Hagia Sophia – Definition, Characteristics, History, Importance, & Facts

With funds mobilized by his Praetorian Prefect, and architectural expertise supplied by mathematician Isidore of Miletus and geometric engineer Anthemius of Tralles, Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I reconstructed the Hagia Sophia, a magnificent basilica in Constantinople (present day Istanbul, Turkey). The spot of the basilica had two earlier churches that were built by Justinian’s predecessors.

Though the building has survived centuries of damages with accompanying reconstructions and a cycle of uses under various authorities, the Hagia Sophia has remained one of the best evidences of Byzantine architecture. The building continues to hand down the rich history of not just the Byzantines, but that of the Ottoman Empire’s, as well as the commitment of both of those empires and modern civilizations to sacred buildings.

Below, World History Edu explores everything that you need to know about the Hagia Sophia, one of the most historic structures in human history.

Who Built the Hagia Sophia?

In 325, Roman Emperor Constantine I (reign – 306 AD – 337 AD) cut sod for the construction of Hagia Sophia on the site of an inexistent pagan temple, and was consecrated in 360 by his successor and son, Constantine II.

However during the banishment of Constantinople’ Patriarch, John Chrysostom in 404, a fire eruption destroyed the edifice, and, under the orders of Emperor Constans I, reconstruction works began, though this time in a grander form. The reconstructed building was commissioned by Theodosius II in 415.

But Theodosius’ version of the Hagia Sophia was set ablaze during the Nika Insurrections of 532, and by the close of 537, Emperor Justinian the Great had rebuilt a wholly new cathedral, with some of the finest Byzantine architectures.

Meaning of the Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia is Roman, its Turkish translation is “Ayasofya”, meaning “Holy Wisdom”. The building was originally dedicated to the Holy Wisdom, which referred to Jesus Christ, who is in turn seen as the second person of the Trinity. This explains why the Hagia Sophia was originally called the Church of the Holy Wisdom

Construction of Justinian’s Hagia Sophia:

·       Main Materials

The architects and builders of the Hagia Sophia made use of local and exotic materials, including yellow stones from Syria, Hellenic columns from the Artemis Temple and porphyry from Egypt. To enable it survive years of adverse natural occurrences and numerous visits, the main structure was mounted with specially cut ashlar and Roman bricks.

·       Architectural Specifications

Standing at a towering height of 55 meters and extending 82 meters in length and 73 meters wide, the magnificent basilica utilized Roman bricks laid with thick mortar joints of sand and potsherds.

The central dome, which measures about 30.8 meters in diameter and 0.6 meters thick, is supported on four spherical pendentives and lays above an arcade of forty arched windows; its highest point is 55.6 meters from the interior floor. Two semi-domes of equal diameters as the central dome are erected over either sides of the western entrance and eastern liturgical portions.

The original floor was renovated after 558 with marbles chiefly from the Marmara Islands and some portions made of marbles from Thessaly.

The upper gallery stretches on three side of the nave, with the remaining side (of nave) having the apse.

Below the upper gallery on the south is the Marble Door which leads into the meeting chamber of religious council officials such as those of the patriarchate.

There is also the Nice Gate which opens into the south exit in the narthex, and, built since 838, has not been replaced or tampered like other parts of the basilica.

As the name suggests, the Imperial Gate is the building’s largest door and it was reserved for the emperor and his entourage. Some Byzantine sources have claimed the door was constructed with wood from the Noah’s Ark.

The “Crying Column” or otherwise called “Wishing Column” stands at the northeast; it has a bronze plated hole, which is claimed to have remained moist since 1200 upon the visit of Gregory the Wonderworker. It was believed that the plate hole had some healing powers.

Dome Interior of the Hagia Sophia

·                Hagia Sophia’s Mosaics

The edifice exhibits some of the most exquisite mosaic arts of the Byzantine era, with a mix of gold and silver tesserae arranged in wavy lines. The mosaics also come with a certain color combination techniques to enhance brightness in the galleries and lobbies.

To several thousands of tourists trooping in the basilica, the mosaics, and their latter painted copies, are undoubtedly one of the jaw-breaking ancient art decorations in existence, and a typical depiction of Byzantine iconoclasm.

The building, in its prime use as cathedral, was decorated with various drawings of Christian saints lined up on the nave walls over the galleries, and installed in a kind of ranking. Mosaics of prophets were on the middle zones while those on the lower had some holy bishops. The cupola had a mosaic of Jesus Christ

By the 12th century, majority of the mosaics had been fixed, but the demise of the Byzantine Empire ─or appropriately, the suspension─ in 1204 saw the hauling of the golden mosaics, among other luxuries, to Venice.

