Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

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The Hagia Sophia is an enormous architectural marvel in Istanbul, Turkey, that was originally built as a Christian basilica nearly 1,500 years ago. Much like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Parthenon in Athens, the Hagia Sophia is a long-enduring symbol of the cosmopolitan city. However, as notable as the structure is itself, its role in the history of Istanbul—and, for that matter, the world—is also significant and touches upon matters related to international politics, religion, art and architecture.

The Hagia Sophia anchors the Old City of Istanbul and has served for centuries as a landmark for both Orthodox Christians and Muslims, as its significance has shifted with that of the dominant culture in the Turkish city.

Istanbul straddles the Bosporus strait, a waterway that serves as a geographic border between Europe and Asia. The Turkish city of nearly 15 million residents thus lies in both continents.

What Is the Hagia Sophia?

The Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish) was originally built as a basilica for the Greek Orthodox Christian Church. However, its function has changed several times in the centuries since.

Byzantine Emperor Constantius commissioned construction of the first Hagia Sophia in 360 A.D. At the time of the first church’s construction, Istanbul was known as Constantinople, taking its name from Constantius’ father, Constantine I, the first ruler of the Byzantine Empire.

The first Hagia Sophia featured a wooden roof. The structure was burned to the ground in 404 A.D. during the riots that occurred in Constantinople as a result of political conflicts within the family of then-Emperor Arkadios, who had a tumultuous reign from 395 to 408 A.D.

Arkadios’ successor, Emperor Theodosios II, rebuilt the Hagia Sophia, and the new structure was completed in 415. The second Hagia Sophia contained five naves and a monumental entrance and was also covered by a wooden roof.

However, a little more than one century later, this would again prove to be a fatal flaw for this important basilica of the Greek Orthodox faith, as the structure was burned for a second time during the so-called “Nika revolts” against Emperor Justinian I, who ruled from 527 to 565.

Hagia Sophia History

Unable to repair the damage caused by the fire, Justinian ordered the demolition of the Hagia Sophia in 532. He commissioned renowned architects Isidoros (Milet) and Anthemios (Tralles) to build a new basilica.

The third Hagia Sophia was completed in 537, and it remains standing today.

The first religious services in the “new” Hagia Sophia were held on December 27, 537. At the time, Emperor Justinian is reported to have said, “My Lord, thank you for giving me the chance to create such a worshipping place.”

The Hagia Sophia’s Design

From its opening, the third and final Hagia Sophia was indeed a remarkable structure. It combined the traditional design elements of an Orthodox basilica with a large, domed roof, and a semi-domed altar with two narthex (or “porches”).

The dome’s supporting arches were covered with mosaics of six winged angels called hexapterygon.

In an effort to create a grand basilica that represented all of the Byzantine Empire, Emperor Justinian decreed that all provinces under his rule send architectural pieces for use in its construction.

The marble used for the floor and ceiling was produced in Anatolia (present-day eastern Turkey) and Syria, while other bricks (used in the walls and parts of the floor) came from as far away as North Africa. The interior of Hagia Sophia is lined with enormous marble slabs that are said to have been designed to imitate moving water.

And, the Hagia Sophia’s 104 columns were imported from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, as well as from Egypt.

The building measures some 269 feet in length and 240 feet in width and, at its highest point, the domed roof stretches some 180 feet into the air. When the first dome suffered a partial collapse in 557, its replacement was designed by Isidore the Younger (the nephew of Isidoros, one of the original architects) with structural ribs and a more pronounced arc, and this version of the structure remains in place today.

This central dome rests on a ring of windows and is supported by two semi-domes and two arched openings to create a large nave, the walls of which were originally lined with intricate Byzantine mosaics made from gold, silver, glass, terra cotta and colorful stones and portraying well-known scenes and figures from the Christian Gospels.

Hagia Sophia’s Tumultuous History

As Greek Orthodox was the official religion of the Byzantines, the Hagia Sophia was considered the central church of the faith, and it thus became the place where new emperors were crowned.

