The church of Agia Sophia is an impressive ecclesiastical monument of high architectural value dating from the 12th century. It constitutes a unique building in Ano Polis, in Monemvasia that remains almost intact. Although, Christian people disappeared gradually from Ano Polis, during the first period of the Ottoman rule, Agia Sophia was saved mainly due to the decision of the Turks to convert it to a mosque.
Agia Sophia was established in the middle of the 12th c., literally at the edge of the cliff, instigating reasonable questions, as well as admiration about how it was actually feasible for the church to be built at that particular place.
It is said, that its construction in that particular position “dominating” the sea, was directly connected to the need of repressing the nautical powers of the Normans in 1148. What is more, the church was consecrated to a very important personality.
It is an octagonal domed church with subordinate spaces in its southern side, which in 1821 was consecrated to Virgin Mary Odigitria (after the revolution in 1821, it was consecrated to the Wisdom of God, as it was considered to be a replica of Agia Sophia in Constantinople).
The sculpted decoration of the church dates back to the 12th century and its wall-paintings to the end of the 12th – beginning of the 13th c.
The wall-paintings that have been saved are of sublime artistry, like Jesus with two worshipping archangels, as well as the two full-length archangels with their imperial attire in the narthex.
In the centre of the sanctuary, the icon of Christ as the “Ancient of Days” dominates, while interspersed figures of saints are also saved.
In some of the corner chapels of Agia Sophia, there were burials. As a matter of fact, in the 18th century, there is reference that one of the emperors, Katakouzinos, was buried there.
Actually, it must have possibly been the emperor Ioannis 18th, who died in Morias in 1383. The church followed the “fate” of the Castle Town and surrendered to the disposition of each of its conquerors.
So, during the first Venetian rule (1463-1540), the church continued to officiate. It was referred to as Madonna del Castello or Nostra Donna in Castello and it must have been of a catholic doctrine for the needs of the officials and the guard, who lived in Ano Polis.
The Ottomans converted it to a mosque, the Fetihe and whitewashed the wall-paintings. On the return of the Venetians, the catholic doctrine church was consecrated to Madonna del Carmine, while a Charitable Institution of three Franciscan monks was established there.
They created a bulky addition with a characteristic Venetian morphology in the west façade of the church and created rooms for the needs of the Institution, like a bank and a school for the children of the Venetians.
The Ottomans converted it to a mosque once again, while one of the very first things the Greeks did, when they got the town back in 1821 was to demolish the minaret that had been built in the southwest corner of the church.
Since then, and given that the church of Agia Sophia was the only well preserved building in Ano Polis, a series of renovation works followed.
The first were conducted in 1827 and 1845 in the west side of the church, while the monument was restored by Efstathios Stikas in 1958-1959. The project “Restoration of Virgin Mary Odigitria or Agia Sophia’s church in Ano Polis in Monemvasia”, which was integrated in the Operational Program “Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship” (EPAN II) NSRF 2007-2013 and was fulfilled by the Directorate of renovation of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Monuments with the collaboration of the company “EFKTITOS S.A.” as a contractor for the project, was completed quite recently.
(The passage is based on research, evidence and information from the book “Monemvasia, a Byzantine City State” by Haris A. Kalliga, Potamos publications)