The Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) is among Istanbul’s most famous and fascinating monuments. This ‘church of divine wisdom’ was inaugurated by Emperor Justinian on 26 December 537, converted into a mosque in 1453 and declared a museum in 1934.
It is among the world’s greatest architectural achievements, in particular famous for its massive dome, and considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture.
Third church on exact same spot
The current building was constructed on the site of Byzantium’s acropolis, at the exact same spot where two earlier Hagia Sophias stood. The first was built as a traditional Latin colonnade basilica with galleries and a timber roof, inaugurated on 15 February 360 by Constantius II. It burned down during a riot in 404.
Theodosius II, who inaugurated it on 10 October 405, commissioned the second version. It burned down to the ground during the Nika riots in 532, leaving only several marble blocks which can still be seen in the garden of today’s version.
Only a few days after the destruction of the second Hagia Sophia, Emperor Justinian decided to build the current version, which had to be larger and more majestic than its predecessors.
Justinian’s cathedral dwarfed all other buildings and was topped by the largest dome ever constructed. A record it held until the arrival of Michelangelo’s dome on top of the St. Peter’s Basilica. When I entered the Hagia Sophia’s nave for the first time, I was caught breathless and must have looked perplexed.
Breathless because this enormous dome (31,24 meters) sits 55,6 meters above your head. It was once covered with 30 million gold mosaic tiles and is currently decorated with Koranic inscriptions. Perplexed since this vast dome seems rendered weightless by the unbroken
arcade of 40 arched windows under it. An architectural achievement that remains unequaled.
The original dome collapsed completely during the earthquake of 7 May 558. The emperor ordered an immediate restoration, and lighter materials were used. It was so thin that the hundreds of candles hung high within the Hagia Sophia would cause it to glow at night.
Throughout history, the church needed several extra reinforcement and restorations, not in the least after the great fire of 859 and the earthquakes in 869 and 989.
The Fourth Crusade
The Hagia Sophia was the seat of the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople. The church was also home to a vast amount of relics, such as a stone of the tomb of Jesus, the lance that pierced Jesus’ side, the shroud of Jesus, fragments of the True Cross, St Thomas’ doubting finger and bones of several saints. All of this was lost with the capture of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, when the Hagia Sophia was looted and desecrated.
Thanks to the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, further demolition of the Hagia Sophia was avoided. It was lost to Christianity though, because Sultan Mehmet II ordered the immediate cleanup of the church and had it converted into a mosque. The Christian mosaics were plastered over and minarets were added, of which two by the architect Sinan. The only two of the four minarets that are matching.
Other additions include colossal candles (flanking the mihrab) Suleiman the Magnificent brought back from his conquest of Hungary, eight calligraphic roundels, the sultan’s gallery, a minbar, two immense Hellenistic urns, a medrese, a library and a fountain for ritual ablutions (Şadırvan).
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder and first president of the Turkish Republic, transformed the Hagia Sophia into a museum. The plastered over extraordinary interior mosaics, accidentally discovered during renovations in the 19th century, are slowly but surely restored.
The first of the surviving Byzantine mosaics can be seen over the Imperial Gate, showing Christ on a throne with an emperor kneeling beside him.
Still on the ground floor, there is the beautiful mosaic of the Virgin with Constantine and Justinian. It shows Mary seated on a throne holding the infant Jesus and flanked by two of the greatest emperors of the city.
A ramp leads from the ground floor to the gallery, where you can find the mosaics of Emperor Alexander holding a skull, the Virgin holding Christ flanked by Emperor John II Comnenus and Empress Irene, Christ with Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus and Empress Zoe, the Virgin with the infant Jesus on her lap, the archangels Gabriel and Michael, portraits of saints, the Deesis mosaic and the ones of the six-winged seraphim.
On July 10 2020, a Turkish court annulled the 1934 decree by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk which turned the mosque into a museum. This paved the way for president Erdoğan to order the conversion of the historic Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage site, back into a mosque. He therefore signed a decree to transfer the management of the site from the Ministry of Culture to the Presidency of Religious Affairs. On Friday July 24 it will open its doors for prayers.
It remains to be seen what the effect of these changes will be for tourists. Normally, a mosque is publicly available for tourists outside of prayer times, free of charge, just like the Blue Mosque right across the square. But it remains to be seen whether entrance fees will indeed be lifted.
Unfortunately, necessary restoration of the Hagia Sophia seems to be a never-ending story, so be prepared to see scaffolding.