Hagia Sophia is simply one of the most important architectural wonders ever built in the world. It remained as the world’s biggest monotheistic temple for 1000 years. Hagia Sophia served as a church for 900 years, and as a mosque for 500 years and then as a museum for 85 years. However, it was converted to a mosque again in July 2020.
As an experienced tour guide who has assisted various local and foreign visitors who visit Hagia Sophia, I will try to provide short pieces of information about the history of Hagia Sophia and its architectural features. As Hagia Sophia is a mosque now, there is no entrance fee anymore and it can be visited outside prayer hours like other mosques in Istanbul.
Hagia Sophia is 1500 years old today and is located in Sultanahmet. However, the Hagia Sophia we know today is not the first building built in the same place. In the rest of the article, you can read the facts about the history of three different Hagia Sophia built in the same place. You can also find information about Hagia Sophia architecture and mosaics.
The History of Hagia Sophia
The history of Hagia Sophia and Istanbul is intermingled. We need to go into a little detail to fully understand the facts about the history of Hagia Sophia. You will be informed of Hagia Sophia’s function as a church and a mosque later in history. Enjoy!
1. Hagia Sophia during Emperor Constantine
The first Hagia Sophia was built by Emperor Constantine who declared Istanbul as the capital of the Roman Empire. There was already a church in the area named Hagia Irene and it was combined with Hagia Sophia and the new structure was named Megale Ekklesia (Great Church). As it was a huge project, Emperor Constantine the Great couldn’t live to see the end of it and it was completed by his son Constantius II.
However, Hagia Sophia, built during the reign of Emperor Constantine, was destroyed in a rebellion. Empress Aelia Eudoxia, the wife of Emperor Arcadius, erected a silver sculpture of hers in front of the church. This wasn’t taken well by John Chrysostom, the archbishop of Constantinople.
The archbishop was against the arrogance and lavish lifestyle of the Empress and he expressed his feelings in his sermons. However, this led to his exile and the treatment of the archbishop by the Emperor provoked the public. A rebellion broke out and the church was burnt down in the meantime.
2. Hagia Sophia during Theodosius II
Emperor Theodosius II began the construction of a new church. This new Hagia Sophia made entirely of stone and marble was a beautiful monument but it became the victim of another rebellion 100 years after it was built. At this point, I need to provide more details about this revolt as it was a cornerstone for the history of Hagia Sophia.
Justinian’s Ascension to The Throne
Justinian I ascended the throne in 527 and he was quite a powerful ruler. He wanted the Roman Empire to gain its former fame and glory back. He also wanted to be remembered victorious like the legendary Julius Caesar and Augustus. As an Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor, he spent his life conquering Europe again and he became partially successful and took Italy and parts of Spain back.
Justinian ruled the empire for 38 years from 527 to 565 and he symbolizes the empire’s strongest era. Under his reign, the Eastern Roman Empire reached its widest borders and he built spectacular monuments. However, it was not easy for Justinian to earn these achievements. Because he was almost killed in a revolt that broke out in the fifth year of his reign.
Nika Revolt against Justinian
The ambitious Justinian’s relationship with the Blues and the Greens, two important teams of the city, was with ups and downs. The chariot races held at Hippodrome of Constantinople was more than a sporting event. These teams represented the public and they had followers like modern political parties today.
Justinian had good relations with the Blues before he ascended the throne. However, he shut off both teams after he became the emperor and limited their power. The leaders of both teams were arrested and the followers of both teams went wild.
January 13, 532 looked no different than any other day. However, the spectators rebelled during the chariot races. Justinian, who was also present at the Hippodrome, was shocked by what he saw. Tens of thousands of supporters, normally opposed to each other, united and insulted the emperor.
General Belisarius Suppresses the Rebellion
The rebellion that broke out at the Hippodrome lasted for days and it spread all over the city. It was so powerful that Justinian almost fled the city. However, he was persuaded to stay by Theodora, the most important Empress in the history of the Byzantine Empire.
Justinian was helpless as his army was away on a military campaign. He organized the guards of the palace and let Belisarius, who was going to become the brightest general in the Byzantium, lead it. While Belisarius and Mundus were attacking the Hippodrome, a third general named Narses was hunting the escapers.
At Hippodrome, 30,000 rebels were put to the sword. No matter how painful it was, this rebellion was the beginning of something new. All the buildings that were burnt down by the rebels were rebuilt later, including Hagia Sophia and Hagia Irene.
3. Hagia Sophia during Emperor Justinian
Emperor Justinian came alive out of the rebellion and he was able to protect his reign. However, he took a huge hit and it shook his fame and authority. He needed to make a move that regain the public’s respect. Therefore, he began rebuilding Hagia Sophia and he appointed Anthemius and Isidore, the two brightest mathematicians back then.
