Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia, TurkishAyasofya, LatinSancta Sophia, also calledChurch of the Holy WisdomorChurch of the Divine Wisdom, an important Byzantine structure in Istanbul and one of the world’s great monuments. It was built as a Christian church in the 6th centuryCE(532–537) under the direction of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I . In subsequent centuries it became a mosque, a museum , and a mosque again. The building reflects the religious changes that have played out in the region over the centuries, with the minarets and inscriptions of Islam as well as the lavish mosaics of Christianity .


The original church on the site of the Hagia Sophia is said to have been ordered to be built by Constantine I in 325 on the foundations of a pagan temple. His son, Constantius II , consecrated it in 360. It was damaged in 404 by a fire that erupted during a riot following the second banishment of St. John Chrysostom , then patriarch of Constantinople. It was rebuilt and enlarged by the Roman emperor Constans I . The restored building was rededicated in 415 by Theodosius II . The church was burned again in the Nika insurrection of January 532, a circumstance that gave Justinian I an opportunity to envision a splendid replacement.

The resultant Hagia Sophia was built in the remarkably short time of about six years, being completed in 537CE. Unusual for the period in which it was built, the names of the building’s architects— Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus —are well known, as is their familiarity with mechanics and mathematics. The structure now standing is essentially the 6th-century edifice, although an earthquake caused a partial collapse of the dome in 558 (restored 562) and there were two further partial collapses, after which it was rebuilt to a smaller scale and the whole church reinforced from the outside. It was restored again in the mid-14th century. For more than a millennium it was the Cathedral of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople . It was looted in 1204 by the Venetians and the Crusaders on the Fourth Crusade .

After the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Mehmed II had it repurposed as a mosque , with the addition of a wooden minaret (on the exterior, a tower used for the summons to prayer), a great chandelier , a mihrab (niche indicating the direction of Mecca), and a minbar (pulpit). Either he or his son Bayezid II erected the red minaret that stands on the southeast corner of the structure. The original wooden minaret did not survive. Bayezid II erected the narrow white minaret on the northeast side of the mosque. The two identical minarets on the western side were likely commissioned by Selim II or Murad III and built by renowned Ottoman architect Sinan in the 1500s.

In 1934 Turkish Pres. Kemal Atatürk secularized the building, and in 1935 it was made into a museum. In 1985 the Hagia Sophia was designated a component of a UNESCO World Heritage site called the Historic Areas of Istanbul, which includes that city’s other major historic buildings and locations. Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made the controversial decision in 2020 to convert the building back into a mosque. Islamic prayers were held shortly after the announcement with curtains partially concealing the building’s Christian imagery. As Turkey’s most popular tourist destination, the Hagia Sophia remained open to visitors.


The Hagia Sophia combines a longitudinal basilica and a centralized building in a wholly original manner, with a huge 32-metre (105-foot) main dome supported on pendentives and two semidomes, one on either side of the longitudinal axis. Though Justinian’s domed basilicas are the models from whichByzantine architecturedeveloped,the Hagia Sophiaremained unique, and no attempt was thereafter made byByzantinebuilders to emulate it. In plan the building is almost square, but, looked at from within, it appears to be rectangular, for the great semidomes at east and west prolong the effect of the roof. There are three aisles separated by columns with galleries above and great marble piers rising up at either end to support the dome. The columns are of finest marble, selected for their color and variety, while the lower parts of the walls are covered with marble slabs. The curtain walls (non-load-bearing exterior walls) above the galleries and the base of the dome are pierced by windows, which in the glare of daylight obscure the supports and give the impression that the canopy floats on air. 

Like the elaborately carved cornices and capitals, the marble columns survive, but the rest of the original decoration, including most of the mosaics that adorned the upper parts of the walls and the roof has perished. They were all described in the most glowing terms by early writers. But enough does survive to warrant the inclusion of Hagia Sophia in the list of the world’s greatest buildings. 


Art historians consider the building’s beautiful mosaics to be the main source of knowledge about the state of mosaic art in the time shortly after the end of the Iconoclastic Controversy in the 8th and 9th centuries. Parts of the redecoration that the church underwent in the last half of the 9th century have been uncovered in recent times. In their color and technique these show a continuation of the earlyByzantinetradition: the preference for rather strong, clear tints and the effects created by such techniques as the tilting of tesserae and the turning of gold cubes. The preoccupation with light seems stronger than ever: in badly lit places in the vestibule and gallery, the gold ground displays a high percentage of silver cubes among the gold ones to add to the sparkle. Stylistically, new ground had been broken. Particularly in faces, the tesserae are set in wavy lines which break up the modeling in bandlike configurations. Linearism (the expression of form in terms of line rather than color and tone) had taken a great step forward.

In the arrangement and distribution of pictures, new features are visible. In the apse of the Hagia Sophia, the Virgin with Child sits surrounded by a vast expanse of gold. The tendency to depict icon like, motionless, mosaic figures isolated on a gold background has pre-Iconoclastic precedents, but from the 9th century onward it became a leading decorative principle.

Nineteenth-century drawings show that the decoration of the Hagia Sophia also includedcomprehensiveseries of saints . Of these saints, who stood in rows on the nave walls above the galleries, only a few have survived. According to the drawings, those of the middle zone represented prophets and those of the lower depicted holy bishops. Higher up there may have been a guard of angels and, in the center of the cupola , probably a mosaic of Christ . Thedispositionof the pictures, in other words, may have corresponded to that which at this time was being tried out especially for the new churcharchitectureand which was to become the accepted system of decoration in the middle Byzantine churches.

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