of Pennsylvania): There’s nothing practical about Hagia Sophia. It’s all innovation.
NARRATOR: Built nearly 1,500 years ago in Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul, Hagia Sophia has survived clashing empires, by transforming from church to mosque to museum.
JOAN BRANHAM (Providence College): Hagia Sophia carries both the history of Christianity and Islam within its walls.
NARRATOR: Most remarkably, Hagia Sophia has survived centuries of city-busting earthquakes. Did ancient architects actually design an earthquake-proof structure? Or will the next big quake bring Hagia Sophia down?
To find out, a team of engineers is monitoring the building and constructing a giant model, placing it on a hydraulic platform and hitting it with powerful simulated earthquakes.
Can they unlock Hagia Sophia’s seismic secrets before Istanbul’s next big quake?
ESER ÇAKTI (Boğaziçi University): There is always this fear factor, this fear of seeing unexpected collapses.
NARRATOR: Right now, on NOVA: The Mysterious Miracle Building.
Hagia Sophia, completed in the year 537, is one of the most magnificent buildings ever constructed. Its size alone is awe-inspiring. Only the pyramids surpassed it in height for almost a thousand years.
Its ceiling is a glittering golden dome that spans over 100 feet across and soars 180 feet above its marble floors. The Statue of Liberty can fit beneath its dome with room to spare.
How did ancient builders, nearly 1,500 years ago, construct this gigantic dome?
Since its completion, Hagia Sophia has withstood the rise and fall of empires. It has transformed from Christian church to Muslim mosque to secular museum.
JOAN BRANHAM: Hagia Sophia influences a number of mosques, and it became a model for Christian churches, as well. Its innovative, ambitious design and its monumental scale speak to people across cultures, faiths and religions.
NARRATOR: How can one building be a symbol for two different religions and continue to inspire people to this day?
KORAY DURAK (Boğaziçi University): Hagia Sophia is a unique building. There are only a few structures in the world that present different layers of history in the last 2,000 years.
NARRATOR: But perhaps the greatest mystery of Hagia Sophia is why it still stands at all. For Hagia Sophia is in Istanbul, known as Constantinople in ancient times. The city straddles two continents, Europe and Asia, and a major earthquake fault. Over the last century, the North Anatolian Fault has unleashed a series of quakes.
The most recent, in 1999, was just 60 miles from Istanbul. And it was devastating, leveling hundreds of buildings across the city, and killing thousands of people.
MUSTAFA ERDIK (Boğaziçi University): The damage caused by the ’99 earthquake is extensive. And plus, there is a huge human loss, about…we lost about 17,000 people.
NARRATOR: But somehow, Hagia Sophia is still standing. In fact, Hagia Sophia has withstood every major earthquake for nearly 1,500 years.
What is the secret to its survival?
As Istanbul braces for the next big one, a team of engineers searches for answers by building an enormous scale model and hitting it with a series of simulated earthquakes. In the process, they will uncover the building’s strengths, and weaknesses, weaknesses that could ultimately threaten Hagia Sophia’s survival.
Eser Çakti is Director of the Earthquake Engineering lab at Boğaziçi University. She is tasked with monitoring the structural integrity of Hagia Sophia.
Slanted floors and leaning columns may appear alarming, but Çakti is most concerned about Hagia Sophia’s core structure. That core structure comes down to a few key elements: the enormous dome, resting on four huge arches, which, in turn, are buttressed by four giant piers and two semi-domes.
Of particular concern are the four arches. If any fail, the dome could collapse. To monitor the arches, her team has placed sensors at strategic points. The sensors can detect the faintest of movements.
ESER ÇAKTI: The data that we obtain from here, is very important in terms of understanding the general structural behavior of this huge building.
NARRATOR: This information is transmitted to screens at Istanbul’s Earthquake Center. Each of the multicolored lines represents vibrations detected by a motion sensor. Normally, the lines are nearly flat, but when an earthquake strikes, there’s a dramatic spike.
From results of years of monitoring, Çakti sees two places of potential danger.
ESER ÇAKTI: These are the vertical vibrations on top of the arches on the east and west side.
NARRATOR: Two of the great arches are moving more than they have in the past, which could have serious implications for the future.
