Viking Graffiti in Hagia Sophia: “Halvdan Carved These Runes”

Viking Grafitti Hagia Sophia 9th Century

“Halfdan carved these runes” on a parapet in Hagia Sophia is a testament to the Vikings’ mobility and vast trading network, and that there are many parts of their history we still do not have knowledge about. (Photo: Egil / Wikimedia Commons)

Two runic inscriptions are found in the Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia. They are believed to be carved by Vikings in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) during the 9th century AD, long before the Varangian Guard – an elite Viking unit of the Byzantine Army – was first formed under Emperor Basil II in 988 AD. Who were the Vikings leaving evidence of their visit?

In 1964, the first runic inscription was discovered on a parapet on the top floor of the southern gallery. Only parts of the first name Halfdan is legible as -alftan. “NN carved these runes” was very common in Viking Age runic inscriptions, and it is possible that the inscription in Hagia Sophia followed this template.

In 1975, a second inscription was discovered in a niche in the western part of the same gallery as the first. Experts on runes have interpreted the inscription as Árni, i.e. Arne, as a simple signature or tag.

Hagia Sophia – Center of the World

The population of the Byzantine Empire is estimated to have been seven million in year 780 AD. The imperial capital of Constantinople, named Miklagard by the Vikings, had about 2 – 300.000 inhabitants.  The city was an important trading center where the east met the west by crossing the Bosphorus Strait.

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Hagia Sophia Constantinople

Hagia Sophia must have been impressive to Vikings who came from the fjords and was used to longhouses. (Photo: Saperaud / Wikimedia Commons)

Hagia Sophia served from the date of its construction in 537 AD until 1453 as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral and seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Why were pagan Vikings carving runes in this church already in the 800s?  Were they traders who had traveled down the Russian rivers and crossed the Black Sea with furs and walrus ivory – and went “sightseeing” in the most stunning edifice at the time? Or were they mercenaries working as imperial guards?


Text by: Thor Lanesskog, ThorNews


Categories: Culture, History, Vikings

17 replies

  1. I remember visiting Versailles for the first time and being horrified at the tourist graffiti. I suppose it’s some comfort to know people have been doing this for a very long time!

  2. This is a Christian church originally the Ottomans made it in to Mosque.

  3. lol! it is not celtic runes. Its gokturk runes. “Ragionamenti Pastorali- Di Mogsignor Alessandro Sperelli” in 1664, rome; read it. It will be illuminate.

    • Hi!

      Interesting idea, but the the Old Turkic script (also known as variously Göktürk script, Orkhon script, Orkhon-Yenisey script) is very different from Norse runes.

      The runes in Hagia Sophia has been examined by numerous experts from around the world, and they all agree: Norse runes.


  4. Probably is the Turkish Varangian Guard.

    • Varangian Guard is not Turkish, it´s “Composed primarily of Norsemen and Rus for the first 100 years, the Guard began to see increased inclusion of Anglo-Saxons after the Norman conquest of England. By the time of the Emperor Alexios Komnenos in the late 11th century, the Varangian Guard was largely recruited from Anglo-Saxons and “others who had suffered at the hands of the Vikings and their cousins the Normans”. The Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic peoples shared with the Vikings a tradition of faithful (to death if necessary) oath-bound service, and after the Norman invasion of England there were many fighting men who had lost their lands and former masters and looked for a living elsewhere.”

      It was an Byzantine Elite force, they hated the ottomans/turks.

  5. So you’re telling me the classic “X was here” joke is that old?

  6. I am an Orthodox Christian Architect and have designed and had built a Stave Church replica in Northern Wisconsin using the Borgund Stave Kirke as the prototype… in my research, I am astounded by the customary design of 10th Century Norwegian Churches, and their harmony with the Byzantine designs and the obvious liturgical functions common to Orthodoxy. eg. covered ambulatory around the church for outside processions in the snow! Some churches with Iconostasis, an Icon of Christ on the ceiling in the style current at that time in Constantinople… check it out – “Architecture in wood” & Stave og Laft.

    • Interesting you should mention that. I’m myself a recent Orthodox convert living in Norway, when I spoke to my priest recently we discussed how it was likely Saint Olaf was more oriented towards Orthodox Christendom, considering Norway was not officially Christian until around 40-50 years later, and the close ties they had to the Byzantine emperor through the Varangians.

      Also both him and his son at different points went into exile in Gardariki, Russia. And according to Snorri Sturlussons maps of large parts of Russia down to Ukraine (Gardariki in the Viking age) was known as Store-Svitjod or Big-Sweden in those times.

  7. King Sigurd I of Norway went through Constantinople on his way back from a crusade which took place from 1107 to 1110. This is most likely the source of the inscription, as Christian Norweigian warriors would certainly have visited such a magnificent church if they were passig through.


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