The origins of these two scientists were in the ancient cities in the west of Anatolia. Anthemius was already the senior architect of the palace. Under the patronage of Empress Theodora, he had built the church of Sergius and Bacchus. This church is known as Little Hagia Sophia because of its similarity to Hagia Sophia.
When the experience of Anthemius in architecture and the genius of the great master Isidore met, Hagia Sophia as we know it today was built. The architects had to build a long-lasting monument in Istanbul, which is actually in an earthquake zone. In addition to this hardship, working for a highly ambitious emperor as Justinian was a tough job itself. Moreover, Justinian wanted this project to be finalized in a few years.
The Architecture of Hagia Sophia
The architecture of Hagia Sophia holds a special place in the history of architecture. The architects of this monument planned a 32 meters diameter dome which was 49 meters from the ground. However, the weight of such a giant dome was a big problem.
According to some historians, to build a light structure, all bricks were made of volcanic rocks. And the volcanic materials were brought from Rhodes. A new type of mortar was used to stick the bricks together. This mortar has kept Hagia Sophia together for 1500 years now.
No matter how wide the central dome of Hagia Sophia, it wasn’t going to reflect the glory of the monument it should have. Therefore, something unprecedented was made to make the central area look much wider than it was. A half-dome on each side of the central dome was built and, therefore, an area for two domes was saved by building one full and two half domes.
These two half domes created a huge space and they supported the central dome that put pressure on the sides. And these half domes were supported by some quarter domes which now cover the main walls like an elegant curtain.
1. Early Church Architecture in Christianity
As you see in the image above, the central dome is supported by two half domes on the west and the east side. Therefore, the basilica plan of early church architecture in Christianity was preserved.
Basilicas were the first churches built in the Roman Empire and they were rectangular. If there was only one central dome, it would be a square shape. However, the architectural plan of Hagia Sophia, where a central dome is supported by two half domes, made the practice of prayers associated with Basilica possible.
2. The Flying Buttresses
The pressure by the central dome on the half domes in the western-eastern direction caused big problems in time. In the Late Byzantine Empire era, Hagia Sophia began to lean towards the west, thus, the flying buttresses were built to support the building.
The same problem occurred in the east during the Ottoman Empire era. However, huge buttresses built by Mimar Sinan has enabled the monument to stay strong so far. These buttresses can be seen on the road to Topkapi Palace.
3. The Dome of Hagia Sophia
The construction of Hagia Sophia began in 532 and it was completed in 537. The biggest monument ever built back then was completed at a record speed.
However, the fact that Istanbul is in an earthquake zone created problems. The dome of Hagia Sophia fell in a huge earthquake that happened in 558 and it also led to the destruction of one of the half domes with it.
Even though Emperor Justinian was alive, the old architects of Hagia Sophia were already dead. There was an architect who was the nephew of Isidore of Miletus and he followed his uncle’s architectural teachings. Therefore, the “Young Isidore” was given the task to repair the dome of Hagia Sophia.
Young Isidore didn’t hurry to finish the job and he built a very strong dome in 4 years. The height of the dome jumped to 56 meters from the original 49 meters. Young Isidore built the new dome with lighter bricks and he added 40 windows to it. As a result, the dome he repaired still stands after 1500 years.
4. Interesting Facts About Hagia Sophia
There are interesting facts about Hagia Sophia, although its accuracy has not been proven. The most interesting of these is the claim that 8 giant columns in the center of Hagia Sophia were brought from the famous Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.
According to another claim, Justinian shouted “I surpassed you, Solomon” at the opening of Hagia Sophia. The emperor refers to the famous Temple of Solomon in ancient times.
One of the most interesting claims about Hagia Sophia’s architecture is related to the mortar of the building. According to some experts, a mortar that gets stronger over time has been invented. Just like the Greek fire, no one knows the formula for it.
5. Hagia Sophia in the Ottoman Period
Hagia Sophia was an important church in the Byzantine era. The people took refuge under Hagia Sophia’s dome against earthquakes, storms and sieges. It was believed that the angels around the dome protected the city. Hagia Sophia stayed as the center of the religious life in the Byzantine Empire throughout the Middle Age and it was naturally associated with such myths.
Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque after Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. Just like the Byzantine period, it was loved by the people of the city. Hagia Sophia remained the most important mosque in Istanbul throughout the Ottoman period. Palace architects such as Mimar Sinan made restorations to preserve it.
Sultan Mehmed II and his successors who followed him showed great respect to Hagia Sophia and prayed there on special occasions. While taking a tour in Hagia Sophia, you can see marble jars brought by Murad III from Pergamon, the library constructed by Mahmud I and huge chandeliers installed by Suleiman the Magnificent.