ESER ÇAKTI: If an earthquake comes strong enough, I think there is a real chance it can receive damage.
NARRATOR: Will the next big quake finally topple Hagia Sophia? To investigate what danger Hagia Sophia might be in, Çakti is turning to a tried and true technique, a seismic shake table test.
It’s worked before. In 2012, Çakti teamed up with engineering team Eren Kalafat and Korhan Oral to analyze the structural integrity of the Mustafa Pasha mosque, in Macedonia. They built this large-scale model, placed it on a motorized steel platform, then shook it violently to simulate an earthquake.
The idea is that wherever damage appears on the model, is where damage would appear on the actual building, giving engineers important insights to protect the real structure.
While it may have worked for the Mustafa Pasha mosque, will it work with Hagia Sophia, a building larger, heavier and more complex?
The model team has doubts.
MODEL TEAM MEMBER: I’m afraid of not being able to build it at all. It will collapse while we are building it.
NARRATOR: The main issue is scale. The core structure must be precisely scaled down for the shake table experiment to be accurate. If Çakti chooses a scale of 10-to-1, the dome, at just over 100 feet wide, would be 10 feet wide on the model. But that’s still too big for the shake table.
ESER ÇAKTI: Each shake table has a capacity in terms of its dimensions and in terms of the power that it can create.
NARRATOR: The capacity of this shake table is 10 tons. The scale Çakti wants to use will make the model too big and heavy, so she must scale down her ideas.
After intense recalculations it looks like a 26-to-1 scale could work, at least on paper.
ESER ÇAKTI: We are always nervous at the shake table, whether it will work.
NARRATOR: The scale model is an ambitious project with no guarantee of success, but it pales in comparison to the challenge of building the real Hagia Sophia.
Who built Hagia Sophia, and why?
Hagia Sophia is built at a major crossroad in history: the decline of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Byzantine Empire.
In 324 A.D., after Rome is ravaged by civil war, Emperor Constantine establishes a new capital in the city of Byzantium. It’s renamed after him. He embraces a new religion, Christianity, and Constantinople becomes the center of the Byzantine Empire, as Rome fades in importance.
The Empire thrives, but in the early sixth century, a power struggle erupts, after a new emperor ascends the throne: Justinian. Riots break out, challenging his authority. Theodora, his much younger wife and rumored ex-courtesan, persuades him to fight rather than flee.
ROBERT OUSTERHOUT: Justinian rallied to the challenge. He called the rebels, looking as if he was going to meet their demands, met them in the hippodrome, had the doors closed and had the army slaughter them all.
NARRATOR: Tens of thousands are killed, and Justinian emerges victorious. But during the riots, the rebels burn down much of the city, including an older imperial church, also called Hagia Sophia.
This is all that remains.
ROBERT OUSTERHOUT: Much of the city of Constantinople had been destroyed in the great riots, and this allowed Justinian the opportunity to, in effect, rebuild Constantinople and the church of Hagia Sophia in his own image.
NARRATOR: Justinian needed a building to convey both his power as emperor and piety as a Christian. So what to build?
Joan Branham is a professor of Art History at Providence College and an expert on how builders design sacred space. She is at San Giovanni Evangelista, a church in Ravenna, Italy. Although rebuilt many times, its floor plan dates to when Christianity becomes a state religion.
JOAN BRANHAM: For the first few centuries, Christians worshipped in private, in homes and small buildings. But this completely changes in the fourth century.
NARRATOR: Christianity had been an underground cult and Christians persecuted, but when Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christians face a different problem.
What should a church look like?
JOAN BRANHAM: Early church builders looked at Biblical prototypes, like the Temple of Solomon described in the Hebrew Bible, but it’s actually a secular Roman building that is adapted for early Christian use.
NARRATOR: That building is the basilica, used for courts of law and other public gatherings. Its floor plan, a large central nave flanked by two aisles and culminating in an apse, becomes the model for churches, an ideal space for worshippers to gather.
Justinian embraces the church’s rectangular shape to demonstrate his Christian piety, but he still needs something to symbolize his imperial power.
He looks to the dome of the Pantheon in Rome, the ultimate symbol of the might and glory of the Roman Empire. But the Pantheon’s dome sits on a thick circular base. Justinian wants his dome to be centered over a rectangular Christian basilica.