In 1453, the year Constantinople fell to invading Ottoman Turks (under the leadership of Mehmet the Conqueror), many of the mosaics were concealed under plastering as a results of its use as mosque and the accompanying Islamic prohibition of religious images.

Read More: History & Timeline of the Ottoman Empire

During the restorations by the Fossati brothers in the 1840s, records of visible mosaics were taken and then painted or plastered over; however, the mosaics of six winged angels were reserved or restored from under the 1453 plastering and also the Fossatis made painted copies of many mosaics. The Fossati records included drawings of the mosaics. Those records have become the primary accounts of the original mosaics.

In the 1930’s, Thomas Whittemore of the Byzantine Institute of America led a team that uncovered many of the mosaics.

In the northern tympanum is a mosaic of patriarchs John Chrysostom and Ignatius. The lower part of the Deesis mosaic is damaged beyond recognition, but the upper depicts Virgin Mary and John the Baptist with Christ in the middle.

The Virgin Mary, with infant Jesus on her lap and Emperor John Comnenus and his wife Irene on her (Mary’s) right and left respectively, is also shown in the Comnenus mosaic on the east of the southern gallery wall with a number of significant details

On the same southern gallery wall is the mosaic of Empress Zoe consisting of Christ Pantocrator in the middle and Constantine IX Monomachus ( to the left) and Zoe (to the right) all in a golden background with other details such as the sacred number representing Jesus Christ and inscriptions over the heads of Constantine and Zoe.

There are also the mosaics of Emperor Alexander on the ceiling of the second floor which were merely painted over and hence uncovered without damage.

Damages, Reconstructions and Remodeling

Most ancient projects have lived through several centuries of damages either by natural forces or by deliberate human activities; the Hagia Sophia is no different.

In its early years, a series of three earthquakes between 553 and 558 collapsed, or at least contributed to the collapse of such parts as the domes, altar and ciborium. Restoration works were swiftly implemented under Isidorus, a nephew of aforementioned Isidore of Miletus, who, after ascribing the domes breakages to its weight, used lighter materials for the new dome and a new but higher vault of 6.25 meters.

In 1317, Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus of the Nicaea Empire funded the construction of four new buttresses with the inheritance of his deceased wife, Irene of Montferrat.

The earthquake of October 1344 broke down some parts of the edifice and caused cracks in the dome, but a decade later, repair works were done by architects Astras and Peralta.

From the 1570s, during the reign of Ottoman Selim II, Ottoman architect and earthquake engineer Mimar Sinan was assigned to construct extra support for the exteriors and two more minarets as well as the sultan’s lodge. Sinan also attached Selim’s mausoleum to the southeast previously occupied by parts of the patriarchate. Sinan also installed a golden crescent atop the dome and demolished all structures within 24 meters reach of the basilica.

Interior of the Hagia Sophia

Selim’s successor, Murad III, who reigned between 1574 and 1595, also had two large alabaster urns from Bergama positioned on either sides of the nave. The architect Dawud Aga constructed a turbe in which the sultan and his mother Safiye were buried.

Beside this turbe lay the mausoleum of Marud’s son, Mehmed III, built by Dalguc Mehmet Aga in 1608. But, probably as part of Islamizing the edifice, Mustafa I, in 1617, changed the baptistery into his own mausoleum.

Another set of renovation was initiated by Sultan Ahmed III in 1717 during which the interior walls were given new plastering and its mosaics maintained. In 1739, Sultan Mahmud I continued the renovations by introducing a Medrese (Koranic school), an imaret (kitchen), a library, a fountain for ablution as well as a lodge and a new mihrab.

Between 1847 and 1849, Sultan Abdulmejid outsourced Swiss-Italian architects, Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati, to supervise some 800 workers on major reconstructions such as reinforcement of the dome and vaults; cleaning of mosaics; replacing the maqsura in the apse with new one. Also,  a special entrance was created for the sultan. The Fossatis further built the Muvakkithane ─ a projection for the clock ─ and the Kasr-I Humayun as well as renovated the minarets to the same height.

The cracks in the copper roof affected the dome, and reconstruction was done between 1997 and 2002 with funds from the World Monument Fund and the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Further repairs were done on the interiors of the domes during which some young Turks were trained on the maintenance of mosaics.