6. Sultan’s Tombs in the Courtyard
Another sign of the importance attributed to Hagia Sophia by the Ottoman Sultans is the sultan’s tombs in the courtyard. Selim II, the son of Suleiman the Magnificent and a few sultans were buried here. Traditionally, if Ottoman Sultans built a mosque, they would be buried there when they died. However, although Selim II built Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, he preferred to be buried at Hagia Sophia.
Selim II, who succeeded Suleiman the Magnificent, was usually overshadowed by his father. However, although it’s not widely-known, he was the sultan who made it possible that Hagia Sophia still stands today. Various structures and coffee houses around Hagia Sophia were removed and a protection wall was built around Hagia Sophia under his reign. He also built flying buttresses to Hagia Sophia, which was leaning towards the east, and supported it.
You can visit the tombs of sultans on the way to Topkapi Palace after you visit Hagia Sophia. And there is no entrance fee to visit this section. One of these tombs was built by Mimar Sinan and it reflects the most elegant examples of Iznik tile art.
The Mosaics in Hagia Sophia
There are magnificent Byzantine mosaics made between the 9th and 13th centuries in Hagia Sophia. The mosaics in Hagia Sophia were temporarily covered with plaster during the Ottoman period. While it was converted into a museum in the Republican era, the mosaics were also opened. Although Hagia Sophia has been converted back into a mosque since 2020, the mosaics can still be seen.
1. Mosaic of Leo VI the Wise
The Mosaic of Leo VI the Wise, which adorns the Imperial Gate of Hagia Sophia, actually symbolizes a sad story. According to the story, Emperor Leon was married three times, but each time his wife died of various illnesses. When he wants to marry for the fourth time, he encounters the opposition of the Byzantine clergy.
He makes great efforts to win the favor of the church and the people. As a symbol of this goodwill, a mosaic is placed on the imperial door. Eventually, Emperor Leo gets married once again despite the difficulties.
2. Mosaic of Virgin Mary and Child
The mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Child in the apse is the oldest mosaic in Hagia Sophia. In the Byzantine Empire, there was a period called Iconoclasm that lasted between 726 and 842. During this period, the Byzantine emperors regarded the images as heresy and destroyed all the mosaics, icons and frescoes within the empire’s borders.
The iconoclasm, which continued during the Isaurian dynasty, ended with the Macedonian dynasty. The first mosaic made at the end of this period was the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus mosaic, located above the apse in the main space of Hagia Sophia.
3. Deesis Mosaic
Deisis Mosaic is the most famous mosaic in Hagia Sophia. It is considered to be the pinnacle of Byzantine art. In the center of the mosaic can be seen Jesus, on the left the Virgin Mary and on the right, John the Baptist.
On the Day of Judgment, Mary and John ask Jesus to forgive people’s sins. Deesis composition is common in Byzantine art and depicts a very touching moment.
4. Empress Zoe Mosaic
Empress Zoe Mosaic represents a controversial period in Byzantine history. Empress Zoe’s father died without an heir. Zoe marries Romanos III, whom her father willed. But then he falls in love with someone else. Her first husband is found mysteriously dead in the bathroom! Thus Zoe marries her lover Michael IV.
However, her second husband also dies of an illness. This time he marries Constantine Monomachus, a handsome bureaucrat. The mosaic was allegedly made to commemorate Zoe’s first marriage. However, the former emperor’s face was scraped off and replaced with the face of Constantine IX.
5. Mosaic of Komnenos Family
The mosaic of Komnenos family was made to immortalize the donation made by the emperor and his wife to the church. On the left is the Emperor John II Komnenos and on the right is his wife Eirene, daughter of the Hungarian King. On the far right of the Komnenos mosaic, his sons and heir to the throne Alexios can be seen.
6. Justinian and Constantine Mosaic
Famous emperors Justinian and Constantine mosaic is above the old exit door of Hagia Sophia. (When it was converted into a mosque, it became the main entrance).
On the right, Constantine the Great presents his masterpiece Constantinople to the Virgin Mary and Jesus. On the left, Justinian presents his masterpiece, Hagia Sophia, to Mary and Jesus.
Although they appear to be holding a model in their hands, the mosaic symbolizes their sacred mission. Hagia Sophia, the Holy Church in Byzantine history, and Constantinople, the Holy City, are presented to their true owners in the heavens.
The mosaic was built long after the death of Constantine who lived in the 300’s and Justinian who lived in the 500’s. It is in perfect condition for a 1000-year-old mosaic dating to the 10th century.
Hagia Sophia History, Architecture, Facts by Serhat Engul