These ceremonies took place in the nave, where there is an Omphalion (navel of the earth), a large circular marble section of colorful stones in an intertwining circular design, in the floor.

The Hagia Sophia served this pivotal role in Byzantine culture and politics for much of its first 900 years of existence.

However, during the Crusades, the city of Constantinople, and by extension the Hagia Sophia, was under Roman control for a brief period in the 13th century. The Hagia Sophia was severely damaged during this period, but was repaired when the Byzantines once again took control of the surrounding city.

The next significant period of change for the Hagia Sophia began less than 200 years later, when the Ottomans, led by Emperor Fatih Sultan Mehmed—known as Mehmed the Conqueror—captured Constantinople in 1453. The Ottomans renamed the city Istanbul.

Renovations to the Hagia Sophia

As Islam was the central religion of the Ottomans, the Hagia Sophia was renovated into a mosque. As part of the conversion, the Ottomans covered many of the original Orthodox-themed mosaics with Islamic calligraphy designed by Kazasker Mustafa İzzet.

The panels or medallions, which were hung on the columns in the nave, feature the names of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, the first four Caliphs, and the Prophet’s two grandsons.

The mosaic on the main dome—believed to be an image of Christ—was also covered by gold calligraphy.

A mihrab or nave was installed in the wall, as is tradition in mosques, to indicate the direction toward Mecca, one of the holy cities of Islam. Ottoman Emperor Kanuni Sultan Süleyman (1520 to 1566) installed two bronze lamps on each side of the mihrab, and Sultan Murad III (1574 to 1595) added two marble cubes from the Turkish city of Bergama, which date back to 4 B.C.

Four minarets were also added to the original building during this period, partly for religious purposes (for the muezzin call to prayer) and partly to fortify the structure following earthquakes that struck the city around this time.

Under the rule of Sultan Abdülmecid, between 1847 and 1849, the Hagia Sophia underwent an extensive renovation led by Swiss architects the Fossati brothers. At this time, the Hünkâr Mahfili (a separate compartment for emperors to use for prayer) was removed and replaced with another near the mihrab.

Hagia Sofia Today

The Hagia Sophia’s role in politics and religion remains a contentious and important one, even today—some 100 years after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

From 1935—nine years after the Republic of Turkey was established by Ataturk—to 2020, the legendary structure was operated as a museum by the national government. Beginning in 2013, some Islamic religious leaders in the country sought to have the Hagia Sophia once again opened as a mosque. In July 2020, the Turkish Council of State and President Erdoğan reclassified it as a mosque.


History. Hagia Sophia Museum.

Allen, William. “Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.” Khan Academy.

Matthews, Owen (2015). “Islamists and Secularists Battle Over Turkey’s Hagia Sophia Museum.” Newsweek.

Hagia Sophia. Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Hagia Sophia - HISTORY

Figure 1. Constantine the Great presents the city (Constantinople) and Justinian the Great presents Hagia Sophia to the Virgin, mosaic, probably tenth century, Southwestern Entrance, Hagia Sophia

The great church of the Byzantine capital Constantinople (Istanbul) took its current structural form under the direction of the Emperor Justinian I. The church was dedicated in 537, amid great ceremony and the pride of the emperor (who was sometimes said to have seen the completed building in a dream). The daring engineering feats of the building are well known. Numerous medieval travelers praise the size and embellishment of the church. Tales abound of miracles associated with the church. Hagia Sophia is the symbol of Byzantium in the same way that the Parthenon embodies Classical Greece or the Eiffel Tower typifies Paris.

Figure 2. Isidore of Miletus & Anthemius of Tralles for Emperor Justinian, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, 532–37

Each of those structures express values and beliefs: perfect proportion, industrial confidence, a unique spirituality. By overall impression and attention to detail, the builders of Hagia Sophia left the world a mystical building. The fabric of the building denies that it can stand by its construction alone. Hagia Sophia’s being seems to cry out for an other-worldly explanation of why it stands because much within the building seems dematerialized, an impression that must have been very real in the perception of the medieval faithful. The dematerialization can be seen in as small a detail as a column capital or in the building’s dominant feature, its dome.