JOAN BRANHAM: Justinian sets out to do something that has never been done before. He wanted to merge two architectural structures into a mammoth hybrid space.
NARRATOR: So where do you find builders to create something on a scale that’s never been done before? Justinian turns to Greek mathematicians.
AHMET ÇAKMAK (Princeton University): Justinian hired Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus. Both had experience as mathematicians and physicists and scientists of their day. They were asked to create the most impressive, biggest building ever built.
NARRATOR: Justinian puts these university professors in charge of 100 contractors and 10,000 workers, and gives them the entire treasury of the Byzantine Empire. The emperor is taking a big gamble.
ROBERT OUSTERHOUT: There’s nothing practical about Hagia Sophia. It’s all innovation. It’s geometric flights of fancy, beyond what a practical architect would ever attempt to build.
NARRATOR: Their first challenge is how to support the dome and still keep a huge space for worshippers below.
AHMET ÇAKMAK: If they built walls or columns, the space would not be open like this. It would be much smaller and narrower. In order to make it as large and as heavenly as possible, they need a big space. And that can only be accomplished by building large arches.
NARRATOR: A giant dome will need giant arches to support it.
ESER ÇAKTI: The original architects should have been very concerned about how to support this huge dome over there.
NARRATOR: The team back at the Earthquake Center face the same challenge building their model. Will their arches be strong enough to support the dome?
To find out, they add sacks of cement to simulate the weight of the dome. Each bag weighs about 50 pounds, and they expect the arch should support about 10 of them.
But as the fifth bag is placed…
Luckily, nobody is hurt, as the arch collapses with just over 200 pounds on it.
ESER ÇAKTI: It collapsed before we were expecting the collapse to take place. I think that happened because we didn’t wait for the mortar to set fully.
NARRATOR: While this might seem to be a setback for the team, Çakti insists this kind of unanticipated collapse illustrates one of the main advantages of building a physical model.
ESER ÇAKTI: It is always interesting to see the failure mechanism in real life. When you do it on computers, you develop an idea of how the failure is going to happen, but it is only during a test of this kind, where we see the collapse pattern.
NARRATOR: The slow motion replay of the collapse shows that the downward force of the sacks pushes the arch out sideways.
The weight of the dome exerts the same force on the arches in the real Hagia Sophia.
AHMET ÇAKMAK: The arch wants to push out and fall down. So you have to hold the arch together like bookends.
NARRATOR: To create those bookends, Anthemius and Isidorus, the Greek mathematicians, build four buttress piers, massive weights of brick and mortar, and two semi-domes. These push back against the arches, cancelling out the sideways force caused by the dome.
But Anthemius and Isidorus still have one more problem to solve, how to rest the dome on the tips of the arches.
AHMET ÇAKMAK: The architects had to transition from a circle to a square. This they accomplished by building what is called pendentives. It is this triangular shape that fills in the corners of the square.
NARRATOR: The pendentives, together with the arches, transform the circular base of the dome into a square. And the semi-domes stretch that square into a rectangle.
Justinian has it all: the classic rectangular shape of the basilica, capped by the enormous circular dome.
Anthemius and Isidorus complete Hagia Sophia in only six years, and do indeed spend nearly the entire treasury of the Byzantine Empire.
In 537, Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora, unveil their church to the world. All who enter are awed by its size and the richness of its decorations: columns crowned by capitals so finely carved they look like lace. Floors and walls of marble dazzle worshippers with patterns of swirling colors.
ROBERT OUSTERHOUT: Justinian brought marbles from all parts of the empire. The great purple columns that we see in the corners, for example, come from the imperial quarries of Egypt. Elsewhere in the building, we see stones brought from as far away as the Pyrenees, in Spain.
NARRATOR: An eyewitness account reports that the dome looks “as though it were suspended from heaven by a golden chain.”
Like the church before it, Justinian christens this monument, Hagia Sophia, which in Greek means “Holy Wisdom.”
But the dome that Justinian first sees is not the same dome that sits atop Hagia Sophia today. Just 20 years after Hagia Sophia’s unveiling, its dome collapses in a catastrophic earthquake.
