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Hagia Sophia

Updated: Mar 26, 2023

Note: I am no historian or expert on this structure or region. As such, I am referencing for most of the information presented here.

The First and Second Hagia Sophias

Hagia Sophia is one of the most famous landmarks in Istanbul. Its history goes back thousands of years. The Byzantine Emperor Constantius commissioned construction of the first Hagia Sophia in 360 A.D. At that time, Istanbul was called Constantinople after Constantuis's father, Constantine I, the first ruler of the Byzantine Empire.

Unfortunately, the first Hagia Sophia had a wooden roof and was burned to the ground in 404 A.D. during riots against the Emperor Arkadios, who reigned from 395 to 408 A.D. Arkadios’ successor, Emperor Theodosios II, rebuilt the Hagia Sophia in 415, but it was burned again during the “Nika revolts” against Emperor Justinian I, who ruled from 527 to 565.

Unable to repair the basilica, Justinian ordered the demolition of the Hagia Sophia in 532 and commissioned renowned architects Isidoros (Milet) and Anthemios (Tralles) to build a new basilica. The third and final Hagia Sophia and was completed in 537, and the first services were held on December 27, 537. At the time, Emperor Justinian is reported to have said: “My Lord, thank you for giving me the chance to create such a worshipping place.”

Note: This is important, as other later emperors tried to outdo the Hagia Sophia, which proved to be an impossible feat.

View of the Hagia Sophia from the west. The four buttresses pictured were built after the Latin occupation in the 13th century in Constantinople. The ones on the east and north sides were built by Andronicus II in 1317.

Remnants from Hagia Sophia's past.

Northwestern entrance to the Hagia Sophia. (Be sure to click on the images in the galleries to enlarge them!)

Designing Hagia Sophia

In an effort to create a grand basilica that represented all of the Byzantine Empire, Emperor Justinian required all provinces under his rule to send architectural pieces for use in its construction. The marble used for the floor and ceiling was produced in Anatolia (present-day eastern Turkey) and Syria, while other bricks (used in the walls and parts of the floor) came from as far away as North Africa. The interior of Hagia Sophia is lined with enormous marble slabs that were designed to imitate moving water, and Hagia Sophia’s 104 columns were imported from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, as well as from Egypt.

Two of the 104 columns supporting the building.

The detail and colors of Hagia Sophia are incredible. (My new iPhone did a great job capturing them, too!)

From its opening, the third and final Hagia Sophia was indeed a remarkable structure. It combined the traditional design elements of an Orthodox basilica with a large, domed roof, and a semi-domed altar with two narthex (or “porches”). The dome’s supporting arches were covered with mosaics of six winged angels called hexapterygon.

The building measures around 269 feet (83 meters) in length and 240 feet (73 meters) in width and, at its highest point, the domed roof stretches some 180 feet (55 meters) into the air. The dome suffered a partial collapse in 557 A.D., and Isidore the Younger (the nephew of Isidoros, one of the original architects) designed its replacement using structural ribs and a more pronounced arc. This central dome rests on a ring of windows and is supported by two semi-domes and two arched openings to create a large nave.

The walls of the nave were originally lined with intricate Byzantine mosaics made from gold, silver, glass, terra cotta and colorful stones and portraying well-known scenes and figures from the Christian Gospels.

The main dome is supported by two partial domes.

My tour guide, Gamze, shared with me the meaning of the Arabic inscription around the uppermost part of the dome (pictured above). It is from the Quran 25:34, which reads: Allah is the Light of the heavens and earth. His light is like a niche in which there is a lamp, the lamp is in a crystal, the crystal is like a shining star lit form the oil of a blessed olive tree located neither to the east nor the west, whose oil would almost glow, even without being touched by fire. Light upon light! Allah guides whoever He wills to His light. And Allah sets forth parables for humanity. For Allah has perfect knowledge of all things.

Hagia Sophia's Tumultuous History

As Greek Orthodox was the official religion of the Byzantines, the Hagia Sophia was considered the central church of the faith, and it thus became the place where new emperors were crowned. These ceremonies took place in the nave, where there is an Omphalion (navel of the earth), a large circular marble section of colorful stones in an intertwining circular design, in the floor.

The Hagia Sophia served this pivotal role in Byzantine culture and politics for much of its first 900 years of existence. However, during the Crusades, the city of Constantinople—and by extension the Hagia Sophia—was controlled by Rome and the Catholic Church for a brief period in the 13th century. The Hagia Sophia was severely damaged during this period, but was repaired when the Byzantines once again took control of the surrounding city.

The next significant period of change for the Hagia Sophia began less than 200 years later, when the Ottomans, led by Emperor Fatih Sultan Mehmed—known as Mehmed the Conqueror—captured Constantinople in 1453. The Ottomans renamed the city Istanbul and, as Islam was the central religion of the Ottomans, they renovated the Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

As part of the conversion, the Ottomans covered many of the original Orthodox-themed mosaics with Islamic calligraphy designed by Kazasker Mustafa İzzet. The panels or medallions, which were hung on the columns in the nave, feature the names of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, the first four Caliphs, and the Prophet’s two grandsons. The mosaic on the main dome—believed to be an image of Christ—was also covered by gold calligraphy.

Pictures of the Virgin Mary and Jesus were covered at the front of the church so that Muslims could pray towards Mecca without praying to Jesus.

A mihrab or nave was installed in the wall, as is tradition in mosques, to indicate the direction toward Mecca, one of the holy cities of Islam. Ottoman Emperor Kanuni Sultan Süleyman (1520 to 1566) installed two bronze lamps on each side of the mihrab, and Sultan Murad III (1574 to 1595) added two marble cubes from the Turkish city of Bergama, which date back to 4 B.C.

They also added four minarets to the building during this period, partly for religious purposes (for the muezzin call to prayer) and partly to fortify the structure following earthquakes that struck the city around this time.

Under the rule of Sultan Abdülmecid, between 1847 and 1849, the Hagia Sophia underwent an extensive renovation led by Swiss architects the Fossati brothers. At this time, the Hünkâr Mahfili (a separate compartment for emperors to use for prayer) was removed and replaced with another near the mihrab.

One exterior hallway of the Hagia Sophia (pictured below) was never fully converted. It still contains a mosaic of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist.

Hagia Sophia Today

The Hagia Sophia’s role in politics and religion remains a contentious and important one even today, some 100 years after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. From 1935—nine years after the Republic of Turkey was established by Ataturk—to 2020, the legendary structure was operated as a museum by the national government. Beginning in 2013, some Islamic religious leaders in the country sought to have the Hagia Sophia once again opened as a mosque. In July 2020, the Turkish Council of State and President Erdoğan reclassified it as a mosque. Thankfully, it was a mosque when I visited. I had to cover my head (the hood of my coat worked just fine) inside and in every mosque I visited in Istanbul. (It was quite cold inside, anyway!)

The interior view of Hagia Sophia with guests (including me) and my awesome tour guide, Gamze.

Honestly, there is no way to fully grasp Hagia Sophia's magnificence through pictures. The below video might give you a glimpse, though, of the magnificence and enormity of this structure.

A view of Hagia Sophia from the east. I'll post more pics in future posts. (I walked past it several times!)

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Wow, Jessica, wow. The architecture is magnificent. I'm also fascinated by the history and the changes as the religion of the times changed with different people in power and influence.

Jessica Cyphers
Jessica Cyphers

Me too! I wish I had pictures of the basilica before the Mehmed the Conqueror turned it into a mosque. It would be neat to see to be able to see it before and after. It is truly a magnificent structure.

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