Let us start with a look at a column capital (figure 3).

Figure 3. Basket Capital, Hagia Sophia

The capital is a derivative of the Classical Ionic order via the variations of the Roman composite capital and Byzantine invention. Shrunken volutes appear at the corners decorative detailing runs the circuit of lower regions of the capital. The column capital does important work, providing transition from what it supports to the round column beneath. What we see here is decoration that makes the capital appear light, even insubstantial. The whole appears more as filigree work than as robust stone capable of supporting enormous weight to the column.

Figure 4. Ionic Capital, North Porch of the Erechtheion, Acropolis, Athens, marble, 421–407 BCE, British Museum

Compare the Hagia Sophia capital with a Classical Greek Ionic capital. Figure 4 shows one from the Greek Erechtheum on the Acropolis, Athens. The capital has abundant decoration but the treatment does not diminish the work performed by the capital. The lines between the two spirals dip, suggesting the weight carried while the spirals seem to show a pent-up energy that pushes the capital up to meet the entablature, the weight it holds. The capital is a working member and its design expresses the working in an elegant way.

Figure 5. Directly compare the basket and ionic capitals

A capital fragment on the grounds of Hagia Sophia illustrates the carving technique (figure 6). The stone is deeply drilled, creating shadows behind the vegetative decoration. The capital surface appears thin. The capital contradicts its task rather than expressing it.

Figure 6. Deep Carving of Capital Fragment, Hagia Sophia

This deep carving appears throughout Hagia Sophia’s capitals, spandrels, and entablatures. Everywhere we look stone visually denying its ability to do the work that it must do. The important point is that the decoration suggests that something other than sound building technique must be at work in holding up the building.

We know that the faithful attributed the structural success of Hagia Sophia to divine intervention. Nothing is more illustrative of the attitude than descriptions of the dome of Hagia Sophia. Procopius, biographer of the Emperor Justinian and author of a book on the buildings of Justinian is the first to assert that the dome hovered over the building by divine intervention.

The huge spherical dome [makes] the structure exceptionally beautiful. Yet it seems not to rest upon solid masonry, but to cover the space with its golden dome suspended from Heaven. (from “The Buildings” by Procopius, Loeb Classical Library, 1940, online at the University of Chicago Penelope project)

The description became part of the lore of the great church and is repeated again and again over the centuries. A look at the base of the dome helps explain the descriptions.

Figure 7. Hagia Sophia Dome, Semi-Dome and Cherubim

The windows at the bottom of the dome are closely spaced, visually asserting that the base of the dome is insubstantial and hardly touching the building itself. The building planners did more than squeeze the windows together, they also lined the jambs or sides of the windows with gold mosaic. As light hits the gold it bounces around the openings and eats away at the structure and makes room for the imagination to see a floating dome.

Figure 8. Windows at the Base of the Dome, Hagia Sophia

It would be difficult not to accept the fabric as consciously constructed to present a building that is dematerialized by common constructional expectation. Perception outweighs clinical explanation. To the faithful of Constantinople and its visitors, the building used divine intervention to do what otherwise would appear to be impossible. Perception supplies its own explanation: the dome is suspended from heaven by an invisible chain.

An old story about Hagia Sophia, a story that comes down in several versions, is a pointed explanation of the miracle of the church. So goes the story: A youngster was among the craftsmen doing the construction. Realizing a problem with continuing work, the crew left the church to seek help (some versions say they sought help from the Imperial Palace). The youngster was left to guard the tools while the workmen were away. A figure appeared inside the building and told the boy the solution to the problem and told the boy to go to the workmen with the solution. Reassuring the boy that he, the figure, would stay and guard the tools until the boy returned, the boy set off. The solution that the boy delivered was so ingenious that the assembled problem solvers realized that the mysterious figure was no ordinary man but a divine presence, likely an angel. The boy was sent away and was never allowed to return to the capital. Thus the divine presence had to remain inside the great church by virtue of his promise and presumably is still there. Any doubt about the steadfastness of Hagia Sophia could hardly stand in the face of the fact that a divine guardian watches over the church. [1]

Hagia Sophia sits astride an earthquake fault. The building was severely damaged by three quakes during its early history. Extensive repairs were required. Despite the repairs, one assumes that the city saw the survival of the church, amid city rubble, as yet another indication of divine guardianship of the church.

