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Byzantium: Hagia Sophia

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Byzantium: Overview | Constantine and the Founding of Constantinople | Justinian and the Nika Riots | Heraclius and the Persians | Irene and Iconoclasm | Constantine Porphyrogenitus | Basil the Bulgar-Slayer | Empress Zoe | Romanos Diogenes and the Loss of Anatolia | The Sack of Constantinople | Constantine XI and the Fall of Constantinople | The Walls of Constantinople | Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom, was probably the greatest achievement of Roman architecture. Standing at the very centre of Constantinople, it served as the principal cathedral of the capital of the Empire, the greatest church in the Christian world, for 900 years. The life of the city revolved around it: Emperors were crowned and married there; important announcements were made to the people from the pulpit; deposed Emperors often fled to the cathedral seeking sanctuary; and the people themselves sought refuge there, to no avail, when the city was finally taken in 1453 by the Turks.

The Turkish invaders converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque and it became the model for all the major mosques of the Turkish world. Hagia Sophia 'looks like a mosque', because the mosques were copied from it.

It is now a museum and the number one tourist attraction in Istanbul.

The Name

Hagia Sophia is the Byzantine Greek for 'Holy Wisdom' and is an abbreviation for the full title, 'The Church of the Holy Wisdom of God'. In Modern Greek, the H at the start has been dropped and the G softened to a Y, so that the name is Ayia Sophia, and in Turkish it is Ayasofya. The church is also sometimes known by its Latin name, Sancta Sophia, or even, in English, Saint Sophia.


The building is rather squat and heavy-looking from the outside, but inside the impression is of airiness and space. The most notable feature is the central square section surmounted by a giant dome, 33m in diameter and suspended 56m above the floor, making a vast enclosed space. To prevent the space from appearing dark, the dome sits on top of a circle of 40 windows. The light coming in through these obscures the uprights between the windows, making it look as if the dome is floating on air. The side walls of the space are also full of windows, so the whole building is much brighter than a Western European cathedral.

You might say that the space is not illuminated by the sun from the outside but that the radiance is generated within, so great an abundance of light bathes this shrine all around.
- Historian Procopius (500 - 565 AD).

The Mosaics

The interior was originally covered all over in beautiful mosaics. The Turks would not allow the portrayal of the human form in a mosque, but they did not remove the mosaics. Instead they covered them over in plaster, and preserved them with careful regular inspections. Nevertheless, many of the mosaics have been damaged or destroyed over the years; one major section falling down during an earthquake as recently as 1894.

Since the building was converted into a museum, work has been done to remove the plaster from many of the mosaics and to restore them, revealing some of the best examples of Byzantine art in the world - the 'Deesis Panel' showing Christ the King dates from the 12th - 13th Century has been called 'the finest representation of Christ'.

Particularly notable among the mosaics are the following:

  • The Virgin Mary surrounded by Emperors Constantine (offering the city) and Justinian (offering the church).
  • St John Chrysostomos.
  • The Deesis - showing Christ Pantokrator.
  • The Virgin and Child, surrounded by Emperor John Comnenos and Empress Irene.
  • Christ surrounded by Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus and Empress Zoe.


The interior of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

The design of the building was a first in the Roman world. It is entirely based on squares and circular arches, a Roman invention, and makes no concessions towards the 'Greek temple' look that was used in many churches in Rome such as the Pantheon.

The church is designed around a central 33m square space. At each corner of this square is a mighty column 22m high. Standing on these four columns, above the four sides of the square, are four semicircular arches. Set on top of the arches is a horizontal ring known as a 'drum' which touches each arch at its highest point. This ring forms the base of the dome. The drum is joined to the arches at the four corners of the square by 'pendentives', which are sections of a sphere taking the weight of the dome and transferring it to the arches. This was the first time such a technique had been used. Sitting on top of the drum are the 40 windows, and then the dome itself. The centre of the dome is 56m above the floor of the cathedral. This is not as high as the top of St Paul's in London, and only about half the height of St Peter's in Rome, but it must be remembered that it predates them by a millennium, speaking of which, it is slightly higher than the Millennium Dome in London. This might give UK readers some idea of the scale.

Two opposing sides of the square are filled in with a flat wall, which has windows in the upper part to let in more light. These walls form the sides of the nave, the main central space of the church. On each of the other two sides of the square, the nave is extended by the addition of a semi-circular apse - a giant bay which is curved at the top to fit into the arch. These giant apses are then further extended with smaller apses, to make a confusing collection of circles and arches whichever way you look. At one end of the church is the apse containing the main altar. At the directly opposite end is the main doorway.

There are side galleries outside of the main nave, and connected to it by numerous small archways. These galleries are not very high, so that they don't block the windows in the side walls.


The original church of Hagia Sophia, on the site of the present one, was built at the founding of the city in the 4th Century. It was burnt to the ground during the Nika Riots which took place in 532, during the rule of Justinian. The Emperor decided that, rather than rebuilding the old church, an entirely new and much bigger church should be built. He was determined to make it the most impressive church in the world, and some say that he succeeded. It was certainly the biggest church on earth for a thousand years.

Emperor Justinian enlisted the architects Isodoros and Anthemios, who produced the plans in only a few weeks; so quickly, in fact, that they must have been working on them for a long time before the riots, and Justinian must have intended to replace the old church for years. The new church was built in less than six years, in the period 532 - 537. This is very fast for a building using a lot of mortar, hardly leaving time for the mortar to set, and in fact there were problems with some of the vertical walls starting to tilt when the dome was placed on top.

The original dome was slightly flatter than the present one. It collapsed in an earthquake in 558. It was replaced in 563 with the present dome, which is taller. This has the advantage that more of the weight of the dome pushes downwards on the supports - with the flatter dome, much of the weight pushed sideways on the supporting walls, a thrust they were not really able to withstand. The present dome was cracked by earthquakes a number of times over the 1,500 years since it was built.

