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Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sofia, Istanbul, Turkey, June 1994
Hagia Sofia, Istanbul, Turkey, June 1994

The Church of the Holy Wisdom, variously known as Hagia Sophia (Άγια Σοφία) in Greek, Sancta Sophia in Latin or Ayasofya in Turkish, is a former Christian church, now a museum, in Istanbul, formerly Constantinople. It is universally acknowledged as one of the great buildings of the world and a reference point in history of architecture. The church is sometimes mistakenly called "Saint Sophia," as though it were named for a saint called Sophia.



The first great church on the site was built by Constantius, the son of Constantine the Great, but was burned down during the Nika riots of 532. The building was rebuilt in its present form in 532 - 537 under the personal supervision of emperor Justinian I. It is a prime example of Byzantine architecture. Of great artistic value was its decorated interior with mosaics and marble pillars and coverings. The temple itself was so richly and artistically decorated that Justinian is believed to have said Νενίκηκά σε Σολομών (Solomon, I have surpassed you!).

Its architects were Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, professors of geometry at the University of Constantinople . Justinian's great basilica was at once the culminating architectural achievement of late antiquity and the first great masterpiece of Byzantine architecture. Its influence, both architecturally and liturgically, was widespread and enduring in Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Muslim worlds alike.


Interior of the Hagia Sofia, Istanbul, Turkey, June 1994
Interior of the Hagia Sofia, Istanbul, Turkey, June 1994

Hagia Sophia is covered by a central dome 102 feet (31 m) across, slightly smaller than the Pantheon's. The dome seems rendered weightless by the unbroken arcade of arched windows under it, which help flood the colorful interior with light. The dome is carried on pendentives. These four concave triangular sections of masonry solved the problem of setting the circular base of a dome on a rectangular base. At Hagia Sophia the weight of the dome passes through the pendentives to four massive piers at the corners. Between them the dome seems to float upon four great arches.

At the west (entrance) and east (liturgical) ends, the arched openings are extended and by great half domes carried on smaller semidomed exedras. Thus a hierarchy of dome-headed elements build up to create a vast oblong interior crowned by the main dome, a sequence unexampled in antiquity.

In fact, "its first dome fell after an earthquake May 7 558; its replacement in 563, had a higher profile than the original. It also had to be repaired after additional partial collapses ..." in 989 and 1346 (see Marvin Trachtenberg and Isabelle Hyman. Architecture: from Prehistory to Post-Modernism p, 171).

All interior surfaces are sheathed with polychrome marbles, green and white with purple porphyry and gold mosaics, encrusted upon the brick. On the exterior, simple stuccoed walls reveal the clarity of massed vaults and domes.

Later history

Jesus in a mosaic.
Jesus in a mosaic.

For over 900 years the Higia Sophia has been a seat of the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople and a principal setting for imperial ceremonies.

The cathedral was converted to a mosque at the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II in 1453. Its rich figurative mosaics were covered with plaster. It was for almost 500 years the principal mosque of Istanbul. Hagia Sophia served as model for many of the great Ottoman mosques of Constantinople such as the Shehzade Mosque , the Suleiman Mosque, and the Rustem Pasha Mosque .

After continuing as a mosque into the early years of the republic of Turkey, in 1934 under Kemal Atatürk it was secularized and turned into the Ayasofya Museum. Nevertheless, the colorful mosaics remained largely plastered over, and the building was allowed to decay. A 1993 UNESCO mission to Turkey noted falling plaster, dirty marble facings, broken windows, decorative paintings damaged by moisture, and ill-maintained lead roofing. Cleaning, roofing and restoration have since been undertaken. The exceptional floor and wall mosaics which had been cemented over in 1453 are now being gradually excavated.

External links

  • Contemporary description by Procopius, De Aedificiis, published in 561 AD.
  • Introduction, with floor plan and elevations.
  • Very brief illustrated report on restorations
  • Before Hagia Sophia, The Era of East Roman Empire Painting by Ismail Acar, in Hagia Sophia, 1999.
  • One of the most famous Christ mosaic of Hagia Sophia Painting by Ismail Acar, in Hagia Sophia, 1999.
  • Hagia Sophia's horses, now in Venice Square Painting by Ismail Acar, in Hagia Sophia, 1999.


  • Mainstone, Rowland J. (1997). Hagia Sophia: Architecture, Structure, and Liturgy of Justinian's Great Church (reprint edition). W W Norton & Co Inc. ISBN 0500279454.

Hagia Sophia is also the name of:

Last updated: 02-08-2005 11:45:05
Last updated: 02-25-2005 14:42:12