ROBERT OUSTERHOUT: We really don’t know what Justinian did when the first dome collapsed. We can imagine he wasn’t very happy. Fortunately for Isidore and Anthemius, they were dead, by that point.
AHMET ÇAKMAK: When the dome collapsed, in 558, the business of rebuilding it was given to the architect Isidorus the Younger, a nephew of the original architect.
NARRATOR: Çakmak believes Isidorus the Younger redesigns the dome. To reduce its weight, he installs 40 windows at its base.
AHMET ÇAKMAK: The windows serve two purposes. One is to get rid of the bricks that you need, which add additional weight, and to let light in.
NARRATOR: Hagia Sophia is put to the test in at least another dozen major earthquakes. The dome suffers two partial collapses, which were repaired, so visitors today cast their eyes up to the same dome built by Isidorus the Younger nearly 1,500 years ago.
But Hagia Sophia has withstood more than just seismic activity. It’s also been resilient to cultural upheavals.
Six-hundred years after Justinian, Constantinople continues to flourish, but its riches inspire envy. In 1204, European Christian Crusaders, on their way to the Holy Land, sack the city and loot treasures from Hagia Sophia to glorify their own churches back in Europe.
Then a new religion challenges the old order: Islam. Its forces lay siege to Constantinople seven times over eight centuries. Finally, in 1453, Sultan Mehmet conquers the weakened city and makes it the capital of his Ottoman Empire.
Mehmet enters the church of Hagia Sophia on a Tuesday, and by that Friday he is praying in the mosque of Hagia Sophia.
ROBERT OUSTERHOUT: For Mehmet the Conqueror, Hagia Sophia was really the ultimate conquest. That was the symbol he was after for his new empire.
NARRATOR: But how can a church become a mosque? From an architectural perspective, it isn’t difficult.
JOAN BRANHAM: There was the addition of the minbar, from which the imam would give the sermon; the mihrab gave the sacred direction orientation to Mecca.
NARRATOR: Later, the Ottomans add large disks calligraphied with sacred words from the Koran, plaster over Christian mosaics, and, outside, construct minarets for the call to prayer.
But Hagia Sophia’s vast dome most easily makes the conversion.
JOAN BRANHAM: The dome itself had religious meaning for both Christian worshippers and now Muslim worshippers; for both, it was a symbol of the heavens.
NARRATOR: The structure at the heart of Hagia Sophia, the round dome on the square base, works as powerfully for Islam as it did for Christianity.
Hagia Sophia is so admired in the Islamic world it becomes the classic model for mosques throughout the Ottoman Empire. But today, Hagia Sophia is a museum, a showcase of its religious and cultural history.
KORAY DURAK: When you enter the building, you look to your left and you see a beautiful mosaic panel from the Byzantine Empire. And you look at your right and you see a wonderful calligraphic quotation from the Koran. You see the history of the whole city, in a sense the whole region, in a nutshell.
NARRATOR: But deciding which layers of its history to display is a battle that continues on its walls.
Stepping onto the battlefield is researcher Hitoshi Takanezawa. He’s on a hunt for Christian mosaics that were plastered over when Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. His challenge is how to find the Byzantine mosaics without damaging the Ottoman decorations.
Takanezawa’s secret weapon is this electromagnetic scanner. Normally, it’s used to find structural faults in things like bridges. Nobody has ever used it to find Jesus.
HITOSHI TAKANEZAWA (Kobe Shukugawa Gakuin University): We’re developing new equipment for investigation. It is crucial we find a technology that can deduce whether a mosaic exists, without destroying anything.
NARRATOR: Takanezawa and engineer Satoshi Baba carefully run the scanner against the wall. What might they find?
A tantalizing taste of Hagia Sophia in its full mosaic splendor is here: the church of San Vitale, in Ravenna, Italy, also built during Justinian’s reign, nearly 1,500 years ago.
JOAN BRANHAM: Byzantine visitors would be transported into an entirely different world. And it was through the mosaics that this happened. They were a vehicle to bring the visitor into contact with the Divine.
NARRATOR: That divine glow of Byzantine mosaics is what makes them so awe-inspiring. And the mystery material that gives them that glow is what will help in the search for Hagia Sophia’s hidden mosaics.
Luciana Notturni and Gabrielle Warr are using the same materials to make mosaics today. They begin with glass disks, carefully breaking them into smaller pieces, until they become tiny cubes called tesserae.