Extensive repair and restoration are ongoing in the modern period. We likely pride ourselves on the ability of modern engineering to compensate for daring 6th Century building technique. Both ages have their belief systems and we are understandably certain of the rightness of our modern approach to care of the great monument. But we must also know that we would be lesser if we did not contemplate with some admiration the structural belief system of the Byzantine Age.

Historical Outline

Isidore and Anthemius replaced the original 4th-century church commisioned byEmperor Constantine and a 5th-century structure that was destroyed during the Nika revolt of 532. The present Hagia Sophia or the Church of Holy Wisdom became a mosque in 1453 following the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans under Sultan Mehmed II. In 1934, Atatürk, founder of Modern Turkey, converted the mosque into a museum.

Hagia Sophia - HISTORY

• Sophia means Wisdom in Greek Language. When we translate the full name of Hagia Sophia to English it is Shrine of The Holy of God.

• Hagia Sophia was dedicated to Logos who was the second person in the Holy Trinity, in December 25th.

• There were two more Churches accepted as Church of Holy Wisdom, but only Hagia Sophia was not destroyed.

• The Alter, the bells, sacrificial vessels and iconostasis were all removed when the church was converted into a mosque.

• When Hagia Sophia was a church 50 foot silver iconostasis was decorating inside, now it is on display in the museum.

• Only Patheon in Rome has slightly bigger dome than the dome of Hagia Sophia in the world.

• Hagia Sophia was converted in to a museum in 1935 by the first President of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

• Eastern Orthodox Church focused on Hagia Sophia for 1000 years as an important place.

• The Blue Mosque and Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul were designed with an inspiration of Hagia Sophia.

• Hagia Sophia as a museum has both Christian and Islamic influences and features today.

• Hagia Sophia has 40 windows in the area where worshipers sit and it’s known as famous reflecting mystical light.

• When the dome of Hagia Sophia was placed, walls began to lean outward because of the weight. Then walls to support to dome were built.

• A mathematician, a Scientist and a physicist designed the Hagia Sophia.

• Many Christian mosaics and frescoes were plastered over when Hagia Sophia converted in to a mosque by Sultan Mehmed II.

• Hagia Sophia is visible from far miles distances because of its grandness.

• The stone cannonballs, which were used by Mehmet the Conqueror, are on display near the entrance of Hagia Sophia.

• Hagia Sophia is one of the most important buildings in Istanbul and needs some restorations and repairs.

• Hagia Sophia was constructed over fault line and earthquake can tear the structure down. It must be strengthened with some works.

• Some repairs in Hagia Sophia are going on today but definitely needs more financing.

December 1452

On 12 December 1452, Isidore of Kiev proclaimed in Hagia Sophia the long-anticipated ecclesiastical union between the western Catholic and eastern Orthodox Churches as decided at the Council of Florence and decreed by the papal bull Laetentur Caeli, though it would be short-lived. The union was unpopular among the Byzantines, who had already expelled the Patriarch of Constantinople, Gregory III, for his pro-union stance. A new patriarch was not installed until after the Ottoman conquest. According to the Greek historian Doukas, the Hagia Sophia was tainted by these Catholic associations, and the anti-union Orthodox faithful avoided the cathedral, considering it to be a haunt of demons and a "Hellenic" temple of Roman paganism. Doukas also notes that after the Laetentur Caeli was proclaimed, the Byzantines dispersed discontentedly to nearby venues where they drank toasts to the Hodegetria icon, which had, according to late Byzantine tradition, interceded to save them in the former sieges of Constantinople by the Avar Khaganate and the Umayyad Caliphate.

