Istanbul's Hagia Sophia: The History Of Its Architecture
Hagia Sophia at morning twilight. Source: (gettyimages.com)
The Hagia Sophia is one of the most historically and architecturally significant buildings in all of human civilization. Originally built as a Christian basilica by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 537 CE, the structure was then converted to a mosque by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II after the fall of Constantinople, and became a secular museum in 1935 under the administration of President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
This nearly 1500-year-old building has borne witness to different civilizations, empires, and peoples, but its history is not as widely understood as that of the Colosseum, Eiffel Tower, or Big Ben, for example. This is changing as the tourism industry in Turkey matures, but, for those of us who won’t be jetting off to Istanbul anytime soon, here is a brief introduction to the history of the Hagia Sophia.
The Mosaics of the Comnenus located on the eastern wall of the southern gallery of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Source: (gettyimages.com)
Construction and Christian Era
Located in what was once the walled center of Constantinople, the present site hosted grand churches since the construction of the first Hagia Sophia in 360 CE. At the time, the imperial palace stood across the square and the grand hippodrome, with seating for 100,000 fans, was a short walk away. This was (and remains) very valuable real estate in the center of one of the world’s greatest cities.
Following fires in 404 and 532 that destroyed the first and second Hagia Sophias, Emperor Justinian I wanted to build a new church worthy of the prominent location, and one that reflected the wealth and splendor of the Byzantine Empire and its grand capital city.
Illustration of a Hagia Sophia, cross-section. Source: (gettyimages.com)
After five years of work by the greatest architects, craftsmen, and artisans of the day, the ‘new’ Hagia Sophia was completed in 537. From its massive domed roof and intricate mosaics to the sheer size of its nave and towering position in the skyline, the structure lived up to its lofty expectations. The first religious services were held in December of that year, and all the world marveled at the beauty and majesty of the grandest house of worship in Christendom.
The Fall of Constantinople
The following centuries were not kind to the Byzantine Empire, and by the 15th century, wars and calamities had shrunk its borders to a small fraction of their former expanse. Once ruling lands from Armenia to Spain, by 1453, Emperor Constantine XI only governed Thrace and a smattering of Greek enclaves.
The Ottoman Empire quickly rose from Anatolian obscurity to dominate the Eastern Mediterranean, and on May 29th, 1453 their armies breached the walls of Constantinople, ending the more than 1,000-year history of the Byzantines.
Following three harrowing days of plunder and pillage, Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror ordered an end to the looting and took stock of his new conquest. He soon ordered that the city be renamed Istanbul and that the Hagia Sophia, a symbol of Christian dominance, be converted to a mosque to honor the conquest.
Over many years, the grand mosaics were covered and replaced with geometric designs and calligraphy in the Islamic tradition. Four massive medallions were also raised in each corner of the nave, inscribed with the names of holy figures in gold. Outside, minarets were constructed on the corners of the building, and the Muezzin began calling the faithful to worship a different religion in this grand space.
Secularism and the Republic of Turkey
With the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and the introduction of secularism in the new Republic of Turkey, debate raged about the fate of the Hagia Sophia. Against the backdrop of sweeping reforms championed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, many prominent politicians questioned the symbolism and legacy of the building and its role in the new forward-looking Turkey.
In 1935, the Hagia Sophia was decommissioned as a mosque and reintroduced to the world as a museum. The carpets were removed, the Muezzin fell silent, and the structure has welcomed millions of visitors since that decision. The structure and surrounding sites were added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1985.
The Hagia Sophia has come to symbolize Turkey in the hearts and minds of locals and visitors alike. Its incredible beauty alone makes it one of the most popular tourist destinations in the entire world, but next time you’re in Istanbul, make sure to pause and remember the history and significance behind of one of humanity’s greatest architectural achievements.