Notturni places each tessera, piece by piece into a design she’s drawn on the mortar and carefully angles them to reflect the light.
LUCIANA NOTTURNI (Mosaic Art School of Ravenna): It is believed that, especially in the Byzantine mosaics, the positioning of the tesserae was directly connected to where the light was coming from, so where the windows were, where the main light sources were.
NARRATOR: And to make that light shimmer, they add something else to the mix.
GABRIELLE WARR (Mosaic Art School of Ravenna): It has a thin layer of gold leaf. And the fact that it does have gold in it makes it very reflective and very luminescent.
NARRATOR: The gold tesserae give the Byzantine mosaics a heavenly glow. And, because gold is metal, it may be the key to rediscovering the lost mosaics in Hagia Sophia.
HITOSHI TAKANEZAWA: That design is made by metallic tesseras. So we believe, we hope to find mosaics by our instruments.
NARRATOR: Takanezawa’s scanner sends electromagnetic signals below the surface of the plaster. If the waves strike a buried metal tesserae, they are reflected back, creating an image of the inside of the wall.
HITOSHI TAKANEZAWA: We did this scanning line five times. And this green zone is made of metal tesseras. We can see here the circle design. This is truly made by man’s hand.
NARRATOR: The scanner is working. It has detected a mosaic circle beneath the plaster, but Takanezawa isn’t searching just for circles.
HITOSHI TAKANEZAWA: Now we’ll apply this method at other zones, so maybe it can show some image of the saints or image of the Christ.
NARRATOR: The walls of Hagia Sophia are hiding more than mosaics, they also hold secrets to its seismic strength.
High above the streets of Istanbul, a team is repairing a wall as part of Hagia Sophia’s on-going restoration.
Sonay Şakar is the lead architect.
SONAY ŞAKAR (Ministry of Culture, Turkey): What we’re doing is removing all the cement from the surface you see here. Then we’ll repair the layer of bricks we’ve uncovered.
NARRATOR: Her team must replace crumbling cement from a restoration in the 1950s. She’s using a more resilient mortar, one formulated from the original recipe: limestone, sand, water, and a secret ingredient, ground up brick.
It turns out the best way to preserve Hagia Sophia for the future is to use materials from the past.
SONAY ŞAKAR: The mortar in Hagia Sophia is certainly more flexible than modern mortar, so it adapts to the structural deformations caused by earthquakes.
NARRATOR: The flexibility of the mortar is crucial, but so is how it’s applied.
SONAY ŞAKAR: Hagia Sophia differs from other structures because the layer of mortar is thicker than the bricks.
NARRATOR: Modern brick buildings have thin layers of mortar, but Hagia Sophia’s layers are so thick, they act like cushioning.
Hagia Sophia’s bricks also play a role in earthquake protection.
AHMET ÇAKMAK: Here is an original brick from Hagia Sophia, and here is a modern brick. As you can see, the original brick is significantly lighter than the modern brick.
NARRATOR: Which turns out to be very important.
AHMET ÇAKMAK: If you make the building light, then the building can sway with the earthquakes, like a tree in the wind, flexible but strong.
NARRATOR: Fifteen-hundred years ago, other architects built heavy and massive to protect against earthquakes. Anthemius and Isidorus, the Greek architects, did the opposite. They built light and flexible, the principle of modern seismic engineering. But will this world treasure survive into the future?
Eser Çakti and her team are building a model of Hagia Sophia’s core structure to investigate. Their arch problem solved, they move on to their next challenge: the semi-domes.
They create a mortar that mimics the materials of the real semi-domes and spread it over a wooden mold.
ESER ÇAKTI: We have worked on paper for a long time on how to get it right, how to make it, and then what would be the thickness, what would be the material.
NARRATOR: After the mortar dries, they remove the wooden mold. But as they take off the mold, suddenly a crack appears at the top.
Cracks at this stage mean the semi-dome is clearly too weak for the shake table test. They break apart the semi-dome to get a closer look at the mortar.
KORHAN ORAL (Poligon Yapi): We have four centimeters coming from that side and four centimeters coming from that side. But the failure part was too thin. It is almost a half-centimeter.