After the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, it was converted to a mosque by Mehmed the Conqueror. The patriarchate moved to the Church of the Holy Apostles, which became the city's cathedral. Although some parts of the city had fallen into disrepair, the cathedral had been maintained with funds set aside for this purpose, and the Christian cathedral made a strong impression on the new Ottoman rulers who conceived its conversion. The bells, altar, iconostasis, ambo and baptistery were removed and relics destroyed. The mosaics depicting Jesus, his mother Mary, Christian saints, and angels were eventually destroyed or plastered over. Islamic architectural features were added, such as a minbar (pulpit), four minarets, and a mihrab – a niche indicating the direction of prayer (qibla). From its initial conversion until the construction in 1616 of the nearby Sultan Ahmed Mosque, aka the Blue Mosque, it was the principal mosque of Istanbul. The Byzantine architecture of the Hagia Sophia served as inspiration for many other religious buildings from the Hagia Sophia, Thessaloniki and Panagia Ekatontapiliani to the Blue Mosque, the Şehzade Mosque, the Süleymaniye Mosque, the Rüstem Pasha Mosque and the Kılıç Ali Pasha Complex.

Following the building's conversion into a mosque in 1453, many of its mosaics were covered with plaster, due to Islam's ban on representational imagery. This process was not completed at once, and reports exist from the 17th century in which travellers note that they could still see Christian images in the former church. In 1847–1849, the building was restored by two Swiss-Italian Fossati brothers, Gaspare and Giuseppe, and Sultan Abdulmejid I allowed them to also document any mosaics they might discover during this process, which were later archived in Swiss libraries. This work did not include repairing the mosaics and after recording the details about an image, the Fossatis painted it over again. The Fossatis restored the mosaics of the two hexapteryga (singular Greek: ἑξαπτέρυγον, pr. hexapterygon, six-winged angel it is uncertain whether they are seraphim or cherubim) located on the two east pendentives, covering their faces again before the end of the restoration. The other two placed on the west pendentives are copies in paint created by the Fossatis since they could find no surviving remains of them. As in this case, the architects reproduced in paint damaged decorative mosaic patterns, sometimes redesigning them in the process. The Fossati records are the primary sources about a number of mosaic images now believed to have been completely or partially destroyed in the 1894 Istanbul earthquake. These include a mosaic over a now-unidentified Door of the Poor, a large image of a jewel-encrusted cross, and many images of angels, saints, patriarchs, and church fathers. Most of the missing images were located in the building's two tympana.

Hagia Sophia (/ˈhɑːɡiə soʊˈfiːə/ from Koinē Greek: Ἁγία Σοφία, romanized: Hagía Sophía Latin: Sancta Sophia, lit. 'Holy Wisdom' Turkish: Ayasofya), officially the Hagia Sophia Holy Grand Mosque (Turkish: Ayasofya-i Kebir Cami-i Şerifi), and formerly the Church of Hagia Sophia, is a Late Antique place of worship in Istanbul, designed by the Greek geometers Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles. Built in 537 as the patriarchal cathedral of the imperial capital of Constantinople, it was the largest Christian church of the eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine Empire) and the Eastern Orthodox Church, except during the Latin Empire from 1204 to 1261, when it became the city's Latin Catholic cathedral. In 1453, after the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire, it was converted into a mosque. In 1935, the secular Turkish Republic established it as a museum. In 2020, it re-opened as a mosque.

On this day in 532: Emperor Justinian orders the rebuilding of Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia, for almost 1,000 years was the largest Greek Orthodox Christian church in the world. Unfortunately nothing remains of the original Hagia Sophia, which was built in the fourth century by Constantine the Great.

Constantine was the first Christian emperor and the founder of the city of Constantinople, which he called “the New Rome.”

Hagia Sophia was one of several great churches he built in important cities throughout his empire.

Following the destruction of Constantine’s church, a second was built by his son Constantius and the emperor Theodosius the Great.

This second church was burned down during the Nika riots of 532, though fragments of it have been excavated and can be seen today.

