I can’t remember the first time I learned about Hagia Sophia, but this magnificent structure has been on my mind ever since.
The incredible jewel of Byzantium, the precious possession of emperors, a building so beautiful that it became the model for many other less grandiose creations.
How intriguing to learn about it’s history, the different functions it has served, the different architectural elements that form it, the different faiths that have claimed it…
What is Hagia Sophia?
Hagia Sophia is a church, turned mosque, turned museum, in Istanbul, Turkey.
But expanding on that simplistic statement, so much has happened to it over time that it has become one of the most exquisite examples of art and architecture of two very different cultures, Christian and Muslim.
What does Hagia Sophia mean?
It means “Saint Sophia”, but not Sophia as a name like Sophie, but meaning “wisdom” in Greek.
In other words the true meaning is “The Church of the Holy Wisdom”, dedicated to Christ as the second person of the Holy Trinity and the reason.
In Turkish it’s called Ayasofya.
A bit of history
The structure we see today is actually the third church, though all three of them have been located on this very spot.
The first Hagia Sophia was likely commissioned by Constantine I The Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome (The one to whom the triumphal arch next to the Colosseum is dedicated).
During the East Roman Empire Hagia Sophia was the epicenter and main church of Rome and the Christian cult in the (then) city of Constantinople, the Vatican of its day.
It was inaugurated in February of 360 during the reign of Constantine’s son Constantius II.
Time went on and that first basilica got destroyed in riots. The second church was commissioned by Emperor Theodosius II and was inaugurated in October of 415. It was destroyed in another riot in 532.
A few remains of this second basilica can still be seen on the west side of Hagia Sophia, near the current entrance.
Then Emperor Justinian I decided to build a new basilica, larger and more impressive than the previous two with the help of physicist Isidore of Miletus and mathematician Anthemius of Tralles acting as architects.
The new Hagia Sophia was inaugurated on December 27th, 537, five years after the work started.
The Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople had its seat at Hagia Sophia and a it became the place Byzantine ceremonies, such as emperor coronations.
The walls were either covered in marble or covered in lavish mosaics of the most exquisite color and craftsmanship.
Throughout the years the basilica suffered many damages due to earthquakes, failure of some of the structures and riots.
Almost every Christian feature was removed or plastered over and new Islamic features were installed.’’
Remember, Islam does not allow the use of icons or human representations of saints of any kind. Instead floral and calligraphic motifs are used.
In 1935 Hagia Sophia was re-opened as a museum.
The basilica is a dramatic change from those built until that point. It is basic basilica plan, with a central nave and one aisle on each side.
The faithful gathered in the aisles on the ground level and the galleries on the second level and the central space was reserved for clergy and the Emperor.
This central space is crowned by a magnificent dome, with one smaller semi-dome at the west side and another semi-dome at the east side.
Only two of them are original and only one shows his face after being uncovered during restoration.
Hagia Sophia’s main features
First of all, I have taken (for educational purposes) a floorplan of Hagia Sophia that I found in Wikipedia (created by someone named Gothika) and adapted it to include the elements we’re going to discuss.
Click here to download a hi-res PDF printable version, so that you can follow along.
You can also go to this website 3DMekanlar to follow along several 360° virtual tours.
They were added to Hagia Sophia at different timesduring the Ottoman Turk period. The first one was the brick minaret at the southern corner of the east side, added by Sultan Mehmed II.
Then the one on the northern corner of the east side was added by the Sultan Bayezid II.
And then the two on the west side are identical and were added later by Sultan Selim II.
Minarets offer a visual cue of the mosque to the Muslim community and the call to prayer or adhan is made from them five times a day.
The narthex and portals
The narthex is a large porch at the western entrance of early Christian churches. Hagia Sophia has an outer narthex and an inner narthex.
The inner narthex carries a big doorway known as the Imperial Gate, reserved only for the Emperor and adorned on top by the beautiful mosaic of Christ and Emperor Leo VI the Wise.
Since Hagia Sophia started out as a Christian cathedral, the mihrab here is slightly off-center, because that’s the direction of Mecca.
The tall freestanding stairway to the right of the mihrab is the minbar, a pulpit from which the sermons are given.
The coronation square
It is believed that this was the spot where Byzantine emperors where crowned.
A bit smaller than the one of the Pantheon in Rome, this magnificent dome has been repaired many times.
Its idea is to look as if it were suspended from heaven by golden strings, which is why it has windows all around.
The calligraphic roundels
Added in the 19th century and made of wood, the Islamic calligraphic roundels present a very interesting contrast with the Christian mosaics.
The other six are close family members of Muhammad.
There are two marble urns on the west end of the central space that may date from Hellenistic Roman times.
It is believed they held oil for ritual anointment.
One of the most significant features of Hagia Sophia are its exquisite Byzantine mosaics, the most famous of which are located on the galleries of the upper level.
The one over the imperial entrance depicts Christ seated on a jeweled throne with emperor Leo VI the Wise kneeling in front of him.
To his sides one medallion represents the Archangel Gabriel and the other one, Virgin Mary. The text on the book he is holding reads: “Peace be with you. I am the light of the world”.
The mosaic over the exit (also called Chamber of the Warriors) depicts Mary with the Christ child on her lap.
On one side Constantine I presents her with a model of the city. On the other emperor Justinian I offers her a model of the Hagia Sophia.
The mosaic on top of the apse and the mihrab depicts Mary with child. She is flanked on the adyacent walls by Archangels Gabriel and Michael (on the left, now nearly completely disappeared).
The mosaics on the east wall at the far end of the southern gallery (upper level) have very characteristic Byzantine colors.
The one on the left depicts Christ flanked by Constantine IX Monomachus (offering a bag of coins) on the left and Empress Zoe (offering a scroll with a list of her charitable donations to the church) on the right.
Phew! This article ran long and I only just scratched the surface!
Have you visited this magnificent structure before? What was your experience?
Share your comments in the field below or join us in Facebook!
To plan your visit check out Hagia Sophia’s official website.
Entrance fee: $14.
Open everyday except Mondays.