NARRATOR: A problem with the way the mortar was applied caused the top of the semi-dome to be much thinner than planned.
ESER ÇAKTI: Some shrinkage occurs after drying of the mortar. We may consider to introduce some elements to the mortar, so that its strength properties will improve.
NARRATOR: The team must rebuild the semi-dome. And they’ll need to come up with a better method for building the final piece of their model, the large, central dome. And that will take some time.
In his hunt for hidden Byzantine mosaics, Hitoshi Takenezawa is heading to the uppermost level of Hagia Sophia, a thin ledge that runs beneath the main arches.
The building is so huge, he must narrow down his search.
HITOSHI TAKANEZAWA: It’s very difficult to decide where we do the research, because this space is a very enormous size. So I have to guess.
Originally, this part was decorated with the figures of saints or archbishops, like there.
NARRATOR: Because these niches on the northern wall are filled with mosaic figures, Takanezawa believes the southern wall may have been too. But have the mosaics survived?
To find out, they run the electromagnetic scanner along the wall.
HITOSHI TAKANEZAWA: We found strong reflections under the plaster. So, we suppose it should be the remains of the mosaics, with 70 percent confidence.
NARRATOR: The team takes a closer look at the scan.
They find metal behind the plaster, but not the gold Takanezawa is hoping for.
HITOSHI TAKANEZAWA: There are only horizontal lines. It would seem it is not a mosaic, but rather a metal structural support.
NARRATOR: Takanezawa’s guess is wrong. No mosaics have survived in this niche.
The challenge is that his scanner measures about two feet at a time, and Hagia Sophia’s surface area is over 200,000 square feet. To narrow down his search, Takanezawa has come to Bellinzona, Switzerland, to explore the state archives.
Inside, archivist Carlo Agliati shows him an astonishing record of Hagia Sophia’s Byzantine mosaics.
CARLO AGLIATI (State Archives of Ticino, Switzerland): In 1847, the Sultan entrusted the architect Gaspare Fossati with the task of restoring the mosque of Hagia Sophia.
NARRATOR: These drawings were made by the Fosatti brothers, Swiss architects who were hired to renovate the aging building, which was then a mosque, in the 1840s.
The Fosattis began stripping plaster from the walls and were astonished by what they found.
CARLO AGLIATI: Fossati’s big discovery during the restoration, hidden under the plaster, was definitely these extraordinary Byzantine mosaics.
NARRATOR: They quickly documented every image before covering them with plaster once again. While some of the mosaics recorded in the drawings have been uncovered, others have never been found.
One, in particular, catches Takenezawa’s eye.
HITOSHI TAKANEZAWA: There is a circular sketch from the Fossati, but the exact location is still the subject of debate.
NARRATOR: The sketch depicts Christ, framed by a cross in a circle. Near Hagia Sophia, the church of Chora contains a strikingly similar image, found in the crown of a dome.
Takanezawa believes the Fossati sketch depicts a similar mosaic in a dome in Hagia Sophia, and he has a hunch where to find it.
HITOSHI TAKANEZAWA: A very plausible hypothesis is that there is a large depiction of the face of Jesus Christ at the top of Hagia Sophia’s immense dome.
NARRATOR: But there’s a problem.
HITOSHI TAKANEZAWA: Currently, it’s covered by plaster and by Koranic verses, but one day, with our scanner, we would like to discover this image. This is my dream.
NARRATOR: It’s a dream Takanezawa could realize, because as part of Hagia Sophia’s ongoing restoration, this enormous scaffold is about to reach the dome.
But if Takanezawa does find Christ beneath the Koranic verse, what should be shown? It’s a question at the heart of Hagia Sophia’s identity, a question with a long history.
AHMET ÇAKMAK: Religiously, it was a Greek Orthodox church. And, during the Fourth Crusade, it was taken over, became a Catholic church. When the Muslims came, they made it into a mosque. Finally, it became a museum, which we thought was a solution to the problem. But unfortunately, the Greeks would like to make it back into a church, and the Muslims would like to make it back into a mosque, and the conflict controversy continues.
NARRATOR: But whether Hagia Sophia remains a museum or is converted back to a church or mosque could prove irrelevant if there is an earthquake. The more pressing question is will it be converted into a pile of rubble?
