Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (Constantinople) remains the symbolic center of the Greek Orthodox faith, even almost six centuries after its fall to the Ottomans. From 537 to 1453, the “Great Church” – as the Byzantines called it – was the eastern heart of Christianity.
The massive temple held a total of 23,000 worshippers, and 525 priests, deacons and chanters served its liturgies.
However, the significance of Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom” in English) was assuredly not just because of its imposing size.
Built on a strategic point of land in the “New Jerusalem,” as Constantinople was called at the time of its construction, it was a symbol of the greatness of the Byzantine Empire and the dominance of the Christian faith after decades of persecution by the Romans.
It served as the absolute center of religious, political, and artistic life for the entire Byzantine world.
Hagia Sophia’s role in politics and religion remains a contentious one, even today, almost 600 years since the ultimate symbol of the Byzantine Empire was taken over by the Ottomans, and one century since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
The cathedral in its most recent form was completed in 537, but the original church on the site of Hagia Sophia is said to have been built at the time of Constantine I in 325, on the foundations of a pagan temple.
His son, Constantius II, consecrated the great cathedral in 360. It was damaged in 404 by fire during a riot following the second banishment of St. John Chrysostom, then the patriarch of Constantinople.
It was rebuilt and enlarged by the Roman emperor Constans I. The restored building was rededicated in 415 by Theodosius II, but it was burned again in the Nika Insurrection in 532.
The burning of the cathedral sparked the vision of Justinian I to build a magnificent cathedral to thank God for saving his throne during the Nika Insurrection and to honor Christendom. At the same time, the massive building would present to the world an undeniable show of Justinian’s power and wealth.
It was February 23rd when the Emperor gave the order to build Hagia Sophia. Architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus were called upon to erect the magnificent cathedral, which would become the greatest symbol of Christianity in the world.
Hagia Sophia combines a longitudinal basilica and a centralized building in a wholly original manner, with a huge 32-meter main dome supported on pendentives and two semidomes, one on either side of the longitudinal axis.
In plan, the building is almost square. There are three aisles separated by columns with galleries above, and great marble piers rising up to support the dome. The dome’s supporting arches were covered with mosaics depicting six winged angels, called “hexapterygon.”
The walls above the galleries and the base of the dome are pierced by windows, which in the glare of daylight obscures the supports and gives the impression that the canopy is floating on air.
The marble used for the floor and ceiling was produced in Anatolia and Syria, and the bricks used in the walls came from as far away as North Africa. The interior of Hagia Sophia is lined with enormous marble slabs which are said to have been designed to imitate moving water.
The 104 columns of Hagia Sophia were imported from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, as well as from Egypt. The building measures some 93 meters 9305 feet) in length and 81 meters (266 feet) in width and, at its highest point, the domed roof soars some 61 meters (200 feet) into the air.
The architects of Hagia Sophia, in creating a space which is unique in the world in its overall impression and incredible attention to detail, made a building which has an undeniable ethereal and otherworldly quality.
The cathedral has its own unique, eerie spiritual sense which is felt by all who enter it and cannot be explained by any rules of architecture or engineering.
This architectural masterpiece took only six years to build, a remarkably short time for a work of such magnitude. The inauguration liturgy was conducted by Patriarch Minas on December 27, 537. The emperor was astonished when he entered the temple. He rose to the pulpit, lifted his hands to the sky, and exclaimed, “Thank You, God, for You have done this work with me. I beat you, Solomon.”
The great earthquakes of 553 and 557 unfortunately affected the stability of Hagia Sophia’s great dome. On May 7, 558, during restoration work, the east front wall of the dome collapsed and crushed the altar and the pulpit.
Justinian gave orders to rebuild the temple and the restoration took almost six years as well. Since the altar was destroyed, the temple had to be inaugurated all over again.
Hagia Sophia became the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople and a principal setting for Byzantine imperial ceremonies such as coronations. But like other churches throughout Christendom, the basilica also offered sanctuary from persecution to outlaws.
In 726, Emperor Leo the Isaurian banned the veneration of images, ordering the army to destroy any and all religious icons – ushering in the period known as Byzantine iconoclasm. All religious pictures and statues were then removed from Hagia Sophia.
Throughout the years, the immense church suffered damage from fire and earthquakes, but it was always restored. During the Fourth Crusade, Hagia Sophia was ravaged and desecrated by crusading knights from the West.
During the Latin occupation of Constantinople, which lasted from 1204 to 1261, the church became a Roman Catholic cathedral. Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice who commanded the sack and invasion of the city by the Crusaders in 1204, is buried inside the church, most probably in the upper Eastern gallery.
After the recapture of the city by the Byzantines in 1261, the temple was restored, as it had been nearly destroyed during the previous years. The Byzantine emperors who followed attempted to bring the iconic church back to its former glory, but had little success.
On May 29, 1453, after more than nine centuries of serving as the center of Christendom, the glory of Hagia Sophia ended, along with the Byzantine Empire. Despite the brave efforts of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos, who fought gallantly in defending Constantinople, the city fell into the hands of the Ottomans led by Sultan Mehmed II.
Despite the fact that Hagia Sophia was in disrepair, the Christian cathedral still made a strong impression on the new Ottoman rulers, and they decided to convert it into a mosque. Four minarets were added to the outside corners of the building.
Many changes occurred on the interior of the building as well. All the surviving mosaics and holy icons were covered with plaster or yellow paint, with the exception of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary, pictured with Jesus).
The unique architectural style of Hagia Sophia, and the dome in particular, would go on to influence Ottoman architecture, most notably in the development of the Blue Mosque, built in Istanbul during the 17th century.
In 1934, Turkish President Kemal Ataturk converted the iconic building into a museum. In recent years, some restoration work has been done on Hagia Sophia, and several of the mosaics have been uncovered.
Despite the ravages of time, Hagia Sophia remains universally acknowledged as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. It was named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
In early July 2020, the Turkish Council of State annulled the Cabinet’s 1934 decision to establish the museum, revoking the monument’s status, and a subsequent decree by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered the reclassification of Hagia Sophia as a mosque.
The 1934 decree was ruled to be unlawful under both Ottoman and Turkish law as Hagia Sophia’s waqf, endowed by Sultan Mehmed, had designated the site a mosque; proponents of the decision argued the Hagia Sophia was the personal property of the sultan.
This redesignation is controversial, invoking condemnation from the Turkish opposition, UNESCO, the World Council of Churches, and many international leaders.