Hagia Sophia was rebuilt in her present form between 532 and 537 under the personal supervision and order of Emperor Justinian I.

This order was given on February 23, 532.

It is one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture, rich with mosaics and marble pillars and coverings. After completion, Justinian is said to have exclaimed, Νενίκηκά σε Σολομών (“Solomon, I have outdone thee!”).

The architects of the church were Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, who were professors of geometry at the University of Constantinople.

Their work was a technical triumph, even though the structure was severely damaged several times by earthquakes.

The original dome collapsed after an earthquake in 558 and its replacement fell in 563. Steps were taken to better secure the dome, but there were additional partial collapses in 989 and 1346.

Justinian’s basilica was both the culminating architectural achievement of Late Antiquity and the first masterpiece of Byzantine architecture.

Its influence, both architecturally and liturgically, was widespread and enduring in the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Muslim worlds alike.

For over 900 years Hagia Sophia was the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople and a principal setting for church councils and imperial ceremonies.

In 1204 the cathedral was ruthlessly attacked, desecrated and plundered by the Crusaders, who also ousted the Patriarch of Constantinople and replaced him with a Latin bishop.

This event cemented the division of the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches that had begun with the Great Schism of 1054.

It also means that most of Hagia Sophia’s riches can be seen today not in Istanbul, but in the treasury of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice

Despite this violent setback, Hagia Sophia remained a functioning church until May 29, 1453, when Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror entered triumphantly into the city of Constantinople.

He was amazed at the beauty of Hagia Sophia and immediately converted it into his imperial mosque.

Hagia Sophia served as the principal mosque of Istanbul for almost 500 years. No major structural changes were made at first.

At some early point, all the faces depicted in the church’s mosaics were covered in plaster due to the Islamic prohibition of figurative imagery.

Various additions were made over the centuries by successive sultans.

Sultan Mehmed II built a madrasa (religious school) near the mosque and organised a waqf for its expenses.

Extensive restorations were conducted by Mimar Sinan during the rule of Selim II, including the original sultan’s loge and another minaret.

Mimar Sinan built the mausoleum of Selim II to the southeast of the mosque in 1577 and the mausoleums of Murad III and Mehmed III were built next to it in the 1600s.

Mahmud I ordered a restoration of the mosque in 1739 and added an ablution fountain, Koranic school, soup kitchen and library, making the mosque the centre of a social complex.

The most famous restoration of the Hagia Sophia was completed between 1847-49 by Abdülmecid II, who invited Swiss architects Gaspare and Guiseppe Fossati to renovate the mosque.

The brothers consolidated the dome and vaults, straightened columns and revised the decoration of the exterior and the interior.

The discovery of the figural mosaics after the secularisation of Hagia Sophia was guided by the descriptions of the Fossati brothers, who had uncovered them a century earlier for cleaning and recording.

The Fossatis also added the calligraphic roundels that remain today.

They were commissioned to calligrapher Kazasker Izzet Efendi and replaced older panels hanging on the piers.

In 1934, under Turkish president Kemal Atatürk, Hagia Sofia was secularised and turned into the Ayasofya Museum.

The prayer rugs were removed, revealing the marble beneath, but the mosaics remained largely plastered over and the building was allowed to decay for some time.

Some of the calligraphic panels were moved to other mosques, but eight roundels were left and can still be seen today.

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.

Greece and the world have strongly denounced the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

Despite international condemnation, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan led the first Muslim prayer in Hagia Sophia in 86 years on Friday, 24 July 202O.

Recognised as a ‘day of mourning’, the Greek Foreign Affairs Ministry called the conversion “a blow to humanity’s cultural heritage.”

Things to Explore Outside Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia - Hagia Sophia. Photo by Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho In addition to the interesting interior and exterior of Hagia Sophia, there are many other interesting things that you can explore outside of it. The church baptistery, the Sultans’ three mausoleums, and the remains of Theodosius’ Hagia Sophia are some of the things that must also be explored when visiting Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia: The History of the Building and the Building in History

Built between 532 and 537, Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom, Ayasofya) represents a brilliant moment in Byzantine architecture and art. It was the principal church of the Byzantine Empire in its capital, Constantinople (later Istanbul), and a mosque after the Ottoman Empire conquered the city in 1453. The decision of the Turkish government in 1934 to establish Ayasofya as a museum was intended to make it a repository of human history—all human history, not a single history confined to one religion or people. Recently, this decision was annulled, turning the building again into a mosque.

