Icons of Sound
Aesthetics and Acoustics of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

A collaboration between Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics and Department of Art & Art History

“Sung Office” or Asmatike Akolouthia

The liturgy celebrated in Hagia Sophia intensified this experience of marmarygma (the quiver of marble, marmaron, which for the Greeks was a congealed sea). The cathedral service in Constantinople, known as the “Sung Office,” asmatike akolouthia, exhibits a Late Antique character; it comprises processions, the chanting of psalms with refrains, prayers, and the Eucharist. The building of the Justinianic Hagia Sophia inspired the introduction of two new forms of music: the chanted sermon or kontakion of Romanos Melodos (d. ca. 555) and the special hymn, the Cheroubikon, performed at the offertory procession of the bread and wine. These new pieces of poetry and music together with the psalms balanced the chanting of a professional choir with that of the congregation singing the refrains. The “Sung Office” thus emerged as a texture of interwoven solo, choir, and congregation parts, all first walking in procession and then standing up on their feet for the duration of the service. The services exerted the body, but this corporeal strain also enabled the sensual experience of transcending earthly boundaries and partaking into the divine.


From the Novella of Justinian we know that the choir, called psaltai, “the ones who sign the psalms,” was fixed at 25, they were positioned under the ambo, and only half of them performed on a given occasion. So this means 12-13 soloists. Eunuchs joined the ranks of psaltai in the Middle Byzantine Periord (9th-12th cent).


The readers, called anagnostes formed an additional choir who possibly carried out all the antiphonal chanting. They were 110 at the time of Justinian (525-565), but their number increased to 160 at the time of emperor Herakleios (610–641). Only half of the readers will serve in church on a given day. This means at the time of Justinian the readers in service were 55, while in the time of Herakleios, they were 80. In turn, the readers will split into two choirs for the antiphonal chanting, each section consisting of ca 25-27 (Justinianic time) or 40 (Herakleios time). The sources are ambiguous as to where the anagnostes were stationed, possibly in the exedrae, or near the ambo and within the fourth green-marble “river” mark on the floor.

© Bissera V. Pentcheva