Eser Çakti hopes the shake table test will provide some answers.
The semi-domes are carefully rebuilt from mortar. But mortar will be too fragile for the main dome, which, like the real thing, will be built from brick.
ESER ÇAKTI: We came to the conclusion that having a brick dome is much easier to construct and it’s more realistic. So dome-wise, I’m confident with what will happen. But with respect to the semi-domes, there I have doubts, because it’s much more fragile.
NARRATOR: Before the test, the seven-ton model must first survive the move to the shake table.
ESER ÇAKTI: This is the largest model ever to be made in our lab. We need to be very careful that, during lift-up, everything should be perfectly horizontal. Otherwise, we may damage the model.
NARRATOR: The model is so heavy it bends the steel plate that supports it, which puts pressure on the structure.
It settles onto the shake table, but has it suffered any damage? As the wooden molds come away, Çakti looks for cracks. If the model breaks at this stage, they will be unable to perform the earthquake test, and months of work will have been for nothing.
ESER ÇAKTI: We have observed some cracks on the semi-domes. But we don’t see them from outside. These are just interior cracks.
NARRATOR: Çakti believes the cracks do not compromise the structural integrity of the model, so the team moves on, installing motion sensors in similar locations as the sensors in the real Hagia Sophia.
ESER ÇAKTI: We will be able to compare the vibrations that we record during the shake table test with those obtained from the real structure.
NARRATOR: The model is a scaled down version of Hagia Sophia’s core structure: the main dome, four great arches, four buttress piers and the two semi-domes. But will the model move on the shake table in a similar way as the real building moves in an earthquake?
Astonishingly, overnight, the sensors get an unexpected trial run: a real earthquake.
ESER ÇAKTI: At about four a.m. we had an earthquake near Istanbul. Its magnitude was 3.6. So, by pure chance, we have now recordings of that earthquake recorded on the model. And we have the same earthquake recorded by our instruments in Hagia Sophia.
NARRATOR: The parallel recordings verify that the sensors on the model and in the real building are reacting in a similar way.
Now it’s time to see how the model will react to a more powerful quake. They calibrate the shake table to simulate the impact of the devastating ’99 earthquake: magnitude 7.4. The duration of the test is scaled down to match the size of the model, about three seconds. The sensors capture every twist and turn.
The model seems to have taken the impact without damage. But what everyone really wants to know is, “How will it stand up to an even stronger earthquake?”
To find out, the team must push the power of the shake table beyond anything they’ve tried before. The simulated quake is measured in Gs, its gravitational force.
ESER ÇAKTI: We are increasing the amplitude of our earthquake one more step, so that now we aim 2.2G.
EREN KALAFAT (Poligon Yapi): You said two was the maximum. Now we are going more than two?
ESER ÇAKTI: If we can do it, we’ll go for 2.4.
EREN KALAFAT: Perfect.
NARRATOR: They hit the model with a simulated earthquake, stronger than any in Istanbul’s’ recorded history.
Çakti checks out the damage.
ESER ÇAKTI: I see one new crack in this arch. But surprisingly, there is nothing new with the semi-domes. We were afraid about them. But they are as they have been before.
NARRATOR: The Hagia Sophia model has survived two enormous earthquakes in quick succession, with minimal damage, but the team isn’t done yet.
ESER ÇAKTI: We have passed the known capacity of our shake table, and then it appears the mechanics have allowed us to go further.
NARRATOR: Can the shake table push the model to the point of collapse?
They hit it with everything they’ve got. At this stage, the model has been hit by the equivalent of a major earthquake every day for a week. And although it teeters on the edge of collapse, it still stands.
ESER ÇAKTI: There are two vulnerable parts: the semi-domes and then the arches. It is just a matter of time to see which one will go first.
NARRATOR: With everyone’s eyes on the semi-domes and arches, nobody anticipates what happens next. The great dome comes crashing down.
ESER ÇAKTI: I am a little bit surprised, now, because I would have expected the main arch to go, and then instead of the main arches, the main dome went.
NARRATOR: The slow motion replay reveals that the semi-domes separated from the structure, and with the main arches damaged, support for the dome was severely compromised.
KORHAN ORAL: My masterpiece is collapsed now, but, for scientific observation, I can accept it.
