The Hagia Sophia is an enormous architectural marvel in Istanbul, Turkey, that was originally built as a Christian basilica nearly 1,500 years ago. Much like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Parthenon in Athens, the Hagia Sophia is a long-enduring symbol of the cosmopolitan city. However, as notable as the structure is itself, its role in the history of Istanbul—and, for that matter, the world—is also significant and touches upon matters related to international politics, religion, art and architecture.
The Hagia Sophia anchors the Old City of Istanbul and has served for centuries as a landmark for both Orthodox Christians and Muslims, as its significance has shifted with that of the dominant culture in the Turkish city.
Istanbul straddles the Bosporus strait, a waterway that serves as a geographic border between Europe and Asia. The Turkish city of nearly 15 million residents thus lies on both continents.
What Is the Hagia Sophia?
The Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish) was originally built as a basilica for the Greek Orthodox Christian Church. However, its function has changed several times in the centuries since.
Byzantine Emperor Constantius commissioned construction of the first Hagia Sophia in 360 A.D. At the time of the first church’s construction, Istanbul was known as Constantinople, taking its name from Constantius’ father, Constantine I, the first ruler of the Byzantine Empire.
The first Hagia Sophia featured a wooden roof. The structure was burned to the ground in 404 A.D. during the riots that occurred in Constantinople as a result of political conflicts within the family of then-Emperor Arkadios, who had a tumultuous reign from 395 to 408 A.D.
Arkadios’ successor, Emperor Theodosios II, rebuilt the Hagia Sophia, and the new structure was completed in 415. The second Hagia Sophia contained five naves and a monumental entrance and was also covered by a wooden roof.
However, a little more than one century later, this would again prove to be a fatal flaw for this important basilica of the Greek Orthodox faith, as the structure was burned for a second time during the so-called “Nika revolts” against Emperor Justinian I, who ruled from 527 to 565.
Hagia Sophia History
Unable to repair the damage caused by the fire, Justinian ordered the demolition of the Hagia Sophia in 532. He commissioned renowned architects Isidoros (Milet) and Anthemios (Tralles) to build a new basilica.
The third Hagia Sophia was completed in 537, and it remains standing today.
The first religious services in the “new” Hagia Sophia 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.”
The Hagia Sophia’s Design
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.
In an effort to create a grand basilica that represented all of the Byzantine Empire, Emperor Justinian decreed that all provinces under his rule 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 are said to have been designed to imitate moving water.
And, the Hagia Sophia’s 104 columns were imported from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, as well as from Egypt.
The building measures some 269 feet in length and 240 feet in width and, at its highest point, the domed roof stretches some 180 feet into the air. When the first dome suffered a partial collapse in 557, its replacement was designed by Isidore the Younger (the nephew of Isidoros, one of the original architects) with structural ribs and a more pronounced arc, and this version of the structure remains in place today.
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 which 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.
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 under Roman control 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.
Renovations to the Hagia Sophia
As Islam was the central religion of the Ottomans, the Hagia Sophia was renovated 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.
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.
Four minarets were also added to the original 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.
Hagia Sofia 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.
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