The Sound of Hagia Sophia, Recreated Centuries Later



The magnificent edifice of Hagia Sophia, which was constructed in the 6th century and served as a cathedral for almost one thousand years, is now a museum in Istanbul, after being used as a mosque for decades.

Built in the great city of Constantinople, it was once by far the largest building in the world, and the greatest engineering marvel of its time. It is still instantly recognizable to this day because of its famed massive dome.

The Museum attracts roughly 3 million people a year and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The unique acoustics of Hagia Sophia inspired ten centuries of glorious Byzantine religious music, but since the Ottomans invaded the city in 1453 and converted the building into a mosque, music has not been heard within its hallowed walls.

Two scholars from California’s Stanford University altered this reality recently, however — by simply popping a balloon.

Bissera Pentcheva, a professor of art history, has published a book on the subject titled “Hagia Sophia: Sound, Space, and Spirit in Byzantium.”

Pentcheva’s work is focused on the appreciation of medieval art and architecture, and to truly understand the mystical transcendence worshippers must have felt when attending a service in the great cathedral, she made it her mission to recreate the sound of a 13th-century liturgy there.

Jonathan Abel is a consulting professor at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford. Abel’s specialties lie in audio mapping and acoustics, and it was a specific process he perfected, called “convolution,” which made the recreation of this historic sound possible.

It was this that allowed the professors to finally understand the workings behind the stellar acoustics of the famous Cathedral, and recreate these sonic masterpieces to share with the world.

After Pentcheva received special permission from the Museum to record after hours, she set up a number of microphones around Hagia Sophia and proceeded to pop the balloon her team had brought with them.

The tiny explosion created an “impulse sound“, a short, sharp noise that, when recorded, allowed her team to map out the acoustics of the vast Cathedral and thus create a digital filter. Pentcheva and Abel were then able to use that filter and make anything sound as if it had been sung in what was for centuries Christendom’s greatest cathedral.

The recording you can hear by accessing the link in this article was made by “Cappella Romana,” a choir from Portland, Oregon. The first clip you hear is the choir singing in a studio without the Hagia Sophia digital filter, and the second with the filter applied.

The difference is remarkable, transporting listeners back centuries in time and sending chills down their spines. Pentcheva and Abel have achieved something truly unique and everlasting with their ingenuity, bringing the ancient church’s legendary  “icons of sound” back to life once more.

The choir has now released an entire album using Pentcheva and Abel’s newly created digital filter called “The Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia.”

You can hear the remarkable sound of a Hagia Sophia liturgy here.