Church of Hagia Sophia in Bizye
Located in Turkish Thrace on the southwestern slopes of the Strandzha mountains, the ancient city of Bizye (modern Vize) is well known not only as a place of exile during the early Byzantine period, but also as the home and cult center of St. Mary the Younger, a pious woman of Armenian origin who died there in 902 and was subsequently buried in the city’s cathedral.
The Byzantine church commonly known as Hagia Sophia or Suleyman Paşa Mosque is situated within the confines of the fortification walls on the southwestern slopes of the acropolis of Bizye. Both its size and commanding presence overlooking the Thracian plain seem to indicate that it was once the city’s principal place of worship, presumably Bizye’s cathedral. Unfortunately, little is known about the early history of Bizye’s Christian community and their cathedral.
Cyril Mango was the first to suggest that the Byzantine church still standing on the acropolis of Vize, now known as Hagia Sophia or Suleyman Paşa Mosque, should be identified as Bizye’s Byzantine cathedral and location of the saint’s first tomb as mentioned in her Life. Citing similar cross-domed churches, Mango concluded that the former church of Hagia Sophia at Bizye might pertain to the period of Byzantine expansion in the Balkans in the late eighth and ninth centuries, which is very poorly represented in terms of architectural monuments. When Semavi Eyice published the results of his survey of Byzantine monuments in Eastern Thrace, he compared the architecture of Hagia Soohia to that of the domed basilicas of Arta and Mystras and concluded that it likewise must have been built in the thirteenth or fourteenth century. Since the publication of Mango’s and Eyice’s studies, scholars have remained divided over the question of dating the church. A more recent study by Ayşegul Kahramankaptan and Ozkan Ertuğrul even argued for two distinct building phases: one in the tenth century, still visible in the basilican structure of the ground floor, and another in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, in which the galleries and the dome were added.
The apparent difficulties in establishing even an approximate date for the construction of the church at Vize indicate not only the restrictions of comparative architectural analysis but also the limits of our knowledge and understanding of the building’s physical makeup. This is due to decades of neglect, vandalism, and a recent heavy-handed restoration.
Saints Severos and Memnon are said to have suffered martyrdom in the city along with their companions, but it remains uncertain when the first Christian church was established there. Known as a place of exile already under emperor Valens, Bizye has been an episcopal see since at least 431. However, the date of the cathedral’s dedication during the Byzantine period remains unknown. The Life of Saint Mary the Younger does not refer to it by name, and while the building’s modern Turkish name Ayasofya Mosque may well preserve the memory of a previous Byzantine dedication, the present association with Holy Wisdom cannot be traced back further than the nineteenth century. It is unclear which Suleyman Paşa it is named after.
Bizye was first captured by the Ottomans in 1368 but later returned to Byzantine rule (probably in 1411). It is possible that the church was converted into a mosque once Bizye captured again by the Ottomans in 1453, While there are no written documents that would help to elucidate the history of structural modifications and restorations in Ottoman times, the building seems to have served as the city’s principal mosque well into the twentieth century.
The Church of Hagia Sophia in Bizye (Vize): Results of the Fieldwork Seasons 2003 and 2004 Franz Alto Bauer and Holger A. Klein