Around the 10th century… A Viking soldier visiting Hagia Sophia carved these words on the marble parapets: “Halfdan was here!”
Viking raids on islands and villages in northeastern England in the late eighth century was what started the Viking Age. In the ninth century, some of the Vikings who began to spread outside Scandinavia, even reached the shores of Iceland and Germany.
In the 10th century, the Vikings moved towards Normandy in Western Europe, and in Eastern Europe they spread towards the Black Sea on the line that falls to the west of today’s Russia, to the east of Ukraine and Belarus.1
The achievements of Viking warriors were known all over Europe. In fact, the Eastern Roman Emperor Basileios II, fed up with the disloyalty of his own soldiers, was so impressed with the skills of the Viking warriors that he decided to choose his personal guards from among them. These mercenaries, called the Varangian Guards, were stationed in Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) and participated in the wars.2
Viking soldiers who stayed in Istanbul for years were returning to their home countries mostly rich. That’s why there were a lot of people who wanted to be guards in Byzantium. Among the Viking soldiers stationed in Constantinople was the future king of Norway, Harald III (Haraldr Sigurðarson).
Halfdan, who was probably one of the thousands of Viking soldiers living in Constantinople, visited Hagia Sophia one day for a reason. His purpose is unknown. But it is known that Christianity was not common among the Vikings at that time. Maybe he was curious about the inside of this huge, world-famous building and wanted to see it up close.
Considered one of the most important symbols of Byzantine architecture, Hagia Sophia was built by the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I. The height of the cathedral, which was completed in 537 AD, is approximately 55 meters. For 983 years, it was the world’s largest cathedral. After the Fourth Crusade, Hagia Sophia was used as a Catholic cathedral for a while. In 1453, when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, it was converted into a mosque. The architectural style of Hagia Sophia also deeply influenced Ottoman architects, and many mosques have been built in a similar style since the end of the 15th century. Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum by the Republic of Turkey in 1935 and many historical artifacts were taken under protection.
The Viking soldier must have been so bored in the church that for some reason he carved something on the marble parapets. The Byzantines, who were not familiar with the runes, did not understand anything from what was written. Even during the Ottoman period, these inscriptions were thought to be simple marble cracks and they were not interfered with. However, by 1964 it was understood that the lines were actually runic alphabets and research was started.
Some of the letters had been erased in the intervening 1000 years. Therefore, the text could not be fully read. However, detailed investigations were made and it was stated that the text meant something like “Halfdan was here” or “Halfdan carved these runes”.
Nothing definite is known about Halfdan’s identity or rank. However, it is obvious that he has etched his name into history, albeit in a rude way.
The text still exists today on the second floor of Hagia Sophia. Protected with transparent plastic, the text is the center of attention among those who know the story.
- “Vikingii și raporturile lor cu romanicii din spaţiul Carpato-Nistrean în secolele IX-XI“, Ion TENTIUC, Stratum plus. 2020, nr. 5, pp. 205-230. ISSN 1608-9057
- “Runor: Historia, Tydning, Tolkning“, Lars Magnar ENOKSEN, Historiska Media, ISBN: 9789188930323