In 532 CE, chariot racing supporters in Constantinople led a riot that burned half the city to the ground, including the Hagia Sophia’s second basilica, the first having been destroyed by rioting in 404 CE. Identified by their colors, chariot racing supporters in Constantinople were part street gang, part political party, and their riots often incorporated political demands. Emperor Justinian survived this attempt to overthrow him thanks mostly to a clever plan hatched by his wife, the Empress Theodora, to bribe the blue faction against their temporary green allies. Today, we know this episode as the Nika Riots.
Before the dust had settled, Justinian ordered the construction of a third church at the Hagia Sophia site. It would become that world’s largest cathedral for over a thousand years, until completion of the Seville Cathedral in 1520. Salvaged materials played an important role in the construction and maintenance of the new Hagia Sophia. Surviving marble block from the second basilica remained on site, perhaps to serve as a reminder of Justinian and Theodora’s survival.
Justinian and Theodora sought to reunify the old Roman Empire that was split apart over a century prior. They imported hellenistic columns and other architectural details for the new Hagia Sophia from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, which lay in ruins for a century prior. This salvaged material served as a visual reminder and direct link to the glorious past, when the Roman Empire held all the treasures of the ancient world under a single government.
It was certainly within Justinian’s power to commission new columns, but new construction would not serve the nostalgia that became an important piece of Justinian and Theodora’s political program. The salvaged columns lent support not only to the roof, but to Justinian’s claim to the Empire. Rival exiled aristocrats from Rome only carried their names as title, but Justinian and Theodora’s ancient columns could be seen by all as evidence of their rightful succession. The builder using such columns seemed to say, “The power to posses the old Empire lays with me.” This was especially important following the Nika Riots, when the mob had come so close to crowning a new Emperor.
Salvaged columns were used again when structural repairs became necessary following earthquakes in 553 and 557. This time, Justinian ordered eight Corinthian columns imported from Baalbek. Building and maintaining the structure with salvaged materials was no cost-saving effort. It was a political statement.
Modern designers incorporate salvaged materials for reasons not unlike those of Justinian and Theodora almost 1500 years ago. Grounding a building project firmly in the past grants a sense of permanence often lacking in new construction. Paying homage to the work of one’s predecessors is a way of announcing the authenticity of one’s own work. People notice when you build with salvage. They are reminded of another time, another place, a feeling, an ethic. You can communicate a lot with your choice of building materials. Are you an unproven upstart lacking an established style and history? Or are you a wise and powerful builder with reverence for the past and vision for the future?