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Hagia Sophia

["Holy Wisdom"] a Byzantine church/mosque/museum in Istanbul, Turkey

The first church on this site was known as the Megále Ekklesía ("Great Church"), which was dedicated in 360. It and the nearby Hagia Eirene ("Holy Peace") served as the principal churches of the Byzantine Empire until 404, when the Great Church was burned to the ground during a series of riots spurred by the exile of the Patriarch of Constantinople John Chrysostom. Nothing of the first church exists today.

A second church was ordered by Theodosius II, who dedicated it in 415. This church, the first to be called Hagia Sophia, stood until 532, when it was destroyed by fire during the Nika Revolt. Several marble blocks from the this church survive to the present, including reliefs depicting 12 lambs representing the 12 apostles.

A few weeks after the destruction of the second church, Emperor Justinian the Great, against whom the Nika Revolt had been directed, ordered construction of an even greater church on the site. Built under the direction of Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Thales, the structure that stands today was completed in 537. Although the dome had to be repaired several times over the next half century, the church stood solidly as the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constaninople for 900 years, even surviving an attack by Crusaders in 1204.

Hagia Sophia

In 1453, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror captured the city and converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Aside from the addition of minarets and the shoring up of the dome and vaults, no architectural changes were made to the structure. The rich interior mosaics were painted over, however, and many of the interior elements were adapted to suit Islamic purposes.

In 1935, the government of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk secularized Hagia Sophia and turned it into the Ayasofa Museum. Since then, many of the mosaics and tile floors have been restored and structural repairs have been made.

The main building is 246 feet from east to west and 230 feet north to south. The central nave is covered by a dome that is 102 feet across and 185 feet high. At the western and eastern ends, the arched openings are extended by semi-domes. The flat wall on each side of the interior (north and south) is called a tympanum, and each one has 12 large windows in two rows, seven in the lower and five in the upper. All interior surfaces are sheathed with polychrome marble, green and white with purple porphyry, and gold mosaics Just outside the entrance, stone cannonballs used by Mehmet the Conqueror line the gravel path of the outer courtyard. There are several interesting things to see outside Hagia Sophia, including three mausoleums of sultans, the church's baptistery, and the excavated remains of Theodosius' Hagia Sophia.

floor plan of Hagia Sophia


Hagia Sophia
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Sacred Destinations

See Also

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

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The Robinson Library >> Religious Architecture

This page was last updated on 08/07/2018.