ESER ÇAKTI: Now we have come to its end. But, at the same time, we know that we have lots of things to do in terms of data analysis and interpretation. This is a little bit frightening, but it needs to be done.
NARRATOR: It is too early to draw any firm conclusions, but the model going 15 rounds against the most powerful simulated earthquakes the shake table could produce explains Hagia Sophia’s supposedly miraculous survival.
ESER ÇAKTI: If there is a miracle, it is in its design. It was constructed to survive. The balances between its structural elements appear to create a dance. The domes, arches, semi-domes, buttress piers, they behave in harmony.
NARRATOR: Though the model lies in ruins, Çakti believes the data captured in this experiment will provide new insights into Hagia Sophia’s structural strength and how it can be preserved for the future.
ROBERT OUSTERHOUT: Scientists have spent decades trying to analyze the structural system of Hagia Sophia. But when you go inside Hagia Sophia today, you don’t see structure. We’re not meant to understand how the great dome is supported. We see only the weightless quality of the building. That was what was most important. We understand the interior of the building as an experience that’s completely different from anything else on Earth.
NARRATOR: After nearly 1,500 years, Hagia Sophia continues to astonish modern engineers with its ancient secrets of seismic engineering and its resilience, not only as a building, but also as the proud expression of great civilizations that have adopted it as a symbol.
SONAY ŞAKAR: We don’t think of Hagia Sophia based on the meanings other people assign to it. Hagia Sophia has an identity of its own. It is a monumental building; it is a special building. Our goal is to pass it down to the next generations.
NARRATOR: Hagia Sophia will have to endure many more shifts in the ground that lies beneath it and the cultures to which it is entrusted. Hopefully, its majestic beauty and innovative design will inspire people of all religions and cultures to protect it for generations to come.
WRITTEN, PRODUCED & DIRECTED BY
CO-PRODUCED & DIRECTED BY
Jay O. Sanders
Et alors Productions
Zeynep Santiroglu Sutherland
Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP
ADDITIONAL ONLINE EDITING AND COLOR CORRECTION
Heart Punch Studio
The Bridgeman Art Library
The Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images
De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images
Panoramic Images/Getty Images
Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering at the University of Buffalo
Hayrullah Cengiz, Director of Hagia Sophia, Turkish Ministry of Culture
Ulus Yapı With grateful acknowledgement to the State of Rhode Island and Steven Feinberg, the Rhode Island Film & Television Office
Valérie Abita Manuel Catteau
WRITER/ DIRECTOR FOR FRENCH VERSION
POST PRODUCTION ASSISTANTS
Sophie Krykwinski Rémi Villon
FOR ARTE FRANCE
HEAD OF SPECIALIST FACTUALS DEPARTMENT
NOVA SERIES GRAPHICS
yU + co.
NOVA THEME MUSIC
ADDITIONAL NOVA THEME MUSIC
The Caption Center
POST PRODUCTION ONLINE EDITOR
DIRECTOR OF PUBLIC RELATIONS
DIGITAL MANAGING PRODUCER
SENIOR DIGITAL EDITOR
Tim De Chant
DIRECTOR OF NEW MEDIA
POST PRODUCTION COORDINATOR
POST PRODUCTION EDITOR
Michael H. Amundson
SENIOR SCIENCE EDITOR
SENIOR SERIES PRODUCER
SENIOR EXECUTIVE PRODUCER
Paula S. Apsell
FOR NOVA BROADCAST & DVD VERSIONS:
A NOVA production by Providence Pictures, Co-Produced with ZED and ARTE France
© 2015 WGBH Educational Foundation
All rights reserved
This program was produced by WGBH, which is solely responsible for its content.
FOR PBSd INTERNATIONAL/NATIONAL MASTERS:
A Providence Pictures production for NOVA and WGBH Boston in association with ZED and ARTE France
© 2015 Providence Pictures
All rights reserved
IMAGE: Image credit: (Hagia Sophia) © Providence Pictures
- Carlo Agliati, Joan Branham, Ahmet Çakmak, Eser Çakti, Koray Durak, Mustafa Erdik, Luciana Notturni, Korhan Oral, Robert Ousterhout, Sonay Şakar, Hitoshi Takanezawa