Hagia Sophia, Exterior

Hagia Sophia, Exterior

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How Hagia Sophia has evolved over its long history?

he lofty minarets of the Hagia Sophia stand over the skyline of Istanbul, Turkey. The magnificent stone basilica has been a fixture of the ancient city for 1,500 years—with frequent additions and renovations.

The spiritual structure has survived empires and transitioned religions. What began as an early Christian basilica eventually became a mosque, then a museum, and is now once more a mosque.

An architectural wonder, the Hagia Sophia (meaning “holy wisdom” in Greek) has a fascinating history and is a favorite attraction for tourists and the faithful. The building has seen crusades, world wars, and vast political shifts, but its legacy is central to both the history of Turkey and the world.

Second Hagia Sophia

After the first church was destroyed during the riots, the emperor II. Theodosius gave the order to build a second church where today’s Hagia Sophia is located, and the opening of the Second Hagia Sophia took place on October 10, 415, in his time. This Second Hagia Sophia, built by the architect Rufinos, was also basilica planned, wooden roofed and five naves.

It is believed that the Second Hagia Sophia hosted the First Istanbul Council, which became the Second Ecumenical Council in 381, together with Hagia Eirene. This structure was destroyed on 13-14 January 532 during the Nika uprising.

In 1935, in the west courtyard of the building (today’s entrance), A.M. Many finds belonging to this Second Hagia Sophia were found during the excavations carried out by Schneider.

Today, these finds, which can be seen next to the main entrance of Hagia Sophia and in the garden, are the remains of porticoes, columns, capitals, and marble blocks, some of which are carved with reliefs. These were found to be parts of the triangular pediment that once decorated the facade of the building. The reliefs of lamb in a block that adorns the facade of the building were made to represent 12 apostles. In addition, the excavations revealed that the floor of the Second Hagia Sophia was located two meters lower than the floor of the Third Hagia Sophia. Although the length of the Second Hagia Sophia is unknown, it is believed to be 60 m wide. not.)


Hagia Sophia is covered by a central dome with a diameter of 31 meters (102 feet), 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: four concave triangular sections of masonry which solve the problem of setting the circular base of a dome on a rectangular base. In 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 western (entrance) and eastern (liturgical) ends, the arched openings are extended by 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.

The structure has been severely damaged several times by earthquakes. The dome collapsed after an earthquake in 558 its replacement fell in 563. There were additional partial collapses in 989 and 1346.

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.

Hagia Sophia, a description about history and architecture, as well as an architectural analysis of the interior/exterior. Bibliography included (Tyrabian format footnotes)

When one thinks of the Church of Hagia Sophia, the firist thing that comes to mind is the large dome, spacious interior and elaborate decoration. Whatever happened to it's many uses? And how it is the second largest Byzantine dome standing today, or the fact that it was burnt down twice before they figured out that wood wasn't an archaic building material? These points, along with an architectural description will accompany this paper.

Hagia Sophia is located in Constantinople, or, modern day Istanbul, but it was always as beautiful as we can see today in the 21st century. The first "Great Church" was dedicated by Constantius on February 15, 360, and was later dedicated to the "Immortal Wisdom of Christ" (footnote). Just forst four years later in June of 404, the original church was burned down by a riotous mob. Thisd was not the only time the Great Church was burned.

Again in 532, the Nika Riots brought Hagia Sophia to the ground for the last time.

When Justinian took the thrown, he undertook the great rebuilding of the Great Church. According to Procopius, he remarks that Justinian "gathered together all skilled workmen from the whole earth. there were a hundred foremen" (footnote).

The Great Church of Hagia Sophia was used as more than just a Christian place of worship. This church was utilized by the Muslims, Catholics and the Orthodox. Built by Anthemios of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, Hagia Sophia remains as one of the largest man-made structures in the world. The original materials used in the first structure were wood, even for the dome. The structure was a basilican plan, and was to include a wooden roof and dome. These materials may have seemed useful and archaic at the time of Constantius, but were.

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Conversion of Hagia Sophia back into a mosque

  • In July 2020, Erdoğan announced that Hagia Sophia will be changed back into a mosque. This was following a court ruling that found its conversion into a museum was unlawful as it violated the will of its endower, Sultan Mehmet (Muhammad al-Fatih).
  • When Constantinople was conquered, the Sultan remunerated for the property with his own money and the ownership was given to Muslims as a permanent endowment. A copy of the title deeds is below.