With the passage of time, Hagia Sophia has become deeply embedded in competing narratives of national, regional, religious, and cultural significance. Selective readings of cultural heritage, however, can effectively erase historical memory and sever links with the past. As a monument on the world stage, it should be allowed to maintain multiple meanings, to resonate with multiple narratives and histories for diverse audiences. This exceptional building belongs to world cultural heritage.

Between 1931 and 1949, work was undertaken by the Byzantine Institute of America (founded by Thomas Whittemore in 1930) to reveal and preserve the mosaics of Hagia Sophia. Dumbarton Oaks, with its legacy of displaying, studying, and publishing all aspects of Byzantium, assumed the oversight of the Hagia Sophia project in 1953 and since then has been documenting every facet of this building and its artistic and historical record. Dumbarton Oaks houses an exceptionally important archive of data on the building in all its significant dimensions. We are in the process of making freely available online the extensive body of sources from, documentation of, and scholarship on Hagia Sophia collected and generated by the Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks.

This introductory webinar brings together scholars who have actively promoted research on the Hagia Sophia and will cover historical facts, Dumbarton Oaks’ involvement, and the issues related to the recent reconversion of the monument.


Ioli Kalavrezou (Harvard University), “Dumbarton Oaks, Hagia Sophia, and Its Historical Mosaics”

Robert Nelson (Yale University), “Hagia Sophia: A Modern Monument?”

Bissera Pentcheva (Stanford University), “Hagia Sophia and the Liquidity of Light and Sound”

Tugba Tanyeri-Erdemir (University of Pittsburgh), “Reconquest of Hagia Sophia: Official Discourse and Popular Narratives”

Hagia Sophia Mosaics

Hagia Sophia was flawlessly brightened with mosaics inside the hundreds of years during the Byzantine period. These mosaics portrayed the Virgin Mary, Jesus, holy people and heads or rulers. The historical backdrop of the most punctual mosaics is obscure the same number of them were wrecked or secured during Iconoclasm. The known ones beginning from the restoration of conventionality and arrive at its tallness during the rules of Basil I and Constantine VII.

During the fourth campaign in 1204, Latin Crusaders sacked numerous Byzantine structures including Hagia Sophia. Numerous lovely mosaics were evacuated and dispatched to Venice. After the Ottoman control of Constantinople in 1453, with the change of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, the mosaics were secured whitewashed or put. With Fosatti siblings’ reclamation in 1847, the mosaics got revealed and were duplicated for the record.

In any case, despite everything they stayed secured until 1931 when a reclamation and recuperation program started under the authority of Thomas Whittemore. In 1934, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk requested that Hagia Sophia would turn into an exhibition hall, the recuperation and rebuilding extended at that point. In any case, a considerable lot of the extraordinary mosaics that Fosatti siblings recorded had vanished presumably with the tremor in 1894.

Hagia Sophia’s History

Hagia Sophia has experienced many construction processes from past to present. The first construction was started by Emperor Constantius in the Byzantine period. After this was finished, Hagia Sophia was opened for worshiping. The building was built on the Temple of Artemis with the name Hagia Sophia it was designed with a wooden roof and had traditional Latin architecture. When people began to rebel, Hagia Sophia was used for worship until it was looted.

Hagia Sophia was destroyed by rebellion then rebuilt by Theodosius II at its present location. The opening was on 10 October 415. This second Hagia Sophia was built by Architect Rofinos, but the building was destroyed during the Nika riot. After this building was destroyed in 532, Justinian I decided to build a much bigger and flashier building.

