Hagia Sophia: The Place of Holy Wisdom

In 330 AD, Constantine the Great, the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity, founded the city of Constantinople on the Bosphorus Strait at the intersection of the continents of Europe and Asia. The city would soon become the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. A great Christian city needed a great cathedral, so shortly after the founding a large church known as Hagia Sophia ("Church of the Holy Wisdom of God") was built. It only lasted until 404 AD, however, when a rioting crowd burned the church down. A second church was built in 415, but this was also burned to the ground in a rebellion in 532 AD.

Only 39 days after the destruction of the 2nd church, the Emperor Justinian I (also known as "Justinian the Builder") ordered construction to start on a third church. While the first two basilicas, however, had used the traditional design of western cathedrals, Justinian hired two Greeks from Asia Minor to design something completely different. Isidorus of Miletus, a physicist, and Anthemius of Tralles, a mathematician, created a structure consisting of a series of domes and half domes that would amaze the world. Considered the embodiment of the Byzantine style, it is said to have "changed the history of architecture" and was, for nearly a thousand years, the largest cathedral in the world.

Seven Quick Facts
Height at dome top: 180 feet (55m)
Dome diameter: 102 feet (31m).
Constructed from: 532 AD to 537 AD
Function: Church (537 - 1453), Mosque (1453 - 1931) Museum (1934 - present).
Built by: Emperor Justinian
Made of: Brick with limestone and sandstone in some sections.
Other: Largest cathedral in the world from 537 AD - 1520 AD.

Byzantine Architecture

The architecture of the Byzantine Empire was a mixture of the earlier Greek and Roman style with Asian/ Oriental influences. It often utilizied a large dome set on a square base instead of a vaulted roof. Rounded arches and spires also were common features on Byzantine buildings. Bricks of different colors were frequently used on the outside of the structure and arranged so that they appeared as bands or in complex patterns. Inside, the walls were usually made of marble with colored glass mosaics.

The central part of this third and final version of Hagia Sophia was designed as a rectangle 250 feet (76m) long and 220 feet (67m) wide. At the center of this was a square. One hundred and eighty feet above the square was a massive dome. At over a hundred feet across it was by far the largest dome ever constructed at the time and often compared to the vault of heaven itself. The dome was supported by four huge columns at the corners of the square. At the east and west ends of the rectangle the roofs consisted of two half domes which leaned in toward the main dome giving it support. In turn, at each end of the building other smaller half domes leaned in on the sides of the east and west half domes holding them in position. At the north and south exteriors of the central square of the building were two huge, rounded arches that helped support the roof.

A cross-section of the church from 1908.

Justinian had an imperial room built on site so that he could continually monitor the project's progress. He brought in materials from all over the world for the construction including stone from Egyptian quarries in Porphyry, green marble from Thessaly, and yellow rock from Syria. Dividing the 10,000 workers into two groups he had them compete with each other to complete the east and west halves of the building. This final version of Hagia Sophia was ready for dedication in just six years on December 27 of 537 AD. However, work on the interior mosaics continued throughout the reign of Justianian's son from 565 to 578.

The interior of the building was richly adorned with four acres of gold mosaics on the ceiling. Multicolored marble was used on the walls, floors and columns. Above the altar were hung rich silk banners. When Justinian had finished the construction he supposedly proclaimed, "Solomon, I have outdone thee!"

Historian Procopius of Caesarea visited the church not long after it was completed in the 6th century. According to him, Hagia Sophia was "distinguished by indescribable beauty, excelling both in its size, and in the harmony of its measures, having no part excessive and none deficient; being more magnificent than ordinary buildings, and much more elegant than those which are not of so just a proportion. The church is singularly full of light and sunshine; you would declare that the place is not lighted by the sun from without, but that the rays are produced within itself, such an abundance of light is poured into this church…"

The interior of one of the half domes showing the image of the Virgin Mary. (Photo by Georges Jansoone licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Quake Damage

The region around Constantinople was prone to earthquakes and the Hagia Sophia was often shaken by heavy tremors. In 558 AD, a trembler caused a large part of the dome to collapse. Because the original architects were dead by then, Isidorus's nephew, Isidorus the Younger, was given the rebuilding job. He made the new dome 20 feet higher which allowed its weight to be more easily transmitted to the edges, strengthening the structure. He also added four pendentives ( sort of a column with a half curved arch on each side) under the dome to more effectively transfer the weight to the supports below. This new dome lasted for almost four hundred years before it needed major repairs.

Originally the interior of the basilica was finished with mosaics and statues depicting the saints. In 726, however, the emperor Leo the Isaurian enacted laws forbidding the veneration of images and all these icons were covered over or removed from the church.

Hagia Sophia survived a fire in 859 and an earthquake in 869. A major quake in 989, however, caused the western half-dome to fall and Emperor Basil II asked the great Armenian architect Trdat to direct the repairs. He went on to do a major restoration of the church. By then the laws forbidding images had been relaxed and new paintings were created on the dome and other parts of the building depicting Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and many of the saints and prophets.

In 1054 the Great East-West Schism divided the church into what would become the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. Constantinople was in the territory under the influence of the Eastern Orthodox Church until 1204 AD. At that time, during the fourth crusade, the city was occupied by forces loyal to the Roman Catholic Church who stripped the cathedral of many of its relics (such as a stone from the tomb of Jesus and the bones of several saints). These were sent back to churches in the West.

One of the minarets added after the church was converted to a mosque.

From Church to Mosque

In 1261 forces of the Byzantine Empire recaptured the city and the church. They would hold it for almost 200 years until 1453 when Sultan Mehmed, of the Ottoman Empire, laid siege to Constantinople. After 53 days he conquered the city and allowed his troops three days to pillage the metropolis (now renamed Istanbul) including the church. By the time the Sultan put a stop to the looting, Hagia Sophia was in a deplorable state. The Sultan, intent on converting Constantinople to Islam, turned Hagia Sophia into the Aya Sofya Mosque.

As a mosque the mosaics and paintings were once again covered with plaster. Over the next century two small minarets (tall, round towers used to call the faithful to prayer) were built on the southwest and northeast corners of the building. In the 16th century these were removed and two larger minarets were constructed near the east and west edges of the building. In the 17th century the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan was commissioned to strengthen the building to better resist earthquakes. He also constructed two additional minarets so that the edifice was then surrounded by four of them at each of the corners.

Though the building was not constructed as a Moslem place of worship, it was greatly admired in the Islamic world. For almost half a millennium it served as the principal mosque of the city of Istanbul. Its architecture heavily influenced the design of many other Ottoman mosques.

The building remained a mosque until the founder of the Republic of Turkey, President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, turned it into a secular museum in 1934. At that time many of the medieval mosaics, which had been covered for hundreds of years, were restored. Today, by law, the structure cannot be used as a place of worship.

By the end of the 20th century much of the building was in ill-repair and in 1996 the World Monuments Fund placed Hagia Sophia on their watch list. From 1997 to 2006 grants were secured to restore the domes exterior and interior. Restoration still continues on other parts of the building.

Hagia Sophia is considered one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture. It still dominates Istanbul's skyline as it has for 1,500 years. It remains the symbol of a city that now spans two great continents and two historic cultures.

Hagia Sophia lit up for night time viewing. (Photo by Radomil Binek licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Copyright Lee Krystek 2012. All Rights Reserved.