References: The rough guide to Istanbul, All of Istanbul, Wikipedia



The exterior masonry comprises bricks sunk in thick beds of mortar with walls reinforced by small stone blocks. The central plan of the building has the shape of an octagon inscribed in a non-uniform quadrilateral. It is capped by a majestic dome in sixteen sections with alternating eight flat and eight concave sections, standing on eight polygonal pillars.

The narthex lies on the west side opposite to antechoir while the central nave is expanded by the exedrae on diagonal axes. Colorful columns adorned the ambulatories from the nave and a light and shadow contrast on the sculpture of capitals and entablature. In the front of the building lies the portico which replaced the atrium and a court with a small garden. The area also includes a fountain for the ablutions and several small shops.

Little Hagia Sophia Inside of Little Hagia Sophia Inside Top Little Hagia Sophia
Little Hagia Sophia Entrance Little Hagia Sophia Exterior Little Hagia Sophia Inside Dome
Little Hagia Sophia Inside Little Hagia Sophia Interior Little Hagia Sophia Pictures


Its interior comprises a two-storey colonnade running along the north, west, and south, bearing a graceful inscription in twelve Greek hexameters dedicated to the Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora, and Saint Sergius, the patron-saint of the soldiers of the Roman army. The columns are made of alternating verd antique and red Synnada marble – 16 in the lower story and 18 in the upper. Many column capitals still contain the monograms of Justinian and Theodora.

The original interior decoration of the church was lost after the building got transformed into a mosque.

Of Domes and Minarets- Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia, opulent, iconic and radiating with colorful history, stands within a skyline of domes and minarets in Istanbul, Turkey.

The distinctive skyline influenced by centuries of religion and culture is pronounced with architectural features from Byzantine and Islamic architecture.

The dome, an architectural element dating back to prehistory, was very popular during the Byzantine Empire. During Emperor Justinian I reign, Hagia Sophia was an original plan derived from the typical basilica plan with dome and semi-domes.

Hagia Sophia has one the largest masonry domes in the world over 100 feet in diameter and was for a time the largest cathedral in the world.

Hagia Sophia’s dome is located at the center of the structure and is supported by four pendentives. The pendentives distribute the weight of the dome to the walls and allows for a transition from a square to a circular shape.

The Islamic features of Hagia Sophia include mihrab, minbar and the symbolic four minarets. The minarets were constructed for notifications of prayer and announcements. In general, minarets are usually taller than the ,main structure and provide a focal point. Minaret in Arabic means beacon or lighthouse.

The minarets of Hagia Sophia were renovated and even rebuilt numerous times over the centuries in response to deterioration, destruction and aesthetic reasons. Three minarets were constructed from limestone and sandstone. The fourth was constructed from red brick.

My favorite interior feature Hagia Sophia besides the grandeur of the architecture was the detail of the golden mosaics. Many of the mosaics were either covered up with plaster, destroyed by earthquakes or are in a state of deterioration.

If you would like read more about my experience in Istanbul, please read Spanning Two Continents in Istanbul, Turkey.

All photos by author unless otherwise noted

Featured Image:Exterior view of Hagia Sophia from the Blue Archeological Park

Hagia Sophia: History, Legacy, Controversy

As the old song says, Istanbul was Constantinople. (It was also Byzantium, but our story begins a couple centuries after this first – and less famous – name change.) Few remnants remain in Turkey’s largest city from this earlier period. There are ancient cisterns that helped sustain the city through numerous sieges, and some wall fragments. There is also a huge structure, Turkey’s most visited icon (at least until recently), called the Hagia Sophia. This article is its story.

The Hagia Sophia as seen from the water. Thank you to my mom for this shot!

Built by the Roman Emperor Justinian I in the year 537, the Hagia Sophia was envisioned as the Capitol of Christianity in the Eastern Roman Empire. At the time the largest church in the world (until the Seville Cathedral was constructed in 1520), and the building with the largest interior space in the world, it was also the very first building constructed with a pendentive dome (a circular dome over and square room), something that would become known as the Byzantine style. Sophia in its name refers to the Latin word for wisdom, not to the Saint.

For nearly a thousand years, the Hagia Sophia was the center of the Eastern Orthodox Church. And then, in 1453, Constantinople, the last holdout of the Roman Empire, was conquered by the Ottoman Turks under Mehmed the Conqueror. The new tenants removed the relics from the cathedral, plastered over the building’s mosaics (depictions of people are not allowed under Islam), and converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Four minarets were built, and the altar’s location was moved slightly off-center to face Mecca. After a millennium of being the world’s largest cathedral, the Hagia Sophia became one of the largest mosques, serving as the central mosque for the city until the 1616 completion of the Blue Mosque, just across a central square.