Another set of renovations began in 2012 where several mosaic arts extending an area of 600 square meters were reinstalled and various Islamic calligraphies imprinted on the walls.

Read More: Top 10 Ottoman Sultans and their Accomplishments

Evolution of its use over the centuries

From as far back as 360 AD until 1205, the edifice first served as a cathedral for the Eastern Orthodox Church. After the Schism of 1054, which broke the Catholics from the Orthodox Church in East, the Latin Empire turned the building into a Catholic Cathedral until it was returned to the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1261 upon the resumption of the Byzantine authority.

It remained a cathedral until 1453, when the Ottoman Sultan Fatih Sultan Mehmed (also known as Mehmed the Conqueror) conquered Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) and the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque.

Following the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks, Mehmed the Conqueror rode straight to the Hagia Sophia and asked that the building not be harmed. Shortly after he called for an imam to lead a Muslim prayer in the church, which later got converted into a mosque. Image: The triumphant entry of Sultan Mehmed II into Constantinople, painting by Italian painter Fausto Zonaro (1854–1929)

Quite as expected, the Muslim sultan ordered the removal of many Christian features such as the baptistery, bells, alter, ambo and iconostasis. The Christian mosaics were either scraped down or concealed under new wall plastering.

The reason Mehmed the Conqueror converted the Orthodox cathedral into a mosque was to announce the Ottoman Empire as real force to be reckoned with. By so doing, Mehmed was placing himself as the biggest promoter of Islam in the world at the time. The conversion also witnessed the installation of minarets, mihrab and minbar, among others to suit Islamic worship.

It was closed from 1931 to 1935, after which it was declared secular and a museum by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey’s first president and nation’s founder. The Hagia Sophia would remain a museum until 2020, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with his Council of State, successfully converted the Hagia back into a mosque. Regardless of this conversion, the magnificent edifice has continued to attract tourists, and it has been one of Turkey’s most visited sites, attracting several millions of visitors every year.

Erdogan’s decision was not welcomed by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee nor the World Council of Churches. Many international bodies including the EU, U.S Department of State and the Greek government condemned the move, and even called for international sanctions on Turkey.

However, Islamic bodies like the South African Muslim Judicial Council and the Hamas of Palestine as well as top personalities like the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople Sahak II Mashalian hailed the conversion.

Influence of the Hagia Sophia on other structures

The features of the Hagia Sophia have influenced the construction of  a number of contemporary mosques such as the Sultan Ahmed, the Sulemaniye and Bayezid II mosques, as well as several churches including Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis; St. Sophia’s Cathedral, London; St. Clement Catholic Church, Chicago and the Catedral Metropolitana Ortodoxa in Sao Paulo.

Did You Know?

After Mehmed the Conqueror converted the basilica into a mosque, minarets, mihrab and minbar, among other things, were built to make the structure suit Islamic worship. Image: Hagia Sophia and its four giant minarets

Below are a few more interesting facts about the Hagia Sophia:

  • At the time of its construction, Istanbul was called Constantinople, and it was the capital of the Byzantine Empire.
  • The Hagia Sophia became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985.
  • The Hagia Irene was a smaller cathedral built before and near the site of the Hagia Sophia.
  • It took the engineers and builders of the structure 5 years and 10 months to complete it.
  • After the Byzantine-Sasanian War, Emperor Heraclius of the Sasanian Empire ordered the cathedral’s liturgical vessels to be minted into gold and silver coins to pay tribute to the Avars.
  • The Seville Cathedral in Spain was completed in 1507, superseding the Hagia Sophia in size.
  • Upon its first conversion to a mosque, Hagia Sophia became the first imperial mosque of Istanbul.
  • Prior to the construction of the Seville Cathedral in 1520, the Hagia Sophia was the world’s largest cathedral ever built.
  • The Imperial Gate was vandalized in April 2022 and some of its wood were carried away.
  • Enrico Dandolo, leader of the Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, was buried in the Hagia Sophia.
  • In 1054 during the papacy of Leo IX, Humbert of Silva Candida pronounced the excommunication of Michael I Cerularius in the basilica, and in 1204, after Latin forces occupied Constantinople, it was in the same structure, where Baldwin I was crowned.
  • The main Hagia Sophia dome is the second biggest in the world ─ after the dome of Rome’s Pantheon.
  • The labor force on the Justinian Cathedral comprised of some ten thousand people under the supervision of Anthemius and Isidore.

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