Physician Isidorus and mathematician Anthemus were architects. Legend has it that Justinian did not like any draft presented to him. But Isidorus drew a draft from a vision he saw in a dream and the Emperor admired this drawing, so he ordered the builders to work from this image.

The designed structure was huge, and because of that papering materials took time. They benefited from a temple on the grounds and sculpted products in those buildings. Egyptian Sun Temple and Ephesus Artemis Temple materials were used in this building. However, how it was all moved is still a matter of curiosity. Hagia Sophia was completed in 5 years and the first mosaics of it were made between the years 565-578. The magnificent temple also hosted the Byzantine coronation ceremonies at that time. An interesting fact is that, the dome of the temple was ruined in an earthquake in 10th. Century. The master architect of Ani in Kars, then called to repair the dome.

A detail from the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) interior.

During the Crusades, İstanbul and sacred relics were seized. After the invasion Hagia Sophia was converted into a cathedral connected to the Roman Catholic Church. When the Byzantines again seized Hagia Sophia in 1261, it was ruined. Although they tried to improve it over the years, the building never regained its former glory. After the Ottomans conquered Istanbul in 1453, Hagia Sophia Church was transformed into a mosque. Hagia Sophia was so important for Mehmet the Conqueror (Fatih Sultan Mehmet), and because of that, Mehmet did not change the name.

Hagia Sophia was supported by Selim II period, between 1566-1574. Sinan the Architect added arches and tombs to the building, together with some additional structures. One of the most prominent restorations in the Ottoman period was made by Fossati during the Sultan Abdulmecid period. Fossati revised the interior of the building and completely renovated the mosaics. Over time, though, and especially during the Ottoman decline, the building did not have such support. When there were wars, refugees took shelter in Hagia Sophia, and soldiers used it as a military base for a while.

Hagia Sophia interior at Istanbul Turkey – architecture background

Hagia Sophia was closed to public from 1930-1935 as restoration was done. Some work has been done on the buildings under the order of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Then, according to decision of the Council of Ministers, Hagia Sophia was converted to a museum. This building has witnessed many important periods of history. When you visit here today, you may feel like you are walking in the distant, distant past. Hagia Sophia gives a mystical atmosphere in Sultan Ahmet, in part because the building itself contains great mysteries. There is a coffin on the top of the middle gate. It was made of yellow brass and it is known that the coffin belonged to Queen Sophia. It is also believed that this coffin should never be touched because if someone does touch it, a great rumble and shake will begin. The angels on the four sides of the dome represent Raphael, Azrael, Michael, and Gabriel.

Hagia Sophia domes and minarets in the old town of Istanbul, Turkey, on sunset.

In the museum, there are also tombs, which hold the belongings of dead people. It is kind of a belief from the Ottoman period that tombs generally were made of velvet and the best clothes of dead people were hidden in there. One of the most important works in the museum is the Baptistery Pool. It resembles both the Eastern Roman and Christian Era artistic traits. You will see a column if you look inside the door when you count the doors from the right side in the direction of qibla in Hagia Sophia. The column is called “Wishing Stone” because it is wet in the summer and winter. It is believed that people with illnesses can find healing thanks to this column. You will see people putting their thumbs inside the hole and wishing.

Opening Ceremony of Hagia Sophia (G. Fossati)

You should definitely visit Hagia Sophia to discover the many mysteries that its history holds.


The third significance is religious. The Hagia Sophia is a Christian church and remains incomprehensible without that history. And history is about wars, conquests and state power.

That’s why the Pantheon in Rome is a Catholic church and not a pagan temple it’s why Westminster Abbey in London is Anglican not Catholic why Notre Dame in Paris is owned by the French government why Templo Mayor in Mexico City is a archaeological museum and not a site of Aztec sacrifice and why, most relevant of all, there is a Muslim shrine — the Dome of the Rock — on the holiest place for Jews, the Temple Mount.

Some of these historical settlements I favour some I would like to see reversed. Yet the reversals that would please me — such as seeing Christian worship again in the Hagia Sophia — are not options today. One learns to live with the verdicts of history, which do not much concern themselves with justice.

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