The main facade of the Hagia Sophia. The Blue Mosque is behind the photographer

The Hagia Sophia served as a working mosque until 1931, when it was closed. It reopened in 1935 as a secular museum, twelve years after the founding of the modern state of Turkey as a secular republic. Its mosaics were uncovered, remarkably well preserved under their plaster and, while Islamic iconography was kept as a reminder of the more recent past, religious functions were no longer held. And so it was until last year.

I visited Istanbul in 2009, my embarkation point for a cruise that took me through much of the Mediterranean to Barcelona. The city enchanted me, an incredible mixture of European and Asian, as befitting the city that sits astride this divide. But perhaps nothing captured my heart more than the Hagia Sophia, the first place I just had to see upon my arrival. The building is massive, shockingly open and airy for its 6th century construction. Walking around both outside and inside gives one a sense of smallness and irrelevance, similar to the feeling one gets staring at the infinite blue of the ocean.

Inside, marble dominates much of the construction. Likewise, marble elements are found all around, like the huge ritual urns added to the building under Sultan Murad III. For many, though, the highlights are the mosaics of the upper floor, added between the 10th and 12th centuries. These mosaics had been plastered over when the building was turned into a working mosque, as Islam bans representational imagery (as does Judaism), and were uncovered in the 1930s as the site was concerted into the secular museum I saw in 2009.

One of the uncovered mosaics

It is this secular state of being that is, for me, the true legacy of the Hagia Sophia. In a city that has been Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Turkish – and likewise pagan, Christian, and Muslim – the Hagia Sophia has elements of all of these. Christian mosaic and Muslim geometric designs sit inside a building modeled after a pagan temple. A Byzantine dome tops a room with Hellenistic marble columns, the complex flanked by Ottoman minarets. The Hagia Sophia stands at the intersection of all of these complex legacies, and as such, surpasses them all, a tribute to the vision of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who dreamt that Turkey would be a secular republic sitting at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

Christian altar on the left, Muslim on the right

Ataturk’s dream, however, is now in jeopardy. In 2020, Turkey’s Council of State under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered the Hagia Sophia to be reclassified as a mosque, and to begin holding prayer services once again. While he maintains that the building will still be open to those of all religious backgrounds, some major questions have arisen. What does this mean for the Christian elements of the building, and specifically the mosaics? Early reports are that the mosaics have been veiled rather than removed or re-plastered over, but it is unclear whether those veils are removed between services, or what the long-term plans are. (If you have been to the Hagia Sophia since this conversion, please report back, as Covid has drastically limited the number of tourists and I have seen no definitive answer.) More importantly, what does the conversion of a secular museum to working mosque mean for the future of a secular Turkey? For seventy years, Turkey stood as an example of a country of mainly Muslims by practice, but with a government that treated all as equal under the law. Turkey prided itself on looking westward, and gazing to the future rather than the past. Is that still to be the case? Only time will tell.

While its future is shrouded in a bit of doubt, there is no question that the Hagia Sophia’s past leaves it as one of the most consequential structures in history, and the crowning gem of one of the most storied cities on the planet. In this single building, two of the world’s great religions collide, as do several empires and some of the most famous figures in Eurasian lore. It will continue to be a wonder, even if it will no longer be the wonder I fell in love with.

What's the history?

The iconic, domed building sits in Istanbul's Fatih district, on the west bank of the Bosporus, overlooking the Golden Horn harbour.

Hagia Sophia's complex history began almost 1,500 years ago, when Byzantine emperor Justinian built the huge church in the year 537.

In 1453, in a devastating blow to the Byzantines, Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II captured Istanbul (formerly known as Constantinople) and Hagia Sophia - an Orthodox Christian cathedral - was converted into a mosque for Friday prayers.

Four minarets were added to the exterior, wclerichile ornate Christian icons and gold mosaics were covered with panels of Arabic religious calligraphy.

After centuries at the heart of the Muslim Ottoman empire, it was turned into a museum in 1934 in a drive to make Turkey more secular.

It has since become one of its most popular tourist sites, receiving more than 3.7 million visitors last year.

Although it has had a small prayer room since 1991, and calls to the faithful have been heard before, Friday's event is the first mass prayers inside the site since the 1930s.

Watch the video: Hagia Sophias church in the byzantine time. (May 2022).