The church was converted into a mosque in 1453 when the Turks took the city. A number of alterations were made to make it suitable to the Islamic religion. These are listed below in a separate section.

Then in 1935, the new Turkish government converted it into a museum. A reconstruction and conservation project was started which is still ongoing, to restore it to its former splendour. However, there is a problem here: the Islamic features are as much in need of preservation as the Christian features they cover. Should the 15th Century Islamic designs be removed to reveal the earlier Christian ones? A case in point is the dome itself. Like every other Orthodox Christian church, the dome bore a picture of Christ 'Pantokrator', the King of the World, with a Bible in one hand and his other hand held up in a gesture of blessing. This was covered up with a beautiful mosaic bearing an Islamic inscription. Should the inscription now be removed to see whether the picture of Christ is still there underneath the plaster?

Hagia Sophia as a Mosque

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

There were a number of changes made to the building when it was converted into a mosque. On the outside:

  • Four Minarets were added, one at each corner.
  • Buttresses were added on the outside to support the walls. These obscure the curvaceous outline of the building.
  • An ablution fountain was built near the main door. Most mosques have a large courtyard where ritual cleansing takes place, but there wasn't really room for a big one at Hagia Sophia. The fountain is rather squashed in.
  • The mausoleums of three Sultans were built in the grounds of the mosque, on the south side.

Inside the building:

  • The mosaics depicting Christ and the saints were plastered over and replaced with calligraphic inscriptions - this was because representations of the human figure were banned by Islam.
  • The minbar - a characteristic Islamic pulpit with a straight stair up to it - was built just to the right of the altar apse. The church already had a pulpit, the 'ambo', which was located in the middle of the nave, but this one is more suited to the Islamic traditions.
  • 'Roundels' - giant discs bearing beautiful inscriptions in the Arabic script - were hung on the walls on either side of the altar apse. These give the names of the Prophet and some of the Sultans.
  • The Mihrab - the niche which shows the direction of Mecca, towards which all prayers are directed - was built in the altar apse, just slightly off-centre. In this, the Muslims were fortunate that the church already was nearly exactly aligned with the direction of Mecca, rather than being built on an east-west axis like most Christian churches.
  • Carpet on the floor. This covered up the bare marble of the Christians church. The Turks are generally credited with the invention of carpet.


Hagia Sophia was the cultural centre of Byzantium. Situated outside the Hippodrome and the Palace, it was at the centre of things. Many Emperors were crowned in the church and numerous were married there. We've selected a few moments in the 900 years of history of Hagia Sophia to give a feeling for the life of the church and the city.

27 December, 537

The church is finally complete after five years, ten months and four days of building. Justinian has inspected the work daily. Now he enters the completed church and examines the wonder that has been built at his command. He is heard to mutter:

Solomon, I have surpassed you!

14 September, 628

Heraclius enters Hagia Sophia at the end of his triumphal march through the streets of Byzantium. The True Cross, believed by everyone present to be the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified, is raised in front of the altar, and a special thanksgiving mass is said for the deliverance of the Empire from the threat of the Persians.

Some time around 868 AD

The first mural is unveiled, showing Mary, the virgin mother of Christ. This is the first icon to be on display since the purge of all images from the church a quarter century earlier by the Iconoclasts.

19 April, 1042

Theodora is brought to Hagia Sophia from her nunnery where she has spent the past 30 years, and against her will is crowned Empress of Byzantium. The crowd outside chant her name. Empress Zoe in the palace across from the church hears the noise of the crowd and realises that she must share her rule with her hated sister.

11 March, 1204

They smashed the holy images and hurled the sacred relics of the Martyrs into places I am ashamed to mention, scattering everywhere the body and blood of the Saviour... As for their profanation of the Great Church, they destroyed the high altar and shared out the pieces among themselves... And they brought horses and mules into the Church, the better to carry off the holy vessels, and the pulpit, and the doors, and the furniture wherever it was to be found; and when some of these beasts slipped and fell, they ran them through with their swords, fouling the Church with their blood and ordure. A common harlot was enthroned in the Patriarch's chair, to hurl insults at Jesus Christ; and she sang bawdy songs and danced immodestly in the holy place... nor was there mercy shown to virtuous matrons, innocent maids or even virgins consecrated to God...
- Niketas Choniates describing the Crusaders.

25 May, 1453

The city is surrounded by the Turks and the end is near. After dark, the dome of Hagia Sophia is seen to glow with a strange red light. The red glow moves up the dome until only the tip is visible, and then it is plunged into darkness. The people of Byzantium take this as a sign that God has finally left them. The Turks also see the sign and are disturbed. Their planned attack is delayed by a few days.

29 May, 1453

The Turkish Sultan, Mehmet II, arrives outside the doors of Hagia Sophia. He takes some earth and sprinkles it on his turban as a gesture of humility. He enters the church, where he finds a soldier attacking the marble floor. He reprimands him: the soldiers were given leave to loot the city, but the buildings belong to the Sultan. He gives the command, and the Muslim call to prayer rings out from the pulpit.

Mid-19th Century

A Western traveller visits Hagia Sophia and reports that the mosque is in a poor state of repair. He tells of the constant 'tinkling' sound of the tiny mosaic tiles falling from the dome and striking the floor.

1 December, 2006

The Roman Catholic Pope, Benedict XVI, enters Hagia Sophia, on a visit to Istanbul. A massive security operation keeps the people away from the Pope. At the same time, about a kilometre away, peaceful protesters chant 'The Hagia Sophia belongs to